The Little Prince (2015)

This unusual adaptation of French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s widely read and beloved The Little Prince is intelligent, funny and deeply moving.

Little PrinceFrance
4.5*

Director:
Mark Osborne

Screenwriters:
Irena Brignull

Bob Persichetti
Directors of Photography:
Adel Abada

Kris Kapp

Running time: 110 minutes

Stories about father figures are nothing new, nor are stories about father figures who teach young girls about the world (just consider Jostein Gaarder’s masterful compendium of 3,000 years of philosophy in the novel Sophie’s World). However, when such a story is obliquely infused with critical insights about culture, religion and the magic of childhood thanks to a beloved novella that is equally accessible to children and adults, the result can be overwhelming.

Director Mark Osborne took up the burden of adapting the 70-year-old, 100-page-long novella, which continues to rank among the most-read and bestselling works in the world, for the big screen. An added challenge, beyond merely adding movement to the pictures and breathing physical life (and voice) into the words of the author, the late Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was that the original work would only comprise half of the final film’s narrative. Overcoming the sceptics, the director of Kung Fu Panda and a handful of SpongeBob SquarePants episodes has produced a stirring glimpse of childhood and of growing up that will amuse younger viewers and captivate elder viewers alike with light-hearted entertainment informed by the melancholia-tinged savvy of the original text.

Unexpectedly, the main character is not a young prince nor a mature aviator but a little girl who fittingly resembles Dora the Explorer. Following Saint-Exupéry’s lead, none of the characters have names (except for the all-important “Mr. Prince” in the final act) and instead bear descriptive titles such as “Little Girl”, “Mother”, “Fox”, “Aviator” and, of course, “The Little Prince”.

The Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy, who starred as the daughter of Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar, another star-struck feature) lives with her mother, a very serious auditor, in a nondescript city. Her father sends her the same snow globe containing a skyscraper for her birthday every single year. We can assume that both parents want their daughter to end up in some capacity as a successful worker, and therefore Little Girl is on the road to join the prestigious, strait-laced Werth Academy, where everyone is asked to work toward being “essential”. After a disastrous enrolment interview, Little Girl’s mother lays out a stringent plan for the summer holiday, during which any of her daughter’s free time will be minimal and limited to essential activities, such as eating and exercise.

Mother and daughter move in next to a dilapidated house, the scourge of the planned community where everyone wears the same grayscale-coloured outfits, whispers in very hushed tones about their neighbours and seem to be about as far removed from the exuberance and spontaneity of childhood as possible. The house, it turns out, belongs to the Aviator (voiced by Jeff Bridges), an eccentric, old man who represents both Saint-Exupéry and his alter ego creation, the aviator of his novella, and also calls to mind the grumpy but lovable Carl Fredricksen of the magnificent animation film Up.

Before long, just like philosopher Alberto Knox in Sophie’s World, the Aviator starts sending the Little Girl pages of text containing the aphorisms and adventures of the Little Prince, and thus begins a subversive but thrilling adventure that helps the child, quickly on her way to becoming an “adult”, reconnect with and hang on to her childhood impulses as long as possible.

From time to time, these pages turns into animations, and the effect of seeing a formerly static character come to life in front of our eyes will certainly bring a shiver to most viewers familiar with the novella. We see the Little Prince cleaning his tiny planet, trying to rid it of invasive baobab seeds and falling in love with a rose, here perfectly voiced by Marion Cotillard. He flees the Rose’s ever-increasing demands on his time and ends up on Earth, where he meets the aviator and learns valuable nuggets of wisdom from the fox, including the famous quotation, “It is the time you have lost for your rose that makes your rose so important”.

This story with the Little Prince is interwoven with the story of the Little Girl, and by using one text to inform another, Osborne also suggests that tales from many decades ago can continue to educate us about ourselves and inspire us to see the beauty of life instead of letting the rat race consume our energy and destroy our imagination. The focus throughout the story is that, as the smiling Aviator reminds us, “Growing up is not the problem; forgetting is”.

Although ostensibly created for children, animated films have developed to the point where something like The Little Prince can be entertaining for young ones and deeply moving for their parents, or anyone scared they might no longer be a child. There are multiple layers to this story, and those who know Saint-Exupéry’s tale well are just as likely to enjoy it as those who come to the film without any knowledge about the prince, the fox, the rose or the aviator. There is a beautiful message about religion (in the form of the rose), a melancholy background of absence, a rousing theme of friendship and a dramatic struggle against forgetting, which is a struggle for remembering.

We should always see the world through the eyes of a child, but more importantly, we should view life with the same sense of curiosity and fascination, perhaps even naiveté, that reconnects us with our younger selves, just like this film connects the old with the new in a tidy package that is invigorating, inspirational and intrepid depiction of a story we thought we knew, but which hits us twice as hard when the characters start to speak and the drawings start to move.

Whiplash (2016)

In the exquisite Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s second feature, we catch a glimpse of a young drummer’s blood, sweat and tears on the way to greatness.

