Loving (2016)

Never in a rush to get to its well-known conclusion, Jeff Nichols’s Loving builds to a serene but emotionally devastating final scene capping this story about an unassuming couple’s historic Supreme Court battle.

LovingUSA
4*

Director:
Jeff Nichols

Screenwriter:
Jeff Nichols

Director of Photography:
Adam Stone

Running time: 120 minutes

In the opening scene, she tells him she is pregnant. This is the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1958, and they are not yet married, but the news visibly tugs at his heart. These two rarely show any emotion beyond a look of love or fear, but their feelings for each other are never a mystery.

They are Richard and Mildred, and their marriage defied Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law. After spending years raising their children and waiting for the issue to wind its way through the justice system, they finally saw it reach the United States Supreme Court, which would go on to decide the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia in their favour.

Richard being white and Mildred being black, they were allowed to get married in the District of Columbia, which had never enacted any laws against interracial marriages. However, upon returning home to their town in northeast Virginia, they were arrested for unlawfully co-habitating in violation of the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

Director Jeff Nichols gives subtle hints to the notion that many whites in power at the time saw Richard and Mildred as two people engaging in abominable activity, and that Richard was somehow tarnishing his own race. This idea was commonplace at the time, and one need look no further than the laws in the Southern states at the time, which only prohibited whites from marrying other races but had no problem with non-white races marrying each other.

But despite all the legal restrictions on their love, the couple, portrayed in the film by (non-Americans) Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, keeps their heads down and does their best to make a good home for their children. After a judge rules that they are not allowed to be in Virginia at the same time for the next 25 years, they move to a small apartment in a low-income Washington, D.C., neighbourhood. Richard works on construction projects, while his wife takes care of the growing family at home.

But Mildred misses her family back home and the wide open spaces of rural Virginia where she wants her boys and girl to run around without fear of getting run over by a car or being assaulted by a random stranger in the street. Inspired by the March on Washington in the summer of 1963, she writes a letter to Robert Kennedy, at the time serving as the country’s attorney general, asking for help with their situation. Surprisingly, she gets a phone call from a lawyer at the ACLU who figures this case could ultimately lead to a nationwide repeal of anti-miscegenation laws.

There are only a few points on which the film commits a serious lapse in judgement. Cast in the role of the lawyer, Bernard S. Cohen, is comedian Nick Kroll, who, even in the most somber of circumstances, appears to be on the verge of bursting out laughing. His first appearance in the film is also played for laughs, but Kroll’s brand of comedy, which usually involves him staring awkwardly at someone when his character is in an uncomfortable situation, is the wrong fit for this story and alienates the viewer. This performance is particularly grating given the subdued emotional tone projected by the two leads.

Nichols makes another miscalculation during oral argument at the Supreme Court. While he decides not to show the faces of the justices, he does use the original audio from Chief Justice Earl Warren’s introduction of the case to remind us of the real-world provenance of the story. And yet, he uses Kroll and his voice, as well as Jon Bass, who plays fellow attorney Philip Hirschkop, to address the justices. Had Nichols used the original audio, this scene would have played much better for numerous reasons, not least of which is that Kroll’s performance consistently seeks to convey farce instead of solemnity.

Another moment that appears to belong to a different film results from parallel editing that seeks to heighten the tension in the cheapest of ways: by alternating between tension at work (a heavy bag of cement drops from a great height) and the seemingly carefree adventures of boys running through the neighbourhood streets. The violent climax of the scene is no surprise but wholly unbecoming of Loving‘s generally restrained approach to telling its story.

On the whole, however, the film’s various components – long as they sometimes take to come into view – all fit very tightly together to tell this historic tale of quiet resistance against entrenched injustice. The story of an unassuming couple just seeking to be accepted for being what and feeling how their surname says is told with compassion and focus. And by the time we reach the peaceful final scene and its promise of a future rooted in the soil of Virginia, it is near impossible to keep the tears from flowing.

Año uña (2007)

Año uña uses photographs to tell the story of a sweet but ultimately impractical friendship between a US college student and a Mexican teenager in Mexico City.

Año uña, Year of the NailMexico
4*

Director:
Jonás Cuarón

Screenwriter:
Jonás Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Jonás Cuarón

Running time: 80 minutes

Alternate title: The Year of the Nail

In Jonás Cuarón’s simple but attentive fiction film début, Año uña (The Year of the Nail), we find ourselves rooting for a 14-year-old boy in his quest to be intimate with a female college student. Perhaps it’s because of the genuine likability of this naïve young boy, a horny Mexican teenager named Diego (played by Cuarón’s real-life half-brother, Diego Cataño), or because of the leisurely conversations between him and his crush or because both are in on the game.

Made up entirely of still photographs (around half of them in black-and-white), the film’s form is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La Jetée. But although the two works are visually similar, at least initially, they have little in common beyond telling their stories at a much more sputtering pace than we’re used to. The reason why Cuarón decided on this approach was not because of any particularly artistic sensibility but because of necessity. Over the course of a year, he had taken thousands of photographs of his then-girlfriend, Eireann Harper, and Cataño interacting with each other. He subsequently reordered the pictures and added new sounds – voiceovers and diegetic dialogue – to shape a different story from the real images.

The resulting sequence of pictures is an array of fleeting moments captured and emphasised for however the filmmaker desires. It moves from greyscale through desatured colour to colour photographs that very obviously originated on film. Some of the images are out of focus, others are very sharp. These are all fleeting moments tied together by sounds, thoughts and bits of dialogue to create a mosaic of an experience that belongs to no one and to everyone.

