Jauja: Interview with Viggo Mortensen

Jauja
Jauja

Format: Cinema

Release date: 10 April 2015

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Lisandro Alonso

Writers: Fabian Casas, Lisandro Alonso

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Viilbjørk Mallin Agger, Ghita Nørby

Argentina, USA, Netherlands 2014

101 mins

With its painterly rendering of times past (aptly framed in a vintage 4:3 ratio), and reliance on the uniqueness of its characters instead of a dense script, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja is an austere affair. Set in 1882, the sparse narrative follows a Danish army captain (Viggo Mortensen) on his journey through the desolate expanses of Patagonia in search of his eloped daughter (Mallin Agger). Few words are spoken as faces full of aspiration, anger and despair gaze out across the intensely beautiful landscape; a harsh, elusive landscape in a world that appears to be as magical as it is threatening. Elaborately choreographed, hauntingly scored and channelling the transcendental work of Jodorowsky, Tarkovsky and Kubrick, Jauja is very much a film that demands your attention from the outset, and pays dividends as it reaches its mysterious, otherworldly conclusion.

Pamela Jahn spoke with leading actor Viggo Mortensen, who also co-produced the film, at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2014, where Jauja premiered in the Un Certain Regard section.

Pamela Jahn: In addition to taking the lead in Jauja, you also acted as a producer and co-composed its original score. What made you want to get involved in the film on so many different levels?

Viggo Mortensen: On a purely personal level, the project seemed very appealing from the start, because I am doing a movie in Danish – finally. But I am also speaking Spanish with an accent like my father’s, whereas the Danish sounds more like my grandfather’s, more old-fashioned, which was fun. And those landscapes you see in the film, I know them from when I was a boy in Argentina. That’s where I learned to ride horses and so on, which was a bit strange but intriguing at the time, because it brought back lots of memories: the place, the smell, the landscape, the weather – all this was very familiar. But the real challenge was that I am playing a man who is in a place that feels very strange to him and he doesn’t like it very much. He’s looking forward to going back to Denmark soon, but then his daughter goes missing and he sets out to find her.

Did you know Lisandro Alonso’s work before you got on board?

I had seen all but one of his films before we started working together on this project, and the one film that I liked in particular was Los Muertos. There is something in that story in terms of the visual poetry and his use of time, the simplicity of his shot selection… all that reminded me of Tarkovsky’s movies, which I like a lot. Not just him, but it was that specific director that I thought of when I watched Lisandro’s films. And I really liked the idea that he initially proposed together with Fabian [Casas, screenwriter], which we then worked on together to get the Danish elements of it correct, and to make sure it’s specific. If you want something existential and universal too, you need to be specific and detailed, you need to give it weight. As an actor, the more specific you are, the more you can make a leap. And personally, I like to tell stories that at least have a chance to be really interesting movies, whether they are big budget or low budget. That doesn’t really matter to me, because the relationship with the camera, with the director and the crew is always the same. It’s the same job to prepare, the same job to shoot, it takes the same time and, in the end, you have to promote it, so you might as well do something you like. Something you want to go see in the cinema yourself. That’s more or less how I guide myself: I am looking for projects that I can still learn from and that I might want to see myself. It doesn’t always work, of course, but at least you have a good blueprint.

You mentioned the landscape, which looks somewhat artificial but breathtakingly beautiful at the same time. Did you get involved in the ‘look’ of the film, too?

I am a photographer myself and I could see that we were using certain lights that we didn’t need to use, but that was Lisandro’s idea, because he wanted to shoot it in this old-school, artificial way, almost like they did in old Westerns. There is something really appealing about that. But what I liked about it the most was that [the cinematographer] Timo Salminen, who is originally from Finland and had never been to Argentina, had more of a Nordic look at the landscape, which fits in well with the characters – it’s very different to the way an Argentine photographer would have shot it. But it’s not just the lighting, it’s the framing also. So you have two different angles, really: the look is sometimes hard and strange, which could be the father’s point of view, who never really accepts being in this landscape; for him it’s just a job and he regrets even being there. But it’s also at times incredibly beautiful, and that’s more like the daughter’s point of view, because she loves it there.

How did you approach your character? Who is Gunnar Dinesen and what is he to you?

There are things in the film that I suggested we should do when I was reading the book. I am someone who, until recently, has lived in the woods and who is very happy being and living in wild places. Part of the reason why I was comfortable doing this movie with Lisandro was because there were certain elements, even from a different character’s point of view, that I am familiar with, although my character is actually quite clumsy. Dinesen is a surveyor and scientist, very northern European, very rational, everything has to have a logical explanation. But then he is also a guy who wears a sword and boots with heels and furs while walking through rocks, which is ridiculous – a bit like Don Quixote. Don Quixote is also both serious and specific. And in that way my character is very determined – like if you are going to do a job, you might as well do it correctly, and in a timely fashion. And if someone says, ‘Well, we’re having tea at 4.30pm on Tuesday’, you say, ‘Well, I’ll be there’. But it’s Argentina, so whoever you were going to meet might turn up on Wednesday, or maybe he doesn’t.

The film has a very dreamy feel to it, much like a mind’s landscape, a travel through space and time.

Exactly, and that’s the beauty about it. Lisandro makes these leaps, which most directors would not be able to make, but he makes you feel that they are organic. Suddenly it’s dark, suddenly there is an electric guitar, suddenly there is a cave… and somehow he makes that work, he makes you believe it because he grounds it in details, in real behaviour. Like my character, who is always trying to find a logic within everything. His evolution lies in the very fact that, by the end of the film, he is asking that question: ‘What makes a life function and move forward?’ And he says: ‘I don’t know’, and smiles. He accepts that he cannot control it. It’s almost a relief for him to realise that you cannot understand everything. And at the end of this movie, it’s the same for you. You don’t know if it was all just a dream, and if so, whose dream? The dream of a young girl in Denmark today? Or, the dream of some strange captain? Or, it could be very much the dream of a dog or of a wooden soldier. But luckily, it doesn’t matter.

What’s your guess? Whose dream is it for you?

Often I tend to think that it’s the girl’s dream, but I don’t know. And again, it doesn’t matter. If you pick one option, then you are stuck in a linear thinking, just like Dinesen. So even though I lean towards that, next time I watch the film, it’s different and it makes me smile. It’s a rare movie in the sense that it reveals more layers, more humour every time you look at it. For example, Dinesen is a spectator, he is constantly trying to make sense of what the hell is going on. He’s not really in love with the landscape, he’s just practical. And he gets lost, so by the end, he doesn’t know what else to do, he just keeps going. But is he still looking for his daughter? Probably. Whatever it is, he keeps looking.

But he finds ‘Jauja’.

And that’s interesting because Jauja is not a place, it’s more than that, it’s an idea. It’s an impossible idea or feeling of contentment, satisfaction, tranquillity. It could be anything and, trust me, in Spanish it’s a weird word too. It’s a word that comes from the Arabic and in the old Arabic it meant something like a doorway or a passageway, like a transition.

That idea of transition is also intensified by the music, which is very peculiar. How did you get involved with the score?

If you know Lisandro, you know that he doesn’t usually use music in his films, but suddenly you hear this electric guitar and organs and piano notes and you are like, wow. But it’s not like, wow, that’s wrong – it’s great. It’s another one of these jumps he takes, but it comes from an organic, sincere place that’s not saying ‘look at me’ as a director. It’s not pretentious. He said to me: ‘I want this transition, where one time in space is going to start twisting things a bit for the character and for the audience. And I think I want to try and use music in that moment when you go to sleep that night under the stars, so if you have any ideas then let me know’.’ And I said: ‘Well, there is that guitar player I know who I have also worked with. Some of it is very harsh but some of it is more lyrical.’ So I sent him some pieces and he chose those two, which you hear in the film. And that moment of music works really well, I think, because of the way it pushes you into another space.
Do you think your involvement as a producer and actor will help the film find a bigger audience?

I hope so. I do think it is a big jump for Lisandro creatively, in terms of narrative through line, and photography – on a lot of levels. It’s a more sophisticated type of filmmaking. I did it because I liked it, but the reason why I got involved as a producer is because I wanted to help him get a bigger audience because he really deserves it.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

This interview is part of our LFF 2014 coverage.

Watch the trailer:

The Dance of Reality: Interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky

The Dance of Reality
The Dance of Reality

Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 August 2015

DVD/Blu-ray release date: 14 September 2015

Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Writer: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Cast: Brontis Jodorowsky, Adan Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores, Cristóbal Jodorowsky

Original title: La danza de la realidad

Chile 2013

130 mins

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first film in 23 years is a strictly personal affair, an attempt to reconstruct his life from childhood to the present. For most of its 130 minutes, The Dance of Reality (La danza de la realidad) feels like a potpourri of adventures both magical and tragic. There is no point in trying to compare it to the vicious energy and boldness that his earlier midnight movie masterpieces (El Topo, Santa Sangre) generated, as clearly it would do this beautifully constructed and aptly surreal biopic injustice. Besides, the more revealing film about the Chilean director might be Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune, an entertaining glimpse into the truth behind Jodorowsky’s famously aborted plans to bring Herbert’s epic fantasy novel to the screen. But where Pavich’s documentary is eye-popping and hilarious, Jodorowsky’s own account of his past quests and journeys is poetic, haunting and mystical, flashing with insight and lingering in the mind long after the tale is told.