WhiplashUSA
4.5*

Director:
Damien Chazelle

Screenwriter:
Damien Chazelle
Director of Photography:
Sharone Meir

Running time: 105 minutes

Malcolm Gladwell says it takes around 10,000 hours of practice to reach mastery of a craft. But in Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating and at times unnerving second feature film, Whiplash, we see that sometimes all a budding professional needs is a teacher from hell. Enter J.K. Simmons, clad in black and ready to rumble.

Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, a diabolical conductor whose presence at the elite Shaffer Conservatory sends chills down the spines of his students as much as his colleagues. He does not suffer fools gladly. He expects only the best, often more, and when he thinks his band is not taking the music, their performance or their skills as seriously as he does, he can quickly start spewing a tirade comprising ever-more-complex concatenations of obscenity-laden expressions: Think of the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and then turn it up to 11. In the film’s attention-grabbing opening scene, Fletcher’s eye catches the talent of a young jazz drummer, but while he deigns to speak to the boy, it is immediately obvious he is not there for small talk, and when he decides the tempo is not to his liking, he leaves as abruptly as he appeared.

The young student is called Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller), but even though he appears in every single scene in the film, we don’t learn his name until a handful of scenes into the story. By contrast, Fletcher’s ominous presence hangs over the school and all its students like the Sword of Damocles, and we cannot ignore him. It often happens that he flips at the drop of a baton from smiling and patient to sociopathic tyrant. We see him have a near hysterical outburst early on when he hears the instrument of someone in his band is out of tune, dissolving the culprit to tears with insults about his intellect, his talent and his weight. In the very next scene, he whispers playfully, intimately to Neimann, teasing personal information from him, before knocking him down to size five minutes later in a very public way.

Chazelle has fashioned not only a riveting study of a young man’s struggle as a musician and the tough decisions he has to make if he is to have a chance at success, but also a visually stunning piece of filmmaking that weds rich colors and beautiful lighting with dynamic editing. One scene also appeared in the eponymous short film that first showcased his talents at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it received the Short Film Jury Award for U.S. Fiction, and it is to Chazelle’s credit that there is equally palpable, overbearing tension in both versions.

Neimann remains inscrutable for a large part of the film. We see him spending time watching Rififi at the movies with his father, a high-school English teacher who wants his son to be happy but also wants him to have greater certainty of stability on the horizon. They are still close, but when the authoritative (and authoritarian) Fletcher takes an interest in Neimann’s talents, even when he treats him like dirt and hurls homophobic, anti-Semitic and many other kinds of slurs at him, the boy is ready to take almost any psychological abuse in order to reach the top. When he matter-of-factly dumps his girlfriend because he can’t foresee a future that has space for both his music and her, we get a queasy feeling he might be willing to risk everything in the name of being a drummer worthy of Fletcher’s faint praise.

The rehearsal room at the school is the setting for blood, sweat and tears – all of which Neimann spills at one point or another on his way to focusing on his craft with dedication that requires equal measures narcissism and lunacy, and in this regard at least Fletcher serves as a role model. The feared conductor doesn’t just put his students through their paces. No, that would be too easy. He puts them through a meat grinder, but those who survive the initial hazing are still not safe but only as good as their last chord.

For all its commitment and focus, the story does veer off the rails into far less credible territory in its final moments. The climactic scene is staged with great passion and a sense of showmanship for the director that is entirely effective, but there are numerous things that don’t make much sense in retrospect. Regardless of its credibility, however, the tension and the terror the situation elicits in the viewer are so acute that some might find the material difficult to watch. And although he is only 19 years old, Neimann seems terribly naïve and is always surprised when his mentor abuses him over and over again.

Be careful what you wish for, Chazelle suggests. No pain, no gain. He strikes a wonderful balance between tragedy and comedy, even in his visuals: The opening scenes are filled with push-ins that are simultaneously hilarious by virtue of their sheer quantity and creepy because we don’t know whether they represent a looming danger.

Simmons plays one of the most unforgettable bullies in recent memory, a truly odious disciplinarian who feels no regret and believes he is doing the world a service by pushing people to their limits. When his perceived sadism dovetails with the masochism of a student willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of his art, that may very well be where a master is born, but signing a contract with the devil has its downsides. The impressionable Neimann is proud of his bruises, because he thinks it makes him stronger and more resistant on his path to greatness, but whether he will ever get there remains an open question.

But there can be no question that Whiplash is evidence of a great talent. Despite a weak narrative in the final act, the film is captivating as it traces the claustrophobia of a young man’s determined struggle to prove himself. The 29-year-old Chazelle doesn’t have much to worry about: He has already proved he is a force to be reckoned with.

Noah (2013)

Noah, a remarkably perceptive short film about the consequences of relying on social media alone to gauge what is happening in real life, has first-rate visuals and a climax immersed in a quiet pathos. 

