By the Sea (2015)

Intimate story of crumbling relationship, directed by Angelina Jolie (Pitt), is pure self-indulgence for director, not the viewer.

By the SeaUSA
2*

Director:
Angelina Jolie Pitt

Screenwriter:
Angelina Jolie Pitt

Director of Photography:
Christian Berger

Running time: 125 minutes

Do you remember the scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Second World War–set Inglourious Basterds in which U.S. Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt, attends a film premiere in Nazi-occupied Paris and pretends to be an Italian? “Bahn-dzhohr-no”, he says, oblivious to the deep Southern accent that escapes his lips and thus turning an otherwise tense moment into comedic gold.

By the Sea, a film set in the 1970s on the French Riviera and directed by Pitt’s wife, Angelina Jolie (who on this production is credited as Angelina Jolie Pitt), poses a similar issue for the actor, but this time his accent is not played for laughs, and that is a big problem. The words leave the mouth of his character, Roland, without a problem, and there is no hint of the accent he played up in Tarantino’s film, but his inarticulate speech is near incomprehensible to the French-speaking viewer. And yet, his French interlocutor, a bar owner named Marcel (Niels Arestrup), does not bat an eye. Perhaps he is used to his clients mumbling.

The rest of the film is also a mess. Angelina Jolie Pitt has never pouted more in any of her roles, and that is saying something. She stars as Vanessa, a former dancer and Roland’s wife of 14 years, who spends all of her time in their hotel room, motionless on the bed, with a tear slowly rolling down her check, or looking out onto the cove in front of the villa-esque hotel, or draped over the furniture, or catching some sun on the balcony while sporting obscenely big sunglasses.

The story is way too small for the two-hours-plus running time: Having recently been through a devastating tragedy that the film acknowledges in one of the first scenes and then makes unnecessarily explicit nearly two hours later, the couple temporarily relocates to the South of France so that Roland, a novelist, can write his next big work. No prizes for those who can guess the title in advance. But he spends most of his time getting drunk at Chez Marcel while a depressed and heavily medicated Vanessa fades into the wallpaper.

Luckily for Vanessa, she discovers a peephole in their wall and starts spying on the newlyweds next door, living vicariously through their sexual gymnastics as she misses out on such intimacy in her own life. As time passes, Roland joins her, and they do grow closer, although the painful episode in their lives remains unaddressed until it is almost too late.

The images are absolutely stunning, and so is Jolie Pitt’s wardrobe, but the richness of the physical exteriors cannot make up for the sad emotional interiors that never get properly fleshed out. Instead, Jolie Pitt piles on the visuals, with some striking editing (including a magnificent cut from the couple in bed at night to Roland alone in bed in the morning) and very brief but repetitive and ultimately ludicrous inserts of indefinable liquids that supposedly give a sense of Vanessa’s state of mind.

One of the few good moments occurs almost as an afterthought. While the main contrast is between Roland and Vanessa on the one side and their neighbours, the French couple, on the other, Roland also meets up with an elderly couple on a bench at the water’s edge one day. The conversation is very short, but the affection and understanding these two people have for each other are immediately obvious.

We catch a glimpse of them again later at the bar, where they are holding hands and talking like the good friends they continue to be after decades of marriage. The loquacious but sensitive Marcel also tells Roland how much he misses his wife who recently passed away, and all of these stories serve to isolate Roland in a bubble of melancholia that he resists by ordering drink after drink.

At the heart of the story, however, is the stasis and the decay of Roland and Vanessa’s relationship. Early on, the camera blatantly tells us where the hurt lies, when Vanessa goes grocery shopping and sees a child, whose innocent face we see in close-up … twice. Unfortunately, the tension fades into the background as neither Roland nor Vanessa wants to address the nagging strain on their marriage, and no one ever raises their voice until very late in the final act. Vanessa starts to play a game she does not understand, Roland becomes jealous, and they try to grow closer again by watching a kind of porn: the French couple’s raunchy workouts.

