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The cable guy
* Written following a screening at Bath Film Festival 2013 with Skype Q&A *
The title Channeling is deliberately multivalent, meaning both the sense of 'He channelled his energies into archery', and putting something on a channel (so that others can see it).
As director / writer Drew Thomas told us in answer to one of my questions, the family of whom Wyatt (Taylor Handley), Jonah (Dominic DeVore) and Ashleigh (Skyler Day) are the grown-up offspring is a dysfunctional one : one son travels from Yemen for a funeral, and is then (in his only real-time appearance) told off by the father for not being there in time.
With Ashleigh's confessional moment on camera, Thomas said that he had intended to portray a self-loathing that might lead someone to seek approval from ratings for their past or future actions or choices. When we saw this system of rating manipulated, and indeed the events that had led up to it, the film did seem momentarily insubstantial and trivial, but it moved away from it, and this was something, perhaps a little self-indulgently, that Thomas almost did throughout the film, mining genres for what they were worth before moving on, even at the risk of lacking cohesion.
Saying that, the dummy commercial that opens the film is funny, thought provoking, and satirical, with insights into where the world of Twitter, etc., logically lead to it plunges one straight into a counterfactual world, but does not stray far from the things that we know in what it changes. The moments of humour characterize the film, although we are not always sure that it is permitted to laugh, and it also expects us to do some work in piecing together what has happened in and following the pursuit sequence that we see, where the early dialogue was hard to follow.
Not least since this is set in California and begins with a car chase, expectations of topping Drive (2011) spring to mind, but the excitement of the action on the road, and elsewhere, has been styled, Thomas told us, to be more like the era of Dirty Harry (1971) (he did not name that film) and film noir. Just in these things, there was already quite a mixture of feels, let alone with a gangland punishment (including a British-sounding baddie ?) that made one wonder if Thomas had equivalent scenes in Seven Psychopaths (2012) or In Bruges (2008) in his sights.
It remain unclear whether these disparate elements enhance or dissipate the film's energies, as it is all too true that many science-fiction films sticks to type, whereas Channeling shows off its director's film literacy. It also has an enviable soundtrack, making an impact right with the opening commercial, and even a live band in the night club reminiscent of The Doors.
Wyatt is not alone in his perilous exploits, for he has an accomplice (or whose side is she on ?) in Tara (Kate French). When Jonah tries to explore what his elder brother has been up to, Tara's allure is tangible, but her first reaction to Jonah using Wyatt's device and channel is hostile (a number of retorts to his attempts to speak, such as wishing him cancer).
Comparisons between the brothers are inevitable and deliberate, and, although we see that the professional soldier (Jonah) is tough, and can also drive, he is never going to be Wyatt (perhaps a pressure that he has always put on himself, helped by his father's attitude and actions).
Perhaps it is Tara's confusion, on all levels, that leads her to blow hot and cold towards Jonah, but she definitely starts by imputing blame : here, there seems to be a sort of fog of war about who people really are and who did what, which, in a digital age, when people do masquerade, and when the film explores the boundaries between what is real, what staged (and what predictable, what fixed), makes for even greater richness of reference.
The other question that I put forward was prompted by a film that teasingly plays with the question of free will versus determinism, The Game (1997) : I asked Thomas whether the technology of people sharing their actions and following their ratings, which the film initially seems to be about, had come first, or whether the deterministic theme had always been what interested him most. (It had, and he had wanted to explore the ways in which people do not (or refuse) to take responsibility for what concerns them, and had seen a link with how people in the US use the technology of social media to arrive at an answer based on what others tell them.
If that Doors tribute was deliberate, maybe it leads off in some other directions : Maybe not the advocacy of mescalin and other mind-altering substances, though, in the film, we see tablets of what turns out to be called Oxy crushed and then snorted as if it were coke, but using the edge of the pervasive sort of mini-tablet as a straight edge to line it up.