NoahCanada
4.5*

Directors:
Patrick Cederberg

Walter Woodman
Screenwriters:
Patrick Cederberg

Walter Woodman
Director of Photography:
Patrick Cederberg

Running time: 17 minutes

A kind of Lady in the Lake for the age of Facebook, the 17-minute-long Noah is only shot from the point of view of its central character. The twist is that this POV shows only one thing: the screen of a Macintosh computer, conveying thought processes to us as we skip from Wikipedia, Facebook and Skype to YouPorn and Chatroulette, often to the soundtrack of whatever is playing on iTunes. But we need nothing more, because in so many respects life today is “lived” online, and much of the power of this film lies in the two young directors’ firm execution of rhythmic pans and zooms to build suspense at exactly the right moments.

Co-created by Patrick Cederberg and Walter Woodman, who were students at Ryerson University during production, the film stars Sam Kantor as the titular Noah Lennox, who is in his final year of high school, but it takes a few screens before we even know what he looks or sounds like. After all, how often are our own faces projected back to us when we are online? But our fingerprints are all over our Internet history, and thus, we immediately recognise Noah (and parts of ourselves) when we see him open Safari to start browsing.

With porn running in the background, he opens Facebook to chat with his girlfriend, Amy, who says they have to talk. He opens Skype to chat with her, but the interaction is awkward because he is not really paying attention, and she is obviously about to broach a serious topic: life and their relationship after high school graduation. The connection is lost, and there is silence, although Noah can see that she received and read his “hello?” on Facebook during this time.

Thus begins an obsessive quest for answers, as Noah browses Amy’s Facebook photos, notices one guy’s name coming up again and again, then wonders what this is all about and eventually pries his way into and violates the most sacred of Amy’s online spaces: her Facebook profile. To ratchet up the tension, Cederberg and Woodman punctuate hyperactive pans and zooms with well-placed pauses to convey hesitation and to make us feel like we are not only inside Noah’s skin but also feeling the same anxiety he is. A cursor hovering momentarily over a button is the calm before the storm as we realise he is about to cross their relationship’s Rubicon.

Noah is insightful, hip and one-of-a-kind. The compelling artistry of its visuals, made elegant thanks to seamless editing and other post-production work that successfully imitates the darting movements of the eyes, and the continued topicality of the themes of technology and isolation mean this film has not aged a day since its release. There is not a single moment that could be trimmed from the film without tarnishing the perfect integration of plot and form that the filmmakers sought and achieved. By the time we reach the climax, which appears like a brilliant sunrise over the soggy marshlands of all that came before, the feeling is one of pure empathy with Noah.

Many a viewer will be drawn to and fascinated by the form but stay to live through this particular moment in the life of a total stranger because the devices and the emotions they evoke are so familiar. And that is something that doesn’t have every day.

Noah is an ark captained by two gifted filmmakers whose execution matches their vision and who steer the narrative seemingly effortlessly towards its majestic conclusion. It is daring and dazzling, and its depiction of a moment of life online feels damn authentic.

Truman (2015)

A man reaching the end of his natural life has to juggle his quest to find a decent adoptive family for his dog and an unexpected visit from an old friend.

trumanSpain/Argentina
4.5*

Directed by:
Cesc Gay

Screenwriters:
Cesc Gay

Tomàs Aragay
Director of Photography:
Andreu Rebés

Running time: 110 minutes

Truman says nothing and does very little except rest, sigh and sleep. And yet, the emotion that his presence elicits from the viewer of the film titled after him and helmed by Catalan director Cesc Gay is nearly pulverising.

“Truman” is a long-in-the-tooth, slow-on-his-feet boxer that has been with Julián, an Argentine-born theatre actor based in Madrid for more than three decades, for a long time. It comes as no surprise that Truman has basically become the divorced Julián’s life companion and second son.

After a brief opening scene in snow-swept Quebec (a running joke is that Julián consistently calls it the North Pole), we follow the middle-aged Tomás from his home to the airport and to Julián’s front door. Their meeting, after what we gather is too long, brings tears to Tomás’s eyes. But like so much else in the film, there is a gradual accumulation of details that clue us in about precisely why people act the way they do. In this particular case, the emotion comes not so much from seeing an old friend again but from the probability of this being the last time they meet.

Julián has been suffering from cancer for a while, and there is little hope left the new round of chemotherapy would keep him alive for much longer. Instead, he has decided to embrace the end and live out his final days far away from the hospital’s oncology department. He is also eyeing the future, and besides organising his funeral, perhaps the most important task is to find a suitable home for his beloved Truman.

While we see the dog only occasionally, he is never far from our minds, as his name pops up in conversations between the two lifelong friends, and we can see Julián’s concern for Truman’s future well-being gnaw at him, likely because it also serves as a constant reminder that Julián will no longer be around.

In the lead, Argentine superstar Ricardo Darín inhabits the lead role like a second skin. Unshaven but with a gravelly voice of gold and piercing blue eyes that can seduce or give a fatal death stare with equal poise, Julián is captivating to watch. Often an enigma, ironically the result of his unexpected and discomfiting forthrightness, he is at his most vulnerable in the company of his son, Nico, and the range of emotions that Darín betrays with amazing subtlety is heartrending.

