If there is one place on Earth where film lovers can truly find solace, it has to be in Sitges during the Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya, which this year celebrated its 46th birthday, presenting yet another packed programme to a hungry audience. For the power of cinema to transform, there can be no better example than a seaside town turning itself into a Mecca for lovers of genre film. For 11 days, Sitges eats, breathes and lives film, with queues of filmgoers on the streets, the celebrity spotters, the red carpet junkies and much, much more.
With Europe still reeling from economic mishaps and with unemployment sky high, it would be foolish to expect any festival to remain untouched. However, it is to Sitges’s credit that the festival managed to maintain an aura of positivity and encouragement, reminding audiences that art plays an important role in lifting the mood of people, as well as in creating new channels of debate.
Although this year’s edition saw many heavy-hitters within the genre present their work to the public, including Eli Roth, Ti West and Lucky McKee, it was the smaller, lesser-known films that stole the limelight.
Afflicted (Derek Lee, Clif Prowse, 2013)
Although at first glance, it seems like just another entry in the over-crowded found-footage market, Derek Lee and Clif Prowse’s entry in the genre proves to be head-and-shoulders above most of their competition. Focusing on the directors’ attempt to travel around the world, Afflicted sees Derek contract a mysterious disease. As his body starts to reject all food and begins to show signs of superhuman strength, the two best friends try to figure out the source of the illness and save Derek before it’s too late.
While Afflicted suffers from all the negative trappings of the found footage film, it’s not long before the keen eye of the directors makes itself felt. The set-up is familiar, yes, and the acting decidedly hit and miss, but it’s the technical prowess and the sheer adrenaline excitement of some of the set pieces that really carry the film forward. Reminiscent of the last climax of Josh Trank’s Chronicle (2012), these set pieces are both technically impressive and visually exciting, giving the film a momentum that at other times can be lacking. Overall it can be considered a very impressive calling card from two young directors who prove what you can achieve with very little money.
Les rencontres d’apràs minuit (Yann Gonzalez, 2013)
Ali and Matthias, along with their transvestite maid Udo, prepare for a midnight orgy in their apartment – they’re waiting for the arrival of The Star, The Teen, The Slut and The Stud. With such a set-up, the audience might expect some sort of vivid, garish and highly questionable scenes to play out, as one after another the members of the orgy arrive. What we get instead is a delicate and very deliberate rumination on the nature of time, on love, on desire and on very large penises.
With thrilling and seductive electronic sounds from M83, Yann Gonzalez’s first feature-length film may fall short of its ambitions, but nonetheless this is one of the more original and engaging films to emerge from any country this year. Boasting a talented cast including Eric Cantona as The Stud, Les rencontres d’apràs minuit (You and the Night) deserves to find an audience with those willing to take their cinema in more intelligent form.
Watch the trailer for Les rencontres d’apràs minuit:
Possession (Brilliante Mendoza, 2013)
Brilliante Mendoza’s winning streak comes to an end with his depiction of the supernatural invading the immoral battle between rival television companies. Playing out like a cross between over-wrought satire and found-footage genre film, Possession (Sapi) tells the story of Meryll Flores (Meryll Soriano), who after being unable to get the footage she needs to boost the ratings of her Sarimanok Broadcasting Network, uses underhand tactics and buys the footage of a real-life possession, filmed by the camera crew of their rival network, Philippine Broadcasting Channel. The director plays this in tandem with the members of the team slowly becoming ‘possessed’ themselves; whether the supernatural stands as a metaphor for the greed and anger that pervades Philppine media is for the audience to decide.
However, the structure of the film does not work with the usual hand-held style of the director, and becomes grating by mid-point. The analogy between the evil that men do and the actions of those in the media feels overdone, and while some of the special effects are eye-popping, there’s nothing here for the audience to really hang onto. Although overall a mess, there’s no doubt to Mendoza’s talent – but it remains up to the director to perhaps distil his message more precisely for his next project.
Watch the trailer for Possession:
Real (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2013)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s foray into science fiction is built upon an intriguing premise: Manga artist Atsumi (Haruka Ayase) lies in a coma after trying to killer herself by drowning, leaving her lover Koichi lost and bewildered. Koichi (Takeru Satoh) agrees to use new ‘sensing’ technology, which allows him to step into her subconscious and try to bring her back out. However, complications arise when Koichi is inside Atsumi’s mind, experiencing the version of reality created by her subconscious.
Similar in concept to last year’s Vanishing Waves, the film’s promising start gives way to a dull and plodding series of events, which seem to go nowhere. Although Kurosawa continues his exploration of themes such as alienation, loneliness, the self and reality, Real ends up being nothing more than a very forgettable and obvious effort. The deft touch he showed in films like Retribution, and even his recent TV series, is missing here, and what the audience is left with is a bland trip into the subconscious, punctuated by the most ridiculous third-act revelation. An unusual miss from the master.
Watch the trailer for Real:
Ugly (Anurag Kashyap, 2013)
Last year’s Gangs of Wasseypur represented a pinnacle for director Anurag Kashyap: a culmination of his skills in one of the most important films of Indian cinema, a rule-breaking behemoth that defied pretty much everything an industry is known for. However, if Ugly is anything to go by, Anurag Kashyap has not stopped striving; perhaps best described as a low-key companion piece to Gangs of Wasseypur, it is another prime lesson in confrontational cinema.
Rahul, a wannabe actor whose chance to succeed is fast running out, is spending the day with his 10-year-old daughter from a former marriage to Shalini, now a middle-class housewife kept prisoner by her police-chief husband Bose. When Rahul leaves his daughter Kali in the car to pick up a script from his casting-director friend Chaitanya, the little girl goes missing. What follows is the ugliest, most brutal damnation of human nature that cinema has seen for a long, long time. Playing out like a shrine to humanity’s failings, Ugly is one of the darkest, most impressive noir films you could ever hope to see. No one, and it’s worth repeating this, absolutely no one in Ugly has any redeeming qualities, and if anyone makes the mistake of making any humane gesture, they’re promptly punished for it. From the desperate father with a star complex to the ex-wife with suicidal tendencies, Anurag Kashyap exposes all his creations as twisted and horrifying. His ability to take standard Bollywood characterizations and put them through the greed and hunger of the 20th century creates unforgettable moments in a film filled with desperation and excess.
Kashyap also managed to pack into the tight running time some of the most incredible cinematic sequences seen this year. Ultimately, the film is further proof that there’s something very exciting and remarkable happening within Indian cinema; it remains to be seen what Kashyap will offer us next – whatever it is, it certainly will be worth watching.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Documentaries
Canada is home to Hot Docs, one of the biggest and best international documentary film festivals in the world, and almost nothing worth seeing in factual cinema skips their notice.
That said, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the biggest and best international film festivals in the world – period. The breadth of programming includes, of course, documentary cinema, and while the number of titles is clearly lower since Hot Docs more than admirably picks up that slack every spring, in the fall, TIFF screens its fair share of high profile docs. Most are world premieres with a few designated as North American premieres.
