Monday, 14 April 2014

la jaula de oro (d. diego quemada-díez; w. quemada-díez; gibrán portela; lucia carreras)

A few years ago there was a film called Sin Nombre, which did very well for its director Cary Fukunaga. La Jaula is essentially the same film, following the path of three Guatemalan kids as they try to make their way across Mexico towards the promised land. The difference is that, whereas Sin Nombre offered a sentimental variation on the tale, La Jaula de Oro makes no bones about the cruelty and hardship involved in a journey which ultimately leads not to Los Angeles, as Juan, one of the trio hopes, but a desolate job in a snow-ridden corner of a troubled land. 

Guatemala and Mexico are perhaps even further away from Montevideo than Moscow, (say) might be from London. The barbarity revealed in the story feels as distant here as it would in London. There are those at the Montevideo Film Festival, where Jaula screened, who are perhaps sceptical of its vision of the downtrodden 3rd world being presented yet again for the voyeuristic delights of a 1st world audience. (It’s interesting quite how unpopular Ciudade de Dios is here, in spite of the involvement of Charlone). Nevertheless, Jaula possesses an undeniable integrity, refusing to let its audience off the hook. The three child actors whose journey we follow are as beguiling as we might expect, but their fates are not, and there’s no attempt made to sanitise the story.

In contrast to Sin Nombre, the film has a quasi-documentary feel, with the kids' fellow-travellers feeling like real people rather than extras. In addition Jaula mixes moments of great visual beauty with a roughness around the edges which ensures the viewer doesn’t become seduced by the picturesque nature of the journey across country. A paradox of the “immigrant road movie" (see also Winterbottom’s In This World) is that, in spite of the cinematic joys of witnessing landscapes and vistas we will probably never know, when telling the immigrant’s bleak story there’s little scope for the pleasures of aesthetics. Quemada-Díez treads this fine line with care. His movie might occupy familiar territory, but, as the gruelling last scenes emphasise, this is no fairground ride. Rather, it’s a film which seeks to take its place within the great abattoir of our tiny globe’s modernity. 

Friday, 11 April 2014

the past (w&d asghar farhadi)

The Past is such a portentous title that it almost threatens to scupper the titled project before it has got off the ground. The opening of Asghar Farhadi’s film has a laboured feel, as though its straining every sinew to convey everything that’s going on beneath the surface between Bejo’s Marie and Mosaffa’s Ahmad as they make the trip from the airport to Marie’s suburban home. Two people who were in a relationship but have lived apart for many years. It’s a rich sequence, but overly so, the weight of their back story threatening to overwhelm the present moment.

Fortunately, the narrative then abruptly plunges into the problems of the present. In particular, Marie’s relationships with her two girls as well as the son of her new lover, Samir. Elyes Aguis, gives a remarkable performance as Fouad, the confused child whose mother has recently tried to kill herself. His acting is all the more potent as a result of his character being kept on the margin of the narrative, where he acts as a mirror reflecting the anxiety and hurt which the actions of the adults has provoked. The adults are given a lot to deal with. Attempted suicide, separation, unhappy offspring. In the manner of a Hardy novel, the film painstakingly unravels the threads which bind the three protagonists together. This inevitably leads to a flirtation with melodrama, but Farhadi succeeds in steering a course away from the sharks of sentimentalism which circle his narrative.

This might be because, as well as being a relationship film, this is also a story about what it’s like to be an immigrant, first or second generation. Two of his actors are non-natives and the third is second generation French. Each takes on a character which feels in some way disconnected. Both Marie and Samir struggle to offer their children any sense of solidity, leaving them feeling rootless and confused. Ahmad’s arrival only serves to muddle the waters. Where the oldest daughter, Lucie, initially sees him as an ally, his presence ultimately resolves nothing. Whilst there is a potential pain inherent to any relationship, the film seems to suggest that this is exacerbated within a modern world which allows people to cross borders and distances with seeming ease, leaving them feeling isolated and helpless when things start to go wrong.

The Past possesses a dense narrative whose focus shifts from one character to another, concluding appropriately enough with the figure whose presence has been instrumental throughout but upto the very end has never been seen. Farhadi knows his key dramatic moments and plays them out for all they are worth. It is a reminder of what a well-worked screenplay really looks like: nothing flashy, just layer upon layer of subtle revelations, built up to create a compelling portrait of a few people who have been thrown together by fate and have to learn to make do, no matter how unsuited to life and relationships they feel themselves to be. 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

open door [iosi havilio]

Iosi Havilio’s curious book is straight out of the enigmatic Argentine post-Borges/ Cortazar school. This school thrives off an air of unresolved mystery, taking the frayed edges of the maestro’s stories and teasing them out as far as they’ll go. The novel as a semiotic playground, full of signifiers and blind alleys. Open Door is narrated by a woman vet who drops out and starts living in a small rural society which is probably populated by lunatics. Unsurprisingly she herself becomes somewhat unhinged, descending, Repulsion-style, into a debauched lifestyle of sex and ketamine, which comes across as oddly cold and unenjoyable. Indeed, the phrase “sex and ketamine” perhaps suggests a text which is delirious and transgressive, but the truth is that Open Door feels slightly tame, the sex scenes having a similar journeyman quality to Houlebecq’s. Similarly, the relentless quest for the unexpected has the effect of becoming somewhat predictable in itself: we never know what’s going to happen next but we know that whatever it is, it’s not going to affect anything to any startling degree. The novel has been lauded extensively, but it has the feel of a sketch, which might be typical of a first novel, and perhaps it would be wiser to judge Havilio on the basis of his subsequent works rather than this cold fish of a book. 