Pamela Jahn met with Alejandro Jodorowsky at the Cannes film festival in May 2013 and told her about the healing power of filmmaking, the joy of creating and the magic of reality.

Pamela Jahn: It’s wonderful to see a new film by you after so many years. Why did it take you so long to make another film?

Alejandro Jodorowsky: In the beginning cinema was an art, a really great art, but then the stars came, and with it the money. When the stars came, that was the illness of the industry. And today, cinema is in the hands of producers, it’s all about money. I wanted to make art and every time I tried to do something, people said no, because there was no money in it for them. So I waited and thought, ‘One day I will do it’. And it’s not that I didn’t get asked to make films. People suggested I should make a political film about South America or an erotic film, but I said, ‘No, I want to do what I want to do’. So I waited – 23 years. And I suffered. Because making films is the most beautiful art in the world. I have hundreds of films in my library and every night I would wake up around 3am and watch a film. Every single day I was suffering, but I kept saying to myself, ‘One day I will do it again’.

Why did you decide to make this film at this particular moment in your life?

I am an artist. I don’t know why I do these things, because they come to me. I needed to do that film, because I wanted to heal myself, my soul, my family. And I wanted to show the audience a way to heal their memories, their past, because I feel it is necessary to do that.

Do you see cinema in general as a healing art?

Yes, I don’t believe too much in commercial cinema. These films are not really useful for the human being, because they are only entertainment. You go to the cinema, you see the film but then you instantly forget what you have seen. For me, making a film is like changing a part of my life, like having children, and to do something that opens up the perspectives of life. That’s what I am trying to do. But the problem is that for the industry, making film only means making money. So first of all, I make films that are not expensive, because if the film is too expensive I am forced to become a prisoner of the industry. Instead, I make a film with less money, but more creative intention. For this particular film though, I really needed producers who didn’t want to make money. There is a saying that if God gives you sugar, open your mouth. So if the film makes money, that’s fantastic, and I’d be very happy. But if it doesn’t, I am happy too, because I want to do whatever I want. And what I wanted to do here is to go to my little town, where I was born, and where the other children used to laugh at me, and kick me, and hate me, because I was different. I was white with this big nose, the son of Russian-Jewish parents, and nobody wanted to play with me because of that. And that made me very sad, because I loved this town. Then, 70 years later, when I came back to this place, it hadn’t changed at all. It’s like a dead town. Apart from maybe one new building nothing had changed. When I was a child, I used to have my hair cut by a Japanese guy, and when I came back, I went to get my hair cut, which turned into quite a dramatic experience for me. Because it was still the same place and the guy who cut my hair now was the son of the man who used to cut my hair when I was little – that’s in my film. In fact, I changed my town, I cleaned things up, I got the houses painted and I made the people appear in my film. I changed it, like a hero who brings the elixir to the sick, I sort of healed my place, and I needed to do that.

Watch the trailer for The Dance of Reality:

Your last film before The Dance of Reality was Rainbow Thief with Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. Was the experience of making that film part of the reason why you didn’t want to compromise again?

Oh, I hated Peter O’Toole. And I still do today. I hate him, I hate him, I hate him.

What was so bad about him?

He was terrible to work with. He wanted to do what he wanted. At one point I asked everyone to leave the set and I took a stick, because he’s like a dog, you need to hit him in order to get him to do what you want.

Do you think your life and work as a filmmaker could have turned out quite differently if Fando y Lis hadn’t caused such a stir when it was first shown?

I made Fando y Lis in 1968. Today, even young people understand that film, but when I first made it, it was a scandal in Mexico. They wanted to lynch me, I had to hide because [Emilio] ‘El Indio’ Fernández said, ‘I will kill that guy’. And I knew he wasn’t joking because he had killed someone before. It was a terrible time. And then we managed to sell the film to the United States. At that point, I idealised America and I thought of it as some sort of triumph at last. But then the distributor who bought the film cut out everything that was somehow surrealist and creative, and they tried to make a romantic film out of it. It was shit. I wanted to explain to them that this was not my film anymore, but no one would listen. No journalist wanted to do an interview so that I could explain it to the American audience. And so of course the film was a failure. After that, I decided to make a cowboy film. But I didn’t want to make a ‘Western’, so I made an ‘Eastern’. I made El Topo, and people came to see it.

Why do you think El Topo became such a cult film?

I don’t know, really, because the whole of Mexico was laughing at me when I made it. People said I was crazy. Even the actors sometimes didn’t believe in it when we were making the film, which is also partly why I acted myself, because no one wanted to play that role. And all of a sudden I receive an invitation to the Concert for Bangladesh in New York. I was very poor at that time and the ticket was first class and all paid for, so I thought, why not, and I went there. At the airport, they picked me up in a limousine to bring me first to the hotel and then to a big concert with thousands of people. But I didn’t know why I was there until my producer Allen Klein said, ‘Don’t you know you are a star? The Beatles want to meet you, everyone wants to meet you’. And when we went to the concert, they were all there, Ringo Starr, John Lennon. The next day, they showed my film at midnight. It was my first time in America and when I came to the theatre, there was a cloud of marijuana smoke, it was unbelievable. I went on stage to introduce my picture to the public and all of a sudden I was the star of the underground. In a way, it was the birth of what they now call ‘midnight movies’.

How did you come to make Santa Sangre with Claudio Argento as producer?

After The Holy Mountain, nobody wanted to make a film with me. Allen Klein, the producer, didn’t like the film at all and so he wanted me to make an erotic film next. And then I escaped, because I didn’t want to do that. One day, I got contacted by Claudio Argento, the brother of Dario Argento, who said, ‘I am the executive producer for my brother but now I want to make a different experience, I want to change, and I want to produce a picture for you. I want you to make me a film about a serial killer woman’. I said, ‘Well, ok, I will do it’. Then I gave the script to Argento and because it was in Spanish of course, he gave it to an Italian guy to translate it. And that was my luck. Because that guy didn’t really know Spanish either, and the translated script he came up with wasn’t my picture anymore. He’d invented something completely new, a completely idiotic film. So I went to Mexico and I did Santa Sangre, which sort of was about a serial killer, but my version of a serial killer. Until today, I have not made a cent from this film, but I am happy that I made it. In fact, Santa Sangre is the film I like most of all my films. I am glad I did it.

Watch the trailer for Santa Sangre:

Do you enjoy writing comics as much as making films?

Yes, but you can’t really compare the two, it’s not the same. I don’t get the same immense pleasure from writing comics as from making a film. Because with comics, I write them in one or two months, but to make a film, it takes one and a half years.

How did you convince Michel Seydoux to give you money again, after he lost quite a lot on Dune.

I know, he did lose a lot of money and for about 20 years I didn’t dare talking to him, because I thought he’d hate me. But then there was this young American filmmaker, Frank Pavish, who wanted to make a film about Dune. My first reaction was, ‘No, I don’t want to talk about a failure’. But eventually I agreed. Then Pavish came to me and said, ‘I want to set up a conversation with you and Michel Seydoux for my film’. I thought Seydoux would never agree to this, but he did. So we met again after all these years and realised that we didn’t hate each other. After the interview, we talked and he asked me, ‘Do you want to work with me again?’ I said, ‘Yes, sure, but you need to give me two million dollars without knowing what I will do with your money’. So within five minutes, I had the money to make this film. It was so fantastic. Incredible.

The Dance of Reality is a film about your life. Do you ever worry about getting old?

No, getting older is fantastic. Age only exists in what you see, but inside me I have no age. And I have no nationality, no sex either, really. I am not a man, only when I am with my wife. But when I wake up in the morning, I am a human being – I don’t define myself by my sexuality, or my age. And I don’t have a big ego, I am not proud, because I am mortal. I know that I could die tomorrow. But on the other hand, I am only 84 years old now, so I can still

What keeps you young at heart?

Art! Art is my life. I love to create things. Miracles are everywhere but you need to learn how to see them, that’s the ‘dance of reality’. The reality you see really is a magical thing, but people don’t realise it. You need to open your mind to be able to see the miracles.

Read Virginie Sélavy’s 2007 interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Cannes 2014

Lost River
Lost River

Cannes International Film Festival

14 – 25 May 2013

Cannes, France

Cannes Festival website

There is no better place than Cannes to be reminded of the differences in taste and perspective between oneself and the rest of the critics’ world. But this year, the fierce reviews that Lost River, Ryan Gosling’s first foray into directing, received after its premiere in the Un Certain Regard section, made me wonder what was actually at stake here. Judging from the 10-minute-long standing ovations for one of Hollywood’s biggest heartthrobs before and after the screening it was clear that it didn’t have anything to do with a waning of his celebrity power – in fact, it didn’t really matter to the majority of the audience what film was on show that night as long as Gosling was in the room. Looking at it more closely, his fairly impressive directing debut seems to have fallen victim to the same fate as Nicholas Winding Refn’s brilliant Only God Forgives (starring Gosling in the lead role and clearly serving as an inspiration for his own surrealist end-time tale) the year before: most critics didn’t know (or didn’t care) what to make of its alluring blend of affecting visual beauty and sparse (if, in Gosling’s case, slightly messy) narrative, and the few who loved it at first sight were instantly stared at with incredulity.

