The Ides of March (2011)

Never before has the second-oldest profession seemed quite as dull as it does in George Clooney’s The Ides of March.

ides-of-marchUSA
2*

Director:
George Clooney

Screenwriters:
George Clooney

Beau Willimon
Grant Heslov
Director of Photography:
Phedon Papamichael

Running time: 100 minutes

George Clooney’s The Ides of March is an adaptation of Farragut North, a play by Beau Willimon that focuses on a fictitious Democratic primary in the battleground state of Ohio.

The plot sees Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris running for the office of president of the United States. He has his campaign staff convinced he will be the next great hope for the nation, the one to “take the country back” – a phrase so hackneyed yet used with surprising regularity, and with even more suprising success, by political hopefuls – and he is neck-and-neck with his main Democratic contender, Senator Ted Pullman. When the race reaches the Buckeye State, it’s make-or-break time.

Although the genre of political films is varied, a lack of action is usually a bad thing, and so it is here. There are brief snippets of Morris’s interaction with potential voters along the way, a question or two during a debate or a town hall session, but by and large his positions and his personality remain a mystery to us.

Keeping in mind the title’s obvious, ominous reference to the fall of Julius Caesar (“Beware, the Ides of March!”), we wait for the storm to break over the head of the powerful Governor Morris. But instead of focusing on him, the film introduces his campaign team, headed by two top strategists: Paul Zara, the veteran campaign staffer and long-time supporter, and Stephen Meyers, the bright-eyed media whiz kid.

As expected in a film based on a play, the performances are all exquisitely modulated – in this case, to fit the dark mood of the narrative – and the actors sparkle in their restricted capacity. For Ryan Gosling, who plays Stephen, it’s a case of having nothing to do, but doing it rather well, while it is unfortunate that Paul Giamatti, who plays Pullman’s campaign manager, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as his counterpart on the Morris campaign, get equally little screen time.

The characters have a lot of potential, but in the end each has only one big confrontational scene, providing us with a mere taste of what could have been, had Clooney worried less about his gloomy display case and more about the exhibit itself.

There is nothing wrong with a decision to focus on the campaign staffers rather than the candidate they represent: In The War Room, a documentary that traces Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for the White House, his strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos provided long stretches of electric energy and entertainment. By contrast, Clooney’s film feels positively catatonic.

The first half of the film, a full hour, is mere setup of Morris’s political ambitions and his firm shot at the nomination. There is much talk of delegates, primaries and endorsements, but little is of any immediate consequence, and, for much of the film, save an all-too-brief interlude with his wife in a limousine, we only see fragments of the man.

This setup is tepid, and it is easy to lose interest until the revelation, finally, that Morris has been misbehaving with an intern. This discovery leads to major disillusionment on the part of Meyers and an expectation on our side that the film might stake out Lewinsky territory. It doesn’t, and things quickly take a turn for the melodramatic.

By that stage, many in the audience will have fallen asleep. The dialogue is much more directed at a political pundit than the average viewer looking for entertainment at the cinema, and for almost anyone unfamiliar with the American political system, the film may at times seem decidedly foreign. Considering the offhand allusions to donkeys and elephants, talk about primaries and constant references to K Street, the dialogue would likely be too difficult to follow at important moments.

The Ides of March suggests voters will ultimately be let down by their candidate, which is not exactly a novel insight. Clooney, taking up the roles of politician in front of the camera and filmmaker behind it, lets down the viewers by making a film that is much less engaging than political races in the real world.

God’s Own Country (2017)

God’s Own Country borrows so much from Ang Lee’s famous cowboy romance it should have been titled “Brokeback on the Moors”.

God's Own CountryUK
3.5*

Director:
Francis Lee

Screenwriter:
Francis Lee

Director of Photography:
Joshua James Richards

Running time: 105 minutes

Two strapping young lads herding sheep by day and making love to each other one night out in the field? Check. Do we see spit being used instead of lube? Yes. Is there an awkward silence the next morning? Absolutely. Does the one deliberately look in front of him while the other changes his underwear in the background? That, too. And is there evident yearning when one of them smells a piece of clothing left behind by the one who is no longer there? Yes, even that.