This section of my annual TIFF report focuses on five feature docs that screened during the 2013 festival, with subjects as diverse as a movie about a movie, a movie about a very famous beekeeper, a movie about Sir Edmund Hilary, a movie about international adoption and a movie about Jews presumably not being as funny as they used to be. You’ll find everything from the great to the good to the not-so-good and, yes, the ugly. So saddle up and join me on a cinematic horsy ride through the colonies, your ever-so-loyal Dominion of Canada, with my report on a mere smattering of documentary product that was on display at the majestic madness that is the Toronto International Film Festival 2013.
When Jews Were Funny (Alan Zweig, 2013) *****
Alan Zweig made two feature films this year. The first was unveiled in the spring of 2013 at Toronto’s Hot Docs. Entitled 15 Reasons to Live, it was inspired by his friend Ray Robertson’s book of the same name.
Zweig kept the book’s 15-chapter headings to structure his film – Love, Solitude, Critical Mind, Art, Individuality, Home, Work, Humour, Friendship, Intoxication, Praise, Meaning, Body, Duty and Death – and then searched out 15 stories that best exemplified each reason to live. He shot and cut each story separately and laid them out in the aforementioned order. Each tale was honed to perfection in the cutting room first and then the transitions from tale to tale were finessed. At times these transitions were subtle and gentle, while others delivered my favourite kind of cut – the cut that takes your breath away. Literally. These cuts, when they work, are not jarring either – they kind of slide in and sidle up to you and before you know it, you’ve been winded.
This structural approach works just perfectly. The film shares an architecture similar to that of Dubliners by James Joyce and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. It’s a literary structure that Zweig renders, quite astonishingly, into pure cinema. Each book has several great short stories that work fine on their own as such, but when taken all together, they generate an effect not unlike some dazzling combination of a full novel meshed with a mesmerizing tone poem. This cinematic application of Anderson and Joyce’s literary approaches are precisely the thing that, with this film, launched Zweig as a filmmaker into some kind of stratosphere.
Stylistic and structural leaps and bounds are one thing, but Zweig used them to make a film that brought together everything that makes his work so goddamn special; all the compassion and humanity your heart could possibly desire in a perfectly cohesive package celebrating life itself.
Zweig’s first feature-length documentary Vinyl (full disclosure: I was a producer of this film)
was not about the music, but rather, the obsessive collecting of the arcane platform the music was laid down to, the vinyl, the thing itself. As for the accumulation of vinyl, the film never resorts to the obvious – it’s not a film about what’s so quaintly eccentric about collecting, but what, in fact, is missing from the lives of those who do – Zweig’s included.
Then came I, Curmudgeon – the title should speak for itself. Of the numerous ’negative’ personalities (again including Zweig) who are examined, one of them (sort of) jokes that he genuinely fears that the first words his child will learn are ‘Mama’, ’Papa’ and ’Asshole’.
I especially remember that my own response to this moment was to chuckle with considerable health – a bit of the ol’ humour o’ recognition. While watching the scene, I remembered how cute I thought it was when my daughter at age two would, from her booster seat in the car, yell out as we drove – just like her road-rage-afflicted Daddy – ’MORON!’
Some time later I realised she was not referring to the idiot Toronto drivers as ‘moron’, but, in fact, innocently thought the word for ’car’ was not ’car’, but…’moron’. (Zweig once told me I was the most negative person he knew. I balked. Mostly because I thought Zweig was the most negative person I knew. He tempered his charge, though, and said, ‘No really, you are, but you’re in denial.’)
Zweig’s third feature doc was Lovable. Somewhat less infused with self-loathing, he decided to train his camera upon women who chose to remain single. Of course, at the time, Zweig was single and had been for some time – not by choice – and he was curious as to what would drive those from the opposite sex to choose that lifestyle. (Of course, making so much out of being single he couldn’t help but allow a few threads of delectable self-loathing to creep in.)
These first three feature docs comprise a sort of semi-intentional ‘mirror trilogy’, so named as Zweig, between his penetrating, incisive and often very funny interviews, appears on camera, but only reflected in a mirror. His reason for this – initially – was that it ’looked cool’, but he later revealed it was because he could manipulate the way he appeared on camera and even to himself as he confessed to hating his appearance.
Zweig’s fourth feature documentary was A Hard Name. He is heard off camera conversing with his subjects, but no more mirror. This had nothing to do with him – well, not completely, anyway. This turned out to be a film that never fails to devastate those who watch it. Zweig talks to a group of hardened criminals, ex-cons who never, ever want to go to prison again. These were men who’d spent most of their lives institutionalised in one way or another, but now do whatever they need to do to make sure they never put themselves in a position where they’d have to do time.
There have, of course, been many documentaries about ex-cons, but none like this. It is, first and foremost, a film about forgiveness – societal forgiveness of these men, to be sure – but mostly the courage it took for these ex-cons to forgive themselves and, in some cases, the individuals and institutions responsible for abusing them in their early lives. For his efforts, Zweig won a Genie, the Canadian equivalent to the BAFTA or Oscar. For once, it could not have gone any other way, and it didn’t. The picture that should have won Best Feature Documentary – won!
Then came the aforementioned fifth feature doc, 15 Reasons to Live and now, in the very same year, he premiered his sixth feature-length documentary film at the Toronto International Film Festival. But before I discuss When Jews Were Funny, you’ll note I’ve referred to all the aforementioned as Zweig’s ‘feature documentaries’, but if truth be told, his latest feature doc is actually his seventh feature film.
In 1994, Zweig directed his first feature. The Darling Family is a tremendously moving and superbly directed film adaptation of the play by Linda Griffiths, and is an ambitious, powerful and sadly neglected dramatic motion picture that should have been seen and celebrated well beyond the brief shelf life it occupied. Its pedigree alone demanded far more attention than it received even in Canada.
Griffiths is one of the leading lights and true pioneers of Canadian theatre. She wrote and starred in Maggie and Pierre, the hit show about Maggie Sinclair and her relationship and influence upon her very famous husband, the late, great Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The show played consistently to sold-out houses across the country. The Darling Family enjoyed a healthy, though milder box-office success than the incisive and bitterly funny satirical work about Canada’s First Lady. In many ways, though, The Darling Family might well be the play that Griffiths is best remembered for – no small thanks to a film that’s as fine an interpretation as any playwright could hope for.
Not only did Zweig brilliantly adapt this bleak kitchen sink two-hander – a sort of Canadian amalgam of gritty 1970s cinema and the ‘Angry Young Man’ genre from the UK’s 1960s New Wave – it starred its original theatrical cast, with Griffiths herself opposite the great Alan Williams as her co-star.
Williams, of course, was the legendary playwright and actor from the UK who was referred to England’s Hull Truck Theatre by none other than Mike Leigh, where he mounted his astounding one-man show The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati, a huge hit in Britain. When he brought the show to Canada after an extensive European tour, it grabbed the Land of Maple Syrup by the short hairs and played coast-to-coast to sold-out houses. Williams emigrated to Canada not long after, and became one of the Dominion’s most prolific and successful playwrights. Now considered one of its most stalwart character actors in film and television, he also had a stint on the faculty of the famed University of Winnipeg theatre program, wherein he nurtured a huge whack of Canada’s best theatre artists.
So here’s a film from a hit play with two of Canada’s best and most beloved actor/playwrights (not to mention a haunting score by eventual Life of Pi Oscar winner Michael Danna) and it came and went without a trace. It did, however, receive a to-die-for review by Canada’s leading film critic, Geoff Pevere, in the country’s ‘newspaper of record’, The Globe and Mail. Pevere delightfully suggested that The Darling Family was perhaps the ’most perverse date movie’ audiences would ever encounter, but in his estimation, an ideal date movie.
