These Are the Rules (2014)

Pain, anguish and confusion are at the heart of this Croatian film about two low-income parents who are incapable of coping with tragedy. 

These Are the RulesCroatia
3*

Director:
Ognjen Sviličić

Screenwriter:
Ognjen Sviličić

Director of Photography:
Crystel Fournier

Running time: 75 minutes

Original title: Takva su pravila

Perhaps the best way to create tension is to have a character ask those questions that we, the viewers, are also thinking but that we know cannot be answered, at least not by those in the scene. In Croat director Ognjen Sviličić’s absolutely heart-wrenching These Are the Rules, a mother and father have to deal as best they know how with the sudden death of their only son, Tomica (Hrvoje Vladisavljević). The mother, Maja, keeps asking very basic questions that the father, Ivo, cannot answer, and this frustration ultimately leads to an arbitrary act of catharsis for them, but not for us.

The 17-year-old Tomica is consistently unwilling to share his life with his parents, who have grown used to him being holed up in his room. He gets beaten up and chooses to hide his bruises from his parents, especially the overprotective Maja, but he eventually relents and lets them take him to the doctor, even though he initially scoffs at his mother’s suggestion of getting stitches. But soon he falls into a coma and then into an eternal sleep, and we quickly come to share the parents’ sense of despair at this predicament they are in because their son sought to shield them from what seemed like unnecessary worries.

The rest of the film is relentlessly bleak, and the dread that starts to set in following Tomica’s hospitalisation at the end of the first act is easily on par with the emotion evoked by a similar plotline in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. In the case of Sviličić’s film, however, there is no dramatic breather provided by cutting away to other stories, and the knot in the pit of our stomachs never goes away.

Ivo and Maja are low-income Croats living on the outskirts of Zagreb. Ivo is a bus driver, while Maja appears to be unemployed. They reveal themselves to be out of their depth when it comes to not only handling their son’s secretive behaviour but also searching for meaning following a tragedy like the one they are thrust into when their son passes out while drawing a bath. Sometimes, the setting is to blame (overcrowded hospital waiting rooms, especially, as well as medical personnel who blatantly – and in this case, fatally – disregard the urgency of their patients’ conditions), but at other times they simply do not have the experience to ask the right questions. Their lack of engagement is not directly to blame for their son’s untimely demise, but it makes the process of coping so much more difficult, because there are no satisfying answers when they don’t know which questions to ask or whom to ask for help.

It is entirely understandable that the events leave them in shock, and the father’s decision to tell people things are not particularly serious is a lie whose purity of purpose the viewer should recognise (and sympathise with) immediately. But his and his wife’s inaction in the face of trauma leave us pining for help to arrive. They visit the police station to report the attack on their son, but instead of explaining the severity of their situation, they relate the events calmly to the officer and leave without any real prospect of a serious investigation. The same happens at the hospital and at the morgue, where they receive life-changing news without any detailed explanation or advice from a professional. Their response is always either to be inactive or to talk around the problem by asking questions that are inconsequential.

Despite the director’s well-chosen approach of frustrating the viewer with traumatic stasis, however, the climax is wholly unsatisfying because it plays out more like a dream than the grim reality full of obstacles we have come to expect. While the violence in the final act makes sense on paper, it is committed in a void: a public space that someone has no witnesses that could incriminate the aggressor. It is a fantasy, and its inclusion in the film goes against the pain and confusion at the core of the film.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.

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.

Between Valleys (2012)

In film about the same man (or is it two different men?) in divergent situations, hysteria takes away from what could have been an insightful take on how similar we are.

between-valleysBrazil
3*

Director:
Philippe Barcinski

Screenwriters:
Philippe Barcinski
Fabiana Werneck Barcinski

Director of Photography:
Walter Carvalho

Running time: 80 minutes

Original title: Entre vales

The two men look identical. One is an economist and lives with his wife and child in a nice house in São Paulo, Brazil. He is called Antonio. The other, looking much more haggard but otherwise an exact copy of Antonio, works on an enormous rubbish heap outside the large metropolis and sleeps wherever he can. His name is Vicente.

Between Valleys (Entre Vales) cuts between the two characters throughout its 80-minute duration, running out the clock by making us ask more and more questions about the two characters’ relationship to each other. Director Philippe Barcinski also uses his camera in a peculiar way that emphasises the instability of perception when it comes to a specific object, but in the end we can feel satisfied that we have been given all the information we were looking for.

The film’s pre-credits opening scene shows us Antonio (played by Ângelo Antônio) drunk behind the wheel of his car, racing down an empty road in the dead of night. We don’t know who he is yet, but this does not bode well for the character. The first scene after the credits comprises many shots of workers on a seemingly endless landfill, as truckloads of rubbish are being dumped and spread out over a vast area, and the workers scurry across the discarded trash in seemingly random patterns, picking here and there and salvaging a piece of plastic that can be exchanged for a few reais from the recycling companies.