Occasionally, there is the slightest of movements across a picture to simulate a pan that somewhat changes the composition or plays with the forms inside the frame. Because the film is based on photographs taken of people who were often not aware that they would end up in a motion picture, some of the faces have been blurred, presumably out of respect for their privacy.

The film opens with this explanation:

From 2004 to 2005 I photographed my surroundings.
At the end of the year, I ordered the images in such a way that they suggested the following narrative.
These are documentary images. The moments and characters are real.

Only the story is fictional.

There is some initial setup in which we see Molly (Harper), a US student on an exchange programme in Mexico City who is constantly embarrassed by her loud-mouth Yankee friend, Katie, yearning for a more personal relationship with the country and its people. The first image we get of Diego is accompanied by a voice-over informing us that he jerked off three times the previous evening. And he is obsessed with the idea of seeing his fast-maturing cousin’s breasts.

Traces of Y Tu Mamá También, which Cuarón’s father, Alfonso, had directed just a few years earlier, are easily discernible (oversexed boy lusts after older woman), but it is to the young Cuarón’s credit that he skillfully keeps us wondering about the outcome without ever frustrating our hopes or expectations.

The story plays out over a year during which we see Molly the gringa move from having trouble getting her mouth around words with indiginous origins, like Quetzalcoatl, Tlalnepantla, Chicoloapan and Tlacuitlapa, to fluently saying the Spanish tongue twister that Diego taught her. Meanwhile, Diego develops from a horny 14-year-old to a horny 15-year-old who is infatuated with whichever girl is closest to him, and the most consequential development is that his ingrown toenail (whence the English title) is finally treated. The significance of the nail – slightly uncomfortable when it is there but immediately forgotten after it is removed – is self-evident.

Some of the best moments in the film are those, obviously also drawing from the narrative well of Y Tu Mamá También, in which voice-overs are juxtaposed with each other to create dramatic irony and insight into the characters that would have been difficult in a live-action film. Another point of reference here is the slightly socially awkward interaction between Diane Keaton and Woody Allen’s characters on the balcony in Annie Hall (Allen used subtitles instead of voice-overs).

The spontaneity of shooting with actors is lost here, as the conversations recorded after the fact come across as stilted and unconvincing, although the insistence and the breathy, moaning inflection of Cataño’s voice precisely convey his character’s annoyance at not being able to get what he craves. For some reason, almost all of Molly’s voice-over is produced as a loud whisper, which becomes increasingly bothersome as the film progresses.

In addition, the focus is scattered all over the place: Not only Diego and Molly, but also Diego’s mother, his cousin and a few others get their own scenes and voice-overs that are tangentially related but never an integral part of the central storyline.

The ease and skill with which Cuarón creates comical yet recognisable trains of thought in the teenage Diego’s head is simply remarkable. Año uña is a very funny film because the viewer can identify (with) the often silly notions of romance and intimacy that Diego is dealing with, such as when he considers the possibility of drowning in order for Molly to give him mouth to mouth. But the perspective is always gentle and understanding, and while it misses the hammer blow of a Y Tu Mamá También, it is nonetheless a beautifully conceived and strikingly executed work of story telling.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Caught between the Scylla of returning to face a tragic past and the Charybdis of living a frustrating present, Lee Chandler assesses the path forward in Kenneth Lonergan’s deeply affecting Manchester by the Sea.

Manchester by the SeaUSA
4*

Director:
Kenneth Lonergan
Screenwriter:
Kenneth Lonergan
Director of Photography:
Jody Lee Lipes

Running time: 135 minutes

In his third cinematic meditation on loss, Kenneth Lonergan boldly interweaves two parts of storyline with devastating effect to create a rich tapestry of events in the past that explain, insofar as it is possible to explain flesh-and-blood people, the sombre emotional mood in the present. Manchester by the Sea is in no hurry to unpack all the emotional baggage. But the deliberate rhythm helps the viewer to digest the immensity of the trauma that stretches many years of heartache and to comprehend, if not always empathise with, the central character and his stunted reactions to the world around him.

Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a janitor whose face shows little sign of life. He is currently living in Quincy, a city that falls under the Greater Boston area in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the film’s early scenes, we learn about as much about him as we will until the halfway mark. He fixes the plumbing in a few apartment blocks but has no social compass to guide him in conversations with the tenants. He barely interacts with the people around him. He goes to bars to drink and not to pick up women. And more often than not, he ends the night by getting into a fight with a total stranger.

But throughout this dour introduction, we hold on to the relatively optimistic opening scene, in which Lee, his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), and Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), are out on a boat. Joe is steering, while Lee is horsing around with his nephew, playfully comparing himself with his Joe and being a happy-go-lucky uncle.

But there is something eery about that opening scene. Besides the lack of any close-ups of the action and the characters, the boat, advancing as it does, looks almost static because the camera is moving at exactly the same speed. Our mind tells us there is movement, but the boat’s immutable composition dead in the centre of the frame makes us question our eyes. This is the perfect shot to kick off a film whose power lies in its gradual disclosure of the distinction between immediate and remembered events. Films, even those depicting events long ago, create an illusion of immediacy with the greatest of ease. Without any visual or audio markers to the contrary, the viewer is most likely to assume that any scene takes place in the film’s “present”, but with this shot Lonergan tips his hand, reinforcing both the artistry and the authenticity of the film.