I can’t argue with his assessment. The Darling Family is an utterly harrowing 90 minutes that wallows in the roiling emotional torment experienced (in one mega kitchen sink) by a middle-aged couple verbally jousting on opposite ends of a decision to abort a child. As date movies go, it certainly beats Sandra Bullock clomping about with Ryan Reynolds.
Alan Zweig has always been about humanity, and all his work has been infused with compassion. The subject matter (save, perhaps, for 15 Reasons to Live) might – to some – suggest otherwise, but it’s the surface darkness, the often mordant wit, the unflagging care he takes with his subjects, his refusal to let any of them off easy, and his determination to dig deep into the marrow of humanity that places him at the forefront of the world’s master filmmakers.
He’s a great interviewer – probing, insightful, funny, thoughtful and entertainingly conversational – and this, if anything, characterises a good chunk of his style. This wends its way through all his documentaries and it’s one of many reasons why it’s impossible not to be riveted by them.
He’s got an original voice as a filmmaker, in more ways than one. Firstly, there’s his voice – you know, the one lodged quite literally within his vocal chords. Nobody, but nobody can sound like Alan Zweig: a perverse blend of Eeyore in the Disney Winnie the Pooh cartoons and a craggy been-there-done-that cigar-smoke-throat-coated Borscht-Belt stand-up comic. And secondly, ABSOLUTELY nobody can make movies the way he does.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Zweig’s original approach is that he is, first and foremost, an avid collector. His films are populated with large casts of subjects and these individuals are inextricably linked to the themes of the films, but as such, he pulls from them the things that make each one of them unique.
What he does with his filmmaking is to collect his subjects. Yes, he collects people; he steals and hoards their images (Stealing Images is the title of his classic short drama that won the very first TIFF Best Short Film prize in 1989) with the same passion he collects vinyl or books or movies or tchochkes. BUT unlike the inanimate objects he normally collects, he can’t purge himself of his collection of subjects by dropping them off at the Goodwill Store. They belong to him. Through his films, Zweig gets to keep them forever, not just for himself but also for the world.
If there’s any difference between his 2013 films and his previous work, it’s that he forced himself into maintaining a strict number of subjects to add to his collection. In 15 Reasons to Live, there is one key departure: he tells each person’s story separately without the documentarian’s crutch of weaving in and out of his subjects’ lives, stories and perspectives.
When Jews Were Funny might well be the picture to finally put Zweig over the top, and if there’s any filmmaker who deserves this more, I can’t even begin to imagine who they might be. His entire output is ripe for discovery beyond North America, and frankly, even within his own country.
A common question from some of the more befuddled subjects in the new doc goes something like: ’Is this about being Jewish or comedy?’ A fair question, but frankly, in the sense that Jews and comedy seem to be inextricably linked within the very ethos of North America, it’s probably safe to say it’s about both. In fact, it sometimes seems like the entire Ashkenazi diaspora was solely concentrated in Canada and the USA, where the seeds of stand-up comedy as we know it today were sown during the early part of the 20th century.
The sufferings that led European Jews to the ’New Land’ are incalculable. Yet, Zweig’s film proves (or at least confirms to the converted) that North American humour would not exist without Jews and, in fact, would not be as brilliantly funny and distinctive as it is without the influence of non-Jewish European prejudices, ethnocentrism and hatred foisted in their direction.
Through the subjects Zweig interviews, When Jews Were Funny furthermore presents the perversely provocative and vaguely horrific notion that without purges, pogroms and the Holocaust, the world might well have been bereft of the stand-up style and genius of Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles, and the list goes on, for a light-year or two at the very least.
As a film, I can’t say I’ve ever quite seen its like before. I could, of course, probably say this about all of Zweig’s films. The fact of the matter is that they are endowed with the surface tropes of the documentary genre, but he continually subverts all expectations and plunges you into the least expected territory and in a style uniquely personal and finally very much his own – so much so I predict that we’ll eventually see new generations of filmmakers drawing from his approach and using it as a springboard for their own work. This, of course, is what all great art inspires, and Zweig is poised perfectly to do this.
On its surface, When Jews Were Funny features an off-camera Zweig interviewing a wide variety of stand-up comedians who share one thing beyond their profession – they’re all Jewish. He begins his journey with some of the greatest surviving legends of comedy: Shelley Berman, Jack Carter, Shecky Greene and Norm Crosby. It’s this old guard who reject Zweig’s theories about Jews and humour almost outright, though all of them, via his interview style, come round to acknowledging the Jewish influence upon humour, save perhaps for Jack Carter who seems fairly steadfast about refusing to concede.
Watch a clip (Shelley Berman) from When Jews Were Funny:
While the sweet Shelley Berman never comes out and agrees, his separation of humour and Jewishness starts to move closer in proximity, especially during a joyously heart-rending moment when he delivers the very thing Zweig is really searching for, and why Zweig equates Jewish culture with comedy in the first place. It’s one of those extraordinary moments we can thank cinema for – and when it comes, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
The middle-aged and younger comedians are occasionally confused by what exactly Zweig is looking for (though a number of them ‘get it’ immediately and expound upon it brilliantly). The extraordinary thing, though, is that the journey Zweig takes us on, and that we take with him, happens during his conversations. If he has an agenda, he never shows it, and in fact, it’s as if the process of making the film – the journey itself – is what allows Zweig (and the audience) to discover the wisps of those things that haunt all of us.
When you grow up, you equate popular culture of that specific time with your own ethnicity, your own religion, your family, your community, your values – all those things that shape and mould you – with what comes at you from a television, radio, movie screen, record player, magazine or newspaper, and all those you hold dear – mothers, fathers, siblings, extended family, neighbours, friends – are, yet again, inextricably linked.
Most of Zweig’s subjects confirm this. A few of them are absolutely captivating when they do so.
David Steinberg full-on addresses the very nature of suffering experienced by the Jewish people and its relationship to humour when he declares: ‘The thing that helps humour is oppression, the thing that kills humour is assimilation. If you’ve had a great childhood, a good marriage and a little bit of money, you’d make a lousy stand-up comedian.’ He also makes the point of how funny his own family was – his dad and aunt, for example, would switch to Yiddish and shoo the kids out of the room for fear they’d hear the filthy jokes emanating from their mouths.
David Brenner echoes this. He describes his dad as someone who was funnier than the entire range of great comedians put together, and tells a great story about how he’s been taught that humour exists in everything. The fatherly advice here is that to do this, one must make use of a ’third eye’, or as his dad termed it, ’the Funny Eye’ – that thing you use when looking at anything. Needless to say, the example Brenner provides is hilarious.
In fact, there isn’t a single subject who isn’t funny in the film. Almost all of them tell one or two specific jokes, but most importantly, when they’re addressing the topic at hand, they’re equally hilarious. Howie Mandel slays us with his description of how Jews can never betray themselves by feeling good; how they need to shovel every morsel of suffering into their soul when they try to say something positive, so that their faces contort into hideous grimaces, not unlike someone with the worst case of constipation imaginable as they attempt to squeeze a rock-hard turd out of their tuchus.
