Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: not child's play

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is the latest and least satisfying of the recent films about Nazi Germany and the Final Solution. After The Reader and Good we have a child’s take on the Third Reich and the Holocaust. It’s the story of eight year old Bruno who befriends Shmuel, a Jewish boy of his own age. The drama comes from three elements: his father is the concentration commandant, his grandmother is anti-Nazi and the friend is a camp inmate.

The best aspect of this movie is Asa Butterfield’s performance as Bruno. He manages to carry off the unlikely naiveté like a mature professional. In contrast Jack Scanlon who plays Shmuel, is less convincing and seems less comfortable in his role.

This applies even more to David Thewlis as the father. He displays an intellectual commitment to the Nazi ideology but little of the emotion and fire that you would expect to go with it. The rest of the SS officers and his zealous father (Richard Johnson) are stereotypes without any character development. The exception is Rupert friend as Lt. Kotler who has family conflicts of his own.

Bruno’s twelve year old sister Gretel is played competently by Amber Beattie. Her extreme infatuation with the Reich and its macho men in uniform dims as her parents’ relationship sours.

Director Mark Herman has given us another pedestrian re-creation of the world inside and outside the camps. The cold, stark architecture of their national socialist home symbolises this monster regime. Like much of the film it is clichéd. The contrived plot does not overcome the lack of other originality. Its predictability adds to the letdown after all the publicity and apparent popularity of this British production.

Striped Pyjamas, as the name suggests, is also a children’s film. It is their attempts to make sense of an adult world destroying itself in the name of renewal. Most will have to wait for the DVD as it has an M rating in Australia. The novel by James Boyne has won both children's and adult book awards.

Many filmgoers will find this sentimental treatment a touching experience. In many ways it has the same problem as Good: “If you missed The Reader or The Counterfeiter or classics such as Sophie’s Choice or Schindler’s List, then Good will be a fresh and rewarding experience.” Good: just another Third Reich movie

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Tulpan: spring in the steppe

What does a young Kazakh man like Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov) do when he leaves the Russian navy? He looks for a bride and plans to settle down to a life of herding sheep on the Hungersteppe (Betpak Dala) of Kazakhstan. The only available bride is Tulpan who he sets out to woo. He resists his friend Boni’s attempts to get him to head for the cities.

Kazakh documentary maker Sergey Dvortsevoy has brought us the acclaimed feature film Tulpan. Its flat, dusty, dry plains are reminiscent of parts of outback Australia but are even more remote. The movie was shot 500 km from the nearest city Chimkent. It is harsh and unforgiving with powerful dust storms dominating the environment.

Most of the interior scenes take place in traditional tent houses called jurtes. The family is close in every sense of the word. Asa's sister Samal (Samal Esljamova) and Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov) and their three children share their home with him. Some of the most touching scenes involve singing within the intimacy of the family group.

The tiny domestic space is not the only cause of tension. Ondas is particularly tough on his brother-in-law Asa, perhaps because of the incredibly strong bonds between brother and sister.

Like the lives of the local people, the making of the film revolved around and evolved with the lives of the sheep. Dvortsevoy explains on the official website:
The crew spent two weeks just following sheep. In the third week, we tried several times on video to understand what camera movements should be used when the sheep is giving birth. Once the camera crew was technically ready, we waited for one of the thousands of sheep to give birth. The shepherd had a radio station and would call us as soon as one was ready.

When the scenes were shot, I understood that they are so unique and powerful that I had to adjust the rest of the film to those scenes rather than adjusting them to the script. From that on we opened the film to the experiences we made in everyday life and let them influence the story-building. In the end the film grew like a tree and many things were unpredictable.
The karakul sheep from Central Asia have been controversial:
[astrakhan] could refer to the fur of newborn Persian or karakul lambs or it could refer to broadtail fur taken from fetal lambs (or generally refer to both)—but whatever its exact definition, astrakhan boils down to one thing: early death for lambs, often even death for fetal lambs and their mothers.
Astrakhan: Hot "New" Fashion is the Same Old Cruelty
The birth scene is the most gripping moment of the story. The website has a full explanation.

One small criticism: the shaky hand-held camera work was sometimes unnecessarily distracting.

It's easy to see why Tulpan has been hot at the film festivals. Superlatives are hard to avoid: original, raw, authentic, genuine, funny, joyous, honest.