God’s Own Country, an often assured feature-film début by British director Francis Lee, borrows whole-cloth from Brokeback Mountain without adding much of its own, although the story has been altered slightly for the sake of updating and transposing Ang Lee’s landmark 2005 film to the grittier moors of the English countryside.

The central character here is Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a farm boy barely out of his teens, whom we first lay eyes on late one night when he is throwing up in the toilet bowl of his parents’ farmhouse in Yorkshire. The next morning, we learn this is a regular occurrence, and we soon realise why: In this small farming community, being gay is not yet entirely acceptable, and even though Johnny has frequent encounters (penetration, never kissing) with whoever locks eyes with him at the bar or an auction, the idea of a relationship with a man is a foreign concept to him.

His father has suffered a stroke and realises his son is not up to the job of taking on his role on the farm. Thus, a (presumably) low-paying position as a temporary farmhand opens up, and this is when a brooding young Romanian migrant, Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu, who looks like he could be Oscar Isaac’s brother) arrives on the scene, not without his own baggage. Things develop more or less as we expect, although these two characters are much more secure in their sexuality than Jack and Ennis the cowboys, their famous fictional counterparts from the early 2000s, who were admittedly a product of their time.

Lee’s handling of the relationship is very sensitive at the outset, and the two characters complement each other in just the right way: the immature Johnny, whose idea of the world only extends as far as the closest pub, has had plenty of sexual encounters but no intimacy, while Gheorghe, who has travelled to the United Kingdom on his own and seems much wiser about the ways of the world, takes on the role of both lover and father to the slightly awkward Englishman. The scene in which the two finally kiss, after much reluctance from Johnny, is paced just right and a striking testament to Gheorghe’s patience and tenderness.

Unfortunately, the film’s final moments are an absolute travesty – the kind of fairytale development that lessens the film’s thoughtfulness and is wholly at odds with the rest of the plot. It feels almost like it was tacked on as an afterthought for the sake of greater viewer satisfaction and commercial success, but the resolution to the climax’s dramatic complication is a myopic idea of romance that one character is too callow to deserve and the other is too good to concede.

The ending is a big disappointment, but the rest of the film does a good job of making the rough contours of a relationship seem less sharp-edged.

All in all, while the meaning of its title remains an enigma, God’s Own Country is mostly a compelling reworking of a tale we have seen before, and the reason lies primarily with the small group of very committed actors. Besides O’Connor and Secăreanu, Ian Hart as Johnny’s stern but paternal father and Gemma Jones as the devoted grandmother both warm our hearts with their candid but caring interactions with Johnny.

Viewed at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.

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.

Moonlight (2016)

In Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, three fragments of a life make up a fragmented whole that is beautiful to look at but remains opaque to the end.

USA
3*

Director:
Barry Jenkins

Screenwriter:
Barry Jenkins

Director of Photography:
James Laxton

Running time: 110 minutes

Despite the fat, the muscle and the facial hair they put on over time to create a facade of machismo or of adulthood, many a man is still the same scared little boy inside he was when he was growing up. This is about as deep as Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight goes, unfortunately, and while this observation is a constant theme throughout the film and comes through in various ways, there is less to this widely praised coming-of-age film than one might have hoped for.

Moonlight is a three-part story depicting the life of a sensitive young man, Chiron, who is prone to bullying and grows up in a single-parent household in Miami. In the three parts, which sketch his life as a boy, as a teenager and finally as a young man, Chiron is played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), all of whom bring sensitivity and a slight awkwardness to the role.

But the film’s most potent portrayal easily lies in the first part, and Jenkins seems to ackowledge as much in the opening shot: Juan (Mahershala Ali), a calm Afro-Cuban drug dealer in his late-30s, leaves his car to cross the street and speak to Terrence, an 18-year-old boy who works this street of the rundown Liberty Square neighbourhood for him. Terrence has clearly had his fill of drugs already and appears slightly dazed, but while he fidgets out of nervousness or fearfulness, Juan lazily puffs on his cigarette and asks him how his mom is doing. All the while, the camera drifts around them in an unbroken take, clearly suggesting that Juan is a bringer of peace and tranquility, an idea quickly made vivid when he sees and then saves Chiron, who is being chased by a group of bullies.