We soon learn that this opening scene is set in the past. It is a memory. A few scenes (and many years) later, Lee learns that Joe has just passed away from congestive heart failure. He sets off to the hospital in the seaside town of Manchester by the Sea, where his awkward interactions with people he seemingly knows rather well immediately draw our attention. And then we get another flashback, set a few years earlier in the same hospital, when Joe learned his time on Earth would be much shorter than he had expected.

There will be many more flashbacks throughout the film. Some will seem happy; others will be devastating. At times, they appear to be traces of simpler times. At other times, they bring back hidden pain and sadness with the force of a sledgehammer. In retrospect, they are all tinged with sincere humanity but also an overwhelming melancholia.

For nearly half the film, Lonergan holds his narrative cards close to his chest. Lee learns his brother’s will designates him as guardian of the teenage Patrick. Lee, who views Manchester with a heavy heart because of all the death it has wrought on his family, wants no part in being Patrick’s caretaker father and has no desire to stay longer in town than necessary. The director gradually reveals the immense tragedy at the core of Lee’s character not as a stream but as a trickle that slowly brings to light the reasons for the present-day misery. But even the presentation has layers to it, and Lonergan’s film is nothing if not an onion that keeps peeling, continuously bringing the characters and the viewer closer to tears.

Halfway through the film, Kenneth Lonergan makes one absolutely inexcusable mistake: He injects himself into his film in the wrong way. Lonergan has had cameos in all of his films to date. In his début feature, the sublime You Can Count on Me, which might just be one of the best films of the past few decades, he starred as a priest, a role in which his deadpan discussion of fornication with a member of his congregation was one of many simultaneously serious and deeply comical highlights. In Margaret, he makes three short appearances at the other end of a telephone line as the lead character’s father. Displaying an awkwardness unmatched by any of his other roles, Lonergan’s trio of scenes traces the decline of a relationship but are overindulgent.

In Manchester by the Sea, the director shows up as a bystander on the street who loudly questions Lee’s parenting skills. This moment is harmless enough, but when Lonergan leaves, a separate shot shows the camera momentarily following him – an anonymous, peripheral character who never shows up again – before a cut back to Lee and his nephew, Patrick. This reeks of narcissism at best and incompetence at worst.

Although more bold than Margaret, this 135-minute examination of the way in which tragedy’s tentacles continue to leech happiness from the present is not a challenging film to watch and inspires little desire to be watched a second time. Lonergan deserves ample praise for making his flashbacks so unobtrusive and for tying them so firmly – yet initially inconspicuously – to the present-day narrative.

Time does not heal all wounds. We don’t forget the worst things that have befallen us. But while we mourn, the world is changing. And when we suddenly allow ourselves to open our eyes, perhaps the new configuration of people and relationships might just appear slightly more manageable.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

An unusually serious film from director Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a joy from start to finish.

Grand Budapest HotelUSA
4*

Director:
Wes Anderson

Screenwriter:
Wes Anderson

Director of Photography:
Robert Yeoman

Running time: 100 minutes

The Grand Budapest Hotel, besides being a much more serious film than we’re used to seeing from director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), makes many a direct play for the hearts of Central and East Europeans.

With its mixture of exquisite period detail, albeit slightly exaggerated, overt references to historical turning points in the region and a typically “Wesandersonian” presentation of the story as visibly but immersively fictional, the film is almost certain to be well received both behind the former Iron Curtain and around the world.

In 1985, an elderly gentleman looks straight into the camera and starts telling us a story that takes us back, first to 1968, and then to 1932, as the rise and fall of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a luxurious establishment somewhere in the Republic of Zubrowka, is displayed in all its alternately decrepit and extravagant excess.

The abovementioned Zubrowka, obviously named after one of the best vodkas I have ever tasted, Poland’s bison-grass infused Żubrówka, is almost as difficult to place as The Simpsons’ city of Springfield. The opening scene, set in a cemetery in the fictional city of Lutz, obviously refers to the Polish city of Łódź, and yet the name of the hotel refers to Hungary, although it is located in the “Sudetenwalt,” or Sudeten Forest, which suggests pre–World War II Czechoslovakia, or thereabouts.

The doubly encased storytelling mechanism (the man in 1985, a nameless author, shares with us how he came to meet the owner of the hotel, Mr. Moustafa, in 1968, who told him the story – one that dates to 1932 – of how he came to possess the grand establishment) is further framed by the very first scene, in which someone opens a book titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, neatly divided into chapters. Also, the exterior of the Grand Budapest Hotel is not life-size but rather immediately recognisable as a small, detailed model; many other tricks that sometimes bring to mind Anderson’s work on the stop-motion The Fantastic Mr. Fox continue to make it clear this is a tale enriched by reality rather than one seeking to emulate it.

While Mr. Moustafa is the proprietor in 1968, played by the wonderful F. Murray Abraham (who recently had an equally short but deeply satisfying role in Inside Llewyn Davis), he is but a teenage boy – first name Zero – in the story taking place in 1932, when he starts his work as a lobby boy, in service of the hotel’s famous concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Monsieur Gustave personally tends to every need of his guests, and often those needs require him to spend some time in their private rooms, especially if they are blond.