Dvortsevoy has restored respectability to the term reality. In fact it is hard not to think that this is a documentary at times. These people couldn't really be actors. It’s great to see the potential of the movie medium stretched in such powerful ways.


There is an Interview with Sergei Dvortsevoy, writer/director of Tulpan with Cinetology. He is visiting Australia.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Closed for Winter: unlocking summer's secrets

Australian writer/director James Bogle has given us the very introspective Closed for Winter, an adaptation of Georgia Blain’s 1998 novel of the same name. This dark film brought to mind the recent French language I’ve loved you for so long, “This is a sombre, desolate tale. It is as much about her complex relationships as it is the past.”

Both stories explore coming to terms with loss, about achieving the dreaded ubiquitous cliché and about creating a new beginning.

Twenty years after the disappearance of her older sister Frances (Danielle Catanzariti) Elise Silverton (Natalie Imbruglia) is obsessed by her memories. Frances’ fate is still unresolved. Her mother Dorothy (Deborah Kennedy) spends her waking hours compulsively reading and responding to similar tragic news items. Her dilapidated house is piled with newspapers. The shadowy absence of her husband, who died in a work accident before the disappearance, hangs over everything.

Two other men help to break this cycle of mourning. A relationship with her boss Martin (Daniel Frederiksen) offers a way out for Elise. Daniel’s performance as the geekish nerd who manages the local cinema was the hardest to warm to. It seems too much of a caricature.

John Mills has been the family’s long-term doctor. His developing friendship with Elise brings the film’s climax that helps her to confront the past. Tony Martin gives a restrained, perhaps underwhelming, portrayal.

Those who haven’t followed Neighbours or aren’t great fans of popular music, Natalie Imbruglia may not be as familiar as Kylie Minogue. Most of her acting has been for television. She does brooding silence very well but doesn’t handle vigorous dialogue as skillfully. The young Elise (Tiahn Green) does silences even better. Like many recent roles by child actors, her performance steals a lot of Natalie’s impact. Natalie also seems a few years too old for her part.

Deborah Kennedy maintains a crazed sparkle in the eyes, warning that Dorothy's neuroses should not be taken lightly.

Bogle’s controlled direction manages the frequent flashbacks fluently and effectively. The beach scenes with the aging pier mold the mood of the tragic summer perfectly. However, at times these shots linger too long, in what is an otherwise concise production. There are some twee aspects such as the garden and the mosaic but they are minor irritations.

The film is not really a mystery or suspense, though much of the critical action happens off camera. Towards the end Elise says that she now knows as much as she need to. The same is true for the audience. The resolution is predictable but that doesn’t spoil this troubled journey. An emotional life that has been flat-lining for so long has only two possible directions.

(Thanks to the Melbourne Writers Festival and Goalpost Pictures for the complimentary tickets.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Good: just another Third Reich movie

Germany's Third Reich didn’t last its planned thousand years but there seems little doubt that they will be making movies like Good for that long. It’s certainly a winning genre at the Oscars and the box office.

The key word for this Nazi/Holocaust film is derivative. You know immediately that you’ve been there before:
  • the swastika-draped scenes of Hitler’s Chancellery,
  • the book burning,
  • the betrayal by academia of their principles,
  • the wrecked apartments of the wealthy urban Jews,
  • the extravagant lifestyle of the senior Nazis,
  • tension between Aryan and Jewish friends,
  • the roundup,
  • the concentration camp climax.
This is another film where it’s very difficult to empathise with the protagonist. Kate Winslet’s character in The Reader, Hanna Schmitz, copped some criticism for showing the human side of the holocaust perpetrators. Viggo Mortensen’s John Halder may also be too human for some. He is a weak, compliant individual who clearly thinks of himself as a good man. He may be essentially good, but his increasing acceptance of the dark side of the Third Reich comes too easily. The world needed better.

Academic and novelist, Halder is a cold, wet fish. He barely enjoys his adulterous sex life. His criticisms of the Nazis are shallow: Hitler is a joke who won’t last. He sees his role as honorary, an SS “consultant”. “I prefer to be called Professor.”