By the Sea is certainly not as bad as Guy Ritchie’s laughable Swept Away, but it is far off the mark. Drowning in stylistic flamboyance and with a narrative that is spread very thin, the film shows that its director, as she made clear with Unbroken, has enormous talent for visual showiness but lacks the skills to keep us interested when the story falls short of its extended running time.

Boyhood (2014)

Childhood and adolescence are explored in film that was shot over more than 10 years with the same cast.

boyhoodUSA
3*

Director:
Richard Linklater

Screenwriter:
Richard Linklater

Directors of Photography:
Lee Daniel

Shane Kelly

Running time: 160 minutes

Sprawling but not unwieldy, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood takes the eventful but not overly dramatised life of an ordinary teenager from a broken home to construct an epic tale of one boy’s slow transition to manhood. His role models – a mother whose many husbands always end up drinking the relationship into calamity and a father who doesn’t hold a steady job and seems to be entirely carefree – don’t have the strongest or the most ambitious personalities in the world, but they form him nonetheless in their own ways.

Linklater shot the film over an unusually lengthy period of time (from 2002 until 2013), using the same trio of actors at its core: Ellar Coltrane as Mason Jr., Lorelei Linklater as his older sister, Samantha, and Patricia Arquette as their mother, Olivia. Ethan Hawke also features in many of the scenes as the children’s biological father, Mason Sr., who has already divorced Olivia by the time we meet them all in the opening scenes.

Obviously, Boyhood’s peculiar production schedule is the primary reason many readers will be intrigued to watch it. But another, related rationale better explains the attraction to the film: The process of aging has been compressed into 160 minutes, and time flows much more quickly, perhaps too quickly, as we come to realise towards the end, when we sympathise with Olivia during the most heartrending moments of the production.

While it lasts, as Marcus Jr. says, the present is “always right now”: That is what we deal with. It is only at the end of a sequence of these moments that we can take a step back and consider the history of our lives, however long or short they might be, and appreciate the people who have been there with us through it all.

But the first act already points towards a life of memories that might not be shown but are unequivocally present in the lives of the characters. It is a powerful moment when the family ups and moves from their small town to Houston, selling their house and repainting the inside, including the years of pen markings of the children’s heights in the door frame that vanish with the stroke of a brush.

With a title like Boyhood, one would expect the focus to be solely on Marcus Jr., but the importance of his mother’s turbulent life, tied to and impacting his own, becomes more and more clear as the film progresses. Despite the many years of them living together, the inevitable cutting of the chord still comes as a punch to the stomach, as we realise she has kind of been taken for granted.

The film contains many beautiful moments, perhaps the best of which is captured in a long, unbroken take (calling to mind the work Linklater did with Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunset, the opposite of this film in that it took place in a single afternoon) between Marcus Jr., walking back from school, and a girl on a bicycle next to him. The girl is teasing out Marcus’s feelings for one of her friends, Lee Anne, but in the process of a single camera take, we see these two actually ought to strike up a relationship. The moment is comparable to a short but strong exchange in You, Me and Everyone We Know, as we see an entire world can change within the space of a few words exchanged between people who were strangers when the shot started.

Overall, however, the film has a meandering quality that many viewers might find frustrating. We don’t have any sense that the story is going anywhere, except that time is passing, and everyone is growing older. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but in terms of content, there is no clear issue that needs to be resolved or question that needs to be answered.

Many would argue this is what life is like, and that may be true, but Boyhood would have benefited from having a tighter focus on the narrative as it relates directly and visibly to the development of Mason’s character. Furthermore, Mason is simply too nice to relate to, especially over such an extended period of time. He never seems to do anything he feels bad about, or anything that embarrasses him. A scene with bullies at school goes nowhere, and Linklater patches up the boy’s frustration with his drunken stepfather’s decision with ellipses that show off spectacular scenes of conflict rather than seething scenes of anger, which are sorely missed by their absence.

