Passengers (2016)

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Dir: Morten Tyldum

Starr: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen

Viewed: Cineworld Renfrew St, Glasgow (Screen 10)

NOTE: This review goes into some detail about the film’s plot. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first, even if the main point of my review is to state just how much of a failure Passengers is.

“These are not robot questions.”

(Arthur draws attention to precisely what kind of questions Jim is asking)

 

“Do you trust me?”

(Jim asks Aurora before there first space jump, to which she should answer, no, no, and NO again)

 

For the few people out there that have always thought a modern day remake of the indentured servitude melodrama Rachel and the Stranger (1948) would work particularly well in space, then Jon Spaihts’ is about to disappoint you too. Passengers is a miserable mess of a film that manages to somehow sabotage a potentially interesting idea, not once, but twice. What is in effect a three-hander with plenty of scope for creepy psychological thrills and claustrophobic intensity, has all its dangerous edges smoothed away at the point of casting Chris Pratt as Jim Preston. Pratt’s amiable, affectless modern masculinity is predicated upon his near complete lack of sexual threat. He’s big, but he’s goofy; good looking and wise-cracking, but with a constant undercurrent of niceness. Inexplicably screenwriter Jon Spaihts gives the audience a fantastic location (the self-sufficient spaceship Avalon) and a disturbing central premise (what would you get up to if you knew you were the only conscious person among 5,000 unconscious interplanetary colonists?), but then chooses to focus upon an absurdly-realised romance and an utterly fudged action ending. For the record, Preston’s unravelling loneliness does not excuse his ‘act of killing’, and the obsessive way in which he controls and manipulates Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora, is anything but ‘romantic’, unless your idea of ‘romance’ has a 15th century flavour about it. Lawrence is, by a long way, the best thing about this film, but I wonder just what kind of film she thought she was signing up for?

 

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Love is in the air? Or is that a psychopathic stare of intent? For large parts of the film Jim (Chris Pratt) is watching Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence. This voyeuristic tendency creeps into other areas of the film when the director frames Lawrence, so that her body is little more than an object to be gazed upon.

 

Spaihts’ script would have done well to heed the promotional tagline of the first entry in a franchise that he wrote the last instalment of, namely Alien (1978) and “In space no one can hear you scream”.  Prometheus’s (2012) woeful plotting was partly the fault of Spaihts (who co-wrote it with Damon Lindelof). Horror film critic Kim Newman has written about the overlaps, in terms of technology, between the universe of Passengers and Prometheus, hinting at a possible franchise linkage, which may go some of the way to explaining the incongruous nature of Andy Garcia’s brief appearance. But what do I mean by that tagline? In Alien there was a crew, progressively picked off one by one by the titular alien, until only Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley was left to defeat the creature. This was a monster movie in space, that toyed with the emerging aesthetics of the slasher genre, and made much from the dark industrial nature of the spacecraft Nostromo. Passengers, by comparison, takes place on the brightly lit and hyper-consumerist Avalon, featuring a bar straight out of The Shining (1980), manned by an android, or is he a robot as even it seems confused about this issue of identity. This android/robot, named Arthur and played by Michael Sheen, is Jim’s only company, when he is woken from his 120-year hibernation by a freak asteroid strike. Jim was supposed to have emerged from his cryo-stasis, along with the other colonists, 4 months before landing on the far away colony of Homestead II. Instead, he finds himself awake 90 years ahead of schedule, with no means of getting himself back into cryo-stasis. The rapid deterioration of Jim’s mental wellbeing brings out a monstrous id, that should have formed the central component of a perversely disturbing psychological thriller in space, but Spaihts script chooses to evaporate this sense of dread and obsessive threat, by instead focusing on Preston’s recovery once he has woken/murdered Aurora’s potential Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As Aurora discovers that tagline to Alien is all too true.

Frustratingly, the script puts enough meat on Lawrence’s role as Aurora to further emphasise just what could have been achieved if the writer, and most likely the studio behind this film, had opted to focus on the horror and thriller elements of the plot, rather than the romance and action elements. There is a revenge film in there somewhere, with Lawrence’s Aurora as the central protagonist and heroine. Aurora may start out like a MPDG, helping Jim rediscover his mojo and get rid of his Robinson Crusoe beard, but Lawrence is too smart an actress to be hemmed in by a reductive modern female archetype. Long before Arthur has spilled the beans about the precise reasons as to why Aurora finds herself stranded in space and time with Jim, we can see that the character is self-possessed in a way that never occurs in the purely reactive natures of MPDGs. It is a further failure of Spaihts’ script that once Aurora is fully apprised of what Jim has done to her and reacted with the kind of vengeful rage that is always interesting in film, it simply lets this wrathful fury dissipate into forgiveness, just in time for the plot to intervene and force the couple to co-operate with one another. It is all shockingly wasteful, as the queasy nature of their relationship, and the perversity of Jim’s initial fixation are buried under a welter of chauvinistic alpha male action posturing and cod Christian symbolism.

 

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After the revelation of why Aurora is actually with Jim, Lawrence really comes into her own, whilst Pratt is left floundering in a role that would have been better suited to someone like Michael Shannon.

 

A quick test of just how conservative and patriarchal the gender politics and ‘romantic’ notions of the film are can be carried out by examining more closely the two male relationships in the film. Firstly, you have Jim’s relationship with Arthur the android/robot (this confusion of identity augurs in other vagaries). Jim never goes beyond the formal with Arthur, refusing to enter in to a strong sense of camaraderie, or its modern equivalent ‘bro-ness’, partly because Arthur is unabashedly British and ‘proper’ in his speech, but also, perhaps, because Arthur isn’t in fact a man and his eunuch physicality underscores this emasculation. By comparison, when Laurence Fishburne’s Gus Mancuso (one of the managerial elite of the Avalon) is woken up from his cryo-stasis, we see Jim immediately enter in to an easy manly bond with him. Unlike Arthur, Gus also has eyes for Aurora, and Jim can relate to this. Gus’ companionship acts as a restorative of Jim’s machismo by enabling Jim to re-enter the casual chauvinisms of normalised masculinity. Mancuso also serves as just another means by which the script frustratingly converts the intensely voyeuristic and obsessive fixation that Jim has with Aurora into behaviour that is inherently masculine, rather than disturbing and ‘weird’. Even in normalising Jim’s behaviour as something central to a sense of male ego, there could have still been potential to demonstrate how this is perniciously predicated upon ideas of dominance, invasiveness and objectification. However, the little inserts of Aurora’s home video footage from a leaving party prior to her boarding the Avalon, show her female friends affirming a central romantic tenet of the film, that true happiness can only be found in a heterosexual relationship with a good, strong man. Does a man who holds you captive until you submit to his idea of romance count as a good, strong man I wonder? Once again, the echoes of Rachel and the Stranger sound out through galactic wagon train of the Avalon.       

Director Morten Tyldum (Headunters, The Imitation Game) was very clearly a hack for hire, going through the motions of Spaihts’ torturous script. That said there are elements of the film that are well handled. The production design on the film is immaculate, with the Avalon being a supra-plastic consumerist space patterned on shopping mall complexes like Westfield’s in Stratford, London. It is telling that the operations quarters of the Avalon are out-of-bounds to our passengers, with only the consumer-driven sections of the ship at their disposal. Like good modern citizens Jim and Aurora should simply occupy themselves with consumerist activity, and not waste time thinking about who, or what, is in charge of providing this life they lead. Columbia, the studio behind the film, are owned by Sony, which might explain a blatant bit of product placement in situ, when Jim has a little PlayStation inspired dance-off. One moment of brilliantly original effects work occurs when Aurora takes a swim in the starlit swimming pool, just as the gravity drive kicks out. This unique action sequence proves so effective because it again incorporates the dread aspects of those smoothly consumerist spacecraft veneers. Life is very much under the regulation of computer operating systems, squirreled away behind the panelling. By far the weakest element of the entire film is Thomas Newman’s ponderous and plodding soundtrack that could be Muzak, if it weren’t so tiresomely omnipresent. In a film built of fleeting moments of intrigue salvaged from a morass of poorly executed ideas, I still think that the one point where another, better film becomes visible is that moment when Aurora bursts into Jim’s bedroom and beats him senseless, before threatening to bludgeon him. The fact that this happens exactly halfway through the film, and serves as the last point at which the film shows any interest in the darker aspects of its central relationship, should give you a sense of just how far Tyldum and Spaihts let the whole thing drift.