Tomás, played by Pedro Almodóvar regular Javier Cámara, is an eminently likeable character who gives his old friend a great deal of leeway, even though his initial intention was to talk him out of skipping the chemotherapy. Over time, thanks to some gentle and not-so-gentle reminders from Julián’s cousin, Paula, we realise he feels a measure of guilt over not having visited Tomás more often, despite being in a much better financial situation than his friend the theatre actor.

This is the perfect combination of comedy and tragedy. Despite the grim reality of Julián’s health, his interactions with those around him – many of whom don’t quite know how to react to someone planning for their own imminent demise – produce countless scenes of laughter at the awkwardness into which he rushes head first. Whether it is his questioning of Truman’s veterinarian about dogs’ feelings after the death of their owner or his chance meeting with an old friend whose girlfriend he slept with and for which he now wishes to apologise, the narrative always finds new finds to entertain us with genuinely moving pieces of the puzzle.

But the real magic lies in the fact that many a scene derives its emotional power from us looking back at them with hindsight, perhaps none more beautiful than the aftermath of Julián’s spur-of-the-moment visit to Nico (in retrospect, a perfectly pitched performance by Oriol Pla). Nico is studying in Amsterdam and knows little about his father’s current state. While their interaction in Amsterdam is full of the awkwardness and warmth we would expect, we only realise afterwards what was really going on, and the revelation is enough to send the viewer grabbing unashamedly for the nearest box of tissues. And this is before a mesmerisingly staged final scene that will tear down any remaining diehards’ bulwarks against showing emotion.

While losing some of its texture in the final act, in particular during an ill-fitting scene that sees a major character storm off in anger, Truman is overwhelmingly a very well-controlled mix of comedy and melancholy. The performances are dynamite, with Darín deserving top honours, and the modulated rollercoaster of emotions that we feel heightens our sympathy for the characters.

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Newcastle’s welfare office becomes a Kafkaesque setting of incompetence and callousness offering no substantive assistance to the desperate and the unemployed in Ken Loach’s searing I, Daniel Blake.

i-daniel-blakeUK
4.5*

Director:
Ken Loach

Screenwriter:
Paul Laverty

Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 100 minutes

Kafka is alive and well in Newcastle, and by extension, most of Western society. The black-and-white opening credits of Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or–winning are accompanied by the sound of Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old widower and former carpenter, trying to knock common sense into a “healthcare professional” who is assessing his case for state benefits. We never see said “professional”, and occasionally we also learn that an equally nameless “decision maker” will resolve Daniel’s case for better or worse.

Dave Johns stars as the recently-stricken-by-a-heart-attack Blake, whose doctor has stated that he should not be working. After he makes a fuss over the bureaucracy he encounters (he had to complete a 52-page form, which somehow still proved insufficient for the government), he is told that a decision has been made that he is fit to work and has to spend 35 hours a week looking for work in order to be eligible for benefits.

The welfare office is always abuzz with activity, but the place reeks of condescension, with middle-aged, lower-middle-class women barking orders at those slightly less fortunate than themselves, pretending that following the rules will somehow lead to a better life. Nobody is listened, everybody is talked down to, and there is no way for the welfare seekers to hang on to their dignity without the government stiffing them for talking back.

It is a desperate situation, and yet Dan has seen worse in his lifetime. His wife died not long ago, and his memories of her, in particular the song the liked, Ronald Binge’s “Shipping By”, which always precedes the BBC’s shipping forecast, appears to keep his spirits up. His pleasant demeanour inspires those around him, including his neighbour, China (the ever-smiling Kema Sikazwe), a resourceful young man who is importing trainers from – you guessed it! – China.

But it is his chance meeting with Katie Morgan (a mesmerisingly intense Hayley Squires), a woman in her mid-20s raising two children from two different fathers on her own, that carries the narrative. After defending her against the callousness of the employees at the welfare office, he quickly strikes up a friendship with her, her daughter, Daisy, and her son, Dylan, and helps them settle into their new but dilapidated home, where his skills as a carpenter and an all-round man of the house come in handy.

The scenes with Katie, who has not found work yet and is unlikely to receive anything from the government because she made a scene, according to the office manager, sustain the narrative and show us how these two characters lean on each other, finding strength and companionship despite their lonely fight against the state Goliath.

The film contains a few powerful scenes, but its power comes from the quiet bubbling desperation that we see in Katie’s life and that we fear might snatch the life from what remains of Daniel’s existence. There is nothing worse than seeing people do their best to care for themselves and for those close to them but having to take desperate measures when push comes to shove. In Katie’s case, she starts skipping meals so that her children have enough to eat, and when she is caught shoplifting, a security guard tells her her looks could help her bring in the money she needs.

As the title indicates, however, the film’s primary concern is identity, and in particular, the need to stand up against anyone – even the State – looking to tear us down. Daniel Blake is recovering from a heart attack, but even a healthy man or woman would blanch at the sight of the bureaucracy and emotional manipulation in which this government agency specialises. For example, Daniel knows nothing about computers and has never used a mouse, but because all the forms he needs are online, and the welfare office refuses to print him a paper copy, he goes hither and thither to complete the process. The final nail in the coffin is when we realise one woman at the office, Ann, wants to help him but is either told to follow the rules or advises him to do things according to the guidelines lest he find himself out on the street, something she has witnessed in the past.