Monsieur Gustave is great fun, soaked as he is in his L’Air de Panache perfume. Although fastidious to the point of being obsessive, he also has a big heart, and while he has his doubts about Zero’s qualifications to carry out his duties, he quickly warms to the boy and teaches him everything he knows. He also protects him with his life, and his magnanimity, or even friendship, is rewarded when he is locked up after being framed for the murder of a former hotel guest, Madame Desgoffe und Taxis, simply known as Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, enchanting as ever, even as she plays an 84-year-old woman).

The film presents itself as strictly removed from reality, but the traces of history are recognisable and remain potent despite being altered. The Nazi lightning symbol of the “SS” has been modified to appear as “ZZ” in this film, and the delicious pastries are provided by a fancy bakery called Mendl’s, very likely drawing its inspiration from the Austrian producer of gourmet foods, Julius Meinl. Sometimes, not unlike the approach taken by Joe Wright in his film adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the lighting changes to indicate a shift in tone, done in such a way as to bring it closer to the theater (in other words, overt performance), and eschews any attempt to give the film an air of grittiness.

And yet, as Anderson has proved so often in the past, his characters can still elicit emotions in us even though they belong to a world so obviously different from our own. Friendship and family are two key themes in the films of the director, and here, too, despite the countless cameos (many well-known actors each appear only in a single scene, including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban) and the film’s many moments of whimsy, it ends with a sudden rush of emotions as we come to realise how beautifully The Grand Budapest Hotel and its characters fit together, how much they have been through and how much we have enjoyed their adventures, notwithstanding the unspoken Nazi and communist uprisings that we can read between lines.

This film brims with creativity and ingenuity, as even a ride in a funicular or a bobsled can turn into something unforgettable (for the latter, think of the game of “hotbox” in The Fantastic Mr. Fox rather than bobsledding at the Winter Games). The emotions are also there, very competently handled by Anderson, whose direction of the young Tony Revolori, as Zero, elicits a performance that is flawlessly part of the film. There is also one of the most unusual escapes from prison you will have ever seen on film and a handful of small pans that produce, as Anderson learned so well in The Darjeeling Limited, moments of visual bathos that are as hilarious as they are unexpected.

A very different kettle of fish compared with his other films, this is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most subdued film to date, but he deftly handles the balance between the comical and the dramatic, yielding a work of beauty, comedy and mystery that is every bit as enchanting, funny and ultimately moving as some of his best films.

The Revenant (2015)

After an attack by a bear leaves him fighting for his life, a 19th-century trapper marches on alone through the snow to face another foe.

The RevenantUSA
4*

Director:
Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Screenwriters:
Mark L. Smith
Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Director of Photography:
Emmanuel Lubezki

Running time: 155 minutes

Few things are more dangerous than a man who has nothing left to lose. Interesting, then, that the first act of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, set in the sub-zero temperatures of a 19th-century winter, crystallises both of these, and it does so in the most visually memorable way possible.

With snow covering a stunning landscape nearly untouched by white society, the image we have of this part of the Louisiana Territory is one of ravishing beauty hiding terror in the form of roaming bears and bison and a number of Native American tribes, some of whom are at war with each other. In the midst of all of this, an all-male hunting party is exploring the land when it is attacked and almost entirely decimated first by an arrow-wielding indigenous tribe and then by a grizzly bear protecting its cubs. The man who suffers the brunt of the latter attack is the bearded Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is traveling with his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Glass is mauled to pieces but remains alive, and that is where the story really kicks in.

The film is based on real events that took place in 1823 in the northwestern part of present-day South Dakota, when Glass, having sustained staggering injuries during the attack, was buried in haste and left for dead before he made his way back through the wilderness and rejoined his company. As is to be expected, The Revenant (which means “the one who comes back”) compresses the original timeline, but it also focuses in great detail on the interior life of Glass as he fights his own mortality and deep scars, both physical and spiritual, to make it to the end.

Using numerous dream sequences and quite a few moments in limbo between dream and reality, the director imbues his main character with notions of tradition, introspection and survival that are subtle and do not require big action scenes. That is not to say that the film eschews such scenes, and the first act contains a major battle between the Americans and the Arikara tribe, presented with both flair and nuance by the finest director of photography at work in the industry today, Emmanuel Lubezki.

Building on and vastly surpassing the camera work on his and Iñárritu’s previous film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which was restricted almost entirely to a single location, Lubezki uses his camera here with the kind of Midas touch we saw in Children of Men, or a less pretentious Panic Room, lensed by Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji. Many of his takes are very mobile and last much longer than takes tend to do in major commercial films (the production budget on The Revenant was $135 million).

As a result, we get scenes in which we see the characters’ movements captured without changes of shots or visible editing, but the scale can vary from the intimate — Glass hides behind a rock in the river as the camera smoothly glides above the surface of the water towards and around him to give us his point of view both directly and indirectly — to the epic: Glass’s company is attacked, and after a significant amount of action, Glass shoots an Arikara tribesman who has been hiding high up in a tree. The man falls to the ground, where he is brutally and bluntly attacked by a white man with the butt of a rifle. The camera rushes over to them, when an arrow hits the man in the face. He keels over, and the camera rises up to meet an Indian on horseback, whom the camera promptly pursues at his level. All of this in a single, seemingly unbroken take.

The scene is simply extraordinary, but the level of action will blind many to the talent behind the scenes to succeed in bringing the images to life in this exact way.