 

Rating: 3.5/10

Light Between Oceans, The (2016)

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Dir: Derek Cianfrance

Starr: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Bryan Brown

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 2)

NOTE: This review goes into some detail about the film’s construction which unavoidably discusses key plot points. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. It is worth a visit to the cinema purely to experience Cianfrance’s gorgeous use of widescreen.

“And Lucy needs her mother, you must see that.”

(A fateful remark from Isabelle’s father to his son-in-law Tom Sherbourne)

 

“He didn’t have an accent when we came across him. He was dead.”

(A moment of blunt poetry in the police interrogation of Tom Sherbourne)

 

Derek Cianfrance, regardless of what I think of his filmmaking abilities, is a unique film director. In Blue Valentine (2010), The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) and now this adaptation of the best-selling M.L. Stedman novel of the same name, Cianfrance has revealed himself to be a filmmaker devoted to a form of classical tragedy that has been rarely seen on cinema screens since the death of the Hollywood Studio system. In fact, I can think of only one other young contemporary filmmaker with a similar faith in classical tragedy, and that is the Polish actor-director Krzysztof Skonieczny, whose debut directorial feature Hardkor Disko (2014) is infused with a violent Euripidean sensibility. Cianfrance is a far more conservative filmmaker than Skonieczny, but that does not make his work any less interesting. My criticism of both his previous films was mainly to do with his propensity toward too controlling a narrative structure, and there are similar weaknesses in The Light Between Oceans, however, he never really allows these moments of over-plotting to mean a great deal to the tragic climax of his films. What makes his classically tragic sentiments all the more exceptional, is the fact that he routinely reaches for catharsis through the deployment of a peculiarly hopeful denouement. At the end of each of his features, thus far, there is a sense that the past’s refusal to let go of the central characters, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will cling on to future generations in a fateful stalking fashion. Cianfrance always offers the hope that the next generation will elude the fate of their forebears.

Cianfrance’s adaptation has remained relatively faithful to the M.L. Stedman novel about Tom Sherbourne an Australian veteran of WWI who returns to Australia to tend a lighthouse off the western coast of the continent. Tom meets a local girl called Isabelle Graysmark on his infrequent trips to the mainland, and after a brief courtship takes her as his wife. The couple live out on the Janus Rock, where Tom tends to the working of the lighthouse for the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service. Attempts to start a family meet with the tragedy of miscarriage, leaving Isabelle depressed and emotionally vulnerable. It is after a second miscarriage that the couple rescue a baby from a boat that has washed up on the shores of the island. Alongside the baby is a dead man. Tom immediately wants to report this event to the mainland, but Isabelle argues that the baby will be raised in an orphanage, whereas they could pretend it is her baby and raise it as their own. It is this fateful decision that sets in motion a series of events that have repercussions for decades to come.

Where Cianfrance is undoubtedly a gifted craftsman is the way in which he manages to elicit strong emotional performances from the actors he works with. Despite the fact that Alicia Vikander’s very modern body seems to suggest miscasting in the role of Isabelle, she nonetheless delivers another finely nuanced performance to place alongside excellent work in other period dramas, such as Testament of Youth (2014) and The Danish Girl (2015). The vivacious joyousness she embodies in the initial courtship with Tom, makes the shock of her grief even more powerful. Little detailings, such as the self-possessed stride that takes over her moments of tragic torpor, give the role a texture and practicality at odds with the martyred female she initially appears to be. Cianfrance is also smart enough to give Fassbender the space to channel some of his more sinister energies in the service of his role as the traumatised war veteran. Fassbender has an innate cruelty and violence that too often director’s try to downplay to accentuate a period romanticism. His best performances are underpinned by his barely suppressed, and disconcertingly erotic, potential for the sadistic. Early in the courtship Fassbender teases out the dangers of what his character has been asked to do during the war. Never does his character explain things, but Cianfrance allows Fassbender to insinuate a violent undercurrent into his inability to articulate feelings and emotions. This is partly down to the director’s decision to use a number of intense close-ups upon the highly expressive faces of each of his principle players, but more of this later.

 

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Rachel Weisz’s cautiously pained performance is all in the eyes, and the way she looks at and upon things.

 

Perhaps, the stand out performance of the entire film comes in the second half, when Rachel Weisz’s grieving mother is brought in to the idyllic and self-contained world of the Sherbourne’s. Weisz steals the film from its leads through a cautiously pained performance that brings so many of the film’s subtextual elements together. She has a face that is made for Cianfrance’s close scrutiny, with so much of her performance being located in the way she looks at people, or things. Guarded trepidation mingles with accusatory rage and the guilt of somehow failing as a mother. Her sequences with her returned daughter Lucy-Grace are heartbreaking as she subtly demonstrates how difficult it is to feel your way back into your child’s life, when the child doesn’t see you as their mother. Physical contact, the most direct way that a parent expresses affection for their child, is presented as a stunted and incomplete action, something painful in its lack of reciprocation. Weisz does a great deal of fine work with the most difficult role of the film, which only makes me wonder why this gifted actress seems to have been most recently side-lined in minor roles in other films.

Cianfrance and his DOP Adam Arkapaw have mapped out a landscape of tragedy by using an intensity of close-up to capture the human element, but projecting this against the truly awe-inducing widescreen location photography of the natural landscape and its wild, tempestuous cruelty. Similarly, in The Place Beyond the Pines the director used unrelenting tracking shots and wide-framed, high-angled location photography to emphasise the way in which the natural environment claustrophobically closed in around the protagonists, as if forcing them down pre-ordained routes. Humanity is powerless in the light of those more primal and elemental forces at work in the natural environments they inhabit. Nature then is the source of all human tragedy, as it is to nature that we turn when searching out our fates.

 

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The human is in the intense close-up, whilst, even in happier times, the tragic is depicted through awesome landscape.

 

Cianfrance reinforces this visual patterning of narrative form through his pathways in and out of the film. The film opens with a scene in which the only person we clearly see is Tom Sherbourne, as he is being interviewed for the position of temporary lighthouse keeper. The cameras intent focus upon Tom draws explicit attention to his isolation, his aloneness. From the opening moments of the film the audience are being primed to consider Tom as a man alone, with a destiny to remain alone. The film’s closing image seals Tom’s fate and confirms that prediction of destiny, even if he spent a significant portion of his life in a loving marriage. Remember, in tragedy one cannot escape their fate once it has been decided.

 

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Cianfrance is in love with the human possibilities and intimacy of the close-up, especially the way it captures the expressive qualities of his actors’ faces.

