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A Journey Around Censorship
Somewhere, in the corner of my mind, the information about Jafar Panahi's predicament was lying around unguarded. His 2010 jail sentence and twenty year ban from filmmaking were a result of what was deemed as propaganda against the Iranian government. Obviously, it has not hindered him in producing three movies since, all smuggled outside the country and released at the Cannes and Berlin festivals before receiving wider distribution. The story of the man is fascinating enough, but it is his artistic and humanistic sensibilities that make Taxi a memorable experience.
Filmed via a number of small cameras, some fixed within the taxi itself, some carried around by other protagonists, the story sees Panahi acting as a cab driver and encountering pieces of the Iranian Weltanschauung. The irony of his position is highlighted as his first passenger criticizes his geographical orientation, noticing that something must have gone seriously wrong for Panahi in order for him to have to resort to something he has no clue about. And after a short argument between passengers about whether stealing the wheels off a car should warrant the death penalty or not, "just to send a message", you get the sense of how easily people become desensitized to such matters if only they are faced with them frequently enough. Paradoxically, the man suggesting this course of action is a "freelancer" himself, but more of a Robin Hood mold, which apparently should exempt him from a similar punishment.
This contradiction between wrong and right is explored throughout the journey, as Panahi encounters a series of colourful characters: a man selling pirated international films (who actually recognizes the director and takes quick advantage of him), a woman weeping over her dying husband, two older women fighting for their lives, an old neighbour who had recently been the victim of a robbery, a woman suffering a similar fate of marginalization due to the her political views, and Panahi's niece, who is just being introduced to what "publishable films" are in Iran.
Panahi strikes a fine balance between some more comical aspects of Iranian life and the very dire need for self expression, that is severely limited. The humanism that pervades Taxi poses the same question repeatedly: what causes crime and who is a criminal within Iranian society? Drawing from a well of personal experience, he manages to create an endearing context for all his protagonists and their tales and it feels like he is taking us by the hand and guiding us, not so much physically, as emotionally. His smile spreads these emotional cues, from affection to sympathy, confusion and intense discomfort, and this gives off the sensation of being joined by a friend throughout this journey.
The worst that can be said is that the scripting of events does occasionally feel a bit heavy handed, in order to condense all the experience in what is ultimately a very short film. And while generally avoiding the lure of leaning too heavily on caricature, it ends on a slightly underwhelming artistic note.
But those are all the complaints I have to make. I very much enjoyed Taxi and gathering from the vibe around me, so did many of the other people watching it. While I feel the focus should generally be on the art, more than on the artist, here's hoping that Panahi will have the chance to one day echo the affection he receives and generates in festival venues around the world, by having the freedom to openly appear alongside Iranian artists and their uncensored visions.
It is unfortunate that Angelica lacks the bite of Lichtenstein's previous film, Teeth - excuse the terrible pun. Despite exploring the similar theme of women empowerment through sexual control, the humor misses its mark, leaving the shell of irony in its place. The fitting Victorian background to this tale, well captured throughout, does not suffice to make the film worth recommending.
The story tells us of a mother's confession, Constance, who while lying on her deathbed admits to harbouring a dark secret from her daughter, Angelica. We go back to Angelica's conception as the fruit of a healthy, passionate marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Barton, which sadly leaves the to-be mother in a state that does not allow her to go through another childbirth. With contraception methods poorly at hand, that leaves abstinence as the sole means of ensuring Constance's good health. This results in a gaping void between the pair, where passion is replaced by restrained desire and mutual frustration. Moreover, as she faces her guilt of both being immoral in her pursuits and incapable of pleasing herself and her husband, a dark presence appears that plagues her nights, as she looks to protect her daughter.
Unfortunately, the obstacles in turning the source novel into a novel film offering fails on most counts. First and foremost, in finding the thin line between clever irreverence and irrelevance, guarding the experience of the film as either something frightening, or something comical. Perhaps Drag Me to Hell highlights what this looks like when done successfully - and even in such a case, opinions are divided. Secondly, Jenna Malone labours to offer a conflicted performance as a British 19th century wife, but her efforts are consistently undermined as she appears around characters ridiculous in features or in speech. Finally, it's hard to feel for the fate of Constance and Angelica, as they fail to be more than the sum of this movie's parts - mundane and full of painful restraint.
Lichtenstein is not able to find a balance in this story, mixing modern morality into his somber settings, thereby loosening the movie's grip of its characters. The rare moments of authentic playfulness or artfulness are drowned in an otherwise typical period piece, that looks fine - and that's about it.
A Player's Nostalgia
If you're part of the Football manager clan, there's no way this documentary won't bring back quite a few emotions and chuckles. Whether you first came across it in the mid nineties, when it was first released, or on some random day in the early 00s when a friend called you over to show you "this unusual football game", as I did, Football Manager has probably played some part in your life.