Bob Einstein (AKA ‘Super’ Dave Osborne) might be the only comedian interviewed who seems utterly humourless, especially since he accuses Zweig on camera of not knowing what he’s talking about, not knowing what he wants and, at one point, not even listening to him. That said, the very conflict – the meeting of two great curmudgeons, if you will – is supremely enjoyable and yes, it’s funny.
Watch a clip (Norm Crosby) from When Jews Were Funny:
‘Jews own humour and I’m proud to say that that’s true,’ says Steinberg, but it’s Gilbert Gottfried who astutely points out that Jewishness is so often muted. He states that all of the characters on Seinfeld are clearly and obviously Jewish, but that the show (and so many others like it) goes out of its way to pretend that the characters are not Jewish. Gottfried’s incredulity on this point is knee-slappingly mordant. He points out that even if a Jew converts and changes his name, he’ll still be herded into ‘whatever mode of transportation is available to be taken to whatever mode of extermination exists.’
This is a great film – brave, brilliant and personal – but (and that’s a big ’but’) its power is ultimately in its universality. Ultimately, I think there are three core audiences for this film, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily exist in separate vacuums. They might be different, but they’re all going to be infused with the same spirit.
The most obvious target would be almost anyone of Jewish heritage. I do, however, say ‘almost’ because there appears to exist a minority of this ethnic group (or, if we must, religion) that might not appreciate Zweig’s picture. Though, frankly, it’s probably a minority of one.
Allow me to explain.
I had a shocking, though telling and funny experience during the 2013 TIFF. I was scanning the humungous schedule boards displayed in the TIFF Bell Lightbox to see if I could squeeze a seventh film into what was supposed to only be a six-film day. A lady stood beside me, also scouring the board. Noticing my media badge she said, ‘I’m looking for something I can take my 80-year-old mother to tonight, but I don’t know what to choose.’ I immediately recognised the distinctive North Toronto (a huge Jewish enclave of the city) timbre in her voice.
‘Have I got a picture for you!’ I beamed ever so Eureka-like. ‘When Jews Were Funny!’
I could almost taste the bile spewing from her as she spat out, ‘Alan Zweig?’
‘Yeah, Alan Zweig. It’s his new picture. You’re not a fan?’
‘A fan? You ask if I’m a fan? I hate Alan Zweig!’
‘What’s to hate?’
‘What’s to hate? His kind of Jewishness and how he represents the Jewish people is offensive.’
She admitted she had yet to see the film, but based upon previous work – none of which has any ‘Jewishness’ save for Zweig, a Jew who happens to be the filmmaker of said ‘offensive’ films – she explained that he was among many Jewish people in the entertainment business who didn’t offer what her idea was of what it really meant to be Jewish.
‘Well, what is that?’
‘What does it really mean to be Jewish?’
‘You have to ask?’
I didn’t answer. Instead, I bravely suggested Zweig’s film might surprise her.
‘No!’ she said, as if banging the final nail herself into Christ’s flesh. ‘It’s not for me.’
Like I said, a minority of one, no doubt. It did, however, warmly remind me of the scene in Zweig’s movie when Howie Mandel does a hilarious riff on how all Jews answer questions with questions.
So, aside from Jews, the second big audience will probably be anyone – goyim, that is – and especially, I think, those of some manner of Eastern European persuasion who belong to the generation that grew up with the stand-up comedians popular during the 1950s and 70s. As a number of subjects point out, much of the humour is dependent upon the distinctively Yiddish cadence in the delivery, one so familiar to Eastern Europeans that it creeps not so subtly into their own ‘delivery’.
Finally, the third audience will be anyone who loves great movies brimming with insight, humour and the eternal quest for those defining elements of one’s past that now seem gone forever, save for one’s memory of them.
And it’s this journey that is the most profoundly moving element of the film, one that pretty much anyone, no matter what their ethnicity, race or religion will respond to. We are all haunted by those things that shaped us in our youth and the reality of how everything changes – fleeting, flickering ghosts that wither away and dissipate before us. When Jews Were Funny is a film that makes us long for those things that were once tangible, but now reside only in our spirit. If anything, we’re all His children and I can think of no better way to share in this collective desire to clutch at our past with dear life through the very special eyes of His chosen people.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013) ***
If we imagine a world without Star Wars, we can imagine a world where cinema was not dying as it is now. If we imagine a world where Alejandro (El Topo) Jodorowsky beat Star Wars to the punch with his planned film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, we can imagine him laying the groundwork for a new and different kind of film spectacle, rather than the empty state-of-the-art 80s blockbusters that spawned endless rollercoaster rides masquerading as movies.
Frank Pavich’s feature documentary is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing what might have been one of the great movies of the late 20th century. A mere five-million-dollars short of becoming a reality, the film was to star Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Seeing this doc is to indulge in the creative excitement that went into every second of preparing this epic motion picture. We experience Jodorowsky’s pride (albeit with a tinge of melancholy) at planting seeds for the future greatness of others from a movie that was never made. The films exists only in a massive frame-by-frame storyboard book with the screenplay and Jodorowsky’s notes – a document used to raise additional financing in Hollywood, but which was instead passed around to one filmmaker after another. Hollywood accepted the genius, but rejected the artist and, sadly, his film.
Watch the trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune:
Burt’s Buzz (Jody Shapiro, 2013) ***
Jody Shapiro is a genuine creative producer and ‘Odd’ might well be his middle name. Working with Guy Maddin in the latter stages of the great surrealist’s career, Shapiro also became Isabella Rossellini’s chief collaborator on her Green Porno series.
Shapiro is clearly a natural to lovingly document the life of Burt Shavitz, the bearded hippie whose face adorns ‘Burt’s Bees’ health-store products. The film is mostly all-Burt-all-the-time. The camera loves him, and his low-key irascibility allows Shavitz to engagingly spin his own story – the city boy who moved to the backwoods to become an avid beekeeper. With assistance from the woman he loved, the company grew to gargantuan proportions and the shy country gentleman became a brand.
There’s melancholy to the tale since Burt was not happy with corporate life, and his love life dissipated. He sold his shares in the company and his ‘brand’ for peanuts. He continues, however, to make a decent living doing personal appearances.
Shapiro wisely bounces between the solace of Burt on his farm and the genuine adulation he receives during live appearances. This simple, but effective, juxtaposition presents the contrast, conflict and two sides of the coin that is Burt Shavitz. It’s essentially a sweet, funny and loving portrait of a man, his dog and his bee farm. He occasionally trots out to do a horse and pony act at trade shows and malls, but he enjoys the adulation afforded him by the fans and, most of all, his fees allow him the privilege of living most of his life the way he likes it best – in solitude among hills, trees, birds and, of course, the bees.
Watch the trailer for Burt’s Buzz:
Beyond the Edge (Leanne Pooley, 2013) **
Sir Edmund Hillary’s climb to the top of Mt. Everest in 1953 is the thrilling subject of Beyond the Edge. Alas, the picture falls short of its potential, in spite of considerable technical wizardry and clearly exhaustive research. Unrestricted access to archival material (including gorgeous 16mm colour footage, Alf Gregory’s legendary 35mm stills and what seems like every audio interview with the participants that’s ever been laid to tape) makes the film’s failure all the more frustrating.