 

A final element of Cianfrance’s film that underlines the strong narrative pull of tragic destiny can be found in the expert use of sound design to connect disparate people and locations within the narrative. Immediately before the miraculous arrival of Lucy-Grace upon Janus Rock, Isabelle is shown crouched down in the grass of a hillside, her fingers teasing out some hidden meaning in the long green blades. A sound, as if the earth is speaking to her, heralds the arrival of the boat carrying the baby. This sequence is directly echoed much later in the film when Hannah (Rachel Weisz) is shown lying with her ear to the lawn of her back garden, just as Lucy-Grace approaches with her grandfather (Bryan Brown). This is the moment when the estranged daughter finally acknowledges some form of filial bond to Hannah. Fate is delivered in sounds without clear source. Tom is initially pulled toward the discovery of the truth about his daughter’s provenance by hearing a siren-like song in the churchyard as he waits for the vicar to christen Lucy-Grace. Stumbling upon a gravestone for a lost husband and child, Tom walks headlong into a grief created in the vacuum that his own family’s happiness has left behind.

As with all of Cinafrance’s films, thus far, I have problems with the way that he frequently forces the fatefulness of his tragic designs into rather overblown plot twists. Towards the end of The Light Between the Oceans there is a torturously contrived moment where Isabelle’s mother tries to persuade her daughter to support her husband in his hour of need, immediately after which Hannah arrives at the Graysmark family home to tell Isabelle that she will give Lucy-Grace back to her if she will only ensure that Tom pays for what he has done. In the end, as was stated before, these contrivances tend not to matter to Cianfrance’s endgame, which has repeatedly played out as a projected coda of reconciliation, or renouncement. The necessity for tragic catharsis is subtly undermined by a post-cathartic diminishing of the scope of each film’s tragedy.

As I said at the beginning of this review, Derek Cianfrance is a unique director.

 

Rating: 6.5/10

Endless Poetry (2016)

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Dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Starr: Adan Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, Leandro Taub, Pamela Flores

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 3)

 

“Another dead man among the dead. I will grow old… and rot.”

(Alejandro speaking to the younger Alejandro, as if a prophetic voice inside his own head)

 

“Old age is not a humiliation, you detach yourself from everything.”

(Alejandro addressing Alejandro, and the audience, a form of pervasive solipsism in need of attention to justify it)

 

A strong part of me wishes that this octogenarian burst of creative activity from Jodorowsky had simply never occurred. It would make any chronicling of his career that much easier, as The Rainbow Thief (1990) would then stand as the tired epitaph to an exhausted imagination. Alas, Jodorowsky wants to take a proper account of his career before he slopes off into the sunset. That accounting demands that the director’s overbearing ego act as arbiter in a re-evaluation of Jodorowsky’s formative years in Chile as the emergence of a poetic consciousness which places him at the centre of a 20th century surrealist lineage (preferably Artaud and Breton). Yup, Jod really is that pompous, but he’s also a clown, and an angel, so we will forgive him his extravagances, even though he clearly does not forgive us. In 2013’s The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky sought to make a demon of his ideologically Stalinist father, whilst simultaneously seeking to build a bridge of understanding between them. In his peculiarly perverse way, which is neither truly insightful or shocking, Jodorowsky chose to cast his eldest son Brontis, in the role of his own father Jaime. Endless Poetry makes things a truly family affair, by casting Alejandro’s younger son Adan as a twentysomething incarnation of his father in early 1950s Chile, on the eve of Carlos Ibáñez del Campo’s re-election as Chilean President.

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A key scene in the film was clearly meant to be this one in which Alejandro and his poet friend Enrique Lihn decide to walk across Santiago in a straight line, regardless of obstacle. It ended up feeling like a good idea that hadn’t been thought through on film.

 

The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry are, in effect, Jodorowsky’s cinematic version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), replete with escape into cosmopolitan exile at the close. The first film trod a fine line between Alejandro’s youthful and passionate desire for rebellion and the aggressively enforced, and wholly reductive, ideological worldview of his father. It was a film about giving shape to the conflict that gave birth to the artist, and made that conflict a crudely oedipal sex game between father and son for the attention of Pamela Flores’ Sara, Alejandro’s mother. With Endless Poetry, Alejandro has now struck out on his own, moving away from the family home, and entering the bohemian milieu of Santiago’s poets, painters, musicians and philosophers. The conflict between father and son is now writ large as a conflict between Alejandro’s creative individualism and Chilean society’s embrace of warring political ideologies. The egocentrism of the artist refuses to concede any ground to the potential politics of the creative act, making the film a laboured attempt to paint the creative life as removed from any sense of societal politics. Alejandro is already seeing himself as belonging beyond Chile, as part of the international poetic landscape of Breton, rather than the provincial nationalism of Neruda.

Working with the exceptionally gifted Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, rather than Patrice Leconte’s regular DOP Jean-Marie Dreujou (who lensed the first instalment), it should be expected that Jodorowsky’s much heralded ‘visionary’ aesthetic would come to the fore in a way that it never quite did in The Dance of the Reality. Yet aside from an initially engaging opening section in which, in a piece of genuinely Brechtian theatre, Jodorowsky reveals the poetic artifice of this autobiography, by pulling up a series of black and white theatrical flats to take us back to an older Santiago (or is it still Iquique?), there is little beyond the trite, mundane and sentimentally excessive. The latter was an increasing problem in Jodorowsky’s work up until 1990, often drowning out and undermining the more radical elements of his films. Whereas genre grounded much of Jodorowsky’s early film excesses, in Endless Poetry the director seems to be most fascinated with the ridiculous bathos effect created by his deployment of a TV soap aesthetic, particularly in those moments of dramatic exposition that punctuate his surrealist whimsy. The banality of this image making is undoubtedly supposed to make the surrealist flights of fancy more evocative and seductive, but to these eyes it merely creates an unceasing flow of garishly coloured tableaux that amount to a depressing evocation of Alejandro’s expanding consciousness as a creative artist. Frequently the director gives us a dully realised visual metaphor and then further diminishes any power that it may have had by drawing attention to the construction of the visual metaphor (witness the family dinner party in which Alejandro seeks to chop down the family tree, yawn).

 

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The incredible Pamela Flores as Stella Diaz Varin. I sincerely hope this is not the last time I get to see this actress on screen.

 

The one light amidst the monotony is the voluptuous excessiveness of Pamela Flores, who plays both Alejandro’s mother and later his first lover, the Chilean poet Stella Diaz Varin (he just cannot resist tired provocations like this). If there was any reason to justify Jodorowsky’s return to filmmaking the gift of Flores is surely it. The Dance of Reality showed her to be a bold performer and I am still haunted by that film’s night-time sequence (a moment of old Jodorowsky) in which she chases her son around the house, whilst naked and coated in black paint. Donning a scarlet wig and rainbow paints, Flores plays Diaz Varin as a force of nature dominatrix, brawling, beer-swilling and waspishly belittling anyone who has the temerity to bore her. Compared with the sentimental rendering of Enrique Lihn, as played by the irritatingly impish first-time performer Leandro Taub, Flores breathes something approaching an independent life into Jod’s caricature of his contemporary.

The repetitious return to sites from the first film point to more than just the budgetary constraints of a crowdsourced film production (lest we forget Michel Seydoux’s key role in developing both films). These are the markers of a moviemaking imagination whose poetic vocabulary has long ago been exhausted. Dancers, dwarves, body artists, faceless masses, broken piers, circus rings, political demonstrations, cafes, these are all elements that echo through both films, but not in any way that suggests even an associative control of their iconography. I am very much with J. Hoberman’s assessment of Jodorowsky, in his seminal film text Midnight Movies (1983), as closely resembling Dali in his “literal-minded, self-parodic and commercial” image-making. There is always a sense with Jodorowsky that behind the symbol there is nothing more than a caption description of that symbol. The true laziness of this late-period work is in the way it coolly rehashes earlier works, looking to make a grand gesture toward art as life, life as art, and sounding as hollow and empty as that suggests. Long before this Endless Poetry had reached an end, I was longing for less.         