This initial encounter between the drug dealer and the taciturn boy, whose mother depends on drugs and makes money spending her nights in the bedroom, is unexpected, but Juan’s care is soon complemented by the evident compassion that his girlfriend, Teresa, has for the boy. This concern for Chiron’s well-being, which obviously helps him on his way to becoming an adult, is most pronounced in a beautifully written yet highly improbable scene in which Juan and Teresa explain, with the greatest tact imaginable, the meaning and implication of the word “faggot”, a word Chiron’s own mother used to dress him down: “‘Faggot’ is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” Although the intent is admirable, this moment set around the dinner table of a low-income drug dealer in the 1980s is wholly improbable – wishful thinking in a story that in all other respects clearly strives for realism.

Moonlight‘s most glaring fault is also its most appealing aspect for a wide audience: It tackles the issue of homosexuality very gingerly by using only one incident in each of the three parts to remind us that Chiron is gay; if not for these all too fleeting moments, we might have completely overlooked his struggle. The film includes only one sexual act, and it is shot from far away so as not to offend the non-converted. In this regard, the climax is particularly vexing because a nearly 20-minute build-up does not get the dramatic release we expect (and seek). Instead, it fizzles out entirely, and we’re left with nothing more than a very unsatisfying head-on-the-shoulder moment of intimacy.

The spectre of Juan, who only appears in the first part, hangs over the entire film, and in the final act, upon seeing how buff Chiron has become, dealing drugs and sporting the same gold grills as his late father figure, this moment of recognition hits the viewer with a pang of compassion. However much he seeks to emulate his hero, however, we quickly learn that inside the muscled body an emotionally insecure is still hiding, unwilling to engage intimately with those closest to him.

Except for the dialogue, which is so authentically rooted in lower-income Miami that is not always easy to follow, the film is immediately accessible thanks to its focus on a single character who ages in front of our eyes, albeit not as seamlessly as in the equally superficial Boyhood. Jenkins’s soundtrack raises the beauty and the grit into the artistic thanks to the inclusion of the Laudate Dominum movement from Mozart’s gorgeous classical piece “Vesperae solennes de confessore” and – at a pivotal moment – Caetano Veloso’s performance of “Cucurrucucú paloma”, best known from its appearance on the soundtrack of Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (Hable con ella).

In the end, the film belongs to the actors, who emote and elicit our empathy thanks to their faces, their silences, their hesitation and their humanity. Surprisingly, one of the best-known players, Naomi Harris, who stars as Chiron’s drug-dependent mother, Paula, is the only one whose acting veers into over-the-top hystrionics as she momentarily portrays a character we’ve seen all too often before from characters who are drug addicts.

Moonlight is a well-intentioned, meticulously shot film whose rich colours and sense of place unfortunately never translate into sustained action or robust character development. Chiron gazes without interacting, is diffident to a fault and (except for mimicking Juan) shows little appetite for opening himself up to new experiences. This reticence ultimately leads to precious little progress and produces a film that merely pretends to be complex but is nothing of the sort.

The Danish Girl (2014)

Tom Hooper’s Danish Girl, which tells an important story about a historic, groundbreaking gender transition, struggles to confront its own identity crisis.

UK
3*

Directed by:
Tom Hooper

Screenwriter:
Lucinda Coxon

Director of Photography:
Danny Cohen

Running time: 120 minutes

The Danish Girl, which was 2014’s much talked-about transgender movie, puts on a very strange face right at the outset, for no apparent reason. Given the title, one would expect the film to open in Denmark, and indeed it does, except the landscape is about as un-Danish as one can imagine. Instead of the ever so slightly rolling countryside, we see giant mountains rising up from the coast. In fact, despite the plot (and this scene!) being set in Denmark, these mountains are in western Norway’s Møre og Romsdal county. For a film that is supposed to be all about its main character’s true nature, this is an absolutely unforgivable and truly puzzling moment.

