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.

Sicario (2015)

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

sicarioUSA
4*

Director:
Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriter:
Taylor Sheridan

Director of Photography:
Roger Deakins

Running time: 120 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring Breakers (2012)

Nipples, mounds of flesh galore in this love letter to drunk and unruly teenagers spending their spring break in hedonistic Florida.

spring-breakersUSA
3*

Director:
Harmony Korine

Screenwriter:
Harmony Korine

Director of Photography:
Benoît Debie

Running time: 90 minutes

If blond teenage girls watched more James Bond movies, they’d be able to better spot a bad guy. One giveaway, which the girls in Spring Breakers discounted, proving an unfortunate lack of wisdom: The bad guy often has metal teeth. In this particular film, he also sports corn rows, raps to pleasure-seeking spring breakers and makes his money the same way his idol Scarface did: with lots of guns and drugs.

This film is a very superficial depiction of slow-motion, sunlit hedonism, complete with an orgy of alcohol and the odd lesbo-curious moment between two or more drunk girls, usually writhing together to make the men around them even more horny. At the end of the film’s first act, the girls encounter Alien (James Franco), said rapper with the metal teeth, who has taken a liking to them and bails them out of jail when they are arrested at one of the city’s many locations where hedonism is taking place en masse.

The rest of the story, which luckily runs only 90 minutes in total, goes downhill fast, as some of the girls decide to head back home, having seen too much they can never unsee, while the survivors get lured in by Alien’s devious ways, his money and his power. However, unlike the mediocre drug film Savages, the characters that stick together show very little depth, and we skip from scene to scene with very little sense for the danger in which the girls find themselves.

This artifice afflicts the entire film, which plays more like a music video than anything else. There are numerous flash-forwards, which don’t really make us curious about the direction of the story as much as they disrupt our desire to have some grip on the sequence of events. At the beginning, the viewer may easily find herself wondering whether this will all turn out to be a dream, or perhaps just a side effect of all the liquor we see young people downing, often through a funnel.

It all starts in a small town in the South, where four girls with little money and fewer prospects desperately want to get out of this hell hole of a place and make it to spring break in Florida, where all the other kids their age have headed. The three blond girls (whom, by the end of the film, I still couldn’t tell apart) decide to rob a store with a sledgehammer and a squirt gun, and when they are successful they approach the naïve churchgoer Faith (Selena Gomez) and take her along for the ride to St. Petersburg, Florida.

A believer of the goodness in people and in things she cannot see, we hear Faith often speaking on the phone to her grandmother about what a spiritual place Florida is, how nice the people are and how she wished to come back the next year to spend spring break with her.

Naturally, Faith will be the first one to either get hurt or be wholly disillusioned by the experience, or both, but while director Harmony Korine could have used this for dramatic purposes, he dumps her character as soon as she has second thoughts about spending time with the smooth-talking Alien.

In the role of Faith, Gomez is better than expected, although she has too many annoying bits of dialogue that overtly explain how unhappy she is in her home town and why she had her heart set on spring break.

The film refuses to dig below the surface, and in the end the girls who end up enjoying the high life the most are the ones whose actions have them led them to next to no moral reflection.

Many sequences are stretched beyond their limits – most prominent among them the slow-motion opening scene that may or may not be a fantasy and another in which a drunk Alien accompanies himself on the piano as he contemplates his troubles.

But there are also two excellent scenes: the robbery, staged in a single take as the driver circles the building, so we can see everything happening through the windows; and a cleverly edited swimming pool scene in which the camera constantly dips below the water level but when it seems to rise up out of the water again there are no droplets on the lens. The film also delivers a constant sense of impending doom by adding the sounds of guns being loaded to the soundtrack at unexpected moments.

Spring Breakers is almost exactly what you would expect: a silly little movie about drunk girls who like to party and eventually party so hard they end up living with a drug lord. If you’re into boobs and many slowed-down close-ups of gyrating, thonged bottoms, you might like it. If you watch films for their stories, you’ll be disappointed.