This is a damning indictment of the heartlessness of the Conservative UK government in particular, but more generally of Western society as a whole, which is concerned about its unemployment rates but cares little for the unemployed, not the unemployable.

There will be few dry eyes in the house at the close of the film, and hopefully many a viewer’s heart will beat with rage at the injustice that good people suffer at the hands of those who follow often pointless rules to a fault and relish their power over the powerless.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.

Toni Erdmann (2016)

In Toni Erdmann, a combination of daddy issues, Bulgarian masks and false teeth creates a hilarious story about a father and daughter struggling to make a connection.

toni-erdmannGermany/Austria
4.5*

Director:
Maren Ade

Screenwriter:
Maren Ade

Director of Photography:
Patrick Orth

Running time: 160 minutes

Toni Erdmann is in fact Wilfried Conradi, an elderly German man who tries to reconnect with his high-strung consultant daughter when his beloved dog and longtime companion, Willi, passes away. But don’t let this description put you off because this is one of the funniest films you are ever likely to see.

A lot of the humour has to do with awkwardness, and our laughter is as much the result of nervousness on our part as the expression of wide-eyed astonishment that the actors can stay unfazed by the unexpected drama around them.

Wilfried (Peter Simonischek) is a primary school music teacher who clearly has never given up being a child himself. The opening scene sets the tone perfectly, as a delivery man rings the doorbell to find Wilfried refusing to accept the delivery because his brother, “Toni”, to whom the package is addressed, has just been released from prison following a conviction for sending mail bombs. Moments later, Toni, with buckteeth and a very bad hairpiece, arrives to sign for the package, whose content we get to see only a few scenes later.

In the meantime, the stage is set for what would otherwise be a dour domestic drama examining the difficulty of reconnecting with one’s child as an adult. The child, in this case, is the 30-something Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is doing consulting work for an oil company in Bucharest and spends every moment of her birthday party talking (or pretending to talk) on the phone with business clients. She clearly has little patience for her the antics of her father, who arrives at the party made up to look like a zombie.

But then, something very mundane happens, and it changes everything. In an underplayed but devastating ellipsis, Wilfried’s dog dies in the middle of the night. The following morning, he ups and flies off to Bucharest, because besides him knowing next to nothing about Ines’s life, he now appreciates that this relationship should be cherished as long as they are both around to do so. The problem, admittedly, is that his daughter has neither the time nor the inclination nor, frankly, the social experience to extend a helping hand to her father and comfort him during this time of crisis.

And yet, from the moment he bursts into her carefully preserved house of cards in Bucharest, even though they are basically strangers to each other, and Wilfried’s presence is always on the verge of upending a fragile business deal, they cannot (and we certainly don’t want them to) let go of each other. Ines is so tense she looks like she is always about to have a nosebleed, and yet father, the ultimate foil, sits down on whoopee cushions in front of her colleagues and tells a major client he has decided to hire someone to play his daughter at home because Ines never visits.

Toni is an alter ago, but we get to know him much better than we do Wilfried, and that is the genius behind the film and behind Wilfried’s approach to Ines: These two may be father and daughter, but for whatever reason there is no way for them to relate to each other in the present, and therefore, the best alternative is for them to relate to each other as Toni and Ines. The resulting chemistry, with all its attendant reactions, is volatile but produces a combination so beautiful and rare we might as well be dealing with successful alchemy.

While some may balk at the running time, there is little drag, except for one extended car-bound conversation between Ines and her colleagues that could have been trimmed significantly. Whatever mystery Toni Erdmann has is tied to our awareness – and eventually, our giddy expectation – that the man with the bad wig on his head and the false teeth in his mouth may reappear at any moment.

All of a sudden, in the film’s final act, all the random parts suddenly unify in two unexpectedly brilliant scenes. The first is a musical number; the second, which involves a Bulgarian mask of sorts, flips the script with a scene that had the entire audience in stitches for a full uninterrupted five-minute stretch. Even more impressive is that this latter scene is punctuated by a stunningly poignant, emotionally devastating and indisputably unique catharsis.

The film may be on the long side, but its message is clear: Life is short, so make the most of it, because laugh and cherishing those close to us is a much better use of our time than pretending to be on a phone call to avoid speaking to those who love us and around whom we can be ourselves.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.

Volcano (2011)

Rúnar Rúnarsson’s heart-wrenching drama about a recent retiree whose life is turned upside down when his wife has a serious stroke is eerily similar to Michael Haneke’s Amour, which was released nearly two years later.

volcano-eldfjallIceland
4.5*

Director:
Rúnar Rúnarsson

Screenwriter:
Rúnar Rúnarsson

Director of Photography:
Sophia Olsson

Original title: Eldfjall

Running time: 100 minutes

The only time we see the tragic events inflicted on the population by the titular volcano is during the opening credits. During the rest of Icelandic director Rúnar Rúnarsson’s stunning and sensitive début feature, the tragedy is much more low-key, although no less heart-wrenching, than during those opening minutes (archive footage shows scenes of people fleeing at the time of the island’s most famous eruption) set to the soaring sounds of a choir – an approach the director would repeat in his equally perceptive second feature, Sparrows.