The sudden fame of Caitlyn Jenner over the year immediately preceding the release of the film had catapulted transgender individuals onto centre stage at about the same time as the rest of the LGBT family was finally granted the opportunity to marry, on an equal footing with all the rights and responsibilities of heterosexual marriage, in the United States. Jenner was praised in some quarters and reviled in others by both gay and straight people alike, but it is rather obvious that the central character in The Danish Girl, Lili Elbe (born Einar Wegener), was chosen because she was the first person ever to undergo sex reassignment surgery — nearly 90 years ago — and because she is much more likable than Jenner.

Even if the film stupidly deceives us with its opening (and closing) visuals, the story of Einar (played by the very suitably delicate-featured Eddie Redmayne) accepting his inner Lili has the advantage of being both true and topical. It is a story that will find a certain audience, but the reasons are unfortunate. For one, there is very little drama, both internal and external. The film contains only a single scene of violence committed against Einar because of his sexually ambiguous features and provides precious little insight into his moments of self-doubt or self-reflection. He writes a diary to make sense of his feelings, but we never discover what he writes.

Luckily for him, but unfortunately for the film, there is surprisingly little drama in his marriage, too. Einar, an artist, is married to a fellow painter, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who appears to care for him so deeply that she simply accepts her husband’s transition almost without blinking an eye. While her response is unquestionably loving and beautiful, it also removes any drama that might result in a better understanding of the situation from either side.

The major challenge here is to get the audience to fully appreciate the situation from Einar’s point of view. Despite his feminine features, he appears to be living a happy life with Gerda in the early 1920s, even though they have been trying without success to have a child of their own. Early in the film, Gerda asks Einar to pose for her in women’s clothing so that she can add a final touch to one of her paintings. Embarrassed, he acquiesces, and then he suddenly has a eureka moment with the fabric as he is stroking it across his skin.

Before long, he is wearing his wife’s clothes under his own, putting on makeup and dressing up to go out into the world as Lili. Gerda is a little surprised but not entirely shocked, until she discovers Lili has been seeing a young man, Henrik (Ben Whishaw), for companionship. While the viewer can come up with reasons for this behavior, the film does not provide them and instead glosses over any discussion of them entirely.

We get small but very simplistic hints to fill in Einar’s back story — for example, Gerda relates how she propositioned him on their first date, how she kissed him, instead of the other way around, and how it felt like she was kissing herself. The writing here is utterly transparent and about as helpful as having a gay character say he once played with a doll when he was a boy.

The story starts to pick up once the couple relocates to Paris, where Einar gradually starts to mimic the gestures of the women around him in order to appear more feminine when he behaves as Lili. Here, Einar/Lili and Gerda also meet up with Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), a childhood friend of Hans’s, who brings some much-needed complexity to the story line.

The film’s desire to be accessible has watered down the emotional turmoil that one would expect from Einar/Lili and Gerda. Its depiction of the many doctors who fail to understand Einar’s condition, each of whom comes across as vile if not sadistic, is just as ridiculous. At other times, shocking revelations are not followed by the expected conversations but rather by ellipses that are incredibly frustrating because the director does not have the stomach to show us how the couple argues.

The Danish Girl brought the world the story of a groundbreaking icon of the movement for acceptance of (unconventional) sexual identity, but its reliance on suggestion rather than a rich narrative and sturdier characters undermines its own significance. While the film is far more capably directed than Hooper’s laughable Les Misérables, it never comes close to the sheer whirlwind of passion that so vividly brought his The King’s Speech to life.

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.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Another Tom Ford film, another drama set mostly inside a character’s head, but this time, the passion the director showed in  A Single Man is lacking and has been replaced by recurring removals of reading glasses.

Nocturnal AnimalsUSA
3*

Director:
Tom Ford

Screenwriter:
Tom Ford

Director of Photography:
Seamus McGarvey

Running time: 120 minutes

Once again probing the mental world of his main character, as he did with equally sumptuous visuals in A Single Man, Tom Ford follows up his much acclaimed début feature with another intimate psychological work, titled Nocturnal Animals. Taking a stab at metanarration, Ford evokes fear and anxiety in the viewer rather than any serious empathy for the characters, but instead of being emotionally engaging, this thriller is curiously superficial.