While the action can be gruesome and in-your-face — during the bear attack, the grizzly sow gets so close to us her breath briefly fogs up the lens — much of the film slowly brings into focus the headspace of its central character, and Iñárritu uses both sound (the soundtrack fades in and out at some points) and image to get us to experience life in Glass’s skin, a task that is far from easy.

We understand early on why Glass wants to make it back to his men, but the idea of revenge stays with us a full two hours after that, thanks to subtle reminders in the screenplay in the form of a disgruntled, wide-eyed trapper, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, in peak form), who only looks out for himself and will do anything to get his way, and the story of a tribesman, Elk Dog, who is looking for his daughter and who we sense would kill to get her back.

First and foremost, the film is about revenge and survival, but there are solid hints about the need for something transcendent to give meaning to the brutal, untamed wilderness of the Wild West, which consists not only of cowboys riding across wide open spaces and past sandstones buttes but also of trappers in parkas trudging through thick forest foliage and past sharp granite cliffs.

Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, whose aspect ratio was 2.76:1, Iñárritu’s film is only being screened at 2.35:1. And yet, the scenery practically begs the eyes to tell the head to move from side to side and drink in all the frigid beauty, albeit underpinned with simmering fury and overcast with menacing danger.

We do not always understand how Glass manages to find the way home, and the contemplative scenes that ring with the soft elocution of the Pawnee language may be tedious to some in the audience, but in the end, there is no escaping the director’s master stroke of enfolding his crude scenes of violence and endurance in a softer sheen of humanity. Even a particularly grisly scene with a horse, more or less plagiarised from the Icelandic Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss) by Benedikt Erlingsson, or the depiction of a bison stampede in the dead of night, has a calm about it that we do not expect.

While it could have made fuller characters out of its Native Americans, who do not rise above mere symbols of mysticism, the film is a master class for those seeking to tell stories about determination and perseverance. It is beautiful and unforgettable, and Iñárritu’s struggle to make it was well worth the toil.

On Body and Soul (2017)

Two deers in a snow-speckled forest punctuate awkward social scenes at a bloody Budapest abattoir to create a memorable film with a dreamy, unconventional “two people meant for each other” narrative.

On Body and SoulHungary
4*

Director:
Ildikó Enyedi
Screenwriter:
Ildikó Enyedi
Director of Photography:
Máté Herbai

Original title: Testről és Lélekről

Running time: 115 minutes

In the dead of winter, deep in a snow-speckled forest, a stag moves closer to place its chin ever so gently on the back of a wide-eyed doe. Light snowfall covers their fur. This peaceful, luminous scene – intimate despite the frigid temperatures – is like something out of a dream. Back in reality, it is summer in Budapest, where Endre, a middle-aged financial director at an abattoir, meets the porcelain-faced, blonde-haired Maria, the young new quality inspector who is all but expressionless except for a slight deer-caught-in-the-headlights look.

These two very different milieux alternate back and forth for a while until we realise they not only complement each other but are in fact directly connected: Every night, both Endre and Maria, who have never met before, have exactly the same dream in which the former is the stag and the latter is the doe. But unsurprisingly for a film from Hungary, a country whose film industry has specialised in works vibrating with a kind of magical realism for a number of years, this revelation does not come as a particular shock to either of them, although fortunately the flurry of magic slowly draws them together. Not coincidentally, all of this plays out against a story doing the rounds at the abattoir of two people who used “mating powder” meant for the cows and suffered some serious(ly hilarious) side effects.

The scenes at the abattoir are very graphic, and while we do not see the actual killing of the animals, we do see how the cows are decapitated with blood spurting forth in all directions. Logically, there is an obvious fear that the same will eventually befall the two deers, but director Ildikó Enyedi, who crafted the film based on her own screenplay, deftly ties the characters’ dreams and reality together in ways that make a great deal of sense while showing us both the brutality of falling in love and the serenity of being in love.

On Body and Soul drops hints along the way to give rough sketches of its two central characters but does not flesh either of them out in any great detail. This is the right approach, given that the film exists on a level that is more spiritual than physical, and any prolonged explanation or back story would have made Endre and Maria too heavy. It is never explained why Endre has a crippled left arm or how Maria has come to recoil from any physical contact, but it small (albeit, perhaps intentionally so, never perfect) ways, they complement each other.

By the time the two have grown closer together and Maria has decided it might be a good idea to get used to being touched, we get an absolutely stunning moment of beauty and subtlety that encapsulates the atmosphere of the film as a whole: After creepily staring at couples making out in the park, she lies down and feels the gentle sting of the blades of grass on her exposed skin. She falls asleep, only to be awoken by the park’s sprinkler system. But when she raises her head, she is smiling, aware that this is the first time she has had this experience, and the water that runs down her cheeks looks like tears of joy.

Another shot that stands is one that shows the stag running at full speed while the camera does a lateral tracking shot at the same steady pace. Like something out of a dream, giving the impression of happening for real but showing us something we could never have witnessed without film, this shot is the definition of pure cinema.

While the scenes with the deers are breathtakingly peaceful and gorgeous to look at, grisly moments captured early on at the abattoir will likely be upsetting to many viewers, in particular those who are non-carnivores by choice. Maria’s inscrutable demeanour, which at turns renders her asociality completely farcical, becomes more relatable during the comical scenes with her pediatrist (yes, you read that right). At the same time, Endre’s acceptance of her quirkiness is neither hands-off nor contrived, and by the time we reach the climax we want the two of them to be together so much that some of the more ridiculous developments become wholly palatable.