Three key elements extract their toll: the filling in of blanks with newly shot dramatic recreations (ugh!), the abominable 3D, and the over-zealous attempts to match colour for the myriad of audio-visual materials. That said, the 3D is especially problematic. It’s maddening how the moronically polarised 3D glasses darken everything to distraction. Where this hurts the most is in the historical motion picture footage and stills, the colours of which are so vibrant that in 3D they pale in comparison. Just try popping the glasses off periodically (during any picture in 3D, frankly) and you’ll see how egregious the process is.
For the overall colour grading, an extreme post-modernist approach would have been far preferable to matching and muting the colours. State of the art, however, seems to have been the ruinous goal. A film that pushed aesthetic boundaries rather than technical ones might have been far more vital. I’m sure a boundary-pusher like Sir Eddie might have even agreed.
Watch the trailer for Beyond the Edge :
The Dark Matter of Love (Sarah McCarthy, 2012) *
I wanted, but ultimately could not, respond to this tale of love and bonding between three Russian orphans (among the last to be allowed adoptive parents from outside Russia since Vladimir ‘Just Call Me Uncle Joe’ Putin outlawed international adoption) and their new Apple Pie American family.
Seeing these Russian kids flung into an America that spun the world into a major financial crisis and various wars, an America that seemingly learned nothing from the chaos created by its political and corporate leaders and, worst of all, that sense of gaudy consumerism coming to life on-screen before my very eyes, all conspired to make me wonder what that movie would have been like to see instead of this one – which, sadly, is not very good. The Dark Matter of Love is supposed to be a story about kids who need love, want love, but have never experienced love. How do you give love to a child that doesn’t know what love is? Well, it’s not rocket science – with great difficulty and patience.
The American family in question are clearly fine and generous people with plenty of love to give. We see their frustration at not getting love back, the jealousy experienced by their biological daughter and the overall turmoil that building a new family unit results in.This is all undermined by the regrettable accent placed upon the ludicrous application of certain psychological principles rooted in the film’s title – that love is a matter of science, and that in extreme situations such as this, one must turn to medical professionals. From a strictly moral standpoint, I had problems swallowing this. For my liking it’s all too typically Dr. Phil (the famous reality TV talk-show shrink who presents a hugely rated barrage of suffering Americans and offers all manner of platitudinous pop-psychology to ease the pain).
Worse yet, the film emphasises the gobbledygook of a duo of scientists and trains its camera on them as they watch footage of the family trying to cope – spewing their babble as if they were bloody sports commentators – treating the emotional gymnastics of the family as if they were engaged in a particularly strenuous football match.
The film never really allows us an opportunity to experience what could have been a very moving documentary involving a genuine dilemma faced by thousands, if not millions of families. There is, or was, a great movie in here. In fact, it could have been one of several movies far more engaging and vital than this one proved to be.
The Unknown Known (Errol Morris, 2013) ****
Ace documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is back in familiar territory with this one-on-one exploration of the life and times of George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the clearly gifted master of political doubletalk, misinformation, disinformation and perhaps one of the most dangerous, despicable and evil Americans of the past decade. Much like The Fog of War, Morris’s exploration of Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary during the Vietnam War, the veteran filmmaker hits his new subject with tough questions, attempting to paint as honest a portrait as possible of a political mastermind of legal mass murder, or, if you will, the war against terror. McNamara was a different beast, though. He at least seemed to be telling the truth. None of that – truth, that is – appears to be on display here.
With a malevolent grin, Rumsfeld makes you think he’s letting the cat in the bag slip out, but in the same breath, he’s letting you know the cat’s still in the bag, and that his final word on the matter will always ensure that the bag’s indeed in the river. In fact, we never get a clear picture of anything from Rumsfeld. It always seems clear, but never feels truthful. In several contexts, Rumsfeld is caught completely contradicting himself and hilariously ignoring and/or talking his way out of his obvious falsehoods and/or discrepancies. We’re witness to one magnificent turn of phrase after another. The man is a master spin-doctor and, even more astoundingly, he might actually be the best generator of juicy sound bites in the world – ever. Here’s a tiny, but choice grocery list of a few of them:
‘All generalisations are false, including this one,’ he proclaims.
‘The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,’ he opines on weapons of mass destruction, or lack thereof, in Iraq.
Watch a clip from The Unknown Known:
Rumsfeld treats us to one of his astounding humdingers (which Morris uses for the film’s title): ‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don’t know we don’t know. The unknown known, however, is a thing that we know, but are unaware of knowing.’
The whole movie is a hoot from beginning to end, but what we’re ultimately presented and left with is 96 minutes of lies – or, at the very least, what Rumsfeld wants us to hear, even if he knows we don’t believe a word.
The man has no shame. None. He could have been a president.
Now happily settled into its multi-million dollar purpose-built home, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the statistics alone give some indication of the scale the Toronto International Film Festival has reached now. Of the 4,143 total submissions from 72 countries, 372 feature films in total were ultimately screened and, as the official fact sheet notes, that is 30,918 minutes of film. A dutiful film critic would have to attend 37.2 features a day to come to grips with the entire festival – a sobering thought for audiences and filmmakers alike. It is near impossible to venture an overall opinion as to the tone or theme that arose, though an observation is that the quality of the films, not unexpectedly, ranged from adequate to very good, with a dearth – for this writer – of anything in the future ‘classics’ category. For me, some much-anticipated films were a bit of a let down, notably the heroin-chic, self-conscious style of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. What the world doesn’t really need is another ‘name’ director having a go at the vampire genre. Nevertheless, critical opinion was divided on this one. It was, however, a bumper year for documentaries and these were standouts: Burt’s Buzz (Jody Shapiro), Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich), When Jews Were Funny (Alan Zweig), Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story (Barry Avrich) and Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Marcel Ophuls). Below I take a look at some of these and some other highlights from the festival.
iNumber Number (Donovan Marsh, 2013)
Expect loads of action, shoot ’em ups, and fast paced – though occasionally over the top – scenes of brutality and violence in this South African crime thriller. This is a grimy world where corruption among police officers is not the exception, and the story of Chili and his partner Shoes is one of straight cops trying to do their best and play it right, but getting screwed at every turn. Deciding that honesty does not pay, Chili decides to infiltrate a gang who are planning a heist and then taking the money when it’s done. But in a taut and well-paced scene, the gang members discover his identity and subsequently kidnap Shoes. Very well edited, the many killing-spree scenes build to a tremendous if over-wrought finale. Sheer exuberance and energy define this film, and director Donovan Marsh deserves credit for putting together a great cast: the leads are convincing and the secondary characters are well-drawn and provide enough eccentricity to add a touch of black humour to the proceedings. Donovan has studied his Tarantino but learned to trim some of the excess fat; one can only hope that was an aesthetic and not a budgetary lesson. Ultimately, we’ve seen the plot loads of times, but the setting adds a new dimension to the narrative and style.
