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.

Train Driver’s Diary (2016)

Train Driver’s Diary is a Wes Anderson–like take on the spectre of death that comically hangs over the life of every train driver.

Train Driver's DiarySerbia
4*

Director:
Miloš Radović
Screenwriter:
Miloš Radović
Director of Photography:
Dušan Joksimović

Running time: 85 minutes

Original title: Dnevnik mašinovođe

There is something delightfully Wes Andersonian about the Serbian Train Driver’s Diary, even though the black humour of the story is inherently, unmistakably Balkan and would never make it past a Hollywood executive. The exuberantly staged sets are one reason for this – countless scenes take place inside redecorated train compartments that are a world unto themselves – but another is the symmetry inside the shots, to which train tracks visually lend themselves.

Narration is sparse and belongs to Ilija (Lazar Ristovski, who looks and behaves like a low-key version of John Cleese), a train driver and lifelong bachelor who in the prologue tells us how many people he has killed over the years. It’s not his fault, he assures us, it is just something that comes with the territory. And without missing a beat, we see him crash into a minivan filled with an entire Gypsy band that has got stuck on the tracks.

He visits two psychologists to assess how he is coping post-trauma, but his hilariously graphic retelling of the accident causes the one to throw up and the other to faint. For him, however, this is just part of life. He has clearly disconnected from the social fabric of existence and has no intimate relationship with almost anybody. That is, until he nearly runs over a 10-year-old orphan boy, Sima (Pavle Erić), who has decided to end his own life. For whatever reason, Ilija takes Sima under his wing, and before we know it, thanks to a wonderful cut that allows the director to change time but not place, the boy’s voice has broken.

The teenage Sima has but one dream: to become a train driver like “Uncle” Ilija. But Ilija will have none of it and persistently reminds Sima that he can do whatever he wants when Ilija is dead, but until then, he will not be a train driver. The main reason, of course, is the inherently homicidal nature of the job – a heavy burden that Ilija has had to shoulder for decades and from which he wants to spare the naïve Sima. But the latter has his heart set on the train industry, and so he gets sent to train as a dispatcher, before life inevitably intervenes.

The film is filled with oddball situations and eccentric characters, including a hairless dog with a mop of hair reminiscent of Donald Trump’s infamous coif. One particularly funny moment has Sima doing push-ups with the dog on his back providing very little extra weight.

Petar Korać provides a charming performance as the late-teen Sima, a blond-haired blue-eyed boy with a heart of gold who has always been cared for by Ilija but who has never received any physical intimacy from him – not even a hug. This has left the young man socially awkward but eminently likeable, although the scene in which he freaks out driving a train for the first time requires him to stretch his eyes as big as plates, pull his face like a clown and emote to a degree that speeds past acceptability into the domain of the histrionic.

Train Driver’s Diary could have done with a better title – perhaps “Love and Death: The Tragicomic Life of a Train Driver”? – but the film itself is a continuous joy that manages to squeeze a great deal of narrative and emotions into a relatively short running time. The characters are all very memorable, and although a final development regarding Ilija’s long-lost girlfriend Danica takes up too much time, it does provide a satisfying climax to his otherwise painfully slow emotional development.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.

Vale (2015)

These 10 minutes on Ibiza spent with five Spaniards and an American girl, despite the commercial origins (and intent) of the production, are simply irresistible.

vale-amenabarSpain
4*

Director:
Alejandro Amenábar

Screenwriters:
Alejandro Amenábar

Oriol Villar
Directors of Photography:
Eduard Grau

Cyrill Labbe

Running time: 10 minutes

A romantic story with a touch of magic, even when blatantly presenting itself as little more than a commercial for the Catalan beer brand “Estrella”, can still be affecting, and it is a pleasant surprise to discover how quickly the 10-minutelong Vale swoops us off our feet and carries us on a wave of laughter and curiosity off towards the stars.

See, estrella means “star”, and in this short film by Alejandro Amenábar, perhaps the most consistently awe-inspiring filmmaker the Spanish film industry has ever seen, the brand is not just a name but also a symbol, both literal and figurative, for the story itself.

Victor (Quim Gutiérrez) is a handsome young Spaniard we first meet next to the swimming pool one morning, hanging out with his handful of close friends. The one outsider, an American girl named Rachel (Dakota Johnson), catches his eye, and he tries to strike up a conversation with her. The problem is that he barely speaks a word of English. She only met up with Victor’s friends at a party the previous evening, as one does on the party island of Ibiza.