Savages (2012)

An unconventional relationship takes a backseat in Oliver Stone’s dissapointingly conventional film about the drug business.

savagesUSA
3*

Director:
Oliver Stone

Screenwriters:
Shane Salerno

Oliver Stone
Don Winslow
Director of Photography:
Dan Mindel

Running time: 130 minutes

Drug films are usually all the same. The build-up shows one or two likeable stoners lounging on a beach dreaming of making it big, so they start off with their knowledge of fine weed and hatch a business plan that ultimately makes them so rich they don’t have any space left in their house to put all the cash. Bunkers full of genetically engineered supermarijuana appear below the house, but, before they know it, the friends have turned on each other, there is some big shootout, and everybody loses.

Oliver Stone, the director of significant films in the 1980s and 1990s who hasn’t been at the top of his game since the landmark projects that were JFK and Natural Born Killers in the early ’90s, has fashioned a drug film that feels slightly different from the others, but not much.

The central relationship – two guys and a girl – in Savages is the film’s most important hook, but while it sets up a nice bit of drama, the questions it raises (or rather, the questions some of the characters raise about this romantic combo) are never addressed. Only near the end of the film, as the two guys drive towards a meeting place in Southern California, not far from the border with Mexico, do they finally express their love for each other, but, despite the camera swirling above them, this exchange has nothing on Thelma and Louise‘s famous final moments.

The girl in the trio, O. (Blake Lively, who acts like she’s being fed her lines through an earpiece), believes her living situation is perfect, because she shares her life with these two attractive men who seem to share her willingly with each other. But, as the crime boss Elena (Salma Hayek) makes clear in one of their heart-to-heart discussions, they very likely share her only because she means less to either of them than they mean to each other. But nothing comes of this very convincing insight into the men’s psychology.

 

The two men, botany and business graduate Ben (Aaron Johnson) and former soldier in Afghanistan Chon (Taylor Kitsch), have grown some of the most potent marijuana anyone can produce, thanks to the fusion of Ben’s green fingers and Chon’s sticky fingers (he brought back some premium seeds from a tour in Central Asia). They are running a multimillion-dollar business, but Ben wants to move on and invest more in helping children in Africa.

Chon isn’t quite sure what he wants yet and spends the day, as O. puts it, giving her orgasms, while he just has “wargasms”. No, this is not the informative nor informed kind of writing one would expect from Stone, but perhaps it is not entirely out of place in this genre.

Despite their not being sure exactly where they stand – both with each other and the small business they run – they go to a meeting with a representative from a nasty-looking Mexican drug cartel, whose skills in the art of decapitation are well-known. The Mexicans make them an offer they plan to refuse, but, before they can start a new life elsewhere, O. is taken prisoner, and her life remains in the balance until the end of the film.

Elena, the head of the cartel, is a woman who seems to be in complete control of her business, one she inherited from her late husband. Hayek is unimpressive as the drug queen, and the black wig on her head in this film makes her look a bit like Elvira, though without the semi-beehive. The viewer is kept in suspense throughout as to whether her soft-spoken demeanour is actually just cold-heartedness or whether she is genuinely vulnerable, as suggested by the fraught relationship with her estranged daughter.

Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta also star in the film, both playing to type, the first as a drug dealer, the second as a bent cop also heavily involved in the trade, though one shouldn’t underestimate Del Toro’s character, who, despite a very bad mullet, can dispatch his enemies at the drop of a hat.

Savages starts with O. telling us, “Just because I’m telling you this story, doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it.” Stone has a nifty surprise in store for his audience at the end of the film, as a big twist is suddenly twisted out of shape even more. The film will give you your fix of mellow drama punctuated by sudden acts of violence, particularly when Del Toro wields a pistol, but overall the film lacks a vision for depicting with real insight the drama of the drug trade and the three young people caught up in it. We don’t get any real joy out of the characters using drugs, but nor do we get a firmer grip on their lives beyond their smoke-filled bubble.

Oslo, August 31st (2011)

Norwegian wunderkind director Joachim Trier’s second feature is devastatingly intimate as it gracefully follows its main character, a former drug addict, around the capital for one life-changing day.

oslo-31-augustNorway
4*

Director:
Joachim Trier

Screenwriters:
Eskil Vogt

Joachim Trier
Director of Photography:
Jakob Ihre

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: Oslo, 31. august

The silence that bookends wunderkind Joachim Trier’s slightly ethereal but always solidly grounded Oslo, August 31st is potent. It channels our curiosity more than our emotions, but it also envelops this powerful film about life post-addiction in a soft bubble with a core that is complex and deeply felt.