Like many of its genre, Good has a very attractive look. Its costumes are well designed. The production notes reveal their pseudo-authenticity. They’ve been modernised by use of 30s styles that most resemble our own. There are few hats except for the military. The sets reflect the grandeur of Speer’s Berlin:
GOOD uses Hitler’s affection for neo-classical temples to underline the split personality of the entire society—a society in which all those clean, white marble and limestone surfaces are meant to hide a nation’s debased, besmirched soul.
The official website also claims that Director Vicente Amorim “heightens the visual elements – sets, costumes, and lighting – to emphasize that what we are watching is symbolic, a sweeping parable about conscience and consequences.” If it’s about the struggle between individual and society, or within himself, then we see a very one-sided contest. Halder was just following...

Nevertheless this is a well-made film. Many other directors could take a leaf for its concise 96 minutes. It is hard to fault the performances of its very professional cast.

If you missed The Reader or The Counterfeiter or classics such as Sophie’s Choice or Schindler’s List, then Good will be a fresh and rewarding experience.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Camino: children suffering for Opus Dei

Jesús Te Ama

Director Javier Fesser’s Spanish film Camino (The Way) evoked anger and pathos in me in equal measures.

Eleven-year-old Camino (Nerea Camacho) is increasingly hospitalised by a serious illness. Her greatest wish is to join a drama group where she has met her heart’s desire Cuco (Lucas Manzano). Her mother Gloria (Carme Elias) is a dedicated lay member of Opus Dei (Work of God) who believes that the end justifies the means with regard to her ambitions for her daughters. Her husband José (Mariano Venancio) is powerless, and increasingly alienated from his wife and church. Camino’s older sister Nuria (Manuela Vellés) is an Opus Dei numerary who lives a celibate existence in one of their highly controlled centres, much like a nunnery. She is subjected to mortification (self harm) when she puts small stones in her shoe. Suffering for Jesus.

It is hard for someone brought up a Catholic to view this film without lots of baggage. Nine years under the Jesuits was enough education to lead me away from the mysterious ways of mother church. Though they prided themselves as the religious intelligentsia, the Society of Jesus always fell back on faith when their reasoning failed. To Opus Dei faith explains everything. It is quite a different institution with its belief in the sanctity of everyday life and work and the conviction that we can all become saints. Their beliefs and rituals seem incredibly bizarre without the crutch of faith.

Camino is probably for everyone except hard-core Opus Dei:
  • true believers in a Middle Ages version of Christianity;
  • those who reject organisations such as Opus Dei but retain their faith;
  • and those who do not capitalise god.
The old cliché that we see what we believe seems to apply here.

It is based on a real story, that of 14-year-old Alexia González-Barros who died in 1985 and awaits canonisation. If you believe in offering our children’s suffering to god, then Camino’s life makes lots of sense. If you don’t then you may be outraged by what takes place in this story.

Fesser believes that he has made a non-judgmental work based on his exploration of similar cases:

“All these characters, however, have in turn led me to discover other stories, much closer to home, which have allowed me to recreate faithfully and with great precision the medium in the midst of which all this takes on a special meaning: the Opus Dei.

Camino is meant to be a story told from an objective angle, free from prejudiced or stereotyped mindsets. A film which regards reality with a generous gaze, without judging it. Rather like an x-ray image. And this is precisely the reason for this film's bold, closely focused and severe quality.”

I doubt that the followers of Opus Dei would agree with him. In fact there is a lot of negative criticism on the web.

To solve these difficult metaphysical conundrums, Mr Meebles comes to the rescue. He is one of Camino’s favourite picture book characters. He has everything but has one problem. He doesn’t exist. A metaphor for god no doubt! A critique of the ontological argument for the existence of god will have to wait for another time.

With its dream world elements this is a fairy tale in many ways. I was sucked into the story despite initial distaste for the subject matter. Its sentimental plot borders on the telenovela with:
  • pubescent love
  • hospitals with graphic operations
  • secrecy and intrigue
  • suspense and misunderstandings
  • and of course contrived coincidences
There is even confusion over names.

It has its own charismatic villain. In this case Opus Dei priest Don Miguel Ángel (Pepe Ocio) uses the required mixture of charm and persuasion to manipulate his flock. The black frocked vultures circle as the possibility grows of Camino becoming an Opus Dei Saint Bernadette.

The cast does an exceptionally good job, with the children standing out of course. It's too long and could have been more tightly edited.