But before we can know what this scene means, Antonio appears with his son a short distance from the site to inspect a potential location for a new landfill. Antonio seems to have it all, but over the course of the film, he will lose almost everything that he values and end up drunk in the car.

At the same time, we see the journey of Vicente, who works on the landfill but whose beard is surprisingly short for someone who appears to be homeless and who has little knowledge of the operations on the landfill. Who is this man? Is it really Antonio, at some point in the future or maybe even the past? Will we eventually see at what point Antonio became Vicente or vice versa?

These are questions that are at the forefront of our minds as we watch the film, and the film has few surprises. The two worlds collide forcefully at critical moments, as Between Valleys tips its hand very heavily by cutting back and forth between the two characters, showing the one to be shaken by events in the other one’s life.

In the end, we do get an answer, but the truth of the story is not really the goal of the director, as by the time we reach the end, we will already have formed a very clear understanding of the notion that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, the character arc is not entirely believeable, but it is certainly more palatable than the two scenes of hysteria that first Antonio and then his wife provoke. These two scenes actually do more harm than good to the characters, as we may easily have empathised with them, had they not wallowed in their grief with such extravagance and persistence.

But Barcinski’s one visual trick that has some weight has to do with the presentation of his close-ups of a model of a landfill, which Antonio constructs with his son. The shots often rack in and out of focus, and although we at first have no idea why such shots were allowed to appear in the film, toward the end of the story, we come to realise the full significance of this approach.

Between Valleys is not an extraordinarily thoughtful film, and its moments of high emotion elicit no such feelings in the viewer, but it is an enjoyable and unsophisticated portrayal of the unexpected course a life can take as the result of tragedy.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013

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.

Buried (2010)

Buried [2010]USA/Spain

2.5*
Director:
Rodrigo Cortés
Screenwriter:
Chris Sparling
Director of Photography:

Eduard Grau

Running time: 95 minutes

A high-concept like almost no other, Buried has an immensely ambitious premise that will draw throngs of viewers interested in seeing whether the film could possible find a way to deal with the restrictions it imposes on itself. It is a restriction of place, as the entire film takes place in a very small space: a coffin underground, inside which the main character wakes up during the black screen that opens the film.

While Quentin Tarantino played with the same idea in Kill Bill: Vol. 2, the audience will be right to wonder whether an entire film following the same approach could be as entertaining. But the actor playing the role also has to be up to the task, as he has to carry the entire film on his shoulders, and has to keep our attention for the full 95 minutes of the running time. The film therefore makes us ask two very important questions: Does the film overcome its self-imposed hurdles, and does the actor hold our attention?

The answer to both, unfortunately, is ‘not really’. However, the film does immediately grab our attention, as we wonder whether the man we find in close-up, Paul Conroy, will escape from his coffin, and how he will manage to do that. That opening black screen, during which we share the actor’s disorientation and fear, is also a wonderful way to start, but what the film fails to do is stick to this approach. Instead, perhaps as a way to make us forget about the tiny space, director Rodrigo Cortés and his director of photography, A Single Man lenser Eduard Grau, employs very fluid tracking shots that circle Conroy’s body, trapped in a tight space we lose track of because of the ease with which the camera moves about.

The actor is Ryan Reynolds, not exactly known for serious roles. This was obviously meant to be Reynolds’s big break from his comedy and superhero work, with many a close-up letting us understand his frustration and despair when a single tear streaks down his cheek. But even though his situation would seem to be easy to empathize with, Conroy is not exactly a likeable character, as anyone offering him assistance on the other side of the line gets a response that doesn’t seek to convey anything other than hysteria at his own situation and the expectation that he will snap his fingers and others will locate and save him. On the other hand, his interlocutors, for the most part, are equally annoying, as they keep on asking him how he ended up in a coffin and how he phone them if he is so far underground. These conversations lead nowhere and become repetitive very quickly, suggesting the dialogue was mostly made up on the spot.

Conroy doesn’t seem to be very clever, either, as he continues to use his lighter to illuminate his surroundings, even when there is no particular need to do so, except to keep an audience used to seeing images at the cinema satisfied. Of course, the lighter won’t last forever, and while this may create some tension with the viewer (who knows there will come a point at which the lighter will fail, perhaps to the utter surprise of Conroy), it also speaks volumes about how stupid Conroy is. Except for humanitarian reasons, there is no reason why we would like to see Conroy survive this ordeal. At best, we expect to see how far underground he is, or where he finds himself.

Buried was obviously made on a very tight budget, although oddly there are a few stylised shots, including one that features a cutaway of the coffin, that seem to want to release us from the feeling of claustrophobia the film obviously elicits. This approach is difficult to understand, as the director undermines the very basic idea that Conroy must be saved within a small amount of time because he will run out of air, and so might the audience. Instead, Cortés lets his camera dance all over the place, including capturing panoramic 360-degree shots inside the confined space that ought to give us an impression of suffocation, not liberation.