Their initial interaction is pure awkwardness from beginning to end, as Victor tries to string a sentence together but fails miserably, even as a smile never leaves his face. But then, something magical happens: He connects with Rachel through the intermediary of his friends’ interpreting, by revealing his comprehensive knowledge of the tiniest of details about movies, music and even art exhibitions.

The reason is an Estrella-inspired Slumdog Millionaire, which reveals itself to us through a string of very succinct  flashbacks that demonstrate how the promise of an Estrella with his friends and his decision to accept the invitation (the title, Vale, is a Spanish interjection that roughly translates as “OK”) ultimately exposed him to countless cultural experiences that he now draws on to impress Rachel on the other side of the linguistic abyss.

The visuals are sharp and clean, and we are always aware that Estrella Damm, whose name is the first to appear as part of the opening credits, is behind this project. And yet, somehow, we don’t care. The narrative has a very deliberate whiff of contrivance that we nevertheless succumb to because of the promise of magic if we suspend our disbelief.

This being a short film, the pay-off comes very quickly, although it has to be said that the ending is surprisingly open-ended. Vale positions itself as a romantic film of sorts by making it clear very early on that Victor, who not coincidentally is always wearing red (or showing off his strapping torso), has the hots for Rachel and by overtly referencing films about relationships, like Before SunriseLove Story and (admittedly, for a laugh) There’s Something About Mary.

Vale is too short and leaves us wanting more, but it is a gem of a movie that you can watch again and again and never grow tired of. Just like the Mediterranean climate in which their friendship blossoms over the course of a single day, these characters all have an irresistible warmth about them that makes us feel completely at ease, like we’re one of the gang.

End of Watch (2012)

Cameras are everywhere in End of Watch, a gritty take on the genre of police drama set in the City of Angels.

end-of-watchUSA
4*

Director:
David Ayer

Screenwriter:
David Ayer

Director of Photography:
Roman Vasyanov

Running time: 110 minutes

It’s all about the cameras. In End of Watch, a Los Angeles cop and his partner (sometimes in crime) patrol the city’s south side and have a lot to deal with, and police officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) decides to start passing the time by filming what the force does and how they do it.

This gimmick is not narratively grounded in some search for the truth behind the deeds; rather, it is all about participation, and the viewer doesn’t simply look at the events through the eye of Taylor’s camera but through multiple eyes, including those of surveillance cameras and helicopters flying high above the city.

The opening scene is shot from inside a police car, from the point of view of the dashboard camera that captures a chase, suddenly made vivid when the scene abruptly transitions from voiceover to very real-world sounds of racing through the backroads of a lower-class neighbourhood in South Central. When Taylor and his partner, Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), eventually catch up with the speeding perps, there is a shootout that ends with the runaways being shot dead, violently, in broad daylight.

Luckily, director David Ayer had the good sense not to limit his camera style to pocket-sized handheld, though we do get an awful lot of that. There are some significant problems with his choice of style at certain points in the film, top among these the music-video motif he employs during mass shootouts, undercutting the viewer’s feeling of being present at the scene of a crime.

Given the nature of the plot – large parts are connected not by story but by the central duo of Gyllenhaal and Peña, whose banter is lively, engaging and seemingly heartfelt – End of Watch‘s dependence on style is notable. However, save for the moments highlighted above, the approach and the composition of the film by means of precision editing ensure that the viewer never loses interest.

The actors were essential in this process, and their easy delivery of the lines makes for a very real feeling of camaraderie between them, a feeling that the filmmaker certainly counted on with the final moments in mind: The title refers to the death of a policeman, the end of his or her time on the beat.

Most of the day, Taylor and Zavala are out on the streets, driving from one end of their sector to the other, and spending that time talking about seemingly insignificant things that all end up tying them together as friends and partners. Making jokes about each other’s race (Taylor is white, Zavala is Hispanic) and the stereotypes that go along with the colour of their skins, they also talk about things more personal in their own lives, though the discussions are mostly limited to talk of either wives or girlfriends.

These friendly talks are woven into the situational structure of the screenplay, in which they respond to calls for help and follow their instincts, sometimes with good intentions but often with results that only demonstrate the problems produced by their unwillingness to be patient and let the law work itself out.

At times, End of Watch can be incredibly tense – a direct outcome of the film’s visual style. When Taylor and Zavala arrive at an empty house, the camera doesn’t show us any more than what the characters themselves can see. There are no surveillance cameras to warn them of imminent danger, and their (our) view is often obstructed by walls, doors and stairwells.