The main character, 34-year-old Anders, does not even speak a word until more than 10 minutes into the film. By the time he does, however, we have already seen him try to commit suicide by weighting his clothes with rocks and walking into the river à la Virginia Woolf. He backs down and – in another subtle moment of bookending, this time intra-scenic – the camera, which has stayed on him throughout the scene and without cutting away, tracks back across the waters to the river bank. When he comes back out, we see he has lost his jacket, and this loss of a level of protective clothing is the first layer whose disappearance eventually reveals a man terrified of rejoining society.

The framework within which the action takes place is the special day, August 30, for which Anders has received permission to travel into Oslo. After an extended period of time recovering at a drug rehabilitation clinic, this marks the first time he is able to return to the city of his former, wilder self. While the purpose of his visit is to go for an interview at a magazine, he takes the opportunity to meet up with an old friend, Thomas.

Once they meet, the film suddenly reveals itself to be something very special indeed. “I’m a spoilt brat who fucked up”, Anders admits to his friend, who has recently become a father and thus part of the mould of the city’s social fabric, unlike Anders, who is single and whose clinic is located outside the city limits. Not coincidentally, Thomas is wearing a shirt while Anders has on a much more informal grey T-shirt.

The two men’s conversation is pointed and lightly skims over issues of life and death. They know they have to discuss these things, but they don’t quite know how. Above all, their words make it clear that Anders’s opinion of himself is scraping rock bottom. Thomas is kind and understanding, and he tries his best to be supportive, but he is walking on egg shells around Anders, and when his friend suggests he might commit suicide, Thomas is so stunned he has no idea how to react. These scenes, taking place on a peaceful summer morning in a park in the city centre, bring with them a mixture of tenderness, nostalgia and desperation whose power takes the viewer’s breath away.

Their meeting ends on a slightly surreal note, as the moment of their separation, albeit with the faint prospect of seeing each other at a party later in the evening, is replayed in front of our eyes. The result is both ominous and strikingly beautiful, as we can just about feel time slipping through our fingers as it turns from reality into a memory.

This first social interaction of the day, meant to console Anders, brings with it a surge of feelings that taint the rest of his day. Even though he arrives at the interview and appears to be connecting on an intellectual level with the magazine’s editor in chief, when the questions turn personal, he experiences intense humiliation and retreats into himself. It is one of the saddest moments in the film, as we realise that the possibilities are plentiful, but for Anders the greatest obstacle is overcoming the broken image he sees when he looks in the mirror. He doesn’t want anybody’s pity; what he really wants is a solution, but one that still makes him feel good about himself.

It is hard to ignore the sadness at the heart of Oslo, August 31st, especially during those moments when Anders looks at the people around him blissfully going about their lives, seemingly without a worry in the world. These scenes lead to a voice-over contemplation – heartfelt yet tinged with melancholy because of their absence – of his parents’ role in forming his life. 

The rest of the story develops with Anders walking on a knife’s edge as he tries to be the same guy as he was before, but different. A planned meeting with his sister doesn’t go as planned, and when the late-night party offers old friends who haven’t changed much, the past catches up with him. This final act is by far the most disappointing aspect of the film, as it veers towards territory we expect rather than the original, meticulously crafted dialogues, interactions and styles we relished up until this point. 

Anders Danielsen Lie shines in the lead role as his namesake. Determined to somehow make it through the day in a city he knows like the back of his hand but in a state that frequently has him on the verge of tears, the character is deeply affecting, even when the answers to our questions are often opaque. Trier’s film draws strength not only from the director’s empathetic view of humanity but also from Danielsen Lie’s sensitive performance that draws deep from the well of emotions inside the actor and washes over the story (and us) with the force of a silent tsunami.

The Snake Brothers (2015)

Two brothers – one addicted to drugs, the other yearning to be his own boss – make the most of their limited means in the bleak Czech countryside.

snake-brothers-kobry-uzovkyCzech Republic
4*

Director:
Jan Prušinovský
Screenwriter:
Jaroslav Žváček

Director of Photography:
Petr Koblovský

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Kobry a užovky

Petr, aka “Cobra”, is in his 20s and unemployed in Kralupy nad Vltavou, a town just north of Prague in Central Bohemia. He dyes his short hair purple, and in the opening scene we find him walking down an empty street with bolt cutters on his back. He notices a semi-abandoned wooden house and decides to empty it of its electrical appliances. Shamelessly, he piles them into a trolley – in full view of the gobsmacked neighbour – before heading back out.

His older brother, Vojtěch, aka “Viper”, is working in a factory but often arrives late because he so frequently has to deal with the police who phone him up at night when Cobra causes a public disturbance, yelling from the rooftops about his latest “plan”. Viper is tired of the factory work, exhausted because he is not sleeping enough and fed up with being told he is not pulling his weight. He tells his employer to go jump in a lake and makes his way to the nearest pub.

The Snake Brothers was directed by Jan Prušinovský and stars real-life brothers Kryštof and Matěj Hádek as the two fictional siblings. The characters in Prušinovský’s film have little chance or ambition to escape the closed cycle of existence in their small town, but the director is never too hard nor too soft on them, and sometimes their desperate acts can be simultaneously heartbreaking and humorous.

The main thrust of the narrative concerns Viper’s steady trajectory towards control, as he opens a clothing store and works hard to make it successful. His evolution into a master of his own destiny is helped, in no small part, by his unexpected decision to seize the moment and address a group of German businessmen in German, a language he hasn’t spoken since his East German father left the family years ago.

At the same time, Viper has to contend with Cobra’s ever-fried mental state and proclivity toward kleptomania in order to finance his cocaine habit. He also has to deal with his lazy shop assistant, Zuzana, who is unfortunately the wife of his best friend, Tomáš.

Although the relationship between the brothers is obviously front and centre in the film, Tomáš is easily one of its most interesting characters. Actor Jan Hájek channels a man who is focused, sensitive and patient, and he is perhaps the only person in the story whom the viewer can truly admire, although Viper has by far the most complex personality. 

Dialogue tumbles like a dirty river out of the characters’ mouths. In fact, they might just be the most foul-mouthed of any film this year (unfortunately, the English subtitles don’t fully convey the power and the unfailing filth of the original Czech), but our attention always remains riveted to what they are saying, and how they are saying it.

The language, sometimes comical but often used by people in desperate situations, is complemented by actions that are similar in kind and work wonders to prevent the audience from feeling like they are falling into the characters’ abyss of desperation. In one scene, for example, Cobra steals a phone from someone’s handbag at a party. The victim sees him, but instead of assaulting him in response, the lady merely takes back her phone and returns it to the handbag.

It is a small moment that elicits a big laugh and shows that the people around Cobra have understanding for him. He is not a threat to their existence, and while he is utterly irresponsible, there is no need for trumped-up drama to entertain us. In this case, on the contrary, it is the unexpected lack of drama that sometimes provokes our amusement.

What sets this film apart from other similar depictions of desperation in the Czech countryside (Zdeněk Jiráský’s incredibly affecting 2011 feature film Flower Buds / Poupata comes to mind) is that while it has many moments that appear to suggest a future of near-hopelessness for its central characters, the filmmaker does not put them through hell just to make a point or to stun us with despair. The scenes of Cobra getting wasted or going to the local gambling den to waste the money he has stolen from a vulnerable member of his family remind us of the constant monotony and melancholy in which he finds himself.

The final scene brings with it a shocking revelation that we don’t see coming, as we realise one of the central characters has become the replacement for one of the most despicable individuals in the film. To some extent, we are happy there has been development but mournful over the direction in which this has occurred for this person.

The Snake Brothers is presented very tightly with some highly commendable decisions made in the editing room, especially one late-night act of larceny that involves a television set.

Far from being the gloomy and/or uneventful work that similar features often want to be (like Flower Buds and Nowhere in Moravia / Díra u Hanušovic, respectively), this is a strong tale told by a storyteller in total control of his material, complemented by a wonderful soundtrack.

Viewed at the 2015 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 

The Counselor (2013)

A drug war on the border does not produce the most original of storylines, but the raunchy film certainly includes its fair share of brutality.

counselorUSA
2.5*

Director:
Ridley Scott
Screenwriter:
Cormac McCarthy
Director of Photography:
Dariusz Wolski

Running time: 115 minutes

Novelist Cormac McCarthy is known for his sombre vision of humanity, and the two best-known films made from his work, the Academy Award–winning No Country for Old Men and the harrowing post-apocalyptic The Road, were both shrouded in a suffocating pessimism about the direction of the world.

Such pessimism is on minimal display in Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, which doesn’t even have a touch of the McCarthy melancholy we would expect. Instead, the images are crisp, imbued with a stark clarity that is wholly at odds with the clumsy narrative. Although the content is far from joyful, and the film contains countless scenes of people getting killed whom we would have preferred to see alive, the overwhelming sense of doom of the other two films is almost entirely absent from this one.

The titular “Counselor”, otherwise nameless for whatever reason, is the main character. Irishman Michael Fassbender brings an indefinable and entirely appropriate accent to the role, providing him with just the right amount of enigma. He is a lawyer who lives a happy life in the border town of El Paso, Texas, and has just proposed to his girlfriend, the fragile and religious Laura, played by Penélope Cruz.

The utopia of their existence soon disappears, however, when he decides to take part in a drug operation that is high risk but even higher reward. The risk becomes real when, because of a few coincidences that stretch back all the way to his appointment by a court to defend a murderer in a Texas jail, the cartel suddenly has the Counselor in its sights, and the cartel should not be messed with.

Members of the cartel engage in an escalating torrent of violence, and their preferred method of killing someone invariably seems to involve decapitation. In the first scene between the Counselor and drug lord Reiner, an unlikely friendship that is never explained, Reiner mentions a device called the bolito, which is a motorised decapitation device that, when we inevitably see it used, produces thick blood splattering directly onto the camera in a way we haven’t seen in a long time, if ever, in a film that is not a comedy.

Scott struggles with tone, as his characters can be both funny (we need look no further than Reiner’s cold-hearted girlfriend, Malkina, having an orgasm while making love to the front windshield of his Ferrari) and ruthless, but the ups and downs are never smoothly stitched together. Reiner, one of the most important individuals in the narrative, always seems out of his depth, with much of his dialogue consisting of three words: “I don’t know.” And yet, he is supposed to be the big kahuna in the area.

The Counselor isn’t much more eloquent, and a surprising number of his lines invoke the Almighty. But God is nowhere to be found in this wasteland of a film. Not that Scott is incompetent, but we simply cannot relate to these people whose relationship with each other is vague and whose motives for acting the way they do are never examined.

In one of the opening scenes, the Counselor has flown from El Paso all the way to Amsterdam – just to buy a ring for his fiancée, mind you – where he has a long, recognisably McCarthy-like talk with the diamond dealer about the brevity of life. It is more of a monologue by the dealer (not coincidentally played by Wings of Desire’s angel, Bruno Ganz), and it would look great on the page, but in this beast of a film it feels out of place and quite silly. 

Cheetahs pop up onscreen from time to time, perhaps as a reminder that we should be mindful of those creatures that are graceful but can incite terror and inflict terrible harm to those who are not as fast or as clever. Although in some ways it resembles the cheetah, the film is also closely aligned with the jackrabbit, as it scurries hither and thither in a vain struggle for survival before the ineluctable bloodletting.

For all the commendable sensitivity Fassbender brings to his role, his character is simply too weak to even know where to start managing this situation that is only somewhat of his own making. He lacks the wisdom of those in Ciudad Juárez whose help he seeks late in the film – people who have spent their lives reflecting on the fragility of life.

The Counselor does not look or feel like the other big films that have been produced from McCarthy’s work, but that is not its only fault. Except for the mostly superfluous meditations on life and death, not dissimilar from Tommy Lee Jones’s droning in No Country for Old Men, it brings nothing new to the type of film we already know about drug-running across the border.

Madame Courage (2015)

Taciturn, troubled Algerian teenager steals necklace from girl to finance his drug habit, but upon seeing her face, he develops a crush that quickly escalates into unwanted devotion.  

madame-courage

Algeria/France
3.5*

Director:
Merzak Allouache
Screenwriter:
Merzak Allouache
Director of Photography:

Olivier Guerbois

Running time:
90 minutes

Original title:
مدام كوراج
Transliterated title:

Mdam Kuraj

The teenager at the heart of Madame Courage is a boy with many troubles, but it is difficult to dislike him. With high cheekbones, a gaunt face, full lips and big eyes that expressionlessly stare straight ahead, Omar lives in a squat with his mother and older sister. Despite the constant stream of religion-based indictment of debauchery broadcast on the family’s television set, his sister Sabrina is involved in prostitution, which their mother appears to sanction for the sake of having food on the table.

The thing the taciturn Omar is most focused on, however, is not food but drugs. The title refers to the name popular among Algerian youth for Artane, which helps Omar to disconnect from reality. He always carries a plastic bag in his pocket filled with these tablets and slides one of them down his throat when the going gets tough, which makes him look like a zombie most of the time, and he buys these pills with money obtained through thievery on the street.

Having established the criminal side of his life in the opening chase scene taking place late at night through deserted streets, the film’s second scene shows him grabbing a necklace from around a high-school girl’s neck before running off. She is devastated, as the piece of jewellery had belonged to her late mother, and her friends comfort her in the relative safety of a café in downtown Mostaganem. By chance, Omar walks past the café a few moments later and is about to enter when he notices her. The rush of the grab having receded by now, he watches her face more intently and is mesmerised, so he decides to follow her home.

The film never offers any real insight into this fascination that Omar has for her (her name is Selma). He doesn’t know she has lost her mother, and she doesn’t know that he has lost his father. However, because of the instability at home, Omar decides to start spending as much time as possible waiting for her next to a rubbish dump in front of the apartment she shares with her senile father and older brother, a policeman. For obvious reasons, the brother makes it clear he doesn’t want Omar around, but there is something about the boy that greatly intrigues Selma, and even though they never speak a word to each other, the teenage sexual tension between them is unmistakable and handled with great sensitivity by director Merzak Allouache.

Small digressions from the story line, which include a sub-plot with Omar’s sister, Sabrina, and her pimp (who, it appears, is always supposed to marry her) and Omar’s continued life of petty crime are always connected to the main character, who is present in almost every single scene. The hand-held camera further lingers on him to emphasise his presence as the focal point of interest, for example by framing him in the middle of the shot when he is driving his motorcycle. This latter image allows us to see him as being immobile against a mobile background, which is a perfect visual depiction of his life in general.

The relationship, or association, between Omar and Selma is mysterious and beautiful, although one cannot help but wonder whether the chances of them ending up together would ever amount to more than the fantasies Omar likely conjures up when he is high on Madame Courage. This is not exactly Pickpocket, but Selma’s arrival in Omar’s life certainly has a positive effect on him. Her brother, Redouane, is one of the film’s more complex characters, and while he obviously wants to protect his sister and can use the powers afforded to him as an officer of the law to do so, he does not abuse his authority (despite a moment of offscreen violence) but instead seeks to find out what Omar is thinking, which makes him something of a substitute for the viewer.

Although far from comprehensive, Madame Courage offers a striking glimpse of life on the streets of a lower-class teenager in Algeria who has to combat feelings of loneliness, protect himself and his family and deal with the struggles of being a teenage boy infatuated with a girl.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

 

Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express 2Hong Kong

5*
Director:
Wong Kar-wai
Screenwriter:
Wong Kar-wai
Director of Photography:
Christopher Doyle

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: 重慶森林
Transliterated title:
Chung Hing sam lam

Chungking Express has boundless energy, revels in repetition and is quite simply one of the most absorbing films ever made. This may be the only film made by director Wong Kar-wai that I have ever enjoyed (with the possible exception of Fallen Angels, released in 1995), and it is because whatever stylisation takes place always serves to propel the story forward. There is never a dull moment. The repetition is aural, not visual, and although often slightly manipulated, the images are infused with a gritty Hong Kong realism and feature two of the most likeable cops you’re ever likely to see.

These two cops are #223 and #663, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, respectively, and they both suffer from broken hearts. Their tales are told in two separate story lines, with the Midnight Express fast-food stall serving as the only solid connecting thread between the two. 

The film has one of the most exhilarating opening scenes I have seen in my life. The images jump off the screen, and for a while we are blinded, not by the visuals, but by the music. Michael Galasso’s “Baroque” cranks the action forward with rhythms and sounds that immerse you in a world that is audibly — and then, you notice, visibly, too — in motion. Coming after about 1 minute of opening credits (simple white text on a black screen) in complete silence, the score hits a nerve.

The pictures we get are also different from what we’re used to. A step-printed sequence of images (which means the 24 frames per second shot by the camera were altered in post production to unspool at the same speed, but every second frame has been duplicated, and every other frame discarded) makes for dizzying action, captured with a mobile camera that seems to move both more quickly and more slowly than we are used to from the world around us — or, for that matter, the worlds we know on film. The step-printing process is used again at various points in the film, and it continually succeeds in adding another layer of frenzy to a film that positively throbs with adrenaline in the stiflingly humid, concrete jungle that is Hong Kong.

The action in this first scene, and elsewhere in the first story, takes place at Chungking Mansions, a marketplace where everything can be found because every colour and creed on the face of the earth seems to be hawking their wares here.

In the first story, Cop #223 — whose name, He Qiwu, is only mentioned at rare intervals — has just broken up with his girlfriend, May, whom we never see. He hangs out at Midnight Express, a fast-food joint, almost every night, where the manager (played by “Piggy” Chan Kam-Chuen, who was the film’s still photographer) tries to set him up with girls who are waitresses in his employment. But #223 is not interested. He has decided to grieve for one month, until the 1st of May (yes, the name of his ex), when it will also be his birthday, before seriously pursuing any girl again.

The film’s joyous opening scene ends with #223 brushing past a woman in a blonde wig and is accompanied by a voice-over in which the cop tells us he would soon fall in love with her. At the same time as we follow his melancholy-laden trips to grocery stores where he buys canned pineapples set to expire May 1, we also see snippets of this mysterious blonde’s life. She is dealing with a group of  drug smugglers but when she delivers them to the airport and turns around, they’ve suddenly absconded with copious amounts of cocaine.

Honestly, there are parts of this film that do not gel together all that smoothly. The blonde’s working relationship with the owner of a nightclub, who is also deeply involved in the drug business, takes a few viewings to piece together, and even then it’s not entirely clear, because we are asked to infer meaning and function from mere glances. But thanks to the rapid editing that also accelerates the pace at which the stories are told, small jumps are effortlessly papered over, as it were, by the colourful neon.

The first time around, the viewer may be disoriented by the first part, as there are a few very brief shots (lasting no more than a few seconds) with the three main characters from the second part, whom we don’t know yet. But first, a word about the second story.

Cop #663 meets Faye at Midnight Express, where she starts working at the end of the first story, just as #223 disappears from the film (something else that is never explained). He has a sometime girlfriend, an air hostess, but she gives up on their relationship and hands the key with the “Dear John” letter to Faye, who hangs on to the letter for a while, and on to the key to #663’s apartment for much longer. Meanwhile, she becomes fascinated by this man and even starts going to his place (these scenes were shot in DOP Christopher Doyle’s apartment) to clean and reinvigorate his home (some may think of Amélie here). Here, there are questions of credibility, as she replaces certain items, which #663 notices but doesn’t question.

Faye, the air hostess and the cop all make surprise appearances in the first part. First, the air hostess appears outside the airport when the woman with a blonde wig escorts her Indians with their drugs to the departure gate. While the woman in the blonde wig waits outside a toy store, Faye exits with a massive Garfield toy, which we will see again in #663’s flat later on. Moments later, when #223 leaves Midnight Express, there is a short take on #663 looking down from a raised platform, seemingly at #223, but since geography is rarely established in this film, we cannot be certain.

These are very minor points, but they suggest a film that is slightly experimental and strives to make it clear all the buzzing belongs to the same world yet tells its story at full speed in an almost kaleidoscopic fashion, producing a vibrant combination of narrative, sound and colour that stays with you.

You’ll never hear The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” again without thinking of Tony Leung and Faye Wong. Few other directors — Stanley Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terrence Malick with Badlands and A Thin Red Line, and Oliver Stone with Platoon — have managed to pull off such an exquisite audiovisual melding using music that had been around for a long time.

Oddly enough, the repetition of the music holds the unconventional storytelling together: Not only is the film divided into two parts, and do the characters from the one turn up unannounced in the other, but like the sequence in Citizen Kane that telegraphs the dissolution of a marriage, a quick succession of scenes involving an array of fast food for the girlfriend precedes the actual introduction of the girlfriend — in a flashback, no less! But Wong Kar-wai breezily ignores the convention of narrative linearity, and yet the viewer stays riveted because these are all such wonderful people.

We love the movies we love despite their faults, not because we think they lack any. Chungking Express, with its numerous awkward plot transitions, is as good an example as any of this, but because I trusted the film from the very first moment and let myself be carried along the stream of images of audio and was never let down by the story or its gentle characters, this remains a truly dazzling film.