On Body and Soul is definitely a very different kind of love story, but for those willing to look past the blood and snow and see the two extremes join together in the middle, this is a delightful film whose unexpected humour will stay with you for days.

Viewed at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.

Desierto (2015)

Set on the United States–Mexico border, Desierto tracks a group of illegal immigrants fighting for their lives against the harsh environment and an even more brutal vigilante and his German Shepherd.

desiertoMexico
4*

Director:
Jonás Cuarón

Screenwriters:
Jonás Cuarón

Mateo Garcia
Director of Photography:
Damián Garcia

Running time: 90 minutes

In Desierto, Jonás Cuarón’s evocative depiction of an illegal crossing at the United States–Mexico border, it is difficult to interpret the countless cacti scattered across the barren Arizona landscape as anything other than menacing middle fingers greeting the new arrivals to the country. Not only is this exhausting trek over a period of 36 hours grim, as is to be expected, but it has an aspect of horror thanks to the brutal vigilantism of an white-stubbled, wifebeater-wearing, Confederate flag–sporting gun-toter who has appointed himself and his German Shepherd the true anti-immigration task force.

Opening and closing on similar landscapes on either side of the infamous border, the film takes place entirely in the titular desert that connects the two countries. In so doing, it cuts out the backstories and integration that border-crossing films, from El Norte to Sin nombre, with many others in between, usually include for the sake of completeness. The always dependable Gael García Bernal takes the lead here as one of a dozen immigrants trying to cross into the United States and ultimately becomes the reluctant leader by virtue of determination, survival and luck.

After the small truck that was supposed to transport them breaks down, the group and their handlers walk across the border on foot but soon stare down the barrel of a gun when Sam (an ice-cold Jeffrey Dean Morgan despite the scorching heat) and his trusty dog, Tracker, find them and pick them off one by one. Moises (Bernal), who is lugging a teddy bear with and hopes to reconnect with his son in Oakland, accompanies the slowest at the back of the pack and thus ends up surviving the shoot-out, along with four others.

Cuarón uses his camera with great effect. While some may balk at two or three moments of extravagance (most notably, a fast backward tracking shot when someone is shot in the chest and the beautiful movement of the camera crossing a barb-wire border fence as it shows others doing the same), they never draw too much attention to themselves. Instead, they suggest a vibrant dynamism beneath the mostly desaturated landscape, and in the second example, there is an inherent identification with the immigrants’ journey and plight.

For the entire first half of the film, the focus is relentlessly on the forward movement of the immigrants. Unlike most other films in the genre, there is no small talk between the characters that would flesh out their stories and their reasons for making this perilous journey. Besides, it is a fair assumption to make that none of them would have risked their lives if they didn’t have good reason to do so. This approach towards the characters frees the director up to create significant tension by pitting life against death in almost every single scene.

In this way, we never feel like we are being fed information by a filmmaker but are instead witness to verisimilitudinous events. Unfortunately, the other half of the story, which concerns the half-drunk Sam, is handled with a little less care. Save an early altercation with a border protection officer, Sam never speaks to anyone, except his trusty canine companion (and/or himself). His one-sided conversations can feel a little contrived and ultimately serve little purpose beyond providing a mere outline of a character with a myopic vision of nationalism that is hostile to outsiders (“It’s my home!”), no matter who they are.

Another point on which Desierto scores less than full marks is a scene in the final act when a young woman comes face to face with a rattlesnake. This being Arizona, the encounter is not at all unexpected, but it is a surprise that the film waits so long before showing us a single snake – and then tries to make up for lost time by showing us an entire rhumba all at once.

Bernal is absolutely mesmerising as a young father taking a risk going on this journey but doing so in order to rejoin his family. His character, Moises, is thrust into a game of survival, and while he has to rely on instinct to stay alive, his kindness towards those around him – particularly those who need a helping hand – is evident throughout. Moises’s gentle humanity, coupled with the image and the meaning of the teddy bear, which introduces us to him in the opening scene, makes it easy for the viewer to root for him.

Over the decades, the hot-button issue of border crossings between the United States and Mexico has never really cooled down, and thus Desierto is as timely as ever, particularly given the rumblings from the Oval Office of the recently inaugurated 45th president of the United States. Cuarón, who has to be one of Mexico’s most accomplished young filmmakers, keeps his eye on the ball and seems to relish the challenge of working with a small cast and a single location, not unlike the experience of his director father, Alfonso, on Gravity. As was already apparent in the companion piece to the latter, the short film Aningaaq, Cuarón here again proves himself to be a talented storyteller dedicated to conveying very human stories in the most desolate environments.

La Jetée (1962)

La Jetée, Chris Marker’s classic short film about time travel, is as intelligent, as unconventional and as emotionally engaging today as it was upon its release in 1962.

La JetéeFrance
4*

Director:
Chris Marker

Screenwriter:
Chris Marker

Director of Photography:
Chris Marker

Running time: 28 minutes

Perhaps best known today as the short film that inspired Terry Gilliam to make 12 Monkeys, Chris Marker’s La Jetée is very unconventional as a moving picture precisely because the pictures do not move. Unlike the overwhelming majority of films out there, of which movement is a defining feature, this 28-minute work of science-fiction employs photographs to tell its story, and the reason is quite simple: These are supposed to be fragments of memory, and memories are experiences that we almost never remember in their entirety but rather in snippets.