Watch the trailer for Lost River:

All in all though, there weren’t as many exciting films on offer as last year, despite some terrific surprises. In particular, Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (his fifth feature film since his 2009 directorial debut I Killed My Mother) yielded beautifully raw emotions, caustic humour and moments of cinematic brilliance. And outlandish Argentine competition entry Wild Tales, by Damián Szifró;n, was a popular, hard-hitting and often hilarious portmanteau comedy featuring a bunch of diverse and increasingly hysterical characters who spectacularly lose control and go off the deep end.

Resembling last year’s mad dash for the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, the biggest buzz this time revolved around David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. A highly charged, cynical ghost story about today’s fucked-up Hollywood society, it stars Mia Wasikowska as the troubled daughter of a self-help guru who is battling her internal demons while working as a PA to a fading yet feisty actress (Julianne Moore).

Atom Egoyan’s cliché-ridden The Captive was the weakest competition entry for me, It faced strong competition from Olivier Assayas’s pretentious The Clouds of Sils Maria and from The Search, Michel Hazanavicius’s clumsy follow-up to The Artist, a muddled and sentimental war drama about a human rights worker who takes in a young Chechen refugee during the war in 1999. I also didn’t enjoy Asia Argento’s Un Certain Regard entry Incompresa for all its cockeyed quirkiness, although nothing could have topped the critics’ complete and unanimous disapproval of Olivier Dahan’s opening film Grace of Monaco.

But there was some noteworthy (if unsurprisingly rather heavyweight) art-house fare on show in the Competition this year. Nuri Bilge Ceylan impressed jury and critics alike with his three-hour-plus Chekhovian drama Winter Sleep about a wealthy, retired actor who runs a mountaintop hotel and fills his days with writing and dealing with his failing marriage. Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev draws more decisively on Tarkovsky’s inheritance in the poetic imagery and the gravity of his slow-paced, powerful and elusive thriller-drama Leviathan.

The usually slightly neglected midnight screenings were strong this year with David Michôd’s The Rover, his superb follow-up to Animal Kingdom (2010), and Kristian Levring’s conventionally plotted but deftly crafted Danish Western The Salvation. The third film screening at midnight was Chang’s rather predictable and slightly dull thriller The Target, which fell short of expectations but still managed to deliver the fun, big-screen action spectacle it was intended to be. In comparison, and more convincing in its mission to prove that the crafty and clever Korean crime thriller is not dead, was Kim Seong-hun’s A Hard Day.

Watch the trailer for The Rover:

Apart fom Lost River, the other standouts in the Un Certain Regard selection included Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s unwieldy and progressively surreal drama Jauja and the only German festival entry, Amour Fou, Jessica Hausner’s rigidly stylised but original and witty portrait of the troubled Romantic writer and poet Heinrich von Kleist and his accomplice Henriette Vogel in the lead-up to their joint suicide in 1811. Typically, this year’s crowd-pleasing Un Certain Regard winner, Kornél Mundruczó;’s White God , split the critics once again: some saw it as clumsy and misguided social commentary, while others reacted warmly to the remarkable acting range of the dogs starring in the film.

On the whole, even with (or perhaps because of) the wide diversity in the reception of the films and a little less hype about the programme, these highlights prove once more that Cannes remains a great hunting ground for the weird, wild and unexpected.

Check out our previous Cannes coverage.

Festival report by Pamela Jahn

A Touch of Sin: Interview with Jia Zhang-ke

review_A-Touch-of-Sin
A Touch of Sin

Format: Cinema

Dates: 16 May 2014

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Jia Zhang-ke

Writer: Jia Zhang-ke

Original title: Tian zhu ding

Cast: Jiang Wu, Luo Lanshan, Meng Li

China 2013

133 mins

Although director Jia Zhang-ke denies that his close relationship with Office Kitano involves more than financial support, the ferocious A Touch of Sin is very much in the same vein as the Japanese director’s best films, albeit intensified by the social-political backdrop addressed here. Based on four real-life criminal cases (including a murder, a suicide and a couple of killing sprees), Zhang-ke’s story represents a cross section of contemporary Chinese society, in different areas of the country. Seen from that perspective, the film is a sanguinary, tense investigation into the Chinese economic miracle and the brutalising effect it has on the lives of ordinary people at the bottom of the ladder. In a world not theirs, they ultimately can’t help but vent their rage, rising up against authority. On a visual level, A Touch of Sin is a powerful war of the senses, in the way the stylised violence seems aligned with the characters’ innermost thoughts and emotions, enabling the audience to savour a similar cold adrenaline rush to that of the wuxia and Lady Vengeance-type characters on screen.

Pamela Jahn talked to the director at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where the film deservedly won Zhang-ke the award for Best Screenplay.

Pamela Jahn: Your film is based on four real-life criminal incidents in China. How did you become aware of them?

Jia Zhang-ke: In recent years, all these violent events have been publicised through social media platforms in China, and then they were widely discussed in the printed press too. But in the film I fictionalised everything, so it doesn’t really matter if the audience knows about the real-life events and what really happened.

What was your biggest challenge in making the film?

For me the biggest challenges were the action parts, because I am not used to shooting action to that extent. So I had to ask myself questions like: how should a character shoot, or use a knife? How should the victims fall? This was all new to me, but I had a great team of professionals to help me with these scenes. All four cases revolve around the same overall theme, but I wanted to include different aspects in each of the stories. So for me the other big question was: how can I make the narrative work? I have more or less 30 minutes to tell each story, so how do I tell the story effectively in the limited time available?

You have repeatedly worked with Office Kitano, but this time the connection to his own films seems more obvious than before. What is your relationship to Takeshi Kitano?

I have been working with Office Kitano since 2000 for Platform, which was about young people’s lives from 1979 to 89 – the first 10 years of progress in China. This is my fourth project that they are investing in, but in the past my films didn’t have the same level of violence. I have always liked Kitano’s films though – he has found a remarkable way to connect violence and loneliness.

How much was he involved in the production of A Touch of Sin?

A Touch of Sin is available in the UK on VOD from 8 September and on Blu-ray/DVD on 15 September 2014.

It was mainly financial.

Is there anyone else who influenced you in particular for this film?

My biggest influence was King Hu, and the films he made back in the 1970s, in which he addresses the subject of political oppression and the violent reactions of different individuals. I wanted to make a film about violence, too, but I couldn’t find a cinematic language that I was happy with. Then I thought about martial arts movies, about the same things that happened in the past as now.

Your film explores the different social ranks in Chinese society and the injustice that prevails. It seems quite an achievement in itself that you were able to make a film that openly addresses social and political subjects in all of their complexity.

These issues are now more and more discussed in mainstream media, but it’s true that in the past it was not possible to talk about anything like this in films, in particular the gap between the rich and the poor – which is why I wanted to make the film now, because it would be a real shame if we only talk about it in the news and not in art.

Did your status as an international director have an impact on whether or not the film would make it past the censors? And did you have to make compromises in order to avoid censorship?

It is possible, but I think it’s more that the authorities are slowly beginning to understand that we can no longer avoid the problems we are facing right now. I think if we want to push for openness and change we have to believe in creative freedom in our works. With A Touch of Sin, I had no idea whether it would pass censorship, because it would not have in the past, even just a few years ago. But Why it did pass now, I don’t quite know. The message that I am sending to the censorship authorities is that in my world everything is possible. I can make a film about anything I want and I will continue to do so.

It’s a quite pessimistic film overall. To what extent does it reflect your inner feelings in terms of where the country is heading?

Both anger or rage, and pessimism, are personal emotions that we have to address and we have to attempt to rationally understand the reasons behind those emotions. I didn’t intend to make a film about violence, rather I wanted to address that violent streak in human nature that is triggered by the environment.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Watch the trailer:

The Robber: Interview with Benjamin Heisenberg

The Robber
The Robber

Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 March 2014

Distributor: Filmhouse

Director: Benjamin Heisenberg

Writer: Benjamin Heisenberg, Martin Prinz

Cast: Andreas Lust, Franziska Weisz, Florian Wotruba

Germany, Austria 2010

101 mins

Based on the real-life case of the Austrian serial bank robber who became known as ‘Pumpgun Ronnie’ in the late 1980s, Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber (Der Rä;uber) tells the story of Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust), a successful marathon runner and confirmed criminal, who is driven by a constant, uncontrollable need for speed and adrenalin rushes. Shortly after being yet again released from jail, Rettenberger inevitably falls back into his old habits, raiding and running, soberly measuring his heart rate after any physical strain. He even breaks records as an athlete at local competitions, but neither the sport nor the unconditional love he receives from his girlfriend Erika (Franziska Weisz) can bring his troubled mind to rest. Following a man permanently on the move, Heisenberg succeeds in capturing the inner turmoil of Rettenberger’s animal-like spirit with the same meticulous precision and steely determination that his character puts into his strict training scheme, which gives the film an unsettling intensity and unfaltering energy.

The Robber premiered at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival, where Pamela Jahn caught up with Benjamin Heisenberg and talked about the challenges of filming a character who is constantly running, communicating his self-destructive energy and approaching the story like a wildlife documentary.

Pamela Jahn: Do you run?

Benjamin Heisenberg: No, but I thought that I should maybe start now. I have tried jogging a couple of times but I didn’t last very long.

In The Robber you are reworking the criminal case of Pumpgun Ronnie, aka Johann Kastenberger. Your film is based on the actual events but the script is largely drawn from Martin Prinz’s source novel. How much of the film comes from your own and Martin Prinz’s imagination and how much from actual fact?