It is also understandable and even commendable that Linklater didn’t show too much of his own daughter growing up (she plays Mason’s sister), but we lose any indication that she has much of a relationship with her brother, a bond that could have supported or undermined the boy in a way that would almost certainly have been successful with the audience.

Boyhood may be original, even unique, in its treatment of the teenage years of a single character by the same actor, but the final product feels too much like a documentary about a mostly ordinary family, leaving us with the question why the director felt so compelled to tell their story. Yes, people grow old and experience ups and downs, and usually they don’t grow as wise as the other movies tend to suggest. Is that an insight that warrants a running time of 160 minutes? Time will tell.

Viewed at the 2014 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Paris of the North (2015)

Subtle comedy set in far reaches of Iceland’s cold Westfjords has warm heart with likeable (but not entirely lovable) characters.

paris-of-the-northIceland
4*

Director:
Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

Screenwriter:
Huldar Breiðfjörð

Director of Photography:
Magni Ágústsson

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: París Norðursins

“The one who travels the farthest knows the least”, the middle-aged Svanur tells the 37-year-old school teacher, Hugi (Björn Thors), who is a recovering alcoholic. The men live in a tiny, secluded village on the coast of north-western Iceland. Hugi copes with his addiction by attending weekly AA meetings with his sponsor, Svanur, and Svanur’s son, a deadbeat dad named Richard who plays in a band and spends most of the day smoking a bong. These meetings with three people who introduce themselves to each other again and again has an absurdist quality that sets the tone for much of the film. Also, that quotation is from Lao-Tzu and seems comically out of place in the vast, desolate landscape of the Westfjords peninsula.

All of this is about to be upended, however, when Hugi’s nomadic father, Veigar (Helgi Björnsson), phones him up out of the blue, and he is too reluctant to say no to him coming over from Reykjavik. But the very first glimpse we get of the father does not bode well. When he disembarks at the airport, he stands on the runway and lights up a cigarette. Also, he is carrying a large cage with a dog inside.

With Paris of the North, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, the director of the minimalist but hugely entertaining Either Way (Á annan veg) — remade as the equally engaging English-language Prince Avalanche, by David Gordon Green — has created another very compelling film whose characters are likeable but not entirely lovable. And it is this delicate balance, along with beautiful sequences of tracking shots showing Hugi running to the surprisingly haunting sounds of Richard’s band, that makes the film such a consistent pleasure.

Guarding over all of their quirky ways is Thorfinnur (Þorfinnur), a mountain that seems to rise up out of nothingness. But while the mountain never moves, many of the characters are uneasy with the place they have reached in life. Hugi is yearning for an ex-girlfriend, Helena, who has moved to Portugal. He is even learning Portuguese, but his phone conversations with Helena provide no reason for optimism. His father, Veigar, has spent some time in Thailand, buying and selling a bar and fathering a child in the process. Richard’s ex-wife, who used to date Hugi, is now flirting with Veigar. Everybody is unmoored, seemingly lost and adrift.

While Hugi, at least for a while, finds some company by kicking around a football with one of his students, the 10-year-old Albert (Haki Lorenzen), who not coincidentally is also Richard’s son, this clearly cannot be what his life will be like, and he recognises this all too well.

What he needs is an intervention of sorts, and not the one that AA sponsor Svanur wants to stage when he fears Hugi may have fallen off the wagon. He needs to make a life-changing decision, based not on his obsession with his former girlfriend but on something else – perhaps himself. It is a difficult journey, especially because everybody sees (and tells each other) how good he would be as a father, but being responsible in one aspect of one’s life does not mean everything is sorted out.

Paris of the North conveys both the beauty of the majestic Thorfinnur and the grubby streets of the former fishing village that lies next to it, and it shows characters straddling the line between the safety of mediocrity and the desperation of repetition. Love or lust often pose a challenge for the characters to make the right decision, but in the end, they do find an answer that works, one that may initially be sad but is emotionally satisfying and feels just right. Director Sigurðsson has a fine career ahead of him.