This documentary looks at exactly that and it all felt very true to me. I've had my own share of mysterious Conference affairs, and I've visited countries to watch teams or players I felt I knew so well from seasons upon seasons of the game. The fact that real life football players enjoy it is no surprise, because it appeals to anyone who loves football. The immersion is spectacular and the experience is both scientific and visceral. You get this sense from an "Alternative Reality" and the road to validation was longer than it perhaps should have been.
On a different level, this documentary shows how much Football Manager and Sports Interactive have evolved. From outsiders to insiders, the journey all virtual players are yearning for, topped by deep ties with the football world that they've recreated. The level of professionalism and depth that FM now entails is astounding and rightfully so, the game database is seen as a treasured resource. And this extends beyond its obvious value as sets of data, and goes into how the data can shape reality simulation and generate descriptive algorithms thereof.
However, once you become as high profile a player as Sports Interactive, balancing the demands of the fans and the commercial priorities becomes difficult. Not to undermine the fact that Football Manager is incredibly complex and this complexity makes perfecting it a daunting task, but that's why focus is important. Even walking the line of the passionate creator-gamer, however much truth it may hold, has a dull ring to it. Looking objectively at where Football Manager is at now, there is a definite sense of stagnation and every new edition, released on a yearly basis, strives to do little more than act as an update to the database. In their search for realism and under the pressure of justifying new releases year in, year out, SI have buckled and lost focus on improving the core elements of the game mechanics, while blowing their own trumpet worryingly often.
Once I step back from the nostalgia, I can see that in the documentary as well, which is a one-sided ode to the greatness of Football Manager. And that might be fine enough on one level, but it ultimately works as an informative and humorous look into the phenomenon and not much else. Perhaps it is the right time for SI to push for the boldness it showed early on in their history and ensure that they can create the same experiences of awe, joy and despair in the future and not rely on their dominant position in the market to keep playing it safe. Because Football Manager is a legacy worth preserving and improving upon.
Ex Machina (2015)
Garland has put together a solid sci-fi movie, which is really what would be expected of such a talented screenwriter. Having taken over the directing helm for the first time, Ex Machina looks smooth and fascinating, suave to the brink and feels quite enthralling overall. But to me, it does not aim quite high enough with the ending, which is a shame, because the journey there was good fun.
The plot is that Caleb, an employee at some megatech Google-y company, wins a lottery to go spend a blissful seven days at the estate of the eccentric owner of the joint, Nathan. He finds him at a luscious house, gorgeously conceived but fairly sterile overall, where he is revealed the real purpose for his trip: do a Turing test on an advanced AI machine. Things get complicated along the way, as the movie explores motives, social themes and overarching concerns of where technology will lead us.
I really admired the fairly minimalistic narrative approach but very realistic scientific take on the role the latter will have in this near future. While human-level AI is still some way down the road, especially in such a compact form as a human-like body, it probably is going to happen. The impact and privacy implications of social data mining are highlighted at several points during the story and play a central role in the whole testing environment, a theme that has become more prevalent than ever in the continued development of our virtual selves. And the story pushes through these things seamlessly, humorously and poignantly, which is all that could have been asked for.
What disturbed me a little was that Nathan's character is underdeveloped and behaves in an erratic fashion that is quite clichéd. Additionally, the implication of the movie is that a man alone could take up most of the research in creating such an advanced AI. This is not likely at all. And ultimately, the final twenty minutes or so advance fairly predictably towards a stale ending.
So a good overall experience, that just falls short of being truly memorable, despite very impressive performances by all three leads: Isaac, Gleeson, Vikander. It felt so close to a ridiculously cool ending, that it frustrates me a bit that I didn't get it.
Because what I'd have loved is the conclusion being that the AIs had taken over the house before the movie began, including Nathan who had been turned into an AI replacement of his former self, and they would have brought Caleb to check whether they can pass the Turing test and venture into the world. Would have been a really cool and perhaps a bit silly ending, but my mind wandered in this direction as the actual one was unfolding.
Drei Stunden (2012)
Transit of a Generation
The underlying ambitions of Drei Stunden, of looking at how hard a relationship can be in this day and age, especially for those who do not subscribe to the "practical" urban paths of business life, are admirable. The plot put together to express this is less so.
Martin is a dreamy individual with artistic inclinations, while Isabel is idealistic and acutely aware, politically and environmentally. But ultimately they are on the same wavelength, it is only their terminologies that differ. Just as Isabel decides to travel to the African continent to dedicate herself to a long term project, Martin comes to the realization that their great friendship, ever so slightly sketched in the first few minutes of the movie, is the basis of a much stronger bond. So he has just a few hours before Isabel's plane leaves to find out if he can keep her close.