 

Rating: 5.5/10

 

Birth of a Nation, The (2016)

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Dir: Nate Parker

Starr: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King, Mark Boone, Jr.

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 1)

Until a long shadow was cast over this film by the disinterring of a 1999 rape case brought against its director, star and producer Nate Parker, it seemed certain that this latest trawl through America’s cruel history of black slavery would be festooned with nominations come award season. The controversy that has, to some degree, decisively altered the film’s reception may well have done Parker an undeserved favour. This The Birth of a Nation, by removing itself to the 19th century and narrating the radicalisation of Nat Turner, leader of a black slave rebellion, wants to reach back to dislodge and disrupt Griffiths’ unfortunately canonical Klan paean, but despite its director’s grandiosity of design the film’s delivery is pure exploitation, and all the better for that. Without wishing to seem contrarily reductive I believe that Parker is intentionally playing with the same fire that lit up Mandingo (1975), only with the camera’s appraising eye being aligned with the faith, integrity and righteousness of the black souls brutalised by a corrupt and corrupting system of capital and exploitation. Although the film frequently strays into a visual poetry verging on the ridiculous (bleeding corn cobs), Parker still manages to deliver a film of implacable fury, driven forward with a wrathful vengeance and a wonderfully concrete sense of slavery as an all-encompassing cancer at the heart of Southern US society.

The film opens with a scene that immediately establishes both the subliminal structuring of exploitation horror, as well as the vital importance of faith in destiny. Amidst a swirl of ghoulish female apparitions the young Nat is conferred the status of ‘a chosen one’ by a seer and slave elder. The presence of three raised nubs upon the centre of his breastbone, is read as a sign of his selection by a higher power. Throughout the film there is an egocentricity at work, which could just be part and parcel of the biopic element of the film, but that, nonetheless makes so many of Turner’s fellow slaves enablers of his self-realisation as a strong, charismatic leader. When Nat’s wife Cherry is gang-raped by a group of slave hunters, led by the same man who was wounded by Nat’s father and who will go on to become a nemesis in the march on Jerusalem at the film’s end, vengeance is a male prerogative and source of Turner’s empowerment

 

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A reworking of the opening spiritual ritual is found toward the film’s end.

 

The historic Nat Turner was born into slavery on a cotton plantation in Southampton County, Virginia and lived almost his entire life enslaved to the Turner family in this area. In Parker’s film the young Nat is frequently seen to be encouraged to believe he is ‘special’, even having a different status foist upon him by Penelope Ann Miller’s Elizabeth Turner, the lady of the house, who marvels at the young boy’s autodidactic abilities. Later a Reverend Zalthall, played as a wonderfully unctuous and uncouth grotesque by Mark Boone, Jr, sees a money-making opportunity in getting Nat, who now preaches the Bible to his fellow slaves on the plantation, to deliver sermons in support of the slave-owner’s prerogative. It is in delivering these sermons to plantations where the slaves are held in abject conditions, far more degrading than that which Nat has hitherto experienced on the Turner farm, that accelerates Turner’s radicalisation. What good is it to be ‘special’ and ‘chosen’ within a debased and godless world?

Another key element of the film’s early construction is the way in which Parker makes Nat the witness to brutal acts of violence that frequently go unacknowledged as such by white society. The young Nat is shown to bear witness to his father’s possible execution, and the fact that his father eludes this fate at the whim of a bunch of white slave hunters by killing and wounding them, seems to be Parker’s way of planting the first seed of violent reaction – violence as a means of self-defence, countering the unjust violence of an oppressor. Later, the older Nat gazes upon the hollowed-out skull of a dead slave lying by the roadside, whilst his master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) dozes on the carriage beside him, oblivious to this atrocity they are passing.

 

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It is on his wanderings as a preacher that Nat Turner first comes across the sheer abjection of a slave’s life. This sequence is played out like the queasiest of horror scenes.

 

The true horror of Parker’s depiction of slavery can be found in his blunt use of extremities. It is unsurprising that Parker thanks Mel Gibson in the end credits of the film, as this use of extremities is reminiscent of both Braveheart (1995) and The Passion of the Christ (2004). The Turner family, under Elizabeth’s watchful eye, take Nat into the house, educate him, ‘civilise’ him, even. The Turner homestead is a brightly lit, airy and spacious place of order and cleanliness. By comparison the slave holdings on the plantation are shot in shades of deadening grey. They are dark, dank and dusty spaces, cramped and contingent. Nat observes this dichotomy, but as a child he does not feel its injustice, or how the former is built upon the degradation housed in the latter. This is because the Turner’s continue to fuel his ‘special’ status, but in a way that divorces him from his family and community. On the death of Elizabeth’s husband Benjamin, Nat is thrown back into the exploitative world of the cotton field, whereupon he grows into the favoured slave of the new plantation owner Samuel Turner, his once playmate. The insulation that the Turner’s are seen to offer Nat and his fellow slaves is in the way they do not behave with the brute odiousness of so many of the other slave-owners presented in the film. Yet their adherence to, and support of, a societal structure predicated upon systemic exploitation of human labour, policed through pure racial prejudice, makes the limited protections they offer their slaves all the more galling.

Parker exposes the rotten nature of the whole system by detailing the corruption and dissolution of the Turner family as a direct parallel of Nat Turner’s growing consciousness and radicalisation. In this regard, I had absolutely no problem with the venal portrait of white Southerners throughout the film. They are meant to be horrific, as the economic system they have concocted is corrupting and monstrous. As the film progresses the ‘benevolence’ of the Turners is shown to be predicated upon the accumulation of capital, and the position of power and authority that gives them. As Samuel sinks into inebriate dissolution, so the Turner plantation must adhere more strictly to the prevailing societal norms. Benevolence is a charitable return on profits accrued.

 

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The expressive use of Penelope Ann Miller’s face as a site of extreme discomfort, verging on horror, is one of the ways in which Parker interrogates the systemic corruption of the slave society.

 

In this regard, why should Parker bother with the cosy supposed nuances of 12 Years a Slave (2013), whose white racial violence is depicted as belonging to a rotten subsection of society and is ultimately combatted through the white consciousness raising of black suffering, as embodied by the deferential martyr Solomon Northup. This soft cinematic rhetoric, that locates morality in the sadism of a tastefully framed whip crack, is of no interest to Parker. White racial violence isn’t a subsection of Southern society, but an integral part of it, and the only source of all possible moralities. When Parker chooses to insert a written passage of the bible in to the centre of his Turner’s radicalisation process, the words stretch in relation to his wider understanding and interpretation of them. Words have helped Turner to expand his consciousness, and through an understanding of violence those words can attempt to help him allude the servitude of his slave readings. It is a neat nod to one of the most memorable sequences from Spike Lee’s masterpiece Malcom X (1992)

Like Gibson and Griffiths before him the factual and historic inaccuracies of Parker’s plot are to some degree permissible when considering what the overall narrative effect is meant to be. I find quite a bit of bite in Parker’s closing shot, particularly considering the presence of Ed Zwick among the executive producers on the project. Zwick is the epitome of the well-meaning, thoughtful, liberal Hollywood rendering of contentious political histories. His Glory (1989) was a textbook example of how Hollywood superficially covers a significant incident in American history, that highlights the struggle of African-Americans, but ensure that struggle is only really rendered visible through the intervention of ‘progressive’ well-meaning white men. In the final CGI-morphed moment of A Birth of a Nation, Parker presents us with a young boy who bore witness to Nat Turner’s hanging, now brandishing a rifle in the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and charging toward the camera. It is a bold and powerful closing gambit, that seems to quietly mock Zwick’s rootless examination of black Northern soldiers from the same regiment. Here is Nat Turner’s provocative legacy, alive and well in 2016.