Keep an open mind. It’s worth going along to see the powerful affirmation of innocence in this murky world of god’s works.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Summer Hours: fading into autumn

Éloïse & Frédéric

L'heure d'été/Summer Hours is a French language story of family generations. When Hélène Regnier (Edith Scob) dies after her 75 birthday, her two sons Frédéric (Charles Berling) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and daughter Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) have to decide what to do with her home and possessions. Her collection of art and furniture is much sought after, with the Musée d'Orsay as central players. The museum originally commissioned three short films that were never made.

The central theme of “what we leave behind” is familiar one to those of us who are baby boomers. Perhaps this is an advance on the preoccupation of filmmakers with what to do with the old folks. Now it’s how to deal with their passing. Or more cynically, the inheritance.

At a deeper level the film is about coming to terms with the past, about dealing with our formative memories and about how we move on with our lives. But director Olivier Assayas is primarily concerned with present relationships and the way people envision their own legacy:
“But the flow of life, which brings change, is much stronger, truer and deeper than the melancholy you feel by looking to the past.”
The unique family home and its contents are the focus of the siblings’ difficult deliberations. For Assayas, the property is “at the centre of the film … places have souls”. They have to work out a future that may not involve this critical bond in their relations with one another. Frédéric is an economist who rejects much of the new globalisation that has taken Jérémie to a new life in China and Adrienne to success as a designer in New York. He alone is remaining in France. There is added denial to his ruminations. His biggest hurdle is not accepting the loss of his mother and the house but in acknowledging her relationship with her famous artist uncle.

Frédéric’s legacy is his children. In the later stages of the film, the attention shifts to the younger generation through his daughter Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing). She is a very 21st Century teenager, a feisty risk taker who shows the kind of independence we would have expected from her aunt Adrienne in her youth. Sylvie’s key memory involves Hélène sharing the hope that one day her granddaughter will bring her children to the house to play in the gardens. By the way her father chain-smokes through every scene, she is likely to get her inheritance soon.

Another central character is Éloïse, the housekeeper (Isabelle Sadoyan). She loses her home as much as, indeed more than, the remaining family members. However, there are no surprises in this sensitive portrayal. It is a strong cast that seems wasted at times. Juliette Binoche has few challenges in her role. Dominique Reymond gives a very professional performance as Frédéric’s wife.

The film claims, “for every family there is a season”. Summer Hours felt more like autumn to me. It’s beautiful and reflective but extremely slow. The drama is very muted and conflicts are too quickly and too easily resolved.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Let the Right One In: Vintage Vampire

Låt den rätte komma in/Let the Right One In is vintage vampire. I thought I'd never enjoy another in this genre but this film took me by surprise. A real gem!

This is the best foreign language, pubescent female vampire movie of 2008 by far. It’s set in Stockholm in 1982, obviously a memorable year for Swedish horror. Kåre Hedebrant as the bullied boy Oskar and Lina Leandersson as the girl vampire Eli are magnificent! They even outshine the child actors in Slumdog Millionaire.

The local eccentrics add extra colour to the blood on the snow. The group of friends who get caught up in Eli need for blood are truly Dickensian: Jocke (Mikael Rahm), Gösta (Karl-Robert Lindgren), Lacke (Peter Carlberg) and his girlfriend Virginia (Ika Nord).

Most of the conventions are followed: the ageless vampire; aversion to sunlight; a Renfield character played by Per Ragnar; infected victims; the necessity of being invited into a room.

Like all good vampire movies it’s a love story, if just a little unusual.

Director Tomas Alfredson and novelist/screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist are to be congratulated on breathing life into this genre. Though there is plenty of blood Alfredson doesn't overdo or milk the horror. In contrast the boys who torment Oskar are far more chilling than any vampire. They give the tale its real elements of suspense.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Elegy: sex not quite everything

Kingsley and Cruz make an unlikely pair in Elegy. It took a while to suspend disbelief in this romance/drama. Its protagonist, David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), is a Literature academic, a lecturer in Practical Criticism at a New York University. Literature, art, photography, and theatre are his milieu. He is also a minor media celebrity.

The story is based on Philip Roth’s 2001 novel The Dying Animal, which I haven’t read. Kepesh is the latest in a long line of aging male intelligentsia who have libido issues. Self indulgence and total lack of commitment are their essentials.

He is a serial hedonist who seduces one of his mature age students, Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz). She comes from a comfortable Cuban American family. Kepesh sets his sexual sights high. However, he ignores all the old clichés: no fool like an old fool; be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. His motto: "When you make love to a woman you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life."