Thursday, 3 April 2014

grand budapest hotel (w&d wes anderson)

By the end the desired effect is inverted. Instead of a frothy, innocuous piece of fluff lulling you into a pleasing stupor, which would be appear to be the director’s goal, you find yourself on the point of screaming at the screen. Grand Budapest might kick off as a promisingly leftfield foray into Mitteleuropa (based on the works of Stefan Zweig, we are told) but it ends up becoming a flimsical, whimsical jazz-profaned, Benny Profaned, noodle into Mitteleuropa. This is a Mitteleuropa for people who don’t want to have to think about Freud or Musil or Kafka or even Zweig. It’s a Mitteleuropa for banal Manhattanites who assume a Mitteleuropa is a brand of designer coffee they have yet to come across and will be Pleasantly Surprised to discover it’s actually just a playground for heplish indie-nish US actors to hang out and Do Their Thing. In short, the director succeeds in taking the very thing he claims to be celebrating and bastardising it to such an extent that already execs are drawing up plans to rebuild the Grand Budapest Hotel, supposedly demolished, and turn it into the Must-Go venue for any aspiring uber-tech firm's 2016 bonding weekend. There will be Ustase themed nights, with obligatory schnapps chasers and post-prandial machine gun sessions. There will be the Communist themed nights, muted colours only, where no-one is allowed to laugh and that’s the biggest joke of all. They will invite Zizek to give by-invite-only seminars that will end with naked wrestling sessions in the candlelit mountain snow. 

Which part of the world will be the next to get the Anderson makeover? Where can he parachute in as many feckless, gilt-edged cameos for his mates? The post-war Left Bank? A romcom inspired by the Battle of Algiers? The Cultural Revolution with Phillip Seymour Hoff guesting as Mao? (Note to ed/ Wes - nice idea but the horse has bolted from that particular stable.) Why is this man allowed to splurge so much talent to such little effect? Why is he given such luxurious budgets to churn out this nonsense? Why does anyone ever give him the critical time of day? 

Answers on a postcard. 

The prettiest picture will be forwarded to the appropriate scouting team.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

starred up (d. david mackenzie, w. jonathan asser)

This being London, I found myself having two conversations about the director of the film, David Mackenzie, in a single day. The first, within the hallowed portals of Working Title’s London office, discussed the way he has suddenly become hot property, with Universal flying him out to LA in order to throw projects at him. The second was with someone who has known him, via his brother, for many years. Describing how his first film was shot in Spain and was supposed to have Bardem, before Bardem became famous, but didn't. (I can find no trace of this film in IMDB). In between the two points in Mackenzie’s life related there are a host of other films he has made, including his latest, and most apparently successful, Starred Up.

I say apparently because I’ve never seen another film of his. There have been, one notes, at least 8. In short, although Mackenzie is still relatively young, Starred Up is not the work of wunderkind. It’s the offering of a director who has been around the block and learned the ropes. Something which is evident in the way he pulls off what might have been a hackneyed prison tale and turns into a visceral, roller coaster journey. Above all, this is a film which is well-paced. For all that the lead, O’Connell, delivers a bravura performance, one can’t help thinking that if the editing and the camerawork weren’t in synch with this performance, his acting would appear overblown, and the full extent of the film’s melodramatic premise would reveal itself. This is not the greatest cinema script ever written: the ending feels contrived and the role of the the autobiographical figure, Ol, is underdeveloped. There’s no doubt there’s another film to be made which explores the writer, Jonathan Asser’s methodology in greater depth, where Starred Up only skates over the surface. (This in a week when we learn that books are to be banned in prison.) However, although under-developed, the film employs the Ol scenes to great effect. We are in the room with the prisoners as they grapple with and confront their fear of being ridiculous or losing status, a fear which can easily lead to violence in a testosterone fuelled society. These scenes are brilliantly composed and help to lend the film the sense of visceral energy it requires to convince us that this is what prison is really like. The whole place is a throbbing vein of overheated masculinity, embodied in O’Connell’s splendidly narcissistic performance. No-one can relax in this world and the assured direction means that the audience cannot either.

Where this could become frenetic in the hands of a less assured director, in Starred Up it feels like a convincing depiction of prison life. The highly regulated tone comes from the way in which the direction harmonises the various elements of the filmmaking process, from sound-design to acting, from editing to the muted grade. The film has the hallmark of someone at the helm who knows what they’re doing, reminding us that directors don’t fall out of trees, they are formed.