 

Rating: 6.5/10

Monster Calls, A (2016)

monster-calls-a-poster

Dir: J. A. Bayona

Starr: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell

Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 7)

NOTE: This review contains potential spoiler material. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. Preferably on as big a screen as possible, as it is visually sumptuous.

J. A. Bayona’s impressive visual rendering of a grief-stricken adolescence does justice to Patrick Ness’ best-selling children’s novel, however, I worry whether it will struggle to find an audience if marketed as a kid’s festive flick.

The Catalan director has never really failed to impress me and yet it is only with this latest release that I have come to acknowledge that fact. The Orphanage (2007) seemed on first viewing to be a rather slender ghost story, but repeat viewings since then have deepened my appreciation of its painstaking approach to the intense trauma of loss. The Impossible (2012) was an unjustly ignored disaster movie that really got inside the psychology of survival. With A Monster Calls Bayona has created an oddly bruising kitchen sink fairytale about how an adolescent might distil the pain and trauma of a loved one’s impending death. It is an adaptation that knows its cinematic lineage very well.

Conor is a young boy, on the cusp of his troubling teens, who is having to come to terms with the potentially terminal illness of his mother. As well as the suppressed grief and guilt that Conor is having to deal with, as a result of this terrible predicament, he is also having to cope with the daily bullying of his sadistic peers at school, and a move from his family home to that of his maternal grandmother. Partly as a coping mechanism, but partly out of an innately creative imagination, Conor summons up a terrifying arboreal monster.  In its technically assured rendering of the isolation, solipsism and monstrous egocentricity of the pre-teen, Bayona’s film creates a means of seamlessly navigating the film’s dreary and mundane reality and Conor’s fantastical nightmares and dreamscapes. Part of this is to do with the frequent deployment of a shallow focus that isolates Conor as the only clear point within a shot. Everything surrounding the boy is adult, and only partially discernible. This is particularly effective when used alongside the hushed and muted quality of the adult conversations, where only certain key words leap forth out of the mumble of sounds. Another visual trope that Bayona uses effectively throughout, can be found in his wide-lensing of the interior spaces of the grandmother’s house. This subtly emphasises the troubling childishness of adolescence, with Conor at sea in a domestic space that is unfamiliar and strange to him. For a large part of the film he is the only person inhabiting this particular domestic interior, with his grandmother being pulled away to care for her sickly daughter. Most unnerving of all is Bayona’s construction of shot-reverse shot sequences between Conor and the kids at his school (more often than not his bullying tormentor). These sequences almost always frame each respective child slightly off-centre and often feature ultraslow tracking that creeps toward them. The lack of any dialogue in these sequences also draws attention to that which is unspoken being something that is fundamentally weirding Conor, making him an outcast in the eyes of his peer group.

 

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The monster work within the film is simply incredible CGI, especially when giving a sense of scale.

 

All this smart visual patterning is amplified through the film’s other themes of grief, loss, punishment and time. Time is foregrounded early in the film as a key visual motif, and eventually becomes a central part of the climax. The nightmares and dreamscapes do not operate with any coherent sense of time, and in one impressive sequence in the film a dream of the pleasure to be found in destruction falls away to reveal that hours have gone by and Conor has wrought merry chaos upon his grandmother’s living room. One of the objects that Conor tears apart during this rampage is a grandfather clock that his grandmother has told him has been in the family for generations. The literal destruction of time, and particularly family time, via the sundering of this timepiece feeds into Conor’s unspoken desire to deny death its moment. Aside from these explicit images of time, as measured in the preponderance of timepieces throughout the film, there is also a queasy sense of ‘timelessness’ in both Bayona’s choice of setting (Manchester’s industrial suburbs and the surrounding moors, or the dilapidated Blackpool pier) and the qualities of the animations that take over the screen when the eponymous monster of the title calls. These latter animations use state-of-the-art digital techniques alongside the kind of stop-motion and basic cell work that can be found as far back as 1926, in The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

The casting of Lewis MacDougall in the central role of Conor reveals a little of the cinematic heritage that Bayona is consciously building upon. MacDougall’s bruised and bony waifishness immediately draws to mind another sullen northern English adolescent, that of Billy Casper, as played by David Bradley in Ken Loach’s Kes (1968). Much like Loach, Bayona appears unafraid to let his young male lead come across as unlikable. Part of the integrity of both film’s is their adherence to a degree of honesty in the depiction of the traumatised adolescent’s lot. A school dining room scene in A Monster Calls effectively plays out Conor’s self-hatred as psychopathy, and the young actor is formidably truculent.

In the aftermath of this fearsome dining room scene Conor is shown in the headmistress’ office being taking to task for hospitalising his bully. The headmistress provides Geraldine Chaplin with a knowing cameo, that cinephilically links Bayona’s film to Carlos Saura’s Cria cuervos (1975) a morbidly moving masterpiece about a young girl convinced that she has caused the death of her mother. Similarly, Bayona’s own thanking of Guillermo del Toro in the end credits of the film draw an explicit link back to that director’s much revered Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), a film that also drifts between an aesthetic of gritty realism, timeless fairy tale and nightmarish dreamscape. I would also suggest that Bernard Rose’s fantastically bleak British horror Paperhouse (1988) has played a major role in shaping Bayona’s exceptionally evocative rendering of Conor’s overactive imagination. Both films take place within distorted interior spaces, overlooked by a deathly hillside and visited by a nightmarish projection of an adolescent’s troubled psyche.

 

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One of the film’s most poignant scenes is about Grandma (Sigourney Weaver) tentatively trying to build a relationship with Conor (Lewis MacDougall) en route to a date with death.

 

The adults are peripheral figures within Conor’s world, but again Bayona has ably cast. Felicity Jones continues to force me to positively reassess her merits in a convincingly pain-wracked performance as the suffering mother. Toby Kebbell is given some of the film’s best lines as an absent father with far more texture and complexity than such a role normally possesses. Liam Neeson is on voice duties as the monster, although it is a little too neat and troubling to see him also pop up in a photograph as Conor’s film-loving paternal grandfather. Whilst Sigourney Weaver has the film’s most heart-rending and honest scene, in which she tries to build bridges with her grandson at a rail crossing, en route to an inevitable date with Jones’ death. A genuinely poignant aspect of the film can be traced from this conversation, as what links grandmother and grandson is their experience of Jones’ character and the loss that is about to ensue. Likewise, the constellation of creativity that is lovingly captured in the attention that Bayona pays to Conor’s process of drawing and painting, is shown at the film’s close to be a pursuit intimately shared by mother and son, and that goes with Conor beyond the loss of his mother, as something he can hold on to.

 

Rating: 7.5 / 10

Arrival (2016)

arrival-poster

Dir: Denis Villeneuve

Starr: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg

Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 2)

NOTE: This review contains unavoidable spoiler material. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. As much as I was underwhelmed overall, it is still a film worthy of a visit to the cinema, particularly for the strength of Adams’ quiet certainty.

Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are bound by time and its order.