Opening at an exhibition with gorgeously composed full-frontal videos of corpulent elderly women dancing like cheerleaders in slow motion, the film quickly establishes the artistic surroundings of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), the gallery owner. She seems melancholy and unfulfilled despite the show’s indisputable success and would later call it “junk, total junk”. (As a sidenote, I would encourage filmmakers to steer away from such descriptions of art in their films, as it makes the reviewer’s job of finding a pithy label for the relevant film way too easy.) Late at night, she returns to her carefully curated mansion with clean lines full of grey and black in the Hollywood Hills. Shortly after her car pulls in and the gate closes behind her, a dark-brown classic Mercedes pulls up.

The following morning, her butler shows her a package that has been delivered overnight. It is an as yet unpublished manuscript that shares its title with the film and is written by Susan’s ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t spoken to in nearly 20 years. From this point on, with her dapper husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), away on business in New York City and making little effort to keep it a secret he is cheating on her, Susan immerses herself in the novel, which is ominously dedicated to her.

In the very first shot depicting the action of the novel, we see the same dark-brown classic Mercedes, which is an easy but effective way of signalling to us that this tale is going to be rooted in Susan’s world; more specifically, the story is artistically autobiographical for its writer, Edward. The main character, Tony Hastings (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal), is leaving on holiday for West Texas with his wife and daughter, but on the way there, they are pulled off the road by a gang of young men who seem to be drunk but are likely just slightly psychotic.

Calling to mind the stunningly intense beginning of Andrew Neel’s Goat, Nocturnal Animals presents a scene of emotionally taxing (although at times too lengthy and repetitive) action that demonstrates how Tony’s timidity and desire to avoid conflict eventually results in a reluctance to be aggressive in protecting his family, a hesitation that quickly leads to tragedy. The point of contact between the two very different films, however, is the similarity in people’s reactions to this event: In both films, we feel with the intimidated victim as he is bullied or coerced into doing something he doesn’t want to, although the assailants never use a physical weapon of any kind. And in both films, people told of the altercation react with surprise that the victim did not fight back.

Gyllenhaal embodies a character we can wholly relate to despite his evident fear and confusion about the inexplicable violence committed against him and his family and his uncertainty about whether and how he should retaliate. This is something Tony Hastings struggles with until the climax, and even then he is far from comfortable acting in a way that makes logical sense but goes against everything he believes in.

It should be obvious from this short description that the story-within-a-story set in Texas is far more interesting than its shallow Los Angeles counterpart, despite Ford’s flimsy attempts at creating interlocking visual transitions, which for the most part compare very badly with those in a similarly themed film such as Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. In Daldry’s film, the point of the transitions were often to connect characters in ways that were immediately recognisable, with every shared tick creating a bond between people in a purely cinematic fashion. It made the viewer privy to private but revealing moments and left her feeling empowered in a way that is unconventional but wholly within the domain of the cinema.

Ford’s film, by contrast, while dutifully producing a disparate smattering of transitions (bright red lights, similar surroundings, an L-cut) in an attempt to bridge the chasm between the two worlds, is far less sure of itself. It half-heartedly suggests points of contact, but the traces are few and far between and would demand repeat viewings to unpack, if they even exist, thus making immediate enjoyment all but impossible.

Often, the cut is simple, but it always returns to the same laughable image: a shaken Susan on her sofa with the manuscript in her lap, removing her thick-framed glasses as a way to calm herself and return her to her immediate surroundings. Amy Adams is a wonderful actress, but the over-repeated earnestness loses its initial power and quickly devolves into a caricature of earnestness.

Ford manages to tie things up rather neatly with the climax in the hypodiegesis, although the diegesis, which is also split up into a past (read: flashbacks) and a present, is a different matter altogether. The final scene of Nocturnal Animals is truly a missed opportunity, as a melancholy wait replaces what could have been a forceful punch in the gut: What if Edward had shown up but was played by someone other than Jake Gyllenhaal?

Arrival (2016)

Arrival makes its mark with an ingenious use of the concept of time and a curious portrayal of aliens, but the soppiness of a central relationship is this work’s major flaw.