Watch the trailer for iNumber Number :
Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof, 2013)
This Iranian film about a surreptitiously printed manuscript, which details the truth behind a failed government plot to kill 21 writers and journalists in a staged bus accident, is a searing indictment of the Iranian regime and its ruthless attempts at censorship and control of the truth. It follows two impoverished men working for the regime as assassins, who are tasked with getting back the three extant copies of the manuscript in question. The two have been hired to find – and eliminate – the remaining writers who have the scripts and to return them to the government offices. Their task is no more, no less than to silence any opposition to the official government line. The matter-of-fact way that they go about their business while in pursuit brings to mind the mundane conversations between the hitmen in Pulp Fiction, though with less ironic patter and more of a ‘just making a living’ urgency. Beautifully shot in wintry colours, the sense of desperation of the oppressed victims and the moral and ethical dimensions of the script are wonderfully realised by director Mohammad Rasoulof. A superior meditation on state violence, oppression, censorship and morality in contemporary Iran, the film won a Fipresci prize at Cannes this year.
Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi, Kabozia Partovi, 2013)
The unstoppable Jafar Panahi has made his second film since being sentenced to house arrest for six years and banned from filmmaking for twenty years. His earlier feature, This Is Not a Film was smuggled out of Iran to Cannes in 2011. Two years later the tone of his new film is darker, more claustrophobic and has overtones of death wishes – Panahi films a fictional suicide of himself as part of the narrative. Establishing the mood of the film with his everyday ritual of taking in the groceries and then blacking out all his windows from spying eyes, we the audience are trapped with him in his beach house, where he lives among his memories of better days, his film posters and scripts. That narrative arc is abandoned by the abrupt entry into his house of two absconding young people…Who are they? Why are they there? Are they undercover Revolutionary Guards? As the elliptical mystery unfolds, no one – least of all Panahi – are even certain that they are not figments of imagination or projections of his cracking psyche. This is a brave and imaginative film given the circumstances of its production, and the extremely limited means and freedoms within which the director is forced to work. It would be churlish to gripe too much about insignificant technical or formal details given this situation, and better to state that it is a successful and, in its own way, life-affirming piece of work. Let’s hope the new regime will see the folly in keeping him under arrest and cinematically speechless.
Watch the trailer for Closed Curtain:
Palestine Stereo (Rashid Masharawi, 2013)
The production credits say much about the state of funding for Palestinian films. It is a Palestine/Tunisia/Norway/United Arab Emirates/Italy/Switzerland financial pudding – but nonetheless focussed for all that input. ‘Stereo’ is a nickname for a former wedding singer who, having lost his home and wife in an Israeli missile strike, has likewise lost the spirit to sing. His brother Samy is an electrician who lost his ability to speak or hear in the same bombing. Deciding to emigrate to Canada, the two undertake various schemes to earn money, most notably renting out sound equipment from the back of an old, used ambulance which they purchased. Balancing the absurdities of West Bank life with a compassionate, humane and ironic – sometimes droll – script and sensibility, Rashid Masharawi has produced a touching and realistic film which doesn’t shy from awkward politics or from the complications of life in Ramallah. A film that makes its points and is served by a terrific cast, especially the actor Mahmud Abu-Jazi. A film, then, with something to say, and for me one of the best of the festival. It is a follow-up to his successful Laila’s Birthday.
A Wolf at the Door (Fernando Coimbra, 2013)
At long last, a Brazilian bunny boiler! Which to some extent gives the plot away. Learning that their six-year-old daughter has been picked up at school by an unknown woman, a distraught husband and wife, Bernardo and Sylvia, wait furtively at the police station for any news. During the course of their own questioning, Bernardo confesses to the detective that he thinks it may have been his lover, Rosa, who was responsible. When she calls him, Bernardo decides to take matters into his own hands, and meets with her in hopes of having his daughter returned. From here darkness descends upon this thriller, and the back stories and duplicitous nature of the protagonists are slowly revealed. As are the cruelty of humans and the lengths to which revenge can be taken. Suffice it to say that the Todorovian idea of narratives – equilibrium established, equilibrium disrupted, equilibrium restored – does not quite apply to this feature debut by Fernando Coimbra.
Watch a clip from A Wolf at the Door:
Brazilian Western (René Sampaio, 2013)
Another first feature from Brazil, René Sampaio’s gangster/thriller film is set in Brasilia, where the main character, Joao, comes from the wrong side of the racial tracks and the wrong side of the law – at the start of the film Joao kills the cop who killed his father. After doing his time for the crime he heads to the big city, where a relative is able to get him a job as a carpenter’s assistant, but he must also agree to do some moonlighting as a drug dealer. As he gets deeper and deeper into the morass of dealing, he encounters a beautiful, white architecture student whose father is a Senator. Cue racial tensions and fatherly disapproval, but also cue audience bewilderment as to quite why a privileged upper-class student would fall so completely and utterly for this convicted dealer, and risk everything – life and limb – to be with him. But as in the other Brazilian film, A Wolf at the Door, the unusual settings – in this case Oscar Niemeyer’s famous utopian architectural buildings standing in stark contrast to the shantytowns butted up against them – make for a more insightful exposition about crime, punishment and retribution in other cultural milieus.
Watch the trailer for Brazilian Western:
To the Wolf (Aran Hughes, Christina Koutsospyrou, 2013)
I wanted to report on this film as, for me, it was a year of seeing less-known national cinematic offerings, in this case a Greek/UK co-production set in rural Greece and featuring a large cast of goats. Extremely long takes and even longer static shots tell the tale of extreme marginal existence in contemporary Greece, where the peasantry is particularly hard hit by the economic crisis. A bleak film shot in drizzly rain conditions, and utilising local shepherds, it’s a quasi-documentary which doesn’t so much tell a story as it reveals a situation. Regrettably the audience doesn’t really get to know much about the characters – other than their menial existence and constant complaint – and so no real empathy evolves. Added to this is the fact that this film is not an example of slow cinema, or even slower cinema, but slowest cinema. The running time of 74 minutes felt considerably longer.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Marcel Ophüls, 2013)
In this autobiographical, self-directed film, the renowned documentary filmmaker, 85-year-old Marcel Ophüls, looks back on his life, talking with old friends and discussing a variety of clips from his films. And he has had quite a life – son of the great Max, he spent many years in Hollywood among the likes of Preston Sturges and Bertolt Brecht. Deciding to become a film director himself, he made first fiction films and then switched to documentaries, which is where he gained an international reputation with films such as The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and Hotel Terminus (1988). The history that he has lived through and the remarkable people he has come into contact with make this a fascinating history piece, but it is the curious mix of this and his own accounts of life good and bad, lucky and unlucky, and his unsparing critique – and lauding – of himself that fascinates. The tales of his confrontations with war criminals and his often-appalling tales of how he has treated his wife make for an unflinching and wholly satisfactory self-portrait rich in detail, remembrance, humour and curmudgeonliness.
Watch the trailer for Ain’t Misbehavin’:
Le Week-end (Roger Michell, 2013)
This satisfying film written by Hanif Kureishi centres on two older characters who choose to return to the site of their honeymoon, Paris, after 30 long years of marriage. This city of romance and escape is not going to alter the emotional tensions and anxieties that fairly bleed between the two characters. But this film neither cow-tows to the recent trends in making older couples’ cinematic presence charming or cloying, but rather shows them as bickering, snappy, frustrated, yet still reliant on one another, and full of a curious kind of affection. It is a softer Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. As the sea between them rises and falls, they go through a weekend journey both comedic and serious.
Le Week-end is released in the UK by Curzon Film World and out now cinemas nationwide.