The movie tries pretty hard to be modern and its pieces fit together reasonably well, but it makes it difficult to relate to its wayward leads, whose chemistry is not enough to overcome the narrative hurdle. It lacks passion and individuality, which means that it is not authentic enough to count, despite a good starting point that could have told a more engaging and very relevant story. As such, it is only a competent time passer.
The Rewrite (2014)
With its particularities in place, it does feel at times that "The Rewrite" might be willing to pull some punches, stand by some unexpected statements and push the envelope a little bit. But ultimately it changes its mind and goes down the route of rom-com-iness, which it executes well enough.
The story looks at a washed up Hollywood writer who seems at present to be far more capable of putting together a string of vices rather than a string of words. And this frustrated, disinterested, self-absorbed character gets the morality treatment, in a very blunt manner at times, balanced with spurs of wit and charm to make up for it.
Unfortunately, there's little beyond the stereotypes of the supporting cast, to make for a more interesting experience. It's funny to see Hugh Grant's mannerisms at work, which seem to suit his old(er) age quite well, although perhaps more on a caricaturist level. And Tomei resolves herself to be the happy-go-lucky type that has too little bite to help you get really involved emotionally.
What I did enjoy, was the particular pace the movie had, in no rush to get anywhere in particular and yet particularly abrupt once it got there. Like admitting to the audience that yeah, you know what's happening here. There's value in familiarity, when things fall into place reasonably well. And despite its shortcomings, The Rewrite does come together with a pinch of distinctiveness that makes it worth a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Disturbing the Senses
There's a tragic tale unfurling in Contracted amidst the disgusting-ness, which tells the story of a troubled girl caught between addiction, love and rebirth.
In waiting for her lover, who happens to be a girl, Samantha goes to a party where alcohol clears the path for a straight sexual encounter, of the unprotected sort. As she tries to glue her life back together, a strange affliction seems to bear down on her as unexplained symptoms appear for which nobody has an answer to. And as the symptoms become more apparent, so does her struggle to keep everything together.
While there might be a rather clumsy beginning to Contracted, the film settles quite rapidly into its tune of psychological gross-out horror, upping the ante until it seemingly runs out of good ideas. It seems like there's a razor thin line of reason which dictates the protagonists' behavior, an issue that grows harder to ignore as the film goes on and seems to lose focus. But whatever you might say about its shortcomings, Contracted is good-looking in all its bad looks and harrowing in its portrayal of decay, pushing the right buttons which ensure it will not be easily forgotten.
So while there might have been more in it, the experience is worth the ride.
Pozitia copilului (2013)
People at its Heart
I happened to catch a screening of the film attended by the director and some of the actors, followed by a short Q&A. This sort of effort is part of a greater plan to bring appraised Romanian films closer to the Romanian audience, while also creating an association with the people responsible for their success, more often than not "against the odds".
What sets Netzer's film apart from some of the other recent Romanian works of cinema is its sardonic humor which works best when it's aimed at the characters and not at some of the pervasive practices of society. I've personally always felt that personal stories, meaning character stories, always came in second to some grand piece of social commentary, usually on the communist background of the country, in most of the acclaimed Romanian cinema of the 21st century. Not to say that such commentary lacks relevance, but there's just more to modern life than its dark red heritage.
Of course, "Pozitia Copilului" is deeply rooted in antics which one could call symptomatic of Romania and as a means of characterization, the backdrop is justifiable. Occasionally though, when certain aspects come across a bit too hard pressed, they do a disservice to the otherwise excellent balance of a difficult story. This does in no way undermine the beautifully detailed portrait of the film's main character, a highly controlling, bossy, arrogant, mean-spirited mother whose faults go quite a way to being redeemed by the passionate dedication with which she tries to protect her son, who had killed a child in a car accident. The ambivalence is so finely portrayed by Luminita Gheorghiu that both the moments of involuntary humor and the moments of pure drama work just as well.
It's ironic that Mrs. Gheorghiu also played in "Moartea Domnului Lazarescu", a film I found to be close at heart with "Pozitia Copilului", in that it relies heavily on a complex central character and its critique is subtle, yet scathing. I'd go so far as to say that these kind of films, while still dominated by a type of post-modernist bleakness, can lead a shift of focus to the greater importance of characters as individuals in Romanian movies, not only as symbol stand-ins.
A Careful Mistake
Sometimes, if you just follow an actor/actress around in a cinematic sense, you are bound to come across some rough road. The reason why Norman is such a patch of film is because its focus is too intense and it cannot justify the feel-good compromises it adheres to.
The narrative goes about the life of a suffering high-schooler, who has just lost his mother in a car accident and whose father is dying of cancer. Within the midst of all this, he meets the gorgeous Emily, a new arrival in his high-school, who for no apparent reason other than his Monty Python savvyness and a terribly depressing speech about suicide clings on to him in a very happy-go-lucky kind of way. Unfortunately, she amounts to little more than a caricature for the rest of the film, as is the case with all the other supporting characters.
Norman's pain is portrayed in a convincing manner by Dan Byrd and Richard Jenkins complements him very well in the role of his father, a duo of suffering and misanthropy. Additionally, Emily Van Camp's "Emily" shows quite a bit of promise in the first couple of scenes, but then just fades into the murky background. Unfortunately, I found the premise of the movie to be hard to accept and its consequent predictability and need for an optimistic conclusion harmed what could have been a strong if extremely bleak story.
It brought "World's Greatest Dad" to mind as far as the social comments on perception are concerned, but it lacked the conviction to explore this matter thoroughly. As such, Norman doesn't really say much and never finds a much needed balance to bring it "home".
The Hunger Games (2012)
Evasive but engaging adaptation
I suddenly found myself reading The Hunger Games trilogy in preparation for the movie, mainly due to the allure of Jennifer Lawrence. Thankfully, it was a pretty fun read, even though the books are fairly derivative, at least in regard to their dystopian theme. It's the ambivalence of Katniss that drives the story forward and keeps it interesting, so to my mind this was one of the most important things to get right in the movie.
The universe of Panem, a land set in the future comprised of twelve districts and run by an authoritarian capitol, may seem a bit implausible in its literary portrayal, but the movie gets the tone and scope of the place just right. District Twelve is the home of our main protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, a teenager charged with the responsibility of taking care of her mother and sister after the passing of her father in a mining accident. As if life weren't difficult enough on a day to day basis, every year the Capitol organizes "The Hunger Games", a duel to the death in which two tributes, a boy and a girl, are enlisted from each district to battle for survival. The event is supposed to serve as a reminder and punishment of the failed rebellion against the capital which took place 74 years prior. In an unfortunate turn of the odds, Katniss is forced to volunteer for her younger sister once she is selected for participation in the games, and together with Peeta Mellark, the male tribute of District Twelve, she heads off into the unknown and, most likely, towards her demise.
The key to understanding the event itself is that it represents a piece of entertainment, similar to the gladiator fights of Ancient Rome. As the participants are groomed for a televised show, the macabre concept behind the games may be easy to lose out of sight, and it is at this point that the direction of the film becomes a bit skewed and decides to evade/underplay one of the central plot lines in the book. In the transition from Katniss' literary narrative to the cinematic transposition, her struggle with herself and those around her, in particular Peeta, loses out. As the two tributes, under the guidance of their mentor, decide to play out a love story in order to endear themselves to the public, the film's focus shifts to the more easily translatable tension resulting from the potential love triangle between Peeta, Katniss and her childhood friend Gale (who remained in District Twelve), rather than focusing on the constant ambivalence in Katniss' soul. This is particularly interesting once it becomes evident that Peeta has truly been in love with her for many years, while the question of her own feelings towards him are shrouded behind the importance of self-preservation.
Therefore, it is a shame that the film's choice is to portray the situation as a love triangle, set to develop further in the upcoming sequels, rather than to investigate the implication of how Katniss feels at odds with her situation and the role she has to play, knowing that in the end there is only one survivor to The Hunger Games. It is understandable that due to the scope of the movie franchise this would be a bit harder to sell, but it undermines one of the most fascinating themes of the book, the journey of Katniss' self-discovery.
Implicitly, we get a fairly limited understanding of most characters and how they relate to one another. Despite this hindrance, Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, who play Katniss and Peeta, manage to infuse a lot of what their characters are supposed to be into the final print of the movie, thereby conveying at least part of what is unwritten in the script and transpires from the books. Hopefully, the undertones of their relationship will be further expanded upon in the second movie, without focusing too much on the romantic dilemma, which serves as a backdrop in the books, rather than a driving force.
Also, what the movie managed to do quite well is create a fine rapport between President Snow, played with delightful and menacing restraint by Donald Sutherland, and the game-maker Seneca Crane. Their scenes shed some insight into the workings of the games which otherwise could have needed a rather tiresome narrative, while still defining two characters of interesting depth.
I can imagine some of the shortcomings mentioned are less evident to viewers who have not read the whole story, which leaves them with a pretty well rounded film about a cruel world that begs for many answers - but lacks a fair bit of heart. Seeing how difficult it is to rise up to the expectations of so many interested parties when producing a film like The Hunger Games, it is fair to say that the end result is a reasonably faithful and sensible adaptation of an engaging story. The politics behind Panem, which should feature more extensively in the second movie, will be a different challenge altogether, but the set-up for the sequel is solid and should offer a large enough scope to fulfill the vision of Suzanne Collins and her rather uncompromising characters.