On the whole, Volcano tells a story that is strikingly similar to Michael Haneke’s Amour (even including the emotionally shattering climax): When an elderly woman has a stroke, becomes paralysed and requires constant care, her husband, equally advanced in years, has to cope with the situation while awaiting his own inevitable demise. However, the notable difference is that Haneke was nearly the same age as his 70-something main characters. Rúnarsson, who was only in his early 30s, arguably has as firm a grasp on the subject matter as his Austrian counterpart, who had accumulated much more life and professional experience by the time he made his film two years later.

The main character is Hannes (Theodor Júlíusson), who has just entered retirement after nearly 40 years as a janitor at a school in Reykjavík. His marriage to Anna (Helga Jóhannsdóttir), the mother of his two children, is a ritualistic affair. She cooks, he complains about her cooking, and, even though they sleep next to each other, there is very little communication, understanding or obvious signs of love. That is, until Hannes’s boat takes on water, he has to be rescued, and he overhears his children asking themselves why their parents are even together. These scenes in the first half of the film are absolutely critical, as the unexpected tragedy that befalls Hannes is compounded by his realisation, only days earlier, that he has to start appreciating the woman who has remained by his side through good times and bad.

Unlike Amour, in which the stroke occurred very early on, Volcano‘s long setup establishes a fuller story with many failed relationships that ultimately nourishes much of the narrative in the second half. Because we understand the characters better, we are also more easily affected by their ups and down, and the sense of loss is far greater here than in Haneke’s film.

Júlíusson delivers a powerhouse performance as the cranky old man who recognises almost too late that he has missed out on life and now has to make up for his mistakes but has to do so alone. This intense loneliness is one that is felt in one of the first scenes, after Hannes has left the school for the last time (an awfully dreary goodbye occasion was thrown in his honour), when he drives home and we can spot tears in the corners of his eyes as he looks into the light of the setting sun. It is a loneliness he almost yields to when his boat takes on water and instead of doing all he can to bail the water out of the boat, he lights a cigarette and stares into the distance. But he resists the temptation to surrender, and this particular moment is a turning point that is fundamental to understanding his subsequent decision to care for his wife.

But the stroke leaves Anna in a state of near-constant, soul-crushing, slow-motion wailing, and Hannes tries to comfort her in vain because it is impossible to know whether she is trying to communicate, crying or producing sounds involuntarily as a result of the brain paralysis. In the meantime, he also has to deal with his children’s resentment over the many years during which he failed to show much interest in or enthusiasm for their development or well-being; it is to director Rúnarsson’s great credit that he successfully manages to shift our sympathies and allegiance from the children to the father during the course of the film.

Against all odds, Hannes finds strength and a sense for caring inside him that he didn’t know he had. The climax is a bit sudden and arrives without having laid any groundwork, but once it happens we fully understand why it has come to this, and the unbroken shot, bookended by a kiss, is absolutely beautiful.

The opening song is “Heyr himna smiður” (Hear, Heavenly Creator), a number whose history goes back some 800 years, and the performance by the Hallgrimskirkja’s Motett Choir is hypnotising.

Ex Machina (2015)

Scribe of The Beach turns director and produces a dazzling, thought-provoking science-fiction film about artificial intelligence.

Ex MachinaUK
4.5*

Director:
Alex Garland

Screenwriter:
Alex Garland

Director of Photography:
Rob Hardy

Running time: 110 minutes

Not since the one-two of Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca in 1997 and Alex Proyas’s Dark City in 1998 has a big-budget, big-return film posited the kind of highly credible near future that obliges us to confront the philosophical dilemmas raised by technological advances that we find in Alex Garland’s stunning directorial début, Ex Machina.

The tale is set in a world in which the search engine “BlueBook” (the name is arguably the least creative aspect of the entire screenplay), the fictional equivalent of Google, collects and processes the data from everyone around the world with access to a communication device. The reason for this is that the head of the company – a reclusive 30-something named Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who is a prodigiously gifted programmer and wrote the base code for BlueBook at the age of 13 – wants to take human civilisation to the next level. His goal is to use all of this data to construct a creature with artificial intelligence (AI), the likes of which would be indistinguishable from an organically evolved human being.

To his credit, Garland, perhaps best-known for writing the novel The Beach, does not burden his story with theory or philosophical digressions. He uses a very small cast, centres the action in a single location for almost the entirety of the film and provides minimal but distinct signposts to track the development of the drama. His storytelling proficiency is most discernible in his use of small parables that distil the essence of the dynamics at play.

There is no big setup. The opening shots quickly convey a clinical office space full of glass – that alienating material that is both allows us to see through it but separates us from that which we see – and within a few seconds, the camera settles on a closeup of a pale, blond programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). He receives a flickering message on his screen informing him he has won the first prize, and his colleagues flock to his desk to congratulate him. The prize is a visit to Nathan on his estate, which includes glaciers, mountains and a forest. The house itself is a curious mixture of the natural and the artificial, as it is built into rock but contains an immense array of technological devices that Nathan uses to protect himself from the outside world, and perhaps even from the others inside his house.