The duo of Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan and their obvious acting chemistry brings out the best of Kureishi’s script, and Lindsay Duncan’s work in the film is particularly noteworthy and something of a revelation. During their flanerie about Paris they run into old school chum, Morgan, played by Jeff Goldblum. But Goldblum’s style of acting tends to subvert the delicate balance between pathos and comedy that has been established by Broadbent and Duncan, and this exaggerated and non-realistic performance from Goldblum throws the film a bit off-kilter. The climactic dinner scene is effective, if a bit predictable, but nevertheless, Le Week-End is a bitter-sweet confection, and the knowing nod to Godard at the end of the film is a subtle touch and makes for a satisfying conclusion.
With the looming infringements of this year’s Toronto ahead and the snapping of the glitzy behemoth that is Cannes behind, the Venice International Festival of Cinematographic Art – the oldest international film festival in the world – is beginning to feels its age. Despite the roundness of the figure 70, the line up that was announced in August in Rome included few big names and no giants, and the sense at the festival was that the programme had been front loaded so that big-name journalists could leave halfway through and not miss much. That said, with the absence of big hitters, the field felt open and there was a general high level, including some surprises.
The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)
Festival favourite Hayao Miyazaki returned to the Lido with what is promised to be his last film, The Wind Rises, an epic biopic of the aeronautical designer Jiro Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno), who dreams of great things and goes on to design the Mitsibushi Zero fighter. In Japan the film is being viewed as a timely intervention in the debate regarding the rewriting of the post-war pacifist constitution; but film’s pacifist stance and adoration of the dream-like qualities of airplanes clang at times with the real rise of fascism and the bellicose uses that Jiro’s dreams are put to. The film follows the myopic hero’s own vision in failing to see or ignore the obvious historical context of his work, the invasion of Manchuria and the disastrous course of the war. In fact, the soft development of a love affair between Jiro and Naoko (Miori Takimoto) increasingly becomes the dramatic focus and emotional core of the film. This is such a sui generis movie for Miyazaki that many fans of the Japanese animator will be confused, but deep down the themes are the same: the dangers and delights of a beguiling imagination.
Watch the trailer for The Wind Rises:
Child of God (James Franco, 2013)
James Franco has alienated many with his interview techniques, the temerity of his ambition and his pretty-boy good luck, but his latest literary adaptation, from the 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel Child of God, is as much a snarling, feral beast as its protagonist Lester Ballard, played here with ferocious abandon by Scott Haze. Ballard is a disenfranchised woodsman who lurks in the mountains, gripping a rifle that seems a part of himself, while gripped by his own mental demons and a hidden yearning for company. Franco’s dedication to the original text can occasionally dip into Sixth Form literalism – to represent the different perspectives of the Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying, his version employs split screen throughout – and here lumps of text are quoted on screen; the plot of the book is followed closely, but the core of McCarthy’s concerns, the violence of male loneliness and madness of the heart and the head, are clearly depicted.
Watch the trailer for Child of God:
Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi, 2013)
Picking up the Golden Lion, 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.
Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, 2013)
Having won the 1994 Golden Lion with Vive L’Amour, Tsai Ming-liang returned to the Lido with Stray Dogs, a ‘motion’ picture of glacial slowness, a portrait of life clawed by the sharp end of the Taiwanese free-market economy. Lee Kang-sheng is a human billboard, standing at a busy intersection to make some cash, battered by the wind and rain and the incessant thunder of the traffic. When not blowing his money on booze and cigarettes, he supports his son and daughter (played by the director’s nephew and niece), who have to fend for themselves during the day, eating free samples at supermarkets and killing time until they can retreat to the container squat where they sleep amid the flotsam. A kindly/disturbed supermarket worker (played by three actresses: Yang Kuei-mei, Chen Shiang-chyi and Lu Yi-ching) visits a ruined tower block to feed the ‘stray dogs’. She befriends the little girl and, when the drunken father tries to take the children away on his boat one stormy night, she rescues them.
The experience of watching the film is mixed. Initial curiosity and admiration for Ming-liang’s obvious skill at shot composition gives way to an awareness of boredom and discomfort as single shots of not-very-much-happening begin to push the ten-minute mark. The initial realism gives way to an absurdist, archly black humour. When we watch Kang-sheng holding up his sign for several minutes we can get an inkling of the boredom and unpleasantness of the job. Life is literally passing him by; he’s forced into paralysis by the harshness of an economic system which has no room for him. But later, as he stands staring at a wall with the woman who has taken in his family, I began to suspect Ming-liang was forcing his character into stasis as a way of preserving the austere beauty of his composition, and the wall staring was a meta-joke on us.
Watch the trailer for Stray Dogs:
Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan, 2013)
With four feature films to his credit and at the fresh age of 24, Xavier Dolan might be someone any budding young director would gladly see roughed up, and in Tom at the Farm Dolan gives us that opportunity. Based on the play by Michel Marc Bouchard, the young director casts himself as Tom, a dishwater-blonde city boy in an oversized leather jacket who drives into the rainy countryside to attend his lover’s funeral. However, once at the farm, Tom finds it difficult to escape the cloying needs of his lover’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy), who knows nothing of her son’s homosexuality, as well as the violent intimidation inflicted on Tom by elder son and psychopath, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). With a streak of self-loathing-fuelled sado-masochism, Tom’s burgeoning relationship with Francis goes from being enemies to something resembling a weird love affair. There is a Lynchian apprehension of the weirdness of normality, with the rural rain-drenched setting, the endless fields, the barns and creaking rooms of the farm, and the neon-lit bars adding a sense of Alfred Hitchcock menace. Gabriel Yared’s richly orchestral score swoops and soars with the delirious decadence of a Bernard Herrmann composition circa the 1950s.
From his casting to the score to the occasional change in film ratio, Dolan’s film is a firm-handed piece of filmmaking. The comedy is unnervingly funny and the performances are all top class. Towards the last third the restrictions of the origin material begin to impinge, but on the whole the film will continue to elevate the status of a precocious and fascinating talent.
Watch a clip from Tom at the Farm:
Miss Violence (Alexandros Avranas, 2013)
Greece continues to challenge Austria as the world leader in miserablist exploitation with Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence, an icily efficient and technically accomplished portrait of a dysfunctional family, which ultimately has nothing new to say. Themis Panou – who picked up the Best Actor award – plays the quietly spoken head of a family that comes under official scrutiny when Angeliki (Chloe Bolota) leaps from the balcony to her death halfway through her 11th birthday party. Her mother and grandfather insist it was an accident, and the family try to resume their normal life, but just what that normality consists of is slowly revealed to be horrific abuse and exploitation. Treading closely in the footprints of Giorgos Lanthimos’ 2009 Cannes success Dogtooth, Avranas manipulates his audience with his slow reveals and black absurdist humour. The banality of evil has sadly become something of a cliché and Miss Violence, from its baffling title to its glib provocation and tonal incongruities, revelled too much in what it ostensibly sought to deplore.