We started off with the book because Martin, who was also my co-author, wrote the novel but he let me go off with it and extract the action parts around which I wrote a treatment. And then, parallel to writing the first draft of the script, we started researching the real character in detail. We met up with people who knew Kastenberger as a runner and also with people who knew him as a criminal, and with family members. We collected all this material and weaved all these elements into the script. Most of it is close to the real story, although the real man was probably more psychopathic than our main character. But I have to admit that working on the script was pretty tough and we changed it twice, completely. We used to have a lot more back and side stories in the second version but, in the end, we decided to limit it and we came back to an earlier version, which you now see on screen.

How did people react when you tried to talk to them about the case?

There were people who didn’t want to talk to us because they had enough of it. In Austria in the 1980s it was a big thing, and quite a few people who were closely involved with the man were simply fed up with the press and people interrogating them, and asking them where the money went. And we respected that. By the end of the day, he was a character who was fairly easy to understand. That energy that was inside him, you get that immediately when people talk about him, and that’s what fascinated me most with the character and kept his story alive for us during the writing process.

His energy and inner determination are almost infectious.

I have to admit there was a point where I thought I couldn’t do it. It was 2007, so about a year after I had started working on the project, I had some sort of crisis. I was really in bad shape, because I realised that I couldn’t go on writing this character – he was getting too close. [SPOILER ALERT] I had the feeling that I had to write another ending because I couldn’t let him commit suicide, it had to be different, and I panicked. [END OF SPOILER] But then there are elements in his character that I could relate to from the very first moment and that I find incredibly intriguing, which are the strength he has inside him and that kind of animal-like instinct that drives him.

Watch the trailer:

Where does this drive come from?

He’s looking for situations that take him to his absolute limits, it’s an urge that burns inside him, that he can’t resist. At the same time, he radiates an remarkable ease and rigour when he is in these situations. It’s that combination that is so powerful and intriguing, but on the other hand it is extremely self-destructive.

Andreas Lust, in the lead role, captures Rettenberger’s troubled mind and nature quite effortlessly. How did you develop the character together?

Andreas is someone who has this same sort of energy inside him and he sometimes can be off-camera like the character he’s playing. And that’s why we cast him in the first place. The funny thing was that, in the beginning, he wanted me to give him more back story and psychological explanations and for some scenes we did that. But most of the time I tried to tell him that a huge part of this character is an animal, he is like a wolf. That’s why I planned to make parts of The Robber like a kind of wildlife documentary, even though it was staged and dramatised. I said to Andreas, if you are a wolf, you have to be that wolf, you can’t play it, you can’t fake it, because then it becomes implausible. And then Andreas really identified with the character and he dived into it. There was a moment when we were filming him running, and I said, ‘Could you run a bit slower?’ And he said, ‘No, why? This is how he does it, and I do it the same way’. And we had an argument about it. It was really tricky to find that balance. But for me, Andreas really combines those two sides of Rettenberger: he can be pretty determined but he also has a very fragile, vulnerable side.

I can imagine it being quite difficult to film someone who is constantly running, constantly on the move?

Yes, absolutely, because the camera can react to this in many ways: it can swivel, or stay static or move with him. So you have to decide what works best for the scene, so that you get a feeling for the movement, the speed, but also the space he is running in, his surroundings. And every time he runs, or is on the run, it’s a new challenge.

You mentioned Rettenberger’s vulnerability, and what really seems to make him human is the relationship he has with his girlfriend Erika.

I always thought of this whole story as a sort of Greek tragedy with a character who has a fate that is laid out for him. And the moving thing about their love is maybe that this woman, who is very independent and who knows what she wants in life in a very modest way, falls in love with him and deliberately allows it to happen. Erika knows how to deal with Rettenberger, who lives a very alienated life and doesn’t care about social niceties or anything. However, at the same time she has a kind of vulnerability, an inner secret and a pride that she protects. And that’s something that bonds the two individuals on many different levels. It’s interesting when, at one point, she says to him: ‘You have to make decisions, and if you don’t, it mean’s something.’ That describes her really well. And she decides to go for this guy who is very dangerous, but she also knows that she can’t hold him, that eventually he will run away – literally.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Berlinale 2014

The Dark Valley
The Dark Valley

Berlin International Film Festival

6 – 16 February 2014

Berlin, Germany

Berlinale website

After a strong, ambitious programme in 2013, which proved that there is still very much life in the 60-year-old festival, this year the Berlinale felt like a step back. But while the Competition line-up in particular left much to be desired, the festival on the whole included attractive events (including special screenings of Snowpiercer and Nymphomaniac) and terrific guests such as Nick Cave and Lars von Trier, all radiating an unflinching sense of excitement about the of future editions.

One of the most enjoyable entries in Competition was Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land. A nihilistic neo-Western road movie comedy thriller, the film was originally shot in 2009, but then held by censorship authorities and rescheduled several times over the past few years because of its allegedly negative portrayal of the police. After at least three official resubmissions and endless editing and re-cutting, the version of the film presented here was the one that had finally been released theatrically in China in 2013. Yet, it came as a welcome surprise that, except for its newly attached, and effectively arbitrary ending, Ning Hao’s wildly cynical (and frequently bonkers) fable remains tightly paced and eminently fun to watch, if nothing more substantial.

Scratching a little deeper beneath the surface of China’s social malaise, it was bizarre frozen noir Black Coal, Thin Ice by fellow countryman Diao Yinan that was deemed worthy of the Golden Bear for Best Film. And, much to everyone’s surprise, the jury also honoured its star, Liao Fan, with the Best Actor award. The story begins in 1999 in northern China, where Zhang (Liao Fan), a washed-up, recently divorced cop, is tasked with investigating a murder case after some body parts were discovered in a number of coal shipments in the area. But rather than solving the mystery, Zhang eventually loses his place on the force until, five years later, a chance encounter with an old colleague leads him to become entangled with the case again. With nothing else in his life to cling to, he quickly becomes obsessed, both with the investigation, and with the widow (Gwei Lun Mei) around whom it all seems to revolve. What becomes clear in the course of increasingly irritating events is that, while a truly extraordinary visual experience, Black Coal, Thin Ice can’t disguise the conventional heart that beats at the centre of the narrative. Still, in the context of a fiercely underwhelming Competition, it did make the film engaging and puzzling enough to stand out from the rest.

Watch the trailer to Black Coal, Thin Ice:

A similar plot problem prevented Hans Petter Moland’s In Order of Disappearance from being anything more than average, fun crime fare. Convincing embodying a man whose resolve is sorely tested, Stellan Skarsgård plays Nils, a reputable snowplough driver by profession, more at ease with action than words – especially if he is upset, or angry, or both. Devastated when his son suddenly dies of a heroin overdose, he decides to take revenge. Although the filmmaking is assured and the pace correspondingly brisk, keeping in line with its hero’s spirit, there is no denying that Moland also reworks an all too well-tested formula here, which places his playful slice of Nordic noir at risk of running idle.

Watch the trailer to In Order of Disappearance:

It was Andreas Prochaska’s rare Austrian Western The Dark Valley, presented out of competition as part of the Berlinale Special strand, which turned out to be one of the most debated revenge chillers of the festival. A former editor for Michael Haneke, Prochaska first gained credit as a director with slash horror flick Dead in Three Days (In 3 Tagen bist du tot, 2006), but The Dark Valley is a different kind of beast entirely. Based on the 2010 bestseller by Thomas Willmann, the film is set in a distant higher region of the Tyrol Alps in the 19th century. Grim-faced Greider (Sam Riley), a storybook-style lonesome horseman, arrives in a remote village just as winter sets in, isolating the place from the rest of the world. Introducing himself as a photographer intending to capture the impressive landscape and its inhabitants, the mysterious, quiet American is greeted with distrust but eventually finds shelter with Luzi (Paula Beer), the narrator of the story, and her widowed mother. It comes as no surprise that Greider’s true intent is nothing less than vengeance, in this case against old Brenner (Hans-Michael Rehberg), an uncompromising patriarch who has ruled over the women in the village for decades by claiming droit du seigneur over any newlywed brides, including Grider’s beloved mother. It’s not long before blood is shed and once the cards are on the table, things move slowly towards a final showdown. While the film has been widely criticised for its clumsy storytelling, flat, cliché-ridden characterisation and uncompromising, grim stolidity, its advocates suggest that The Dark Valley is well worth a second look as it stumbles into that small canon of films that dare to relocate the tropes and texture of the Western genre to some bleaker bolder, more eccentric climes. There is no denying that, aesthetically and conceptually, Prochaska aims high here, but while he dazzles on the former level, he is not as successful on the latter. Still, you have to admire Riley for keeping a perfectly straight face throughout his fierce revenge frenzy, while Prochaska and his cinematographer Thomas W. Kiennast make excellent use of the snowy landscape that serves as an appropriate setting for a staggering war of retaliation.

Watch the trailer to The Dark Valley:

One of the true standouts this year was Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s intriguing and vastly inspiring Nick Cave portrait 20,000 Days on Earth. Following on from the short films they made to accompany the albums of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the artist-filmmaker duo have created a beguiling, artistic and spirited look at the life and work of a man who, celebrated as a musician, songwriter, author, screenwriter, composer and occasional film actor, never seems to rest.

Through a vivid collection of memories, archive materials and conversations with those who have affected and inspired him, both professionally and personally, the film explores Cave’s very personal views on the world in general, and his everyday life and creative process in particular. If there was one thing to take away from the film, and perhaps the festival on the whole, it was that dazzling feeling of awakening and the incentive to work hard for your passion and dreams – to suffer the pains and savour the victories.

Festival report by Pamela Jahn

Check out our previous Berlinale coverage.

London Film Festival 2013 – Part 5

Why Don't You Play in Hell
Why Don't You Play in Hell?

BFI London Film Festival

9 – 20 October 2013

London, UK

LFF website

In our final report from the 57th edition of the London Film Festival, we review some of our favourite titles from this year’s line up, along with one of very few disappointments.

Check out Part 1, 2, 3 and 4 of our 2013 LFF coverage.

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sion Sono, 2013)
After a couple of serious post-apocalyptic dramas made in reaction to the Fukushima disaster, Sion Sono returns with a gleeful, mischievously fun, candy-coloured comedic gore fest about wannabe cineastes hired by feuding yakuza to make a film. Humorously violent and deliriously excessive (as is to be expected from Sono) it features some striking scenes, from the yakuza boss’s white-clad young daughter sliding through a blood bath in their all-white living room, to the sexy, sassy, sadistic broken-glass kiss she gives a treacherous lover ten years later. The story takes a while to get to where it is obviously heading, but when it finally does, it does not disappoint: the verve with which limbs and heads are cut off and blood liberally spilt in the final showdown as the fanatic filmmakers continue to shoot is giddily, stupidly exhilarating. After the underlying darkness and complexities of Guilty of Romance, Cold Fish, Love Exposure and Suicide Club, this feels like a return to simpler pleasures and youthful brazenness, which may be due to the fact that the script was written 15 years ago.

Set up as a film within a film within a film, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is also a warm, exuberant love letter to cinema. It references Bruce Lee through a screaming, nunchaku-wielding action star wearing the iconic yellow jumpsuit, and comically pays homage to yakuza movies, more particularly Kinji Fukasaku’s. And amid all the madcap humour, there is a certain wistfulness about the death of 35mm, projectionists, old-school fights, Japanese culture, and the corrupting influence of money on cinema. Inventive, playful and thrill-packed, it is a vastly enjoyable slice of film-affirming fun. VS

Night Moves (Kelly Reichhardt, 2013)
Kelly Reichhardt’s latest is concerned with three eco-activists Josh, Dena and Harmon (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) who have decided to go further than their documentary-making, organic vegetable-farming compadres and blow up a dam. As they plot to do so, their conflicting characters, backgrounds and motivations are revealed. The operation is a success, of a kind, but has unintended consequences Confident, ballsy Dena becomes an emotional wreck, sensitive, taciturn Josh grows more and more paranoid, and the conflicts become chasms. Reichhardt does good work in setting up her characters and then showing what their crime does to them. She is also is very smart and subtle about mileu and motivation, while the amateur eco-doc we see projected on a white sheet at Josh’s commune is spot on (and is actually shot by producer and horror auteur Larry Fessenden, fact fans!). As is the lame discussion afterwards.

Night Moves has its moments of well-achieved tension, but for me was a disappointment after Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. There, her ‘less is more’ aesthetic paid off with absorbing, anxiety-inducing films that linger in the mind. Here… I don’t know, we spend an awful lot of the running time looking at Eisenberg’s anxious face, we get an awful lot of silence, and we get a Meek’s Cutoff-style finale that just sort of…ends. I needed more, for once, never feeling as involved as I did with her previous works. All in all, it’s a bit of an unthriller. MS

Watch the trailer for Night Moves:

The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013)
Richard Ayoade’s second feature film is a very mannered affair, taking pace in its own transatlantic nocturnal bubble, where the architecture is utilitarian, charmless and shrouded in Lynchian gloom, the juke boxes play old Japanese pop tunes, and mobile phones are significant by their absence. Based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, it follows Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), an office drone whose life is a series of frustrations. Nobody notices him, his contributions are ignored, his transgressions are seized upon, and he can barely function when attempting to interact with fellow worker, and romantic obsession, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). So far so depressing, but then one day Simon’s exact double turns up at work, and immediately begins to climb the corporate ladder. This new version is confident and dynamic, a hit with the bosses and a wow with the ladies; he seems to be a better Simon than Simon could hope to be, and slowly begins to edge the original out of his own existence…

The Double eschews any kitchen-sink naturalism (the default setting for many British filmmakers) for a highly stylised, intricately planned and executed aesthetic. There’s more than a hint of Gilliam’s Brazil here, in its office politics and romantic frustration. Each scene is framed, timed and sound designed to create the maximum humiliation for Simon, and there’s a lot of physical comedy here at his expense (automatic doors particularly seem to have it in for him), while his plight is accentuated by staging that leaves him locked out and blocked off from where he wants to be. Also adding to the ‘movie movie’ experience is the casting, or, what I believe is known in the trade as ‘overcasting’: Ayoade has clearly called in a few favours to fill out his film, and as a result we have most of the actors from his first film Submarine turning up here, as well as a couple of his I.T. Crowd co-stars, and apparently everybody else with a resume he could get hold of. I’m in two minds about the effect of all this on the viewing experience. On one level it’s like another design element (I was reminded of John Water’s stated ambition to make a film where everybody who appears on screen is a celebrity of some kind, and the sets are deliberately fake). On the other hand, it is undeniably distracting to have familiar face after familiar face pop up in the tiniest roles (Chris Morris! Chris O’ Dowd! Paddy Considine! Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis, as a janitor, for christ’s sake!) regardless of the quality of their contribution (loved Tim Key’s turn as a heroically unconcerned care home worker, though). I fear that all this stylisation seals the viewer off from total engagement somewhat, and while it plays on common nightmares, it plays as someone else’s.

Whatever… this is bold, intelligent filmmaking. Eisenberg does great work as both unter-Simon and uber-Simon, suggesting two entirely different characters through body language and gesture, often acting against himself in scenes which must have been a technical nightmare. It gets interestingly dark and painful in places, I already want to see it again, and I await whatever Ayoade does next. MS

Watch the trailer for The Double:

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
Remember Alien‘s classic poster tag line ‘In space no one can hear you scream’? It would have also been the perfect fit for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity which, arguably, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and mesmerising films out in cinemas this year. That is, if you are willing to suspend your disbelief at the door and take the film at face value. And most likely, you will. Because from the moment you’ve put your 3D glasses on, Gravity embraces you with its awe-aspiring CGI heart and soul. ’Life in space is impossible’, we are told, along with a summary of plain facts: 372 miles above Earth’s surface, there is no air pressure, no oxygen, and no atmosphere to carry sound. And it’s that very sense of fatal, lonely isolation that Gravity radiates, with an instantly disarming charm and cinematic virtuosity.

Gravity is released in the UK on 8 November 2013 by Warner Bros.

Though essentially a two-hander, with George Clooney as the well-versed astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney being his usual smart, irresistibly charming self) and Sandra Bullock as the overly committed, new-to-space scientist Dr. Ryan Stone, who are caught in an accident while they are out in space repairing a satellite, this is really Bullock’s film. With their shuttle destroyed and all connection to Houston and soon to each other lost, she drifts through the scary, silent darkness of the universe, fighting her way from one space station to the next in the slowly dying hope that she might be able to return to Earth, all alone with her troubled soul on her mission to survive.

Taking the power of long, unbroken takes and seemingly limitless CGI imagery to a new dimension, Cuarón wisely alternates the settings between claustrophobic ship interiors and the boundless expanse of the cosmos, while never losing sight of the incredible beauty of Earth as seen from space, unashamedly putting it all in, from strikingly rendered scenes of sunrises to the northern lights from orbit. But while there is no denying that the film clearly underestimates audiences’ intelligence in terms of plot and character depth, everyone in for a unique cinematic ride against the backdrop of the abyss of outer space will have a fantastic time. PJ

Watch the trailer for Gravity :

The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies (Witkor Eriksson, 2013)
Witkor Eriksson’s affectionate documentary looks at the life and work of Joe Sarno and his loyal wife (and costume designer) Peggy. Dubbed ‘the Ingmar Bergman of porn’ by John Waters, Sarno is responsible for some 75 features, but best known for the run of films he made from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s. Young Playthings, All the Sins of Sodom, Sin You Sinners, Sin in the Suburbs (do you sense a theme?), Inga, and many more, culminating in Confessions of a Young American Housewife, and Abigail Lesley is Back in Town. These were all self-penned works with a recognisable auteurist signature. ‘They were always about women’, notes Annie Sprinkle, and normally featured headstrong, not necessarily pleasant lead characters bringing about their own doom in oppressively bland contemporary America (or occasionally Sweden). Clearly atypical filth, they have gained a cult reputation over time, featuring in RE/Search’s original Incredibly Strange Films book, and now being screened and discussed at the BFI and other edifices of artistic respectability.

Not that this helps out Joe much, who is 88-years-old here, looking unfit, and a victim of bad contracts and shady deals, who doesn’t own or benefit from much of his substantial back catalogue. The Sarnos spend their life flitting between New York and Stockholm, clearly barely able to keep the wolf from the door. Eriksson follows them as Joe tries to get one last feature together, and investigates a life lived on the disreputable underside of the film industry. The film posits that the films Sarno wanted to make were rendered uncommercial by the arrival of hardcore porn, which effectively destroyed the grindhouse/drive-in ‘sexploitation’ genre. The raincoat brigade just wanted to watch people screw, and didn’t want to sit through his glum psychodramas, waiting for the sex scenes when they didn’t have to. The Sarnos also suggests that he didn’t want to have any part of the hardcore business after the failure of Abigail Lesley in 1975, largely glossing over the interim decades, but a quick glance at his IMDB page tells you that he carried on plugging away with explicit smut, and I wish the doc had asked him more about his (reluctant? regretful?) participation in these lesser works.

That bugbear aside, The Sarnos is fine stuff. It’s oddly delightful to watch this ageing couple having matter-of-fact conversations about absolute filth, while there is plenty of arcane and interesting detail to absorb, and the clips of his 1960s/70s output are tantalising. Joe and Peggy are complicated, charming people, and it’s a study of a long-term relationship as much as it is a treatise on a life in dirty movies. Be prepared to wipe away a tear. MS

Watch a clip from The Sarnos – A Life in Dirty Movies :

The Long Way Home (Aiphan Eşeli, 2013)
Set (and filmed) in East Anatolia, The Long Way Home takes place in 1915, just after the Battle of Sarikamish. A mother, her daughter and their guide, refugees from the conflict, are struggling over the snow-choked mountains when their horse gives up the ghost, and they find themselves struggling through the forbidding landscape, and the remains of war, on foot, passing thousands of frozen corpses to arrive at a burnt-out village not found on their map. Digging in to wait out the storm they find two surviving villagers, and then a couple of soldiers, but as the food runs low, what are they prepared to do to survive?

Aiphan Eşeli’s impressively confident first feature works first as a battle-against-the-elements tale of human persistence, then turns darker and more brutal as desperation sets in, only to turn again in a bit of a coup-de-cinema with a devastating final reel. Powerful, widescreen, intimate/epic stuff. MS

Watch the trailer for The Long Way Home :

The Kill Team (Dan Krauss, 2013)
A few years back, a platoon of US soldiers serving in Afghanistan made the news as ‘the kill team’, amid troubling stories about Afghans pointlessly killed and body parts kept as souvenirs. Dan Krauss’s documentary follows the defence team and parents of one of the accused, Adam Winfield, as he is prosecuted by the U. S. Army, interviewing two other platoon members, Stoner and Morlock, along the way. What emerges is a jaw-droppingly horrible account of apparent sociopaths given carte blanche to kill for fun. Winfield claims that he tried to blow the whistle on the Platoon’s actions, but was stymied by a system that didn’t want to hear it, and had to take part in one of the killings for fear of his own life. The others seem utterly unrepentant, and seem to have taken to indiscriminate murder partly because they had been trained to kill, not dig wells, and Afghanistan wasn’t what they felt had been advertised. ’It wasn’t like what they hyped it up to be, and that’s probably why, y’know, stuff happened…’

The Kill Team may focus too much on Winfield’s trial and not enough on the 5th Stryker Brigade, and it has the gaping hole of platoon leader Gibbs (who instigated the madness, denies everything, and wouldn’t take part) at its centre, but it still opens up a world of darkness to argue over long after its closing credits. Recommended. MS

New World
New World

New World (Park Hoon-jung, 2013)
This is the type of film that South Korean directors seem to do so superbly well: the dark action thriller with a conspiracy twist. Directed by Park Hoon-jung, New World is not nearly as disturbing, bleak and tortured as the incredibly twisted revenge story I Saw the Devil, which was written by Hoon-jung, but it is still a gripping, very well-executed example of the crime genre.

Undercover police officer Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) is a mole who has worked his way up in the echelons of Goldmoon, a crime syndicate that the cops have spent years trying to crack. When Goldmoon’s chairman manages to evade a guilty verdict in court, only to be killed in a car accident, a bitter struggle for succession ensues. Ja-sung, who has become a lieutenant to the powerful and vicious Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min), is desperate to get out, but finds himself manipulated into becoming an integral player in the power struggle by his handler, Chief Kang (the always fabulous Choi Min-sik).

Although it starts out fairly generic, New World gradually evolves into something much more compelling, adding in a series of twists, some foreseen, others completely surprising, that make the story increasingly complex and exciting to watch. With all the brutal back-stabbing going on between the police and criminals alike, there’s plenty of violence and gore on top of the more thought-out plot points. Needless to say that by the film’s powerful and dramatic conclusion, there are few men left standing. SC

Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin

London Film Festival 2013 – Part 3

The Strange Colour of Your Bodys Tears 1
The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears

BFI London Film Festival

9 – 20 October 2013

London, UK

LFF website

With the 57th BFI London Film Festival now in full swing, Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford and Sarah Cronin report on more films being screened over the next nine days.

Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of our LFF previews and come back for more reviews throughout the festival.

The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani, 2013)
As gorgeous as it is oppressive, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s latest neo-giallo is an ultra-sensuous, hypnotic trip through dark desires and the disturbing, delicious lines between pleasure and pain, madness and sanity, dream and reality. With what has to be the best title of the festival, riffing on the wonderfully convoluted names of the films that inspired it, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears strengthens the potent aesthetic vision of the directing duo’s 2009 feature debut Amer, focusing entirely on pure sensation. In this hallucinatory, obsessive psychosexual dream, every shot is a marvel of composition, every object and texture is fetishized: leather, gloves, boots, jewels, blood, mirrors, blades. Male and female bodies are repeatedly penetrated, skull wounds are shaped like sexual organs, broken mirror shards enter flesh, as sensual ecstasy becomes deadly and lovers turn assailants.

The narrative is even more minimal than in its Italian predecessors – a man is looking for his missing wife – and it serves as the pretext for an intense distillation of the visual and sonic motifs of the giallo. Just as its masters effortlessly found stunning decors in beautiful, decadent Italian architecture, Strange Colour makes great use of the Brussels art nouveau building in which it is set. With its exuberance of organic round shapes, flowery motifs, voluptuous naked women, twisted stairs, stained glass and golden curlicues, the building is like a living organism, the figures on its walls breathing and moaning with the rapture and agony of its inhabitants.

A baroque film composed of giallo elements that are themselves baroque, Strange Colour constructs a dizzying, infinite cascade of doubles and repetitions, of stories within stories and structures within structures, where everything is mirrored, multiplied and fragmented. While it pays brilliant homage to its models, it is compellingly alluring in itself, and its meticulously crafted world of lush excess, sumptuous sophistication and opulent illusion is deeply seductive. VS

Watch the teaser trailer for The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears:

Harmony Lessons (Boris Khlebnikov, 2013)
Directed by 29-year-old first-time Kazakhstani filmmaker Emir Baigazin, Harmony Lessons was one of the most impressive films in the international competition at this year’s Berlinale. In its essence, the film is a twisted school-bullying revenge drama revolving around introverted 13-year-old Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov), who is targeted by his ruthless classmates. In return, Aslan vents his anger and frustration on cockroaches and other pests and insects that he uses as guinea pigs for the cruel little scientific experiments that he conducts in his room. Things seem to get slightly better when a student arrives from the city and helps defy the bullies, while palling up with Aslan. However, when a murder takes place at the school, the main suspects are easily found, transforming both the characters and the plot into something deeper, darker and more mysterious. With its existential overtones and the creative assurance of a young director who seems to have little to learn from any arthouse veterans, Harmony Lessons is an inventive, genre-defying film located on the borderline between the real and the imaginary, and deserves more attention than it received in Berlin.

Watch a clip from Harmony Lessons:

Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013)

“War is death, Hell is pain, chess is victory.”

It’s the early 1980s, and a nondescript American hotel is hosting a computer chess tournament, in which various teams will match their machines against each other over one weekend, with the winner to play against a human being for the grand finale. It’s a kind of geek Olympics, which the world, most assuredly, is not watching, and things aren’t going to plan: one of the competitors has failed to book a room and wanders the corridors at night; another team grow concerned as their computer seems determined to commit suicide on the battlefield. Tensions and conflicts grow, and to make matters more uncomfortable, these generally uptight types are sharing the hotel with a touchy feely ‘encounter group’ who have booked the same weekend.

Mumblecore director Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess promises at first to be something of a lo-fi Best In Show, a comic study of a particular group of obsessives in their own environment, a parade of analogue tech and bad hair. It’s shot in black and white, seemingly on a contemporary video camera, and starts in a naturalistic mode. But as the film progresses things get weirder: the late-night chatter revolves around artificial intelligence and the Pentagon, and the apocalyptic uses to which their technology might be put; cats multiply; smart people seem to be consumed by odd ideas; and a whole lot of sex doesn’t happen. There is the suggestion that the work that they are all engaged in may have altered the world in some way. It’s a funny, charmingly strange piece of work in which the unravelling of minds is reflected in increasingly inventive visuals, and massive ideas are conjured on a tiny budget. Cool. MS

Watch the trailer for Computer Chess:

A Long and Happy Life (Boris Khlebnikov, 2013)
City boy Sasha (Aleksandr Yatsenko) is now a farmer employing a handful of locals, and hoping to turn his land into a viable commercial operation when shady developers take an interest in the property. Everyone else seems to be selling out, and the council offers him no choice but to sign and take the compensation, which he is about to do until his workers convince him to make a stand against the powers that be. A deadline approaches, and a showdown seems assured, but while Boris Khlebnikov’s film is inspired by High Noon, it’s a very cynical, Russian take on that scenario. ‘You shouldn’t have listened to us… we’re morons,’ admits one of the more honest workers to Sasha’s face after it all starts to go south, in one of those ‘Hollywod scenes we’d love to see’ moments that world cinema occasionally throws up. A punchy 79 minutes. MS

Watch a clip from A Long and Happy Life :

Trap Street (Vivian Qu, 2013)
Li Qiuming is a naïve, trainee urban surveyor, who develops a romantic obsession with Guan Lifen, a girl he spots on the job, and tries to engineer ways to bump into her again, when not engaged in his sideline of installing secret security cameras. Vivian Qu’s film plays partly as a love story, but takes a darker turn when Li disappears during a date, and all that romantic behaviour is seen in another light. There’s nice play here with streets that don’t exist on maps, and maps that don’t stick to real-world geography, in a China where the truth is whatever the authorities say it is. ‘We don’t arrest innocent people,’ says a policeman at one point, as it all gets a bit nightmarish, in a low-key thriller with shades of The Conversation. MS

Story of My Death (Albert Serra, 2013)
In which an aging Casanova (Vincenc Altaio) moons about a mansion, strains on the toilet, indulges in an odd bit of wenching, and delivers monologues about the nature of the world for an hour or so, before repairing to the country, where Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) shows up. Casanova seems to represent the enlightenment, reason and open sensuality, Dracula something darker and more violent. It doesn’t end well. For the record this Count is hirsute of face, as in the Stoker novel, but sits about in the sunlight, which seems a bit off.

Albert Serra makes proper art-house films of the type that barely trouble art-house cinemas anymore, impenetrable things featuring dialogue with endless pauses, ravishing pastoral photography, gnomic visual metaphors and murky plotting. There’s much to engage with here if you’re in the mood, much to infuriate you if you’re not, but if the world had no room for baffling 148-minute-long indulgences like this, then we’d all be living in a poorer place. MS

Watch a clip from Story of My Death :

Shame (Yusup Razykov, 2013)
Almost certainly inspired by the Kursk tragedy, when 118 men died aboard a nuclear submarine after an explosion and an inept (if nonexistent) rescue attempt, director Yusup Razykov rejects the more obvious approach to the story – that of an on-board thriller – in favour of a slow-burning drama focused on the wives of the men lost at sea. Set in a remote outpost in the far north of Russia, the story mostly revolves around Lena (terrifically portrayed by Maria Semenova), who’s recently moved from St. Petersburg to the bleak, desolate, Communist-era ‘town’ inside the Arctic Circle, where her high-ranking husband has been stationed (though the audience never meets him; the only men left at the base are either the young or those unfit to serve). Lena, in her black high heels, keeps to herself, rejecting the company of the other, more matronly wives, and is seemingly indifferent to both them and her husband. Slowly, painfully, word begins to spread that a tragedy has struck the submarine, sparking a chain of consequences that sweeps through the lives of the devastated women.

Shame starts with an enigmatic mystery, only resolved much later; for the most part, events play out slowly until then, but the film has a compelling rhythm, while the cinematography beautifully captures the cold, heartless environment. What unfolds is a moving, at times heartbreaking, yet redemptive portrait of a woman and a community that exist at the mercy of outside forces. SC

Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin

London Film Festival 2013 Preview – Part 2

only lovers left alive
Only Lovers Left Alive

BFI London Film Festival

9 – 20 October 2013

London, UK

LFF website

In the second part of our BFI London Film Festival previews, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford and John Bleasdale pick out more highlights from this year’s festival line-up.

Check out Part 1 of our LFF previews here and look out for more coverage throughout the festival.

All Cheerleaders Die (Lucky McKee, Chris Sivertson, 2013)
Anyone who’s suffered through the likes of Head Cheerleader Dead Cheerleader, and Delta Delta Die! will know that the cheerleader-based horror film is a dubious prospect at best, but All Cheerleaders Die is spiky, nasty and massively enjoyable. The first third of Lucky McGee and Chris Sivertson’s film is a tense and unnerving affair, as, after a shattering opening sequence, we follow high-school-outsider Maddy while she infiltrates the cheerleading squad at Blackfoot High with some kind of dark agenda, sowing distrust and disharmony in an already spiteful, brittle environment of ‘bitches’ and ‘dogs’. The paranoia builds, and there are no especially sympathetic characters, only a sense that something dreadful is going to happen, which it duly does, as tempers flare during a party scene. After this the film changes, via some witchy business, into an arguably less interesting, but undeniably more fun, out-and-out black comedy horror ride. It’s as if Afterschool morphed into Jennifer’s Body, but a lot more entertaining than that sounds. It’s sharp stuff, with quotable dialogue and a game cast giving it their all. The sexual politics may be debatable, and assassinating airheads may be like shooting fish in a barrel, but sod it. This is great. MS

All Cheerleaders Die
All Cheerleaders Die

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
The winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was the talk of the town from the moment of the first press screening until long after the award ceremony. Although most critics immediately fell in love with this oddly seductive, three-hour lesbian love saga, soon after taking home the main prize, the film was slammed by others for some oddly positioned camera angles focusing on the central character’s arse and the lengthy scenes of real-looking sex between her and her female lover, allegedly all designed for the male gaze. What’s more, Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel the film was inspired by, has publicly expressed her disappointment about Kechiche’s adaptation, describing the sex scenes as ‘ridiculous’ and comparing them to porn. What’s true is that Kechiche has a tendency to keep the camera pointed and rolling just a little longer and deeper than most directors would have done when it comes to depicting Adèle’s lust for life, love and home-made spaghetti.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour will be released in UK Cinemas by Artificial Eye on 15 November 2013.

On the other hand, the sex aside, there simply aren’t many films that manage to keep you hooked for that sort of running time on not much more than the coming-of-age of a middle-class, high-school girl who instantly and desperately falls for a foxy art student, from the moment she spots her on the street until their painful and moving break-up as young adults. That of course is in no small part thanks to the two leads, Adèle Exarchopoulos (Carré blanc) and Léa Seydoux, who play their parts with utter conviction, guided by a script that allows them to find their own voices. PJ

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
The latest offering from Joel and Ethan Coen was one of the hottest tickets in Cannes this year, and deservedly so. Inside Llewyn Davis tells the heartfelt story of an itinerant, relentlessly failing and unashamedly self-pitying folk singer in 1960s New York, loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, who was at the centre of the Greenwich Village music scene. Adored by many at the time, Van Ronk never had his big breakthrough, just as Davis (Oscar Isaac) struggles to keep his head above water with occasional gigs in a tiny club called Gaslight, and with the help of his peevish ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) who might, or might not be, expecting his child. But that’s only one of the many problems leading to his downfall, which culminates in a trip to Chicago to visit the legendary folk club The Gate of Horn.

Inside Llewyn Davis will be released in UK Cinemas by Studiocanal on 24 January 2014.

To a large extent, the Coens are working in known territory: a bunch of flawed, but strangely intriguing characters, dry-as-dusk dialogue and some wonderful music supervised by T-Bone Burnett, fused together into an impressively subtle, dark but magical character study that says as much about shattered dreams and the trouble with art as it does about the mystery of life and luck. What makes the film uniquely special, however, is Isaac’s riveting performance (both playing the guitar and acting), and who makes his precariously unlikable character unexpectedly compelling, as he wanders through the streets and other people’s lives, and shines whenever he’s on stage. PJ

Watch the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis:

Locke (Steven Knight, 2013)
Steven Knight’s second film in one year – the first was the Jason Statham thriller Hummingbird – is a brilliant minimalist piece of cinéma de chambre, in this case the chamber being the titular protagonist’s car. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is driving alone from Birmingham to Croydon, away from his his wife and two teenage sons, from his work as a senior site supervisor on a huge building project, and from his life as he knows it so far. Armed only with the car phone and some tissues and cough medicine for his head cold, Locke attempts to repair the damage even as he is doing it. Boasting a wonderful performance of unshowy maturity by Hardy and driven by a superbly detailed script by Knight, Locke is a film that is never hampered by its own rigorously applied confines.

The emotional moments are hard won and brilliantly delivered. Although credit should also be given to the vocal presence of Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman and Andrew Scott, Hardy carries the weight of the film with aplomb. To add to the difficulties of holding the screen on his own for the duration of the film, he also adopts a Welsh accent, which is entirely in keeping with the character, who makes poetry out of hard work and who desperately struggles to maintain his values and integrity even when they will effectively destroy him. JB

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
After Jarmusch’s last film, The Limits of Control, it seemed that another great director was close to losing his genius, but there is a welcome sense of rebirth about Only Lovers Left Alive from the moment it opens. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston make for a brilliant pair of vampire lovers who have been truly, madly, deeply in love for centuries, yet are now living apart. Swinton’s resilient and enigmatic Eve resides in lush Tangiers while Hiddleston’s disheartened underground musician, Adam, is holed up in the outskirts of derelict Detroit. When their longing for each other becomes unbearable, Eve decides to take on the difficult journey (she can only travel at night) to reunite with Adam, but soon after the couple are back together, their gently hedonistic idyll of non-murderous blood and old vinyl is disrupted by the arrival of Eve’s unnerving, uncontrollable younger sister (Mia Wasikowska).

Only Lovers Left Alive is released in UK Cinemas by Soda Pictures on 21 February 2014.

Nothing much happens in Jarmusch’s sensuous fantasy of night and nostalgia, apart from the fact that the pair are running short of the sort of pure, uncontaminated blood that they now need to keep them going. But watching these two archetypal outcasts, still in full possession of their animal instincts, as they roam around trying to blend in with their surroundings, is an undemanding, irresistible pleasure. PJ

Watch the trailer for Only Lovers Left Alive:

Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi, 2013)
Picking up the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival a few weeks ago, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Sacro GRA takes the Roman ring road – the GRA, the Grande Raccordo Anulare – as a fairly arbitrary rope with which to lasso a hodgepodge of eccentrics and colourful characters into an at-times funny and occasionally moving, but oddly unrevealing picture of a series of places. Rosi has gathered an eel fisherman, an ambulance worker, a monkish tree surgeon, a seedy nobleman, a father and daughter chatting in their emergency housing, and bar-top dancers preparing in the dingy back room of a grubby bar. The road passes close by them, but serves little purpose except a tenuous connection and perhaps a structuring absence. The road is the audience that passes by these lives but doesn’t stop to listen, perhaps. As with previous work – El Sicario, Room 164 and the American based Below Sea Level – Rosi maintains a neutral space of bland observation, but sometimes the neutrality feels like a pose. As with Le Quattro Volte, which feels like a rural companion piece to Rosi’s documentary, there is an awkward feel of an essayist presenting his supporting evidence too neatly on the page. The hair-in-the-gate spontaneity is missing and some of the effects realised are done so neatly that there is a suspicion Rosi is filming his characters with specific traits in mind: the laughable photo-novel and the horny-handed hero of toil. JB

Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, John Bleasdale

London Film Festival 2013 Preview – Part 1

Under the Skin
Under the Skin

BFI London Film Festival

9 – 20 October 2013

London, UK

LFF website

With this year’s 57th edition of the BFI London Film Festival just around the corner, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, John Bleasdale and Pierre Kapitaniak preview some of the feature films screening in cinemas across London during the first week of the LFF, including Ari Folman’s bold, riveting and unmissable The Congress, Ivan Sen’s Australian western Mystery Road and Jia Zhangke’s angry, strikingly stylised A Touch of Sin, and J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, which features one of Robert Redford’s finest performances.

Check out Part2 of our LFF previews here and look out for more LFF coverage throughout the festival.

A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013)
Although director Jia Zhangke officially denied in interviews that his close relationship with Office Kitano was more than simply based on financial support for this production, A Touch of Sin feels like a ferocious piece of work very much in the same vein as the best films by the Japanese director and friend, albeit intensified by the social-political backdrop addressed here. Based on four real-life criminal cases (including a murder, suicide and a couple of killing sprees), Zhangke’s protagonists represent a cross section of contemporary Chinese society, from different areas of the country. Seen from that perspective, the film, which deservedly won Zhangke the award for Best Screenplay, is a sanguinary, tense investigation into the Chinese economic miracle and the brutalising effect it has on the lives of ordinary people at the bottom end of the ladder, who ultimately can’t help but vent their rage, rising up against authority, in a world not theirs. Likewise, on a visual level, A Touch of Sin is a powerful war of the senses, in the way the stylised violence seems gently aligned with the character’s innermost thoughts and emotions, enabling the audience to savour a similar cold adrenaline rush as those wuxia and Lady Vengeance-type characters on screen. PJ

Watch the trailer for A Touch of Sin:

Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam, 2013)
Alex van Warmerdam returns with Borgman, which masterfully plunges into the uncanny without ever fully acknowledging the supernatural dimension of the plot. Indeed, Camiel Borgman (played by Jan Bijvoet, recently seen in Alabama Munro) might well be the devil, as suggested by the Bible-like quotation opening the film: ‘And they descended upon earth to strengthen their ranks.’

The feeling of something otherworldly is introduced from the opening scene, in which two hunters, accompanied by a Catholic priest, hunt down Borgman and his followers, who are living in underground shelters in the forest (reminiscent of the Black Man in Warmerdam’s The Northerners). On the run from them, Borgman arrives at an upper-middle-class house asking for a bath and gets sorely beaten by the owner, while the wife takes pity and shelters him. From then on things go wrong, and we soon realise that Borgman is definitely more than just a tramp, as he turns into a literal night-mare, such as pictured by Henry Fuseli. Once again, in his very idiosyncratic style, Warmerdam combines social criticism of the bourgeoisie with mystical angst, leaving the audience to weave the threads of interpretation as they please. PK

Watch the trailer for Borgman:

The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013)
Opening this year’s Director’s Fortnight, Ari Folman’s follow up to his 2008 Cannes competition entry Waltz with Bashir is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, highly ambitious in its scale and complexity, and fuelled with dazzling animated beauty. In a daringly intimate performance, Robin Wright plays herself, an acclaimed actress just past her prime with a market value diminished to zero, her previous stardom being long buried in Hollywood history. When her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), tells her she’s being given one last chance by her studio, Miramount, Robin reluctantly agrees to a meeting, unknowing what this final offer entails. The plan is to motion-capture Wright, to copy her body, feelings, memories, and gestures in order to create a digital alter ego that can easily be adjusted to fit into any blockbuster, TV show or commercial as required by the studio. As part of the deal that promises her both a generous pay-off and the guarantee of eternal youth on screen, the real Robin Wright must retire with no claim as to how her virtual self is being used in the future. At first, she refuses, but family constraints force her to reconsider.

So far, The Congress might appear as a vicious, darkly cynical take on the movie industry in the digital age and how Hollywood treats its ageing goddesses. What then happens, however, about 50 minutes into the film, is best seen first-hand. Loosely inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, and again combining animation and live action to puzzling effect, Folman jumps forward 20 years to find the real Wright aged and out of business, while her alter ego has become one of the biggest action heroines on screen as ‘Rebel Robot Robin’. Invited to Miramount’s Futurological Congress, the actress must pass into a strange animated zone, which opens an entirely new, imaginary universe of its own, crowded with celebrity doubles who escape their daily misery through drug-induced hallucinations; it’s a place that visually blends the style of 1930s Betty Boop cartoons and the trippy aesthetic of Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World. At the same time, Folman slows down the action to plunge into something darker, deeper, more inventive and more existential than merely teasing the Hollywood system to the core. Soused in gorgeous imagery and surreal, intoxicated melancholy, the second half of The Congress meanders gracefully between philosophical, religious and ideological reflections on the human condition, yet despite minor flaws, never loses sight of its original premise. The film is a fiercely original, bold and riveting meditation on the future of the silver screen and the stars that make it shine. PJ

Mystery Road (Ivan Sen, 2013)
Ivan Sen’s fine, modern-dress Australian western impresses as much for what it doesn’t do as much as what it does. It’s unhurried, unprettified, and has a sparse soundtrack with minimal music; not everything is explained, and much is left unsaid. In other words it’s a genre film made for adults – remember them?

Aaron Pederson plays a man alone, an aboriginal copper, treated as the enemy by his own people, and hardly ‘one of the boys’ in the small police department he has recently returned to in outback Queensland. Tasked with a job nobody else wants – investigating the murder of a teenage aboriginal girl – he begins to uncover some murky business involving drugs and prostitution, in which his own force, and, more queasily, his own abandoned daughter, may be involved. Clearly headed into troubled waters, and with nobody to back him up, he begins to look more and more vulnerable under those wide-open skies…

The set-up is entirely conventional for any number of thrillers, but there are no Hollywood faces here, no extraneous action sequences, no master criminals either. The details of life in this harsh environment are well observed, and the atmosphere of menace is well sustained right up to the brilliantly delivered final confrontation. All the performances are pitched just right, with Hugo Weaving especially good value as the wayward and worrying leader of the drug squad (in terrifying double denim!). It looks great, too, especially the night sequences, where the land turns black, and the horizon is a riot of oranges and reds, with human figures picked out in sick green neon. Photography by Mr. Sen as well. Clever boy. Gold stars. MS

Watch the trailer for Mystery Road:

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Jonathan Glazer’s return to feature films after an almost decade-long absence, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as a predatory alien who prowls Glaswegian streets in a white transit van, searching for young men who will not be missed. Mixing arthouse visuals of mesmerizing abstraction with naturalistic (and occasionally incomprehensible) street scenes and occasional lurches into Lynchian horror, the film escapes the gravitational pull of its genre and the dubious slightness – and potential misogyny – of its storyline. As with Johansson’s victims, we are beguiled by the look of the film, its self-confessedly empty eroticism and its otherworldly perspective on mundane British life. Whereas the criminally underrated Birth riffed on Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Under the Skin ditches the lightweight satire of the Michael Faber source novel to absorb the influence of Nic Roeg – The Woman Who Fell to Earth if you will – and create a disturbing trip into the other. JB

Watch the trailer for Under the Skin:

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté, 2013)
Canadian critic-turned-director Denis Côté’s eccentric Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Vic et Flo ont vu un ours) starts off promisingly, but gradually loses momentum, as well as character depth, before an unexpectedly superb, if bitchy, ending. Pierrette Robitaille as Victoria, who has been discharged early from prison for a life sentence, and Romane Bohringer as Vic’s former cell mate and now lover, Florence, who has her own agenda for consistently soft-selling Vic’s mounting fear that she will eventually drop her, both give convincing performances as the outlaw couple trying to make a new start somewhere in the Canadian forest. But Côté doesn’t quite manage to keep the viewer interested in his deceptive directing choices and the film’s enigmatic atmosphere, so much so that one doesn’t really care anymore when the trap that has been carefully laid out eventually snaps shut. PJ

Watch the trailer for Vic + Flo Saw a Bear:

Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, John Bleasdale, Pierre Kapitaniak

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews