Mark Stafford gives us the low-down on the films he’s checked out so far.
Leap Year (Año Bisiesto)
A freelance journalist working from home in Mexico City, Laura (Monica Del Carmen) is lonely and isolated. She watches any couples with hungry eyes, deals with her distant mother by phone, indulges in a series of unsatisfying one-night stands, and crosses off the days on the calendar. But then the sadomasochistic Arturo (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) turns up. Alternately brutal and caring, he awakens something in her, and a weird relationship starts. He returns again an again, subjecting the willing Laura to ever more degrading sex acts, as spanking leads to choking leads to whipping, and the film takes a dark, strange turn… Australian Michael Rowe’s Leap Year is a claustrophobic, disturbing little gem, set almost entirely within Laura’s small apartment, with a tiny cast of characters. It’s made to work through a clever, ambiguous script, and Del Carmen’s fantastic performance: she makes Laura a wholly believable, complicated and troubled woman that you can truly care, and fear for.
Robinson in Ruins
I was looking forward to Patrick Keiller’s latest (after London and Robinson in Space) as I’m partial to the odd polemical psycho-geographical ramble, but Ruins frankly lost my attention in places, and I don’t think it adds up to a satisfactory whole. We are viewing a series of static tripod shots and listening to Vanessa Redgrave narrate the text, both words and pictures being the supposed work of the mysterious Robinson, who has left us the film canisters and notebooks before disappearing. So we see gasometers, lichen on a road sign, a post box and various architecture and agricultural landscapes accompanied by a monologue concerning oil pipelines, meteors, Iraq, the Captain Swing riots of the 1830s and the current worldwide economic crisis. Visual motifs slowly reveal meaning, sly connections and allusions are made, past and present enter a dialogue. It’s boring and baffling and fascinating. It feels more like an art installation than a piece of cinema, and the recurring series of long, silent static shots depicting close-up plant life or fields during harvest began to try my patience, feeling as if they’d wandered in from one of Abbas Kiarostami’s more gnomic efforts. Disappointing.
Anton Corbijn’s film is, as you would expect, beautifully photographed. It’s also well edited, scored and performed, it’s slick and sleek and European and is, overall, a class act. You may enjoy it. The problem I have with it is that I enjoyed it when it was Le Samourai, and Murder by Contract, and Day of the Jackal, and The Mechanic and any other of the dozens of hit-man flicks that have been recycled in its 104 humourless minutes. After a brutal, promising opening sequence, we are left with the tale of Jack (George Clooney), a taciturn, not especially charming killer trying to lie low in a gorgeous Italian village, unsure whether some vengeful Swedes are on his tail. While there he takes a job creating a custom weapon for a mysterious client (Thekla Reuten) and starts up ill-advised relationships with local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and local whore (Violante Placido). The priest/whore bit is just one of many big clunking signposts featured in The American: watch out also for some bloody obvious butterfly and cemetery symbolism, and be assured that Jack is told that he is losing his edge, and engaged in one last job. It all ends with the people you thought were going to die being killed, in kind of the way you thought they were going to die. If you’re unfamiliar with genre cinema from the last few decades, the film may work for you, but I still think you’ll find it a little ponderous. Personally, I’m baffled as to why these talents should have wanted to make this film.
The Peddler (El ambulante)
The Peddler is a documentary about Daniel Burmeister, an untrained jack of all trades in his 60s, who drives his ailing car from village to village in Argentina, making ‘hand-crafted’ films with the local population. Recycling the same four or five scripts, he has made over 60 features, shooting on old VHS equipment, roping in anyone and everyone who seems even vaguely willing. Casting the local priest as the priest, firemen as firemen and so on, he gets the community together to produce one of his ramshackle productions, then charges them pesos to see the result. We watch as he puts together another opus, ‘Let’s Kill Uncle’, assembling no-budget action sequences, constantly improvising when his cast drop out to do their day jobs, and wringing hammy performances from cab drivers, housewives and schools of children. Burmeister is an inspiration, an optimist who has ‘1001 solutions to 1001 problems’. He seems to be constantly on the verge of collapse, near homeless and penniless, but gets by on good will and charm. Which you could also say about El ambulante: it’s not especially deep or probing, and it’s occasionally stagy, but it tramples such quibbles into the dust with its sheer love of life, character and creation. Pretty much a big cinematic hug.
A Screaming Man (Un homme qui crie)
In which an ageing pool attendant (Youssouf Djaoro) in war-torn Chad betrays his son out of pride and misplaced priorities, and destroys pretty much every thing he values in the process. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man is ultimately moving, but it’s a very simple, tragic tale told very simply and very slowly, feeling a damn sight longer than its 92 minutes. It has wonderful moments, the widescreen photography is fine, and it’s clearly a quality piece of filmmaking, but I’d happily swap all this elegance and simplicity for a little urgency and flair. I’m shallow like that.
Living on Love Alone (D’amour et d’eau fraÃ®che)
Oddly shaped film about survival in the modern world, which starts as an attack on the humiliations and idiocies of the job market, moves through family drama and ends somewhere in Gun Crazy love on the run territory. Anaïs Demoustier as Julie is a natural, easy screen presence in the lead, Pio Marmaï has charm as her dodgy lover, with whom she has half-baked plans to leave the rat race. The stuff about working for a hideously hip Paris PR agency is sharp and funny (Julie is fired for being ‘too spontaneous and not natural enough’). And in general the film has a loose unpredictability I found winning. But it does feel like a strange mish-mash of tones and genres, with strands of story that lead nowhere. Also, I had assumed the obligation on the part of young French actresses to get naked as often as possible and have sex scenes with much older men was a trope that would be confined to the work of ageing male directors. It’s nice to see Isabelle Czajka maintaining the tradition.