(Louise’s opening gambit, which effectively is the plot, in synopsis and hiding in plain sight)

 

You approach language like a mathematician

(Ian paying Louise a compliment, of sorts)

 

Arrival is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s optimistic sci-fi short story about how we make sense of language and how it makes sense of us. It is a film that feels as if it is dangling from a bridge between old and new ways of understanding narrative cinema, and by extension the worlds that narrative cinema helps to describe. It is a singularity that aims for a multiverse, but like the linguistic and scientific experts that are the film’s central characters, the film can only really approximate a slender understanding of a small part of the many. Without wishing to sound flippant I can only imagine what kind of inventive mess the Wachowskis may have come up with if it had been filtered through their far more promiscuous and polymorphous narrative conceptions. One question this film does resolve for this viewer is whether Villeneuve is a potentially great director, or whether Taylor Sheridan was the reason why Sicario (2015) was a far better work than Prisoners (2013). With this year’s delightful Hell or High Water (2016) Sheridan delivered a script that was just as rich and sinuous as his exceptional work with Villeneuve. Yet Arrival has all of the sombre tones and crippling moral masochism of Prisoners, with none of Sicario’s narrative momentum. As a result it feels a little bloated and pillowy; another ‘big ideas’ science fiction film that falls back on slightly silly sentimentality when it has exceeded the limits of those ideas.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a brilliant linguistics professor and translator, who at the start of the film has seemingly experienced the grief associated with the loss of a child. Nothing seems particularly out of place here, as we are given very little of Louise’s normal life before she is whisked off by Forest Whitaker’s uncompromising Colonel Weber to make sense of the arrival of a number of unidentified alien aircrafts at various sites around the globe. However, the keen-eyed viewer may have a little doubt as to whether somebody in Banks’s apparently vaunted academic position could have lost an adult child to a terminal disease at such a relatively young age (the ‘flashbacks’ that frontload the film seem to depict Louise’s adult daughter dying). Whilst in transit to the Montana craft site Louise is introduced to Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an equally brilliant physicist, who will form the scientific side of the investigation into what precisely the alien beings intend. It is relatively charming and quaint that a modern American film would place so much faith in the work of ‘experts’, especially in the year that gave the world Trumpism.

 

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Mirror, mirror on the wall.

 

Louise’s empathetic qualities accelerate the pursuit of mutual comprehension between us humans and what the US investigation team come to call Heptapods (due to the seeming presence of seven tentacle-like limbs). Whilst the military apparatus and hierarchy that surround her keep constant track of how the geopolitical picture is developing in Russia, Venezuela and most importantly China, Louise, with a little help from Ian, sets about making sense of what the Heptapods want. From the beginning Louise is absolutely certain that communication is the reason for contact, not military operations. Working within an unclear timeframe (weeks, days and months go by) Louise and Ian, with their respective teams, put together software that can begin to make sense of the inky, gaseous emissions that form the material structure of the aliens’ written language. Yet even with a commitment to understanding that has gone far beyond any of the work being conducted by other nations (of course), Louise and Ian cannot prevent slippages of meaning and misunderstandings from occurring. A crucial linguistic issue is whether or not the aliens are wishing to offer a weapon, demanding a weapon, or may simply be proffering a tool. These interactions between Louise and the aliens in Montana work as relatively engaging drama, asking the audience to digest a lot of interesting philosophical notions about how meaning is made, and what that meaning can mean. It is to the detriment of Arrival that the film’s bigger picture doesn’t sustain this commitment to difficult questions.

Where arrival comes undone is in the limitations of its geopolitics. In their television series Sense8 (2015) the Wachowski Brothers mapped out a truly ‘trans-‘ conception of the world. This was a show committed to engaging with as many different countries and cultures as possible, giving each story strand a specific location and worldview that was defined by that specificity. By offering up an alien presence in places as diverse as Sierra Leone, Sudan and Greenland, Arrival seems to enter similar terrain as the Wachowskis, yet the disappointment here is that it shows so little interest in these other possible windows onto the world. Instead we are presented with the heroic US singularity, a narrative curve that has been flogged to death a thousand times over. Granted, Amy Adams heroine is something beyond the usual white male sci-fi presences, but weren’t we here before with Jodie Foster in Contact (1997)?

The opening sections of the film with Louise’s bursts of memory, followed by the gradual realisation of the alien presence, and then humanity’s reaction, are unsettlingly effective because Villeneuve and his DOP, Bradford Young, never let their stately camerawork settle. Whether tracking, panning, or simply ever-so-slightly reframing, the camera is always in motion, as if the very fabric of reality is being stretched and remoulded by the presence of these unusual new visitors. Yet from the moment Whitaker’s Colonel arrives in Louise’s office this intriguing visual patterning is shunted to one side in favour of a more static and conventional approach to camera placement. Villeneuve and his screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who wrote the ingenious genre revision Lights Out early this year) similarly run out of the ‘big ideas’ and resort to dramatically reducing the scope of their film to a poorly conceived family melodrama, told almost entirely in flash forwards and without any significant context. Many viewers have compared the film to Spielberg’s early attempt at the genre, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). I can understand why this comparison is being so readily made, but to these eyes it seems like Villeneuve has turned the strengths of that film into failings. The beauty of Spielberg’s effort is that it begins as a drama about the disintegration of a family, when the father has a nervous breakdown. The family melodrama is therefore the crux of the film and the science fiction encounter is the magnifying glass through which the family tensions can be scrutinised. In Arrival Villeneuve gives his audience the sci-fi encounter and then gradually diminishes its awesome nature till we are lost once more in the distracting insularity of the individual’s dilemma. I would have preferred a few detours or delays rather than such an underwhelming arrival.

 

Rating: 6 / 10

IFFR 2016: Brat Dejan [Brother Dejan] (2015)

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(Russia, Serbia, 2015, 113mins)

Dir: Bakur Bakuradze

Cast: Marko Nikolic (DEJAN STANIC), Misa Tirinda (SLAVKO)

Screenwriter(s): Bakur Bakuradze, Ilya Malakhova

DOP: Nikolay Vavilov

Editing: Ilya Malakhova, Ru Hasanov

Set Design: Nikola Bercek

Sound: Saulius Urbanavicius

Aspect Ratio: 1.85

Viewed: 12:15pm, Pathe 7, Rotterdam, Thursday 28th January 2016

 

Synopsis: General Dejan Stanic has been on the run from the European Courts and the new government regime in Serbia, post-Balkans conflict, for almost fifteen years. Wanted for war crimes he is holed up in the hills with an old army friend Slavko. Whilst Slavko diligently attends to his bees, the General is moved from location to location in a desperate attempt to get him out of the country before the police, or his many enemies, catch up with him.

 

Review: Bakur Bakuradze’s remarkable film is a monumentally oppressive dirge of a character study. As off-putting as that may sound the film’s great strength lies within the carefully constructed air of wounded fatalism that seems to stalk the central protagonist at every turn. Bakuradze is banking upon his audience identifying with a person who has perpetrated war crimes, yet the director isn’t willing to make this identification trite or easy. Frequently in the film, including most memorably during one of the closing shots, the camera frames Stanic in a close-up headshot from the rear, making the back of his head the clearest possible obstacle to understanding. This repeated visual motif, almost always satisfyingly well framed, comes to embody the certitude with which the film answers the question how well we can really know anybody.

From the opening scenes of the film the audience are made aware of the way in which General Stanic is at the mercy of various different interested political factions within Serbia. Bakuradze’s further imposition of the rehearsal footage adds a meta-layer of meaning to this all-pervasive idea of management and mediation. Not only is the General being moved around his country like a harried and imperilled king on a chess board, but Nikolic’s performance is likewise being carefully handled by Bakuradze’s exacting notion of narrative. In a very real sense the General cannot escape himself, he cannot transcend his past, he is cursed to embody the war criminal he has been condemned as. Likewise, Nikolic cannot break free from the strictures of Bakuradze’s narrative and the insistent demands of the director’s blocking. The revelation of rehearsal footage at key moments within the film effectively blurs together performer and character, forcing the audience to experience the fixedness that relentlessly traps both within a narrowly proscribed framework (the film and the law).