Caleb learns that he was selected to help Nathan perform a Turing test, which establishes whether someone can tell that a creature has AI and is not organic. The test subject looks half-machine, half-human and is called Ava. It might be a coincidence that the initials of the actress playing the part, Alicia Vikander, are AV, which also make up more than half the name of the character, but perhaps not. Of course, the first woman on earth, at least according to mythology, had a similar name: “Eve”.

But from the very first moment we meet him, we sense that there is something wrong with Nathan. He comes across as a guy who is comfortable in his own skin but trying a little too hard to be friends with Caleb, an employee in his company. He always walks around barefoot, makes flippant comments about his own role in the advancement of humanity and misquotes Caleb as saying he is a god. Something is not quite right, but we can’t put our finger on it, and Isaac is absolutely mesmerising in the role of a physically intimidating (at least, compared with Gleeson) individual who also has the dominant position in the power relationship and is a little unstable.

The controversial, highly topical issue of the mass collection of data by institutions ranging from governments around the world to search companies like Google is only obliquely addressed, but those who follow the news will not fail to notice it. In this case, the invasion of privacy is shocking but does not dominate the narrative in any way. Instead, it serves to underscore how embedded such actions have become in the information and communication industry.

Ex Machina develops at a gradual pace, with chapters marked out onscreen by title cards that merely display the number of the session between Caleb and Ava, which also correlates with the days he spends carrying out the test. Garland shows a remarkably firm hand with his narrative as he gently shifts the power dynamics, never deviates from his story and never loses our interest. It was a very clever move to have Ava remain a marginal character almost throughout, as her importance is deceptively minimised, and despite our concern for her well-being, we side with the men. Isaac (and Caleb, to a lesser extent) considers her to be little more than a machine, even though both of them are fully aware that she is in some way, primarily because of her exterior appearance, less than human.

Garland’s film is dazzling, and while this is a much more commercial approach to philosophical questions of existence than, say, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its chilling resolution will spark debate about the future of mankind and the possibility of peaceful existence with machines that are just like us. Hubris should not get the better of man when he has managed to be a creator like God. Man may have his reasons, but humanoid machines will, too, and that is essential to keep in mind.

Creed (2015)

Ryan Coogler lets his camera float like a butterfly and his performers sting like bees in stunning final Rocky instalment.

creedUSA
4.5*

Director:
Ryan Coogler

Screenwriters:
Ryan Coogler

Aaron Covington
Director of Photography:
Maryse Alberti

Running time: 135 minutes

Technically “Rocky VII,” Creed is the first film in the 40-year-old Rocky franchise not to be penned by Sylvester Stallone, but while it is light on the rivalry between the boxers and is in many subtle ways unlike its predecessors, this is a staggering work of art.

The main reason lies with director Ryan Coogler, the 29-year-old wunderkind whose pulverising début feature, Fruitvale Station, was a runaway success at the 2013 Sundance and Cannes film festivals, where it won top awards at both: the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award at the former, the special jury prize for début films entitled “Prix de l’avenir” in the prestigious Un certain regard section at the latter. To Creed, Coogler brings visual poetry during the action scenes, and from his two leads – Michael B. Jordan and Stallone himself – he draws forceful performances wholly untainted by the sentiment the story requires almost by definition.

Opening in what appears to be a juvenile detention centre in Los Angeles in 1998, the film introduces us to the young Adonis Johnson, who gets into trouble on a regular basis. He is the son of Apollo Creed, who so memorably defeated Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) at the end of the first film and went on to become friends with him until his death in the ring in Rocky IV.

Although Adonis never knew his father, who died a few months before the birth of his illegitimate son, Creed’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), turns up to adopt him. He spends the next 17 years in her care, rising in the world of LA finance while making nocturnal trips across the border to fight in Tijuana. Then, one day, he decides to give it all up and focus full-time on his boxing. Understandably, Mary Anne is none too pleased. Adonis then takes things to the next level by travelling to Philadelphia to solicit the help of Rocky Balboa, and in the very first scene between these two men, one a seasoned prize fighter nearly 70 years old, the other a brash and well-pedigreed but entirely inexperienced amateur, the acting takes our breath away.

Coogler’s talent for bringing out the best in his actors should not come as a surprise to anyone who saw his first film, and despite the much larger budget he had at his disposal for Creed, his focus on acting delivers Stallone’s best performance in many a decade along with yet another very well-crafted portrayal by Jordan. In the end, this film is all about the play by the actors and between the characters, as the story itself, stretched over 135 minutes, has some weak spots (a love story that seems a little too “meant-to-be”) and basically builds up to the big final fight with little meat up to that point, late in the film, when the Rocky theme song stirs us to our bones.

The structure takes its form from the formula, in that our main character is a young boxer who has to beat the odds to bring down the best of the best. The latter in this case is world light heavyweight champion Ricky Conlan, who is about to retire but is looking for one last brawl. Luckily, Stallone knows the ropes, and he is firmly in Adonis’s corner, because it gives him a very definite purpose at this point towards the end of his life.