The process of joining the viewer to the camera is gradual, almost imperceptible, but during one of the film’s final scenes, the impact of having the images in front of us suddenly turn to noise is beyond words, as we realize what bond we have formed with the visuals and how close we have come to the situation and the characters depicted onscreen.

The film offers a novel approach to telling the story of policemen on the job, and, though End of Watch never soars to the level of Paul Haggis’s Crash, a project that also featured Peña, it certainly conveys the grittiness of being a cop and the fact that danger can lurk behind any corner. This is not a story about good cops and bad cops but about human beings who have to face not only the poverty of those they need to protect but also the inhumanity brought about by drugs and violence in a neighbourhood where these are often the only forms of stability.

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Complex narrative structure of Swedish ghost story is easy to follow and underlines actor-director Victor Sjöström’s impact on the development of the cinema. 

The Phantom Carriage / KörkarlenSweden
4*

Director:
Victor Sjöström

Screenwriter:
Victor Sjöström

Director of Photography:
J. Julius

Original title: Körkarlen

Running time: 110 minutes

The Phantom Carriage, a 1921 Swedish feature film directed by and starring Victor Sjöström as the boorish central character, may be the most intelligent film made during the movie industry’s first 25 years. Not only does it utilise double exposure in a sustained fashion that is rooted in the material itself and comes across very well, but it also flashes forwards, backwards and inwards with a Russian doll structure that very early on produces a story within a story within a story (i.e. a second-level hypodiegesis).

Offering a slightly different take on Dickens’s The Christmas Carol and its Ghost of Christmas Past, The Phantom Carriage is based on the eponymous novel by esteemed novelist Selma Lagerlöf, first published in 1912. It tells the story of David Holm, a bitter and malicious man who is killed just before the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve. Accompanied by Death, the carriage driver who collects the spirits of the dead, he has to look back over the past year and the events leading up to his demise. In his acts, he recognises how his recklessness and lack of care for those closest to him have led to desperation, suffering and tragedy, and this recognition eventually leads to a choice that could save him from eternal damnation.

The first 30 minutes of The Phantom Carriage easily constitute the most impressive part of the production, at least from a narrative point of view. Opening on New Year’s Eve, the film presents us with Sister Edith, a Salvation Army nurse afflicted with galloping consumption (tuberculosis) and lying on her deathbed. She desperately wants those around her to bring a man by the name of David Holm to her bedside, but no one – including his wife – is able or willing to find him. Holm gets quite a build-up, as his name is mentioned frequently, and the effect on the audience is one of enormous expectation.

This first half-hour contains multiple instances of parallel cutting to compare the sober scenes in Edith’s bedroom with the carousing trio of friends drinking in the town’s cemetery. Close to midnight, the focus shifts to one of the three men: He tells a story he heard about a late friend of his, Georges, who passed away one year earlier. Inside the flashback showing Georges one year earlier, yet another story is embedded, as Georges explains that Death allegedly trades places with whoever dies last during the year. And yet, the narrative hierarchy is very easy to understand, as the film eventually slides back through the different levels of narration one by one until it reaches the narrator in the cemetery.

At this point, however, the film takes another sharp turn. We learn it is David Holm telling the story, and after falling out with his two night comrades, he is killed and left for dead. Right on cue, Death arrives on the scene, snatches David’s soul from his body and then transports him (and us) back into the past to trace the journey of bad judgement that eventually led him here to the symbolically apropos graveyard. All the while, there are cuts back to David and Death (ghostly apparitions thanks to the double exposure) to remind us of the dynamic narrative hierarchy whose actions continue to move not only in the past but also in the present.

It is obligatory to mention that actor-director Sjöström would go on to star in one of Ingmar Bergman’s most celebrated films about life and death, Wild Strawberries, and it is impossible to ignore the resemblance between the two embodiments of Death in The Phantom Carriage and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Both wear black cloaks, and their faces are covered by giant hoods. They also carry a large scythe – the physical manifestation of their function as reapers of souls.

The film is at its best when it focuses sharply on Holm, particularly because his mere presence and unpredictable nature can evoke anxiety in the viewer. However, when the focus shifts to Sister Edith, who is possessed by a wholly unreasonable desire that Holm, despite his evidently malicious and uncaring nature, have a beautiful life, it is difficult to take the film seriously. Holm is responsible for Edith contracting consumption, and yet, while they have never had a conversation, she laughably calls him, “the man I love”.