Bakuradze is a Moscow-trained Georgian filmmaker with two well-regarded previous feature films Shultes (2008) and The Hunter (2011). It is interesting to consider how the filmmaker came to shoot a project so rooted in recent Balkan history, and so well aware of the nuances of the conflicts of the 1990s. Bakuradze has mentioned in interviews that the germ of an idea came from the fate of the Bosnian-Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, who was arrested in Lazarevo, Serbia on the 26th May 2011, having spent fifteen years on the run from an arrest warrant issued in 1996 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It is tempting to draw parallels with Bakuradze’s own homeland, which has been riven with civil war and secessionist conflicts since the dissolution of the former USSR. The factionalised nature of Balkan politics does have a mirror within the Caucasus, where competing nationalisms and ethnicities stake their claim for sovereignty. What is more despite being inspired by the events of Mladic’s fugitive life, Bakuradze has been at pains to detach Brother Dejan from oblique biopic status. This isn’t a film that seeks to document an individual existence, but rather one that is attempting to imagine (and reimagine) that existence. Again, the director’s inclusion of rehearsal material as a key constituent of his finished film is a formal decision that reinforces this notion of working and reworking a narrative and a character.

Brother Dejan - Back of Head Shot
Brat Dejan presents General Dejan Stanic’s head as a key visual obstacle to empathy and understanding. It is a film saturated with inscrutable back-of-head shots.

 

In competition at Locarno in 2015, Brother Dejan was received with a degree of disappointment by a number of critics. A central criticism of the film seemed to be the opacity of the character of General Stanic. Supposedly there is an absence of access to the inner world of this character, which has been interpreted as a failing of the film, especially in the light of Bakuradze’s interview comments about seeking to explore whether or not a man accused of ‘war crimes’ is in fact capable of change. I am not so convinced of these perceived ‘failings’. To these eyes Bakuradze has chosen to intricately construct a near wordless central performance that is consistently drawing attention to both past ‘glories’, present circumstances and future projections, all of which are connected by a nexus of disillusion, guilt and foolish pride. Nikolic’s richly ambiguous passivity as the General neatly vacillates between arrogance, insecurity and stoicism. It is a model of minimalist acting, thoroughly convincing in its minor detailing.

There were three sequences that stood out as exemplars of the tactics deployed by both director and star. The first of these sequences occurs early in the film when General Stanic is first housed with Slavko, a former soldier turned farmer and beekeeper. Slavko (played guilelessly by the non-professional actor Misa Tirinda) is also the caretaker for a hilltop site that includes a dilapidated radio station and radio mast. The General accompanies Slavko on one of his clean-up trips to the site. Wandering around the decayed, and decaying, structure of the radio station the General comes to a collapsed outer wall that allows him to survey the rolling hills up which he has just struggled to climb, the implication being that he had once scaled them with far greater ease at the head of a military outfit. Bakuradze switches from handheld camerawork that has stalked behind the General as he journeys through the building, to a wider shot that shows the building in profile, balanced precariously overhanging a precipice. In this wider shot the General is shown to be right at the edge of this precipice, looking first outwards and then downwards. The radio station is both a testament to the destructive impulses unleashed by the conflict – for which the General must take some responsibility, at the very least, for channeling – as well as a first potential site of self-destruction for the General. The peripheral presence of Slavko, working away on some wiring and completely oblivious to the General’s activities, only further enhances the concentrated remoteness of the General’s predicament. He literally cannot move forward, and no amount of mundane activity will help him to lose himself. It is striking just how little the General actually does throughout the entire film. Labour offers no succour, no respite, no escape. What is more, where once the General forcefully shaped the world around him, now his actions don’t even impact upon the one person forced to endure his company.

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General Dejan Stanic (Marko Nikolic) balanced upon the precipice between life and death. A precipice formed from his own wanton pursuit of destruction.

 

The politics that swirl around the General are perfunctorily outlined by a meeting with former colleagues. These men in the aftermath of the Balkans conflicts have since become mainstream opposition politicians, looking to manage the General’s situation for maximum populist publicity domestically and minimum negative consequences on the international stage. It is because of the General’s affiliations with this group of powerbrokers that he is being consistently moved from one location to another and prevented from showing his face in public. Midway through the film, having eluded his minders, the General goes down into Sarajevo simply so that he can eat a sandwich on a busy city street. This impromptu appearance in public makes headlines and thwarts the political campaign to have the General officially recognised as ‘dead’. Prior to this appearance he had not been seen in public for almost a decade, making it legally possible for his wife to have him declared ‘dead’. As a result of the political fallout from this ‘sighting’, including further demands for Serbia to take a more active role in pursuing the war criminals wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal, the General is moved to a villa in the north of the country in an attempt to smuggle him over an international border.

In the villa, that is decorated in an obscenely baroque fashion, the General decadently drops into drunken dissolution. A bravura sequence shows him, framed in a wide shot once more, sat by an empty swimming pool, like some squalid king surveying his own inner desolation projected outward into the physical surroundings. Bakuradze then cuts from this external shot to a similarly composed and framed internal shot, showing the General alone in the palatial drawing room of the villa. Sat upon a throne-like chair, surrounded by garishly ornate works of art and sculpture, the General appears to be drunk. Staring into space, his face assuming the vacancy of a stroke victim, he is suddenly animated into an incongruous fit of laughter, before he drifts off into slumber and drops his glass upon the floor, which brings one of his minders into the room to check upon him. What Bakuradze achieves within this sequence is an impressive compression and conflation of memory and fate. The film has opened with the director rehearsing a seizure. The General’s posture and attitude evokes a memory of this opening scene. Simultaneously the sequence also foreshadows what will occur to the General later on, an event that is directly linked to that earlier rehearsal. There is no obvious indicator as to what the General is laughing about, yet this isn’t necessarily opacity. The manner in which this scene has been edited, with each shot being very carefully composed, brings to the surface the absurd emptiness of the General’s present existence, as well as the manner in which it is so tightly controlled and managed. Although ostensibly a free man, he is a prisoner of political circumstance, a ruler without subjects.

Perhaps, the single most troubling and disturbing sequence in the entire film is one that seems at first to be incoherently related to the whole. It adopts the raw, unvarnished camerawork of other rehearsal scenes within the film, but operates more like a fantastical and nightmarish projection of the General’s inner fears and insecurities. Whereas the sequence at the radio station can be viewed as a first approach toward self-annihilation, this sequence in which an execution is rehearsed, seems to represent the General’s horror with the idea of divine retribution. What is implied throughout this sequence is that the actions of the militia are predicated upon the belief that they are exacting an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice. This sequence is framed by the General having earlier in the film overheard the news broadcast of another war criminal being captured. With the proposed crossborder escape becoming a rapidly approaching reality the General is shown to be experiencing an inability to sleep, whereupon the rehearsal footage begins. It depicts in claustrophobically close handheld camerawork the stopping of an elderly destitute looking man by a self-appointed militia. The militia are very clearly of the opinion that this man is a war criminal, despite his protestations to the contrary. The militia men force the man to stand up against a wall, at which point they spray him with a round of bullets. The man slumps to the ground apparently dead. The home video quality of the footage enhances the sense of witnessing an ‘authentic’ execution, with echoes of that chilling Saddam Hussein footage. It makes the manner in which the bullets pierce the body seem somehow more visceral and terrifying. The fear exhibited in the elderly man’s features give way to a deathly emptying out of consciousness as the body slumps to the floor – vacated. However, this ‘authenticity’ is immediately shown to be constructed manipulation, as the director verbally intervenes in the sequence and demands that the executed man fall more convincingly. This imposition of the rehearsal technique here foregrounds that central idea within the form of the film that the General’s life is manipulated and mediated, worked and reworked, for meaning, for message, for the benefit and agendas of others. It actually situates Bakuradze as a filmmaker attempting to approach the idea of the General and his life in a manner that actively seeks to sabotage the grand political narratives that can be attached to such a figure. It also plainly points up the crafted and fictive nature of the film by showing the processes and craft of this fiction.