The first few moments already hint at the distorted nature of the world we are about to encounter when the opening credits themselves are altered, albeit very subtly: Upon expressing thanks to the research department at the national public broadcaster, the Radiodiffusion-télévision française (RTF), the credits change momentarily from “Service de la Recherche de la R.T.F.” to “Service de la Trouvaille de la R.T.F.”. In French, the word “trouvaille” means a “(lucky) find”, and the fact that most viewers might only notice this change during a second or a third viewing underscores the notion that there is more beneath the surface than we may realise at first.

Indeed, the entire story depends on our impression of reality, constructed on the basis of fragmented memories, that in the end is revealed to be defective in a crucial way that the main character (and we) realises all too late.

The film has almost no diegetic sounds but does have a narrator. This narrator’s voice belongs to Jean Négroni, whose surname is curiously, though perhaps intentionally, written without the requisite diacritical marks in the opening credits.

Set mostly in a dystopian environment (what used to be Paris) after the end of the Third World War, a nameless man (played by Davos Hanich), is haunted by an image burnt into his memory as a child. Shortly before the outbreak of the war that would destroy most of mankind, he was standing on the viewing pier (the “jetty” in the title) at Orly International Airport in Paris. There, he saw a woman, but the rest of his memory is blurred by a feeling of violence and the perception that someone had died.

Today, huddled up in subterranean passageways under the Palais de Chaillot because the world above is too radioactive for human life, there are victors and victims, and the former are conducting experiments on the latter: The prisoners have to imagine a moment from their past so intensely that they are transported back and can eventually bring help from the future into the present. But there are many failed attempts, with the experiment’s subjects either dying or losing their minds.

With the image of the woman seared into his brain, the main character is successful at making the past vibrate with such life that it becomes a living memory, although not without pain. And all the while, in a nod to the events of the Second World War, which had ended barely 17 years before La Jetée‘s release, the people conducting the experiment are ominously whispering to each other in German.

When the man starts forming images in his head that appear to correspond to the peacefulness of the past, the narrator insists on calling them “real”: “a real bedroom”, “real children”, “real birds”, “real cats” and, deliberately anticlimactically, “real graves”. And yet, there is a firm suspicion on our part that these are merely imaginary projections, most importantly because there is no movement. Another ackowledgement of the likely fictitious status of the events comes when the narrator explains that the man “never knows whether he moves towards her, or is pushed, whether he’s made it all up, or is only dreaming”.

But this is where the intelligence of Marker’s chosen form starts to reveal itself, because before long, the man and the woman from his past find themselves in a museum with stuffed animals. By this stage, the viewer has already started to ascribe movement to the film’s frozen images, and therefore the exercise now engenders a cognitive animation of the immobile animals, too, which produces a frisson and a feeling of confusion, not unlike what the main character is experiencing. This bewilderment is particularly palpable when we see a close-up of a shark baring its teeth right next to the couple. At another point, in a timeless space filled with statues, the narrator also describes his memory as a kind of museum.

The final development in La Jetée, during which the man is sent to the future, is a little ridiculous and compares badly with the rest of the film, as expressionless, alienoid humans with medallion-like objects on their pale foreheads learn of the desperation in the present.

The ending will leave the viewer breathless, because at the end of a brief but brilliant action montage, insofar as that label may be applied in this case, the smallest revelations suddenly hit us like a brick wall and leave us pulverised with despair. The final image is held just long enough for us to take in but not fully digest the gravity of the narrator’s explicit closing of the circle of life – and with it, of hope.

Sicario (2015)

Sicario, Denis Villeneuve’s sweeping view of the war on drugs, focuses on the law enforcement officials crossing the border.

sicarioUSA
4*

Director:
Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriter:
Taylor Sheridan

Director of Photography:
Roger Deakins

Running time: 120 minutes

The United Status–Mexico border may appear to separate the two most populous nations in North America, but in fact, as we know, the length of the border and the rough terrain make it difficult to control, and for decades there has been a northward movement of people and drugs. In Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve does not tell the tale of those crossing the border, as this has been done often enough, but instead focuses on the moral wasteland that the government’s fight against the drug-induced violence has become.

The opening scene is intense. In Arizona, in a small town just a few miles from the border, a federal team of agents is moving in. They ram their truck into a flimsy suburban home and return the fire they receive from the wife beater–clad gentlemen inside. At first, there is no sign of the hostages they had been tipped off about. But upon closer inspection of the property, they find the walls are hollow and stuffed with dozens of corpses whose heads are all covered in plastic bags. The scene is gruesome, and most of the hardened men and women of the team retch at the sight and the smell. Moments later, a bomb goes off, and we witness at least one team member losing a limb.

One of those involved in the raid is Kate Mercer (a stunningly composed Emily Blunt), who is intent on rooting out the drug problem and agrees to work with Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a Defense Department adviser who heads up a Delta Force team to get those who are responsible for the first scene’s carnage. The team is accompanied by Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), an unflappable and enigmatic Colombian whose intentions are opaque but who brings unmistakable expertise to the operation.

There are many revelations throughout the film, as we realise time and again that the U.S. government engages in all kinds of undercover and even unlawful activities in order to reduce the general level of criminality, and they do so in a way that would make Machiavelli proud. For those who have not seen the film, it would not be too much of a spoiler to disclose that the U.S. team does not limit its activities to its own territory, and the notorious border town of Ciudad Juárez is the location of one of the film’s dramatic highlights.