ArrivalUSA
3.5*

Director:
Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriter:
Eric Heisserer

Director of Photography:
Bradford Young

Running time: 115 minutes

Despite its ever more sentimental bent and its simplistic good guy/bad guy dynamics, Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction film Arrival is a cleverly constructed tale of first contact between humans and aliens and has a satisfying twist at its core.

The twist has to do with time, and more specifically with viewing events not in bits and pieces advancing from A to B to C, from one day to the next, but as an all-encompassing whole seen all at once. In this way, the domino effect is no longer at play, and cause and effect disappear into a new space-time continuum that until now had been illustrated the best by the “Cause and Effect” episode of the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, which depicts the shaping of the present thanks to future events being anticipated through contact with the past.

The film’s emotion-laden opening sequence, which introduces us to single mother and renowned linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), quickly moves from one beat to the next as her baby daughter grows up and turns into a teenager before suddenly falling ill and dying of a rare illness. This episode is firmly in our heads not only because it kicks the narrative into gear but also because Villeneuve returns to it again and again and again throughout the rest of the film. But while Banks’s recollection of these moments is perceived as melancholy memories, something else is happening, and we have to recalibrate our sense of time in a clever way.

The idea of viewing a story – never mind one’s own life – as a whole rather than in its constituent parts is an intimidating proposition, but such an approach is central to communication (and action) in Arrival, because the aliens that arrive in their gigantic grey shell-shaped pods and touch down in a desolate expanse of land in Montana communicate in precisely this way.

Their signs consist not of distinct words but of circular signs that convey a complete overview of both meaning and feeling and can range from the basic to the hypercomplex. And for Banks to understand their message, her brain needs to start thinking about life in such a way, too, affirming the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that language also transforms our perception of life itself. Thus, by acquiring a language that sees the beginning and the end rolled up into one, she starts seeing her own life that way as well, including events she is yet to experience.

Of course, she needs a foil in the shape of research partner and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Renner’s part is woefully underdeveloped, however. Beyond wanting to jump straight into asking the aliens about Fibonacci numbers without understanding that mathematics is not a particularly useful language for basic communication, he appears not to do all that much except support Banks on her surprisingly successful English as a Foreign Intergalactic Language course with the aliens. These two are sent by the government to ascertain the purpose of the visit by the aliens, which have landed at 12 spots on the globe but remained hidden inside their shell-shaped spacecrafts.

Villeneuve, whose film has traces of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, particularly in the scoring by master composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, with whom he also collaborated on Sicario, uses Steven Spielberg’s well-known technique (from Close Encounters but most famously from Jaws) of delaying a major introduction. The aliens themselves (which, unlike in most other films, are not particularly anthropoid but look very much like the spider in Villeneuve’s Enemy, albeit with seven instead of eight legs, thus earning them the label “heptapods”) are almost never completely visible.

But more generally, the director does not do justice to the intelligence of his story. He beats the relationship between Banks and her daughter to death with too many inserts while failing to convey Banks’s perception of the frequency of these images. But with the exception of a life-changing, humanity-saving flash-forward in the final act, an exception that proves the rule, he doesn’t cast his net any farther to provide other interesting examples of using consciousness about time past, present and future in an unexpected way.

Villeneuve, who captured the suspense in Sicario so well, is surprisingly inept when it comes to creating tension, and he creates a Hunt for Red October moment by having the camera point straight at a team member who will betray them all. And he does this not once but multiple times. In fact, it is much more blatant than the infamous introduction to the cook (later revealed to be a traitor) in John McTiernan’s 1990 film.

The film has some beautiful moments, including the already mentioned flash forward during the climax, as well as a voiceover delivered by Renner to explain the heptapods, much like he is narrating a documentary about them years into the future. But its presentation of the global collaboration and suspicion between the groups trying to investigate the aliens is incredibly stilted, and when we hear that the Sudan is planning to attack the aliens, it is difficult not to burst out laughing.

The sentimentality in Arrival may be a bit much to stomach, and there are simply too many inserts with Banks and her daughter, but the flexibility of time and the way in which it is made visible in the film bring us another perspective that might just trickle down into other science-fiction films in the future.