It goes without saying that Edith’s “love” for Holm goes unrequited, but while she pines for him, our empathy for her drops precipitously despite the opening scene’s very successful juggling act of creating mystery and anticipation, as well as a measure of compassion for a bedridden stranger.

The Phantom Carriage is a gem of movie. It deals with serious issues in a novel way by being formally creative, in terms of both structure and visuals, and the nearly two-hour running time flies past at a relatively brisk pace, even though the scenes are generally longer than viewers of contemporary films might be used to. Sjöström’s Holm is the protagonist, the villain and a tragic anti-hero, and he delivers a powerful re-enactment of the Damascus moment at the film’s climax.

It is no wonder this film is often considered to be among the earliest masterpieces in Swedish cinema.

Oh Boy (2012)

Black-and-white jewel of a movie about the magic that can be found on a journey as mundane as seeking a cup of coffee lights up the screen with subtlety and emotional intelligence.

oh-boyGermany
4*

Director:
Jan Ole Gerster

Screenwriter:
Jan Ole Gerster

Director of Photography:
Philipp Kirsamer

Running time: 85 minutes

Alternate title: A Coffee in Berlin

Magic can happen, even in the most tedious of circumstances, even over a single day, and luckily director Jan Ole Gerster was there to capture it. The début film of this German director, Oh Boy, is a black-and-white work of art that vaguely calls to mind Woody Allen’s Manhattan but without the core of self-doubt that is so fundamental to the U.S. filmmaker’s oeuvre. It tells the story of a young man mired in indecision and passivity but into whose life the most startling and arbitrary but also incredibly evocative characters fall out of nowhere, and the director’s fine sense for subtle comedic timing is simply gorgeous.

Our man is Niko (Tom Schilling), who abandoned his law studies at the university two years ago and has had a spot of trouble with alcohol. His absent father, whom he sees once in a blue moon, is unwittingly sponsoring this life in stasis to the tune of 1,000 euros a month, but on the day we meet and spend with Niko, the ATM swallows his card, and his father informs him this is where he has to get off the gravy train.

Oh Boy is filled with moments that make us smile, even laugh, with unexpected humour. Niko goes to a film set with one of his best friends, Matze, to visit an acquaintance who is playing a Nazi soldier. The actor’s passion for his role is affecting but awkward, and we don’t quite know whether to laugh with or feel for him, but when Niko leaves the set and lights a cigarette with two actors, we briefly notice the costumes they are wearing: The one has a swastika on his arm, the other has the star of David over his heart. It is a moment of visual brilliance that is not held for effect but instead immediately lightens the mood after the heavy emotion of the previous scene.

One gets a clear impression that Gerster has put himself in the shoes of his audience. His images are beautiful, his characters are sometimes pathetic but always intriguing, and he often catches us by surprise with moments of unmistakable beauty, like the sequence of shots in which we see Berlin at a standstill. This is no mere visual flourish, although even if it were, it would be striking enough, but an important part of the narrative.

Another scene that both endears Niko to us and demonstrates how it is possible for us to be affected by the utterly mundane is the one between him and an elderly lady who speaks little but shares a moment of common understanding with him. When they hug at the end of the scene, having said very little but clearly having grown closer over the course of a few minutes, the hairs on our neck stand on end.

Because he is such a slouch (when, in the opening scene, he realises he is late for a meeting, he stays put for a moment to finish a glass of water), Niko should be much more objectionable. But perhaps we care about him because he seems lost, and we like him because the people around him are such idiots: His new neighbour brings him pretty disgusting meatballs and has a nervous breakdown in his apartment; Matze considers himself a great actor but his refusal to accept most parts means few people now take him seriously; and Julianka, a former school mate who used to be fat is now an actress who wants to make up for everything she missed out on at school.

There is a clear thread that runs through the film, connecting the various episodes of Niko’s day and night: coffee. He struggles to find a cup of coffee that is not too expensive, not too small, but just right, and there are many different reasons, both visual and rhetorical, why his struggle is a source of comedy for the viewer. By the time we reach the final shot, it becomes clear what the director’s motivation was for including this sequence of events, and in fact, the film’s title in some markets is A Coffee in Berlin.

Gerster is a weaver of dreams in black and white, and a master of playing with our emotions by deploying characters and situations that seem slightly unreal but never unrealistic or contrived, and Oh Boy is a breathtaking first feature.

Viewed at the Festroia International Film Festival 2014