In that particular scene, Villeneuve demonstrates his talent for building and maintaining tension, for keeping the audience on the edge of their seats thanks to a threat that seems to be both ever-present and covert, and for using his camera to produce images that are breathtaking yet entirely relevant.

For example, there are a few amazing fly-over shots from high up in the air that show us the congested lanes on the Bridge of the Americas, the port of entry between the United States and Mexico. The sequence in Ciudad Juárez is bookended by shots on the bridge, and at first, the U.S. team races unobstructed across the bridge in their big black Humvees. When they return, there is much more congestion, and the heavy traffic is not only an inconvenience but a security threat. At the same time, the shots from the air convey the feeling of a disembodied menace (it is not connected to a helicopter, for example) that might as well be a Predator drone – the kind that the U.S. government uses to patrol the border.

But in the background, beyond the blood and the action, there is the eerie indifference among the thousands of passengers crammed into the hundreds of cars passing the still-bleeding corpses without so much as a shocked expression. In this part of the world, even the slaying of two handfuls of people in broad daylight does not elicit the turn of a head or a soft gasp of breath. All the while, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s throbbing, menacing and absolutely riveting score pumps our blood faster and faster.

Sicario, which means “hitman” in Mexico, is a film whose overwhelming sense of dread is difficult to shake, even many days after the viewer has left the theater. While the drama is elegantly directed and flawlessly put together and the narrative is always crystal clear, the overall feeling is one of never-ending chaos, and that early scene in and around Ciudad Juárez greatly contributes to this impression.

Villeneuve’s film is scary and profound. It focuses on a small group of people representing larger forces we only get a glimpse of, but these snippets of the battle against drugs is enough to make us understand there is no easy answer, and that eventually everyone loses in this fight.

Mellow Mud (2016)

Mellow Mud, a confidently directed coming-of-age tale set in Latvia is notable for its storytelling, but above all it is the presence and poise of its lead actress, Elīna Vaska, that will stay with the viewer.

Mellow MudLatvia
4*

Director:
Renārs Vimba

Screenwriter:
Renārs Vimba

Director of Photography:
Arnar Þór Þórisson

Running time: 105 minutes

Original title: Es esmu šeit

The only thing better than breaking the rules is having an accomplice to do that. Mellow Mud, a film set in the Latvian outback, is in many ways a conventional coming-of-age story about two school-age siblings who are left to be raised by their unwilling grandmother when their mother emigrates to London. However, the rules they break to cope with their situation are not only understandable but wholly relatable, even while the possibility they might be found out hangs over them like the Sword of Damocles for the duration of the film.

The central character is the elder sister, Raja Kalniņa (an absolutely flawless portrayal by Elīna Vaska), who in her final year of high school suddenly has the responsibility of taking care of her young brother, Robis (Andžejs Jānis Lilientāls), when their mother leaves, their father has died, and their grandmother and guardian, Olga, also passes away. It is no surprise that Raja is looking for a way to rid herself of this burden, and although she cleans the house and cooks for Robis, she also has her eye on an English-language competition that would send her to London for a week.

We soon discover why she wants to go to London when she looks pensively at a UK-stamped envelope. The narrative strands that ultimately enable her to take back control of her life fall into place all at once and just at the right time, but Renārs Vimba’s strong directorial hand, which makes it appear that everything is happening of its own accord and at its own pace, make it easy to look past this contrivance.

Two big relationships shape the rest of the plot in significant ways. The first is the one with Robis, whose frustration with the living situation gradually leads to him engaging in activities he is not ready for and lashing out by committing petty crimes and refusing to listen to his sister, who has taken on the role of substitute mother. This relationship alternates between playful and abrasive (a tension best visualised in the opening scene), but to writer-director Vimba’s credit it never snaps, and this domestic situation – strained yet intimate – creates real-world empathy in the viewer.

The other relationship is with Raja’s handsome young English teacher, played by a lightly bearded Edgars Samītis, who has moved to the countryside from the capital Riga for reasons never made clear, but we can easily assume that he was looking for an escape himself. Although he has no idea about Raja’s true intentions regarding London, he is captivated by her skills in English despite her having missed numerous lessons over the past year. He is slowly drawn to her in scenes that are perfectly staged because we keep asking ourselves what the physical closeness between them means and whether it will lead to a more intimate relationship.

The English title is meaningless, especially since the original Latvian title, which translates as “I am here”, forcefully conveys Raja’s resistance against being forgotten by those around her.

The two standout finds of this film are its director, for whom this was a feature-film début but who displays a very firm hand for rhythm, visuals and performances, and actress Elīna Vaska, who never pouts or struts or throws a tantrum or is too clever. On the contrary, her teenage character is that rare find in films: a youngster who actually behaves like a relatable human being and gets our empathy not by begging for it but by seeming wholly authentic.

Mellow Mud‘s filmmaking, which is solid throughout, kicks it up a notch in the final scenes, which are utterly compelling because of both the closure they bring to the story and the lack (or minimal use) of dialogue used to achieve this purpose. These scenes show us how much can be accomplished by having good actors use their body instead of their words and having the camera put us in an intimate position that allows us to observe the action without feeling like we are intruding. The effect is mesmerising and due entirely to each member of the cast and crew deploying their talents with great success.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.