There are a few uncomfortable silence and utter darkness, but these are too sporadic to have any real effect on the film, as they seem to be added almost as an afterthought. The heavy breathing, coughing and shuffling in the darkness with which the film opens set the tone, but that tone is crushed when the camera reveals a man stuck in a coffin but having a camera (the audience’s point of view) that can easily move around inside the space.

Buried could have been a very impressive effort to involve an audience ready to sympathize with a man stuck in a tight space, but we cannot, because the character is so bad and we simply don’t have the same experience of fear that he is supposed to feel. Also, since when does alcohol burn the way methanol burns? Or is our hero drinking methanol? There are many questions here that indicate a film badly conceived around a rock-solid central premise. This was not Ryan Reynolds’s big break, and unfortunately the stylistic excess would be repeated in the Cortés-produced Grand Piano.

Margaret (2011)

Superlative performances make director Kenneth Longeran’s gloomy comeback, released more than half a decade after shooting, a charm.

MargaretUSA
3.5*

Director:
Kenneth Lonergan
Screenwriter:
Kenneth Lonergan
Director of Photography:
Ryszard Lenczewski

Running time: 150 minutes

By the time Margaret was finally released, it had aged so much it had probably passed its expiration date already.

Shot in 2005, it took a full six years before this film saw the light of day and was finally released for distribution. One of the main reasons for the delay was director Kenneth Lonergan’s insistence on a three-hour running time. Given enormous opposition on the part of the distributors, Lonergan eventually relented, and in the end his film is 150 minutes long.

Two and a half hours is an ambitious length for a film whose plot can easily be summarised, and although the film evinces much of Lonergan’s skill as a storyteller, it doesn’t do him justice as a filmmaker. One of the best films of the first decade of the 21st century was his début feature, You Can Count On Me, a masterpiece of contemporary cinema that has a small story about infidelity and sibling rivalry and first made critics sit up and notice Mark Ruffalo.

Ruffalo makes a return in Margaret, though his brief presence is a great disappointment: He plays a significant role in the development of the film and yet he appears only in two short scenes — both in which, it must be said, he delivers a performance worthy of enormous praise.

Taking its title from the eponymous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that speaks of grief and a child’s response to the concept of death as it is represented by dead leaves, an emotional reaction as strong as an adult’s reaction to the death of a friend, or of oneself. The poem is very appropriate, as it encapsulates the essence of the film’s plot very accurately.

Lisa (Anna Paquin) is a sharp-tongued teenager living with her mother and younger brother in the Upper West Side in New York City. She will soon join her absent father (played by Lonergan) on a trip to New Mexico and decides to try to find a cowboy hat somewhere in upper Manhattan. She fails, until she notices a bus driver wearing one on the job. She runs after the bus, waving to get the driver’s attention, but the driver only waves back, and not paying attention, he runs a red light and crushes a woman pushing a shopping cart over the road.

When the police ask Lisa whether the light was red at the time of the accident, she looks over at the bus driver (Ruffalo) and when he looks back, she takes it as a sign there is silent complicity between them, and she decides to protect him by saying the light was green. But she is deeply affected by the woman who was run over, a woman who slipped the surly bonds of Earth while lying in Lisa’s arms, and she tracks down the woman’s family.

But Lisa is a piece of work. She is a bit of a stereotypical teenage girl, with all the drama and snotty retorts to her mother that go along with it, and she always tries to ensure she has the upper hand in conversations, even if that upper hand is (usually) gained with sarcasm. She is immature even as she verbally abuses and bullies many people around her, breaking hearts and testing their good will towards her. Over the course of the film, she steamrolls many men in her life, and many women, including her mother, are also terribly hurt. The film is a good companion piece to Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, a film that navigates with an equally despicable but more vulnerable teenage protagonist, though Margaret lacks the latter film’s tight focus.

The film is not always easy to watch, but Lonergan finds raw emotion in the everyday details of New York that are dark but not without hope and presents that emotion with compelling clarity. Sometimes he veers a bit too far toward so-called gritty realism by inserting seemingly random fragments of footage into his scenes — a ferry on the Hudson here, a seagull soaring over Central Park there — but these moments do not contribute as powerfully to the viewer’s impression of realism as the cast’s performances.

Unfortunately, the film’s release puts it at a slight disadvantage, as the obviously significant events of 9/11 and the Iraq War seemed outdated upon its release, though the theme of revenge, for the death of one woman on the street, or thousands in the two World Trade Centre towers or in the Middle East, is obviously very relevant to the plot itself. This objection will certainly fade with time, and perhaps the film can be more fully appreciated after an interval of another six years.

Margaret is, if not a brilliant piece of cinema, at least another affirmation of Lonergan’s talent as a screenwriter and artist of human emotions. Paquin plays her vile character with great passion and supports the equally superlative cast, from J. Smith-Cameron, who plays her mother, a theatre actress, to side characters like the happy-go-lucky Paul (Kieran Culkin).