His best friend, George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper) fancies himself as the master of practical advice. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. Isn’t everyone’s life coach? He and David share everything, especially those things they’d never tell the women in their lives. At one of those inevitable New York lunches he outlines his theory that ‘beautiful women are invisible’. Beauty is skin deep. We don’t see it.

Consuela is far from invisible but we learn very little about the person beneath. This is not a story about their relationship. It’s about his coming to terms with their relationship. We never quite learn her identity, what makes her tick and why Kepesh fulfills her deepest needs.

The first person narration helps to expose the workings of Kepesh’s self-obsessed personality but is unnecessary at times and overlaps awkwardly with his confessions to O’Hearn.

Patricia Clarkson, does her usually impressive job as Carolyn, David’s regular sex partner of 20 years. She’s a former student of course. Patricia worked alongside Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Clarkson outshines her in both films. Nevertheless, Penélope gives a much stronger and more restrained performance in Elegy than in her Oscar winning role. Perhaps the members of the Academy were rewarding this effort that was not nominated.

Isabel Coixet’s direction is straightforward and conventional. She handles the carnal elements with restraint, given their profile in the plot. However, some of the cinematic devices are hackneyed beyond belief. David stands lonely in the NY crowd. The lovers stroll on a deserted beach and fade away. There was little sense of a fresh, original NY experience. Occasional and inconsistent use of simulated hand-held effects detracted and distracted at times.

It has taken a fair while for this film to reach Australian cinemas. We went with fairly open minds, as there has been little local publicity. Not even the prominent role of Penélope Cruz’s breasts seems to have stirred the mainstream media or perhaps there is just too much to compete with lately.

It’s a good film but not an enriching experience. It’s impossible to empathise with the main character. You just wish, as is suggested in the film, that he’d grow up and that the American obsession with old men and young women would move on.

(Thanks to Melbourne Writers Festival and Hopscotch films for the complimentary tickets.)

Friday, April 3, 2009

Of Time and the City: Liverpool Made Me

The 21st Century has seen an amazing rebirth of feature length documentaries as a rich cinema experience. Obvious examples from 2008 are Man On Wire and Waltz with Bashir.

Of Time and the City is the latest and certainly the most eccentric. It has no obvious claim to a mass market, not even from its home turf Liverpool. It is quite esoteric at times, laced with poetry and introspection which may make it less accessible for some who would otherwise enjoy it immensely. Yet at the same time it is a vivid history of post-war Liverpool, and its working people. A collage of the changing character of British cities in the second half of the 20th Century.

This is filmmaker Terence Davies' homage to his roots. The official website describes it as "both a love song and a eulogy. It is also a response to memory, reflection and the experience of losing a sense of place as the skyline changes and time takes it toll." Davies was born in November 1945, after the end of the Second World War and at the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

Terence comments that "family, church and the movies [were his] whole world". He grew up in Liverpool's slums. The changing and unchanging architecture of this port city is central to his memories. The enduring buildings are mostly Classical, with more columns than a U.S. State Capital.

We see the promise and the betrayal of the slum clearances with the communities of small terraced houses replaced by the ghettos of public housing towers. The "loss of dreams" is underscored by Peggy Lee's The Folks Who Live On the Hill. "We had hoped for paradise. We got the Annus Mundi," puns Davies.

His republican sentiments are clear. We are treated to some of the highlights of the royal circus known as the Betty Windsor Show, in particular her wedding and coronation.

He also parades the other masters of pageant and ritual, the Roman Catholic Church and its red-robed clergy. However, the papal pomp is not enough to keep Terence within the faith. The hideous new Cathedral cannot cement his attachment to his ancestral religion. Instead he visits a different arena, the wrestling ring, to indulge his adolescent homosexual fantasies.

Of Time and the City is a visual gem, using mostly archival footage. It's his first documentary and Davies says that he cut it like fiction - "the images should speak". The narration mixes poetry with his own commentary as he explores "time, memory and mortality". T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets is a major source of inspiration:
Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.
(East Coker)

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
(Little Gidding)
Musically Davies has little time for the pride of Merseyside, The Beatles. His soul has been stirred more by the likes of Mahler. The film's sound track is an aural delight.

If you're looking for a travelogue, then forget this film. Terence Davies challenges his audience, through his personal reflections, to ponder their own journeys.

(Most of the quotes and background for this review are from two major resources at the film's website: the Full Transcript and a video interview with Davies.)