Complementing the fine examples of acting is a masterful visual style that does not have the usual highlights nor moments of stasis but instead raises the bar throughout. Besides the two attention-grabbing Steadicam shots – the first is the opening shot, the second is the “entering the ring” scene that visually recalls Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, perhaps the greatest boxing film of all time – Coogler also stages his fights with breathtaking flair by shooting them up close (the camera appears to be inside the ring, although there clearly has to be some visual trickery), yet the movements are always graceful, even feather-like, and utterly mesmerising.

While not forgoing it completely, Coogler heavily alters the classic training montage – a staple of the Rocky films – by making it less sentimental. He does this by using the rap song “Bridging the Gap” by Nas, which very appropriately concerns the relationship between a father and son, on the soundtrack instead of Bill Conti’s celebrated theme song, and he also highlights the exercise and the struggle while mostly abandoning the sickly-sweet-trajectory-towards-a-crescendo structure this sequence used to have in previous instalments. The changes make this a very different film from its predecessors, but it remains grounded in tradition thanks to the presence and dedication of Stallone as the irreplaceable Rocky.

The only place where the film trips up is during a wholly unnecessary alternating montage between Creed and Conlan, which seems superfluous and too conventional for this entry that in so many other respects departs from tradition.

Creed could easily have been a contrived piece of storytelling about one man’s desire to rid himself of his father’s ghost while embracing his own talents – exactly the point where his character overlaps with that of his father, whom he never knew. One need look no further than the Stallone–De Niro boxing film Grudge Match for evidence that the ride can be wobbly even when the talent is good.

Instead, it turns out to be a bravura work of art that once again affirms the undeniable talent of this director who has not even turned 30 yet and has already produced two towering works of stimulation for the senses and the intellect. Stallone delivers one of the finest performances of his career, and Michael B. Jordan should now feature on everyone’s list of actors to sign up.

With a Little Patience (2007)

With its focus on the point of view of a single character, With a Little Patience anticipates the thematic and visual concerns of its director’s feature film début by eight years.

with-a-little-patience-turelemHungary
4.5*

Director:
László Nemes

Screenwriters:
László Nemes

Timea Varkonyi
Director of Photography:
Mátyás Erdély

Running time: 11 minutes

Original title: Türelem

László Nemes should be the only director ever allowed to tell stories of the Holocaust. Just like his feature film début, Son of Saul, released in 2015, his first short film shot in 35mm, With a Little Patience, made eight years earlier, is remarkably intense in its focus on a single character within the context of Jewish extermination during the Second World War. In this wordless, 11-minute film consisting of a single take, an anonymous office worker first appears to us when she emerges from soft focus, just as Saul Kaminski does in the opening seconds of Son of Saul.

An epigraph taken from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, specifically the poem’s curtain-raising “Burial of the Dead” section, figures on a black screen even before the first image: “I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence. / Öd’ und leer das Meer.” These lines perfectly frame the misery and desperation that follow shortly afterwards.

Although the office worker appears in the frame almost immediately when the film opens, the first object that is in focus is the object handed to her by an unknown individual: a brooch. It takes some time before we come to realise the significance of this piece of jewellery, and in the interim, the silence takes on an air of mystery and tension that finally breaks with tremendous force, even from far away, in the closing moments.

As the narrative unspools, a nagging sense of misfortune hangs in the air, created in large part by the dark interior where most of the film is set. The setting is nondescript. The space is clearly an office of some sort, but the anonymous woman whom we follow for most of the film does not speak to anyone, and the only words spoken to her are a whisper, their meaning unknown to us. Furthermore, as Nemes would do again in Son of Saul, the focus is so shallow that the actions of all except this woman are presented as nebulous blurs of movement.

Very little happens, although it is obvious the woman is hiding something, and all along, we wonder, “Where did this brooch come from, and why is she clearly not supposed to have it?”

It is only at the very end – when the camera’s perspective changes, and in an unfortunate moment of directorial timidity, we leave the confines of the main character as the focus is racked to show events much farther away – that we grasp the spatio-temporal context of the film: a death camp somewhere on Nazi-occupied territory during the Second World War. The brooch is one of the pieces of jewellery that belonged to a Jewish prisoner, and this woman dressed in white, calmly and expressionlessly doing clerical work amid the grotesque carnage occurring just offscreen, is materially benefitting in her own small way from the subjugation, incarceration and liquidation of the Jews.

But this is but one interpretation.

While some may whimsically use the title to describe the lack of any robust dramatic development during the first two-thirds, this considerable part of the film actually works to heighten the impact of the final revelation on the viewer. By the time the chilling closing minutes roll around, the sudden shift in tone produces a visceral kick to the gut.

In With a Little Patience, Nemes offers a clear vision of his cinematic principles and a firm foundation on which he would ultimately go on to build the modern-day masterpiece that is Son of Saul. Tipping his hat to masters of the art form that include Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr, Nemes uses a carefully choreographed single take to exquisite effect and proves his is a voice that will reverberate through the industry in the years to come.