It is rare to come across a work that so seamlessly marries together two conflicting realms of action and activity as Bakuradze does in Brother Dejan. The filmmaker is effectively making a film about the listlessness and lassitude of an old man who has become absolutely fed-up with the present circumstances of his existence. Yet by aggressively pursuing this sense of inertia and inaction, by demonstrating the utter lack of significant agency that the General has over his day-to-day affairs, Bakuradze imbues this character study with a contrary desire to survive, and continue surviving, that makes Stanic such a tragic figure worthy of our empathy, if not necessarily our understanding.

La loi du marché [The Measure of a Man] (2015)

Measure of a Man, The (Poster)

Dir: Stéphane Brizé

Starr: Vincent Lindon, Karine de Mirbeck, Matthieu Schaller

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 1)

An award-winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the latest gut-wrenching work from Stéphane Brizé is a beautifully underplayed human drama, resistant to the increasingly melodramatic connivances that have begun to undermine similar work from the Dardennes brothers. Brizé is assisted by a strong central turn from Vincent Lindon as the put upon, recently redundant, father of an academically gifted disabled son. The hang dog expression of stolid defiance that Thierry increasingly comes to adopt is a world away from the twinkle-eyed lover he played in Claire Denis’ superb Vendredi Soir (2002), and it speaks of Lindon’s impressive range that he can go from the immediate and sensual intimacy of that film, to the detached voyeurism of this, whilst proving equally adept in both roles.

Mia Madre by Nanni Moretti, which also featured strongly at this year’s Cannes, poked fun at the kind of politically engaged, leftist, humanist cinema that Brizé’s work embodies. The director within Mia Madre is making a film about trade union politics and workers’ rights. The insinuation in Moretti’s film is that the director has long since moved away from the preachy politics of such films and now has acquired a degree of worldliness that enables him to see such work as fraudulent. It could be instructive for Moretti to pay close attention to Brizé as here is a filmmaker who makes incisive, politically acute films about workers relations to employers, and the political institutions that perpetuate cycles of poverty and unemployment. Crucially Brizé does all of this whilst delivering a taut, formally intriguing and subtly underplayed morality tale/character study. I know which of the two films I felt more in tune with. Lindon plays Thierry, a manual labourer who has been let go from long-term employment at an age where it is difficult for him to find new work. Thierry has a loving wife, who appears to be the full-time carer for their disabled son. The son is intelligent and academically ambitious, but heavily physically impaired to the point where his father has to assist him in getting dressed. Thierry needs to find work to ensure he can pay off the last few years of the mortgage upon the family home, as well as seeing to it that his son can get to study his preferred subject at a costly University. Whereas the Dardennes somewhat preposterously boiled down Marion Cotillard’s impending redundancy to a few glib psychological issues and the social politicking of a ridiculous 48 hour timeframe, Brizé embeds his audience within a much longer period of time, effectively a year in Thierry’s life. Rather than this extended timeframe making the drama seem ponderous and over-long, Brizé’s plotting and formal decisions draw the viewer in to a compelling and complex moral dilemma.

Thierry eventually finds work as a security guard in the supermarket of the French title. At this halfway point in the film Brizé chooses to shift the action from a conventional social-realist domestic drama, to a voyeuristic CCTV reality show, in which the supermarket comes to act as a microcosm for all that is fundamentally wrong in the consumer-capitalist culture of the 21st century. It is bravura filmmaking that acts as a direct and defiant riposte to Moretti’s sanctimonious and solipsistic posturing. Not only does the film work as a brilliant political drama, but it also has some of the most cruelly funny and affecting scenes I’ve seen in any film this year. Again, whereas Moretti’s comic drama was over-reliant upon the gurning and mugging of John Turturro’s preening Hollywood actor caricature, here Brizé mines discomfiting comic gold from the excruciating realities of hunting for jobs in a modern marketplace where employers hold most of the cards. During an early Skype interview Thierry is instructed by the prospective employer about how to craft a better CV. Later on during a jobcentre workshop in which jobseekers watch each other’s interview technique and then group critique them, Thierry is taking to task for everything from his posture, to his inability to seem amiable. Lindon is superb in this latter sequence, as each piece of criticism serves only to amplify his feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability. Just following those hang dog eyes is sufficient to get the point.

One of the strongest scenes in a film packed full of arresting moments of human drama actually comes right at the opening of the film. Here Thierry is insistent in trying to communicate his sense of disillusionment with the jobcentre and their training courses. During this sequence we learn a lot about the main dynamics of the film and its characters. Firstly, there is the degree of inflexibility that defines Thierry’s outlook on finding work. Secondly, there is the institutional inflexibility that fails to adequately address Thierry’s job-seeking issues. Finally, there is the complexities and corruptions of a system that creates work for one sector of the population, by placing another sector of the population into pointless and wasteful training programs. The flawed platitudes that Thierry’s job officer keeps trying to peddle, echo the opaque personalisation of language in the supermarket workplace that Thierry eventually finds himself working within. Both conversations hold to the pretence of maintaining ‘niceness’, even when the situation and its frustrations demand the exact opposite. The degree to which Brizé stands above the likes of Moretti and the Dardennes, is in the manner with which he allows the drama to carry both the central protagonist’s overt struggle and the possibility of a similar perspective in the antagonist. In that opening scene we don’t just see Thierry’s frustrating predicament, but also the constraints and protocols that prevent the job officer from actually communicating in a direct, humane and truthful way with Thierry. We see how institutional systems effectively negate the individual human being, whilst incessantly wittering on about the individual and their choices.

 

The Measure of a Man - CCTV Scene
Rami Kabteni takes Vincent Lindon’s Thierry through what a security guard needs to look out for on the CCTV.

 

When the film veers into the surveillance culture of the supermarket then it becomes a scathing attack upon the flawed society that creates poverty traps and temptations and then condemns those who succumb to either. A repetitive over-shoulder shot of shoplifters and employees being marched down a corridor to an office where no good can come from the ensuing situation is the endgame for an overly condemnatory society. The supermarket uses its CCTV security system to scrutinise both customer and employee for evidence of any wrongdoing. The CCTV footage is inserted directly into large sections of the film, with Thierry and his fellow security guards manipulating the type of shot we see and the way these shots are edited together for maximum dramatic effect. Also, the security guards narrate what they are watching, which rapidly keys the viewer into how they should be seeing the society the film is presenting. There is a great degree of irony in the supermarket manager telling one of his employees – who has been keeping receipts thrown away by customers, so that she can use the voucher discounts on the back of them – that her actions have led to a breakdown in trust between them. As the CCTV inserts have made patently obvious, there was never any trust to breakdown in the first place.

The CCTV footage also operates as an incarnation of omniscience. The personal rigidity and inflexibility in Thierry is shown to have a direct corollary within the rigid and inflexible operating procedures of consumer capitalism, in which a young man thieving an i-Phone charger is treated in the same manner as an elderly man stealing a cut of meat, or an employee hoarding discount vouchers that customers have chosen to throw away. All of these individuals have stolen, but the inflexibility of the consumer capitalist system, particularly at the point where it intersects with the justice system, doesn’t treat people as individuals, but simply treats them as ‘thieves’ and ‘not thieves’. Brizé’s decision to align Thierry’s own loosening and liberation with a forceful rejection of the dehumanising aspects of his job, points the audience toward the real object of condemnation, namely the culture and society that can create such heinous job situations in the first place. Literally every character in Brizé’s film has a carefully crafted backstory that slowly drips into Thierry’s central narrative. The overall effect of this wonderfully rich and textured approach to character is to highlight at all times the humanity of people in relation, and how that humanity is placed under unendurable pressure by the inhumane systems we have created to govern our social spheres.

Rating: 9/10