Watch the trailer for Miss Violence:
Via Castellana Bandiera (Emma Dante, 2013)
Writer, director and actress Emma Dante based her feature-film debut, the Sicilian-based drama A Street in Palermo on her own partly autobiographical novel, and took one of the lead roles. Rosa (Dante) has returned to Palermo for a wedding with her lover Clara (Alba Rohrwacher). Driving on a narrow street they come face to face with Samira (Elena Cotta, who picked up the Best Actress award at the festival) and her family. Samira has a life touched by tragedy and has regressed into an almost catatonic state. Egged on by her ne’er-do-well son-in-law Saro (Renato Malfatti) she refuses to budge and the two women are locked into a battle of wills. The neighbourhood watch on with interest as bets are placed and plots are formed around the nucleus of epic female intransigence.
The strength of Dante’s film is its slippery evasion of the clichés that abound in Italian cinema and which the opening of the film seems ready to reinforce. However, there is an abiding sense of mischief here, as the women enjoy their battle – indulging in a literal pissing match at one point with Leone-esque close-ups of the twitching eyes – to the numb incomprehension of those around them. The abiding irony is that the women have much more in common with each other than they do with those who are supposed to be close to them. Dante’s background in the theatre can be seen in the in the ensemble acting and the occasional Brechtian flourishes, such as a chorus of women who briefly invade Rosa’s car to proffer advice.
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.
The Police Officer’s Wife (Philip Gröning, 2013)
Told in a series of 59 short chapters, Philip Gröning’s domestic-abuse jigsaw puzzle The Police Officer’s Wife is a gruelling, but disconcertingly and powerfully intimate close-up portrait of a nuclear family gone Chernobyl. Uwe (David Zimmerschied) is the police officer and Christine (Alexandra Finder), the eponymous wife, who live in a redbrick terrace house with their young daughter Clara. Their lives seem to be cut off from the outside world, but the elliptical style of storytelling means that very little is certain and nothing is explicitly laid out. Indeed, the narrative gaps that fall between the title cards ‘end of chapter x’ and ‘beginning of chapter x’ could represent the unknowability of interiority, and the motivations that lead to not only violent abuse, but the decision to submit to it. Gröning’s reputation was built on his documentary work, in particular 2005’s Into the Silence, and he is very good at achieving a neutral non-style for his camera and rendering the textures of confined domestic space. However, not giving the audience information is just as manipulative as spoonfeeding them. The inclusion of 118 chapter cards is an unnecessarily arch gesture at high-mindedness and feels, along with the accumulative power of the violence, to be punitive. The manner of the documenting of the violence drains its victim of any agency, in the same way Uwe does, and even makes her culpable in her own oppression. It is a film that will linger and irk and worry long after you’ve watched it, though the watching it is in itself a trial.
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.
Occurring in January, the IFFR feels like the season opener for the annual round of international film festivals, with one foot in the past year and one in the future. Some of the films have played at other film festivals, with their European premieres taking place at Rotterdam, while others are fresh out of the production house for their world debuts, all of which serve to presage the offerings for upcoming festivals in 2013.
The very broad and encompassing catalogue evidences a film festival dedicated to excellent – I hesitate to say ‘art house’ – world movies. And what an eclectic bunch it was. Space permits only short observations on a select handful of works, so I start with two of my favourites: Oh Boy directed by German first-timer, Jan Ole Gerster, and another first feature by Cameroonian (by way of Los Angeles) director Victor Viyuoh, whose harrowing but moving film, Nina’s Dowry is a terrific and unforgiving look at oppressive village life in Cameroon, where wives are bartered for and treated ‘less well than cattle’. The story of the heroine’s journey to freedom – for which she pays a high price – is a wonderful testimony to the human spirit and a salutary lesson to Western audiences. The more so, as Viyuoh informs us that the story is based very closely on a relative’s terrible, true story. Not an easy watch, but an essential one.
Viyuoh’s film takes place far from the world of contemporary Berlin, where Jan Ole Gerster sets his narrative about a slacker-hero’s journey through the social strata of the city. A Candide-like figure, he goes on a simple and ultimately fruitless search for a cup of coffee, during which time he comes to a profound self-realisation. Shot in black and white, with a terrific jazz soundtrack, Oh Boy introduces a real talent to audiences. Gerster displays a very assured, mature and confident hand, and his film carries the DNA of all those off-beat counter-cultural films by the likes of the BBS gang. The film has garnered a fistful of awards on the Festival circuit in the last months: Best Film, Best Actor, Best Direction and Best Script. Keep an eye out for the release of these films and for future works from both of these impressive new talents.
Many of the ‘old masters’ of cinema have lately raised their lenses above the parapet and offered new works. Not – unhappily – with great results. De Palma fizzled out with his rather over-wrought Passion (2012), Copolla’s Twixt (2011) is painful, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Tree (2011) was a failure, and now comes one of my favourites, Bernardo Bertolucci with his Me and You (I e te).
Me and You is released in UK cinemas by Artificial Eye on 19 April.
The film tells the story of an oddball 14-year-old boy who hides in the cellar of his home to avoid going on a ski trip with his fellow students. He is joined by his beautiful half-sister, who is an addict trying to quit. She shatters his tranquil world and many familial truths come to light. This synopsis makes the film sound like it is rather perfunctory and that the director is merely going through the aesthetic directorial motions. It is. And in this, it is somewhat reminiscent of his 2003 film, The Dreamers, which also got critical short shrift for many of the same reasons. Poor Bertolucci – now wheelchair bound – should have taken note. Sexy adolescents and their world are probably something beyond his directorial grasp these days – and it pains me to say it.
Not had enough of elder cinematic statesmen working with nubile young actresses? Then Alicia Scherson’s The Future (Il futuro) is right up your alley. Intertextual to the last, the film stars the ageing action star Rutger Hauer playing…yes, you guessed it, an ageing action star! Named Maciste, he is prone to hiring ‘lady companions’ to cavort about in the nude doing Last Tango in Paris type things (and with the same attempted existential gravitas). A beautiful young thing is induced to throw her lot in with a couple of Eastern European lowlives, who her brother has befriended and taken in to their parent-less house. These two small-time crooks believe that Maciste has a fortune stashed somewhere in his mansion, and recruit the beautiful young thing – after they both have sex with her – to become an object of sexual interest to Maciste. His interest in her amounts to ritually anointing her body in oil, a la his old Italian peplum films. All this body-oiling is voyeuristically captured in loving detail by the camera – the better to titillate audiences. In all honesty, it is a great role for Hauer, and even the creaky plot is acceptable enough, but the whole composition of the film and the outlandish gratuitous sex give it a distinctly unintended campness. It’s a strange brew that is a cross between a 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) or 1987’s Angel Heart (with intellectual aspirations) and a Last Tango in Paris (1972) with a heist plot thrown in. Could become an unintended classic of its type – art-house drive-in kitsch.
Finally, speaking of drive-in aesthetics (can’t help your roots!) I come to the intriguingly titled Misericordia: The Last Mystery of Kristo Vampiro, a weird post-modern Mondo-type film by Khavn de la Cruz. The voice-over narrative is provided by one Kristo Vampiro, who in his ceaseless search for blood follows a camera crew to the real-life cock fights, self-flagellation and acted crucifixions so beloved of certain groups of Filipino believers. In between, the film crew spends time at the rock bar, Hobbit House, where all the servers are dwarves – and a ringside brothel provides entertainment. All this to the accompaniment of a mouth-organ soundtrack. Who could ask for more?
James B. Evans
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews