Elephants Never Forget (2004)

Lorenzo Vigas’s short film looks at the indecision confronting a young boy and his sister who think they have made up their minds to kill their father.

elefantes-nunca-olvidanMexico/Venezuela
3.5*

Director:
Lorenzo Vigas
Screenwriter:
Lorenzo Vigas

Director of Photography:
Héctor Ortega

Original title: Los elefantes nunca olvidan

Running time: 11 minutes

Juan (Guillermo Muñoz) is on a mission, but he hasn’t quite thought it through. In the opening scene of Lorenzo Vigas’s 2004 short Elephants Don’t Forget, he walks quickly down a dirt road, his torn jeans featuring prominently in close-up. He reaches a nondescript tenement with graffiti-covered outside walls, where his sister (Greisy Mena) furtively hands him a paper bag with a pistol inside. It seems they are both in on the mission, but her misgivings are much more evident. Initially, they are both so nervous they don’t even look at each other as they head towards what they hope will be the scene of their crime.

We quickly learn the intended victim is their biological father, Pedro (Gonzalo Cubero), because of whom they carry scars both physical and mental. Somehow they have tracked him down selling fruit at “the outpost”, have procured a revolver and have hitched a ride on the truck transporting Pedro from one place to the next to peddle his wares.

Of course, once they come face to face with their nemesis, whose absence has fed their fury, they start to doubt whether they can go through with it. Juan, who is tasked with pulling the trigger, evinces palpable indecision as he tries to put on a brave face while fighting his inner demons. It is no surprise that he is full of bravado when Pedro either is far away or has his eyes closed, but once Pedro stares him down, he surrenders all his bravery.

Notwithstanding Pedro’s description of himself halfway through the film as an “elephant” because he never forgets a face, despite the fact that he doesn’t recognise his own flesh and blood and even goes as far as to flirt (albeit unknowingly) with his daughter, the “elephants” in the title likely refer to Juan and his sister, too. But if it is Pedro, one has to keep in mind it takes more a mere bullet to fell an elephant. If it is the two teenagers… well, when was the last time you saw an elephant with a pistol?

These two children are out of their depth, and while we can empathise with their rage (in an early close-up, we see a gruesome scar allegedly left by Pedro’s earlier abuse), it is fascinating to see them try to convince themselves that revenge taken in this way is the best way to deal with the injustices of the past. Half of the film – a five full minutes – takes place on the back of the truck as Pedro tries to strike up a conversation with the two unwilling children.

Although the film has some gorgeous shots that play off blue skies against the fields of almost luminous yellow, with dark clouds hovering just above the horizon, the handheld camera and the very brutal editing, which includes inserting close-ups without warning, serve no real purpose beyond signalling the film was made on what appears to be a shoestring budget.

Except for the father issues and in particular the desire of a man or a boy to kill his own father, there is no apparent point of contact between Elephants Never Forget and director Vigas’s feature film début, From Afar, which examines the indecision of a young man about embarking on a relationship with a 50-something dental prostheticist in a much more visually sumptuous production.

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.

The Verdict (2013)

Belgian director Jan Verheyen takes on the fundamental absurdity of country’s acquittals by ‘procedural error’.

het-vonnis-verdictBelgium
4*

Director:
Jan Verheyen

Screenwriter:
Jan Verheyen

Director of Photography:
Frank van den Eeden

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Het vonnis

It is always much more fun when a film asks us to sympathise with a murderer – to see the murderer as the victim rather than an aggressor – rather than the actual victim. Not only does this strategy keep us on our toes, because we continually ask ourselves whether we may allow ourselves to form such a counterintuitive opinion, but also whether, as a character in the Belgian The Verdict suggests, such an argument would “open the floodgates to barbarism” by undermining the rule of law and creating a slippery slope for anyone to commit heinous crimes for any reason and get away with it.

It is not an easy terrain to navigate, but armed with a script that simultaneously gives the impression of being both comprehensive and activist, director Jan Verheyen asks a very fundamental question about one of his country’s most debated legal issues – one that continues to wreck lives, if we are to believe a final title card, for the sake of maintaining the house of cards that would allegedly collapse if any of its parts were removed or ignored.

Verheyen makes no secret of the fact where his sensibilities lie. The film opens with the loving couple Luc Segers and his wife, Ella, at a fancy corporate gala event where it is rather obvious the CEO has handpicked him as his successor and is about to ask him to accept the offer. Luc and Ella leave with their 6-year-old daughter, Anna, and stop for gas on the way home. Ella goes across the road to buy bread, but at the vending machine, she is assaulted and left unconscious. When Luc finds her, he confronts the assailant, but when he is also attacked, his daughter runs across the road and is hit by a car. Luc wakes up three weeks later from a coma to find he has missed the funerals of both his wife and his daughter.

However, the worst is yet to come. Luc recognises the murderer, but he is set free after a “procedural error,” a missing signature on an important document, is discovered. It is easy to imagine where the story goes from here, and it is a lot of fun, especially because the director has chosen a few comical faces, like the dry prosecutor-general (brilliantly played by Jappe Claes) with the enormous bat ears who inadvertently helps the defense, and the bumbling justice minister who repeats the same stock lines of written statements every time something terrifying happens on his watch.

Once Luc’s trial gets under way, things really start to heat up, as legal experts on television explain the gravity of getting to the bottom of this question about “procedural errors” and whether anyone may ever be pronounced “not guilty” if they have admitted to the crime, just because they had their reasons for acting the way they did. And what if the man who murdered Luc’s wife in cold blood by beating and kicking her countless times also had his reasons for doing what he did?

The Verdict skirts this grey area in the advocates’ closing arguments, although our questions about just where the line may be drawn are left unanswered. This may very well have been the intention of the filmmaker, who wanted to start a conversation rather than provide us with all the answers. These procedural errors, that final title card tells us, are a well-known problem in Belgium today, and yet they have remained unaddressed.

A bit like The Life of David Gale, this film proudly wears its intentions regarding questionable practices in the legal system of the real world on its sleeve (in the case of the 2003 film by Alan Parker, the issue was the problem of the death penalty). However, while it may be regarded as activist, it is also difficult to deny the power such a topic has to convince us that things are not as black and white (or as “factual”, as the film’s prosecutor-general puts it) as we would like them to be for the sake of simplicity.

There are many shots at the beginning, looking straight down from a great distance, that seem to imitate God’s point of view, but they also create enormous tension because they give the impression of a bad omen rather than any kind of comfort. For the rest of the film, these shots are absent, perhaps as a nudge toward the importance that people deal with their problems themselves rather than expect a higher authority, whether on earth or in heaven, to intervene.

Such creativity is also at work in a few unexpected flashbacks that occur during the trial, but a recurring image, which also opens the film, is a closeup on Luc’s trembling hand after he committed the act. We see the same shot at least three times throughout the film, which is frankly unnecessary as there is no real doubt that he committed it as a last resort, almost despite his own moral values.

But the film’s greatest flaw is one it just barely makes. The viewer wonders how everything will turn out in the end, because it seems there are only two possible outcomes, and we would see either of them right before the end credits. The film doesn’t do this but instead gives us a firm closing that is not at all unlike a television episode, whereas it would have been much more effective to leave the ending open and ambiguous and confront the viewer with the aggressive but factual title card immediately afterwards.

As a work by a filmmaker with evident passion for his subject, The Verdict is a powerful mixture of message and execution.

Viewed at the Festroia International Film Festival 2014.

The Endless River (2015)

A brutal farm murder leads to more questions than answers in third film by South Africa’s most acclaimed contemporary director, which stubbornly carves out its own path

The Endless RiverSouth Africa
3*

Director:
Oliver Hermanus

Screenwriter:
Oliver Hermanus

Director of Photography:
Chris Lotz

Running time: 110 minutes

Don’t let the opening credits fool you: Despite the balmy, sunset-swept imagery – replete with cloud-stained skies of twilight and golden fields of wheat – that greets the viewer of The Endless River at the outset, the mood shifts very quickly as we witness a man’s release from prison, the murder of an innocent family and the two central characters’ near-futile search for post-traumatic meaning.

Oliver Hermanus’s third film is nothing if not ambitious: Using the tragedy of a farm murder to propel the narrative forward, this is simultaneously an examination of one man’s attempts to cope with his grief, a whodunnit and a woman’s yearning for affection. However, the presentation becomes more and more fragmented and ellipses ever more frequent as the film reaches a conclusion that is even more open-ended than that of the director’s previous film, Beauty (Skoonheid). The director is firmly in control, but as both content and meaning become elusive, dependent on that which is unseen (or rather, deliberately concealed), most viewers are unlikely to remain as attached to the material and the characters as they are at the outset.

The title nominally refers to the location, the small town of Riviersonderend in South Africa’s Western Cape, even though none of the characters ever utters the name. In this rural setting, we find Percy Solomons, a young man who has just been released after four years in prison. His petite wife, Tiny, who works as a waitress at a local diner, is optimistic about their future together, although her mother, whose house the three of them share with each other, openly shares her doubts around the breakfast table. The fabulous Denise Newman plays the mother, Mona, who is as proud and devoted to her child as was the case with the title character in Hermanus’s stunning début feature, Shirley Adams, which she also portrayed; unfortunately, she is sidelined here halfway through the film.

Into this uncertainty tumbles Gilles Estève, a Frenchman with a murky past (a prominent ink stain on his thumb is never explained) who moved into a farmhouse just outside town about a year ago, although oddly enough he has not made any acquaintances. The film’s first major turning point is the murder of Gilles’s two young boys, and the murder and rape of his wife. This violent turn in the narrative only has extradiegetic sound in the form of Braam du Toit’s lilting score as a counterpoint to the horrific events on-screen. But while this artistic choice (not to mention the scene’s graceful camera moves) may appear peculiar at first, the purpose quickly becomes clear as the director’s intention is not so much to portray brutal realism as it is to attune us to the emotional journeys on which Gilles and Tiny embark.

Visually much less self-conscious than Hermanus’s previous film, which relied heavily on static or long takes, The Endless River has one robustly cinematic moment, namely the unbroken take in which we move ever closer to Percy as he makes up his mind whether to participate in a crime. Comparable to the opening shot of Beauty and a similar, albeit static, shot in Shirley Adams (although all three shots are strikingly different in their own ways, a variation for which the director deserves substantial praise), this kind of moment perfectly uses the visuals to unite the viewer with the character’s frame of mind in an unusual yet unostentatious way.

The strands of the film with which the director weaves his narrative are often strong but frayed at the tips, as we frequently have to guess how fundamental parts of the story develop. While this strategy of withholding crucial information from the viewer can help focus our attention and keep our minds active, it becomes annoying in the final act, when we seem to skip from one awkward dinner to the next while the action in between – which is of enormous importance in order to understand the film’s key relationship – is almost entirely left out of the film.

What hurts The Endless River even more, however, is the sense that Gilles, while visibly enraged at the police force’s seeming inability to solve the homicide, never thinks of his family beyond the fact of their murder. He shuts his past completely out of his mind to the point that he even refuses to look at a list of items taken from his home after it has been burgled. This may very well be his way of coping with loss, but there is not even one crack in this façade, which makes for a dramatically uninteresting character arc.

And yet, it is a testament to Hermanus’s talent as a filmmaker that we have the impression throughout – with the exception of that quick succession of homogeneous dinner scenes in the third act – that he is keeping a tight rein on the presentation of his material. Everything feels like it belongs to the same story, although, as mentioned above, one can fault him for not providing enough of the story to fill in the gaps that are as vast as the vistas in the opening credits sequence.

The film is like a jigsaw puzzle that we start constructing but realise halfway through that with every piece we place, another disappears from the box altogether. Things will likely make slightly more sense on a second viewing, but there is a palpable, perverse decision on the part of the filmmaker not to meet the viewer’s expectations.

Hermanus does not make it easy on the viewer. Instead of coming together, the story appears to unravel more and more until we realise this is a road trip that will flow forever, reaching the sea somewhere far into the future and definitely happening – like so much else we want to know about this story – offscreen. Some may find this refreshing, but given the early development of the story, most are likely to regard it as unnecessarily defiant.

Irrational Man (2015)

An alcoholic philosopher decides to try his hand at committing what he believes to be an ethical murder, but the execution is neither comical nor tragic.

irrational manUSA
3*

Director:
Woody Allen

Screenwriter:
Woody Allen

Director of Photography:
Darius Khondji

Running time: 95 minutes

Woody Allen likes to play it safe in all of his recent films. This safety, while often peppered with hilarious dialogue or neurotic characters teetering on the brink of hysteria, also makes many of his works, at least those of the past 20 years, mediocre and forgettable. There have been demonstrable exceptions, particularly when his actresses are given free rein to express themselves, or when he takes greater pains to construct a story with both a beating heart and a strong head.

For the former, the examples that come to mind are the hot-blooded whirlwind performance of Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Cate Blanchett’s stunning portrayal of a narcissistic, delusional, alcoholic divorcée in Blue Jasmine; the latter include Mighty Aphrodite, which borrows from both George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and ancient Greek plays, as well as his magnificent Crime and Punishment-inspired Match Point.

Irrational Man is not a comedy and does not elicit a single laugh from the audience. In theme it is closest to Match Point, replete with Dostoyevsky references (a copy of The Idiot lies next to his bed, he scribbles in a copy of Crime and Punishment, and the Russian novelist’s name is explicitly cited in a discussion with a student), but unlike his 2005 film, there is no thrill and no tension. Even the film’s most dramatic moment – a murder – is devoid of anxiety, and while the homicidal act takes place onscreen, the death occurs off-screen.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Abe Lucas, an alcoholic philosophy professor who has just joined the faculty at Braylin College in the sleepy town of Newport, Rhode Island. He is a nihilist who believes philosophy can do little more but talk about life’s problems. Nonetheless, Allen gives us a CliffsNotes introduction to existentialist philosophers in Lucas’s classes, and then proceeds to the much more dramatically satisfying situation that serves as the plot’s turning point: Lucas decides that he can give meaning to his life by helping someone in need, even if this means he would have to commit murder.

One day in a coffee shop, he overhears a woman complaining of a judge who will very likely take custody of her children away from her and give it to her ex-husband, who is friendly with the judge. Lucas, without knowing much more than what he discovers from this one-sided account, makes up his mind to kill the judge.

The other track on which the story advances involves one of Lucas’s students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), who has fallen in love with him despite her having a long-term, caring boyfriend. Jill is a terribly disappointing character, as much for Allen as for Stone, who has played much stronger women in the past (her attention-grabbing turn in Easy A immediately comes to mind). In Irrational Man, she starts off as a smart philosophy major who takes on her professor’s worldview head-on but very quickly becomes doe-eyed and infatuated with him, and she tries her best to lull him out of his rudderless existence. When she fails, she flings her body at him.

This is a terrible debasement and does not endear her character to the audience at all, particularly because we feel she has given up control of her life to a man who is tossing and turning in a wasteland of despair.

The mentions of the philosophers are little more than padding and serve little purpose other than to remind us Lucas is philosophically minded. The look of the film, as is usual in an Allen production, is competent without drawing any attention to itself. The single exception, however, is absolutely stunning, and underscores the skills of master cinematographer Darius Khondji, for whom this film marks his fifth collaboration with Allen.

Towards the end of the film, when Jill is starting to suspect Lucas has had a hand in the death of the judge, she watches him alone out on a jetty, a silhouette against the radiant sunlight reflecting off the still water. But there is something unusual: Lucas’s silhouette seems to vibrate, even melt, around the edges where it meets the bright luminosity behind it. The shot is breathtaking and catapults the film’s visual language into the stratosphere, albeit momentarily.

This Woody Allen film is about as unfunny a movie as he has ever made. But unlike some of his other films, which at least worked still played with our emotions, this one lacks the vocabulary to get us roaring with laughter or our adrenaline pumping. Despite the intriguing premise of ending a life to infuse your own with meaning and intensity, this work is mostly forgettable, and the weak character portrayed by Emma Stone is very unfortunate.

Duck Hunting (2009)

Lov na raceSlovenia

4*
Director:
Rok Biček

Screenwriter:
Rok Biček

Director of Photography:
Simon Tanšek

Running time: 23 minutes

Original title: Lov na race

One shot early in Rok Biček’s 23-minute Duck Hunting puts our mind at ease even while we feel the narrative tension building. It is a shot around the dinner table, and we have already been introduced to the three main characters in the present. In this particular scene, the story has skipped backwards into the past. The father is seated on our left and one of his sons, Matej, is on the right. Right in front of us, with his back turned towards the camera, is the younger brother, Robi, who is barely moving. For the first few moments of the scene, we see only these three, before the mother’s head suddenly appears from directly behind, or in front of, Robi.

All the while, there is a faint whistling sound, which had already started in the previous scene, many hours earlier out in the woods where the father took his sons duck hunting, and this sound disappears the moment Robi leaves the table halfway through the meal. At that point, about one-third into the film, we still have no idea what is going on, but when the director drops a hint a few minutes later, our mind goes back to this scene of the three men and the almost invisible mother.

Biček, who at the time of production was attending the University of Ljubljana’s Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television, includes very little dialogue in this short film and instead opts for long takes, whose apparent stasis is subverted because they were recorded on a handheld camera.

There is another scene at the dinner table, right at the end of the film, that is even more crushing, as the characters arrive at a kind of catharsis that is far from tidy but fits perfectly with the volatile twists and turns of the taciturn characters.

What makes Duck Hunting such a praiseworthy film (Biček’s second fiction short) is his consistency of form and his skill in straddling the line between giving and withholding information, which results in a work whose meaning we can deduce but which is nonetheless never transparent. “Why did you do it?” Robi screams at his father in the present. Unlike the main character in Biček’s stunning 2013 début feature, Class Enemy (Razredni sovražnik), the father here does not have a chance or is not eloquent enough to defend his actions, but for a long time we don’t even know what those actions are, and we never know with certainty.

Sliding effortlessly between past and present, the film further underscores the connection between the two by repeating one or two scenes in the same spaces in different time periods.

Another bold move was the decision to have no music in the film, which emphasises the silences. Along with the very grainy texture of the images obtained with a 16mm camera, this film’s audiovisuals splendidly complement and reflect the brutality of (what we gather is) the central situation. Although the opening scene drags on a little too long, and the acting in that scene is not particularly great, the rest of the film keeps us absolutely spellbound as it moves between times and from subtle gesture to sudden violence, and it is to Biček’s credit that his 23 minutes contain more ambiguity than most films and fewer words than most scenes.