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

Sparrows (2015)

Rúnar Rúnarsson’s second feature film provides an emotionally resonant look at a teenage boy’s coming of age on Iceland’s majestic Westfjords peninsula.

sparrowsIceland
4*

Director:
Rúnar Rúnarsson

Screenwriter:
Rúnar Rúnarsson
Director of Photography:
Sophia Olsson

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: Þrestir

The first time we see the teenage Ari’s face, he is singing in a 28-boystrong choir in Reykjavik. The hall in which they are performing is stately and white as snow, and as the rays of sunlight hit his neck, we see what appear to be light tufts of down. This boy is still very much an innocent angel, and although he will mostly remain that way for the duration of the film, the situations he is confronted with become ever more complex as he gradually learns what it is to be a man.

Sparrows (Þrestir), Rúnar Rúnarsson’s second feature film, doesn’t cover the usual bases of a coming-of-age story. Yes, in this case there is a divorce, an absent father, his first sexual encounter and so forth, but Rúnarsson’s perceptive eye for teenage politics in general and the loneliness of an outsider in particular, as well as frequent dips into melancholia that wash over the pale, almost inexpressive face of the main character, make this a wonderful glimpse of one boy’s life in the wilderness.

Said wilderness is Iceland’s Westfjords, the country’s large peninsula to the northwest, where cliffs rise up sharply out of the ocean and appear to be much more imposing than their actual height would lead one to believe. The town where almost all of the action is set is the hamlet of Flateyri, although shots of nearby Bolungarvík also make up the fictional town here. Everyone here knows each other, but this familiarity is worlds removed from Ari’s former life in the capital with his mother, who has now upped and moved to Africa with her Danish husband.

In spite of the talk of hunting, the fighting and the sex, it ultimately becomes clear to Ari that being a man does not mean being macho. Being a man does not even mean one has to be responsible. However, it does entail dealing honestly with one’s own shortcomings, and that is why the film’s final image – an intimate hug between two men – is ultimately so incredibly powerful. On three occasions, the ethereal sounds of a piece of music by Kjartan Sveinsson lift Sparrows into the realm of the transcendental, flawlessly complementing the religious songs that Ari sings on multiple occasions, including, most strikingly, all alone inside a giant water tower. His solos bring almost heartbreaking calm to the turmoil that we know he is experiencing on the inside.

The film has countless small moments that are not highlighted but stand firm as milestones that line Ari’s journey towards maturity. While there will be a great deal of focus on a particularly traumatic scene late in the plot that will have the viewer’s stomach churning with empathy, other smaller incidents are equally important. Ari’s father, Gunnar, who has drowned his sorrows in alcohol since divorcing Ari’s mother, is ill-equipped to take car of his teenage son on the cusp of adulthood but out of sorts in this new landscape. Every moment that Ari considers unique is somehow spoiled by his father who has a similar moment with other characters, from having sex with the same woman to sharing a jacuzzi and even the house with too many other people.

Throughout the film, the towering cliffs – their feet often shrouded in mist – are ever-present, seemingly about to overwhelm the insignificant figures in the foreground. In fact, our very first impression of the area is a shot of the tiny airplane flying almost too close along the fjord walls before landing at the airport in Ísafjörður. This image is followed almost immediately by a shot of Ari waiting for his father, as he has done for much of his life, at the arrivals gate.

While main actor Atli Óskar Fjalarsson is very good, the only letdown is the scenes when he is supposed to express violent rage, which unfortunately comes across as somewhat contrived. This issue is perhaps understandable given that these moments turn very sharply away from the general trajectory of the plot and the overall restrained behaviour of the character. The quieter scenes, of which there are many, are much more convincing and more effective at drawing the viewer in close to Ari.

Sparrows are never seen nor spoken of, but the title most probably refers to the small birds because of their biblical meaning of being among the smallest and least valuable of animals while nonetheless still cared for and watched over by God. While this explanation is informative, it is unclear why the title takes the plural form.