Perhaps the Warhol-type being famous for fifteen minutes, and just doing things to get a higher number of followers, is a sort of intoxicant or tranquillizer, not unlike Marx's 'opiate of the masses', not least when we see both what use the club bosses are putting participants' behaviour to and how they control it ? All in all, a thoughtful film, even if it may be too much of a rich blend of influences for the competing calls on our attention to allow us to settle down though, since Thomas seems to have aimed at the feel that it has, and if it does still hold together, it may not be right (in a film about people taking responsibility) to imagine a film that he have made by suppressing some of those instincts
Life after war
* Reviewed following a screening at Bath Film Festival, 25 November to 8 December 2013 *
Wrongly, Sixteen (2013) felt like it might be just too many things jostling for screen-time, which usefully put one edge as to whether the enterprise would succeed in the way that Jumah (Roger Nsengiyumva) must feel, and which John Bowen's effective score accentuates (more on that later), for we have :
* A love story
* A child soldier from Congo (who, as with many who have been in conflicts, probably has something like post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD))
* The love between a mother and her adoptive son
* Petty crime that has got out of hand
* Reaching a time (the sixteen of the title) when the future has to be considered
* Fighting one's own battles
I swear that these do all fit together, and the unifying force is that soundtrack, which as I put it in the Q&A moves from disturbingly menacing to uncertain to sensual, when Jumah is asked to give his girlfriend Chloe (Rosie Day) a haircut, and back again, and which has an otherworldly quality to it : writer / director Rob Brown, who has worked with Bowen before, said that what he was after with scoring the edit was understood by Bowen, but that a sound such as that of Brian Eno and others had been mentioned. (I also heard Peter Gabriel's sort of open chords.)
In my opinion, the score tautened one's awareness of the past that Jumah brings with him, and fed a sense of how he must be feeling into what we saw someone being attacked might have one resonance (in, say, a film like Witness (1985)), but here we were aware (from sources such as War Witch (2012)) of the brutalizing world in which he had been forced to live. Except with very low-frequency growling, it did not mask its presence, and it partly distanced us from the early shock of some events, just as Jumah might have been in situation but not wholly present in them.
This sort of character was what Brown said that he had been aiming at, and which had drawn him in other film projects, effectively someone who had certain experiences and for whom living is difficult. As a foil to him, Day's portrayal of Chloe was perfect one sensed that, beneath her confidence, she did, as she told Jumah, want to be helped to feel positive about herself, and that she, if she can be helped in return, has resources of trust and validation that can help him heal.
Above these two, Rachael Stirling, as Jumah's mum Laura, acted exceptionally well how she sought to bear with him, from the moment when she comes into his bedroom and Chloe and he are resting in each other's arms to wanting to hold him back, and not knowing what he might do : that moment when he decides who he is and what he wants feels so unstable, and we cut away to her with no certainty what might happen.
The atmosphere of the film, with this excellent score, is electric, and one even feels that, as with War Witch's title-character Komona, there may be some sixth sense in play for Jumah to be in the right place several times. This is not an easy ride much of the time, but that tactile quality of the hair, and all the feeling that comes from the other great film with that theme, Patrice Leconte's The Hairdresser's Husband (Le mari de la coiffeuse) (1990), plus the tenderness between Chloe and Jumah, soften it sufficiently.
The Forgotten Kingdom (2013)
Traces of the Brontës in South Africa
I did not know until after viewing The Forgotten Kingdom (2013) that this film, set in Johannesburg and Lesotho, was written and directed by Andrew Mudge. I now find that Mudge has made relatively little on film, and that, at the premiere, he described the film as a coming-of-age drama.
Be that as it may, I was not half reminded of all those other stories in Western films where a young boy shows an older stand-offish adult that he knows more than he is being given credit for, as well as of for all that it has a contemporary setting such classics as Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and her sister Anne's Agnes Grey. (There were even, from what I know of it, hints of Slumdog Millionnaire (2008).) Films where the protagonist finds roots are inevitably going to have a certain similarity, of course, and there were disapproving mutterings from behind me, when Atang's (Zenzo Ngqobe's) reacquaintance with Dione (Nozipho Nkelemba) seemed to be going too easily, which were maybe satisfied (I shut such noises out, when I could) when matters became more complicated which, in plot terms, was not unlikely, although I had no foresight as to the path to be taken.
Call it a road movie, if you like, but the travel really represents, as Mudge says, a voyage of self-exploration and recapturing the past, against which it appears that Atang, with his habit of abandoning journeys (we see him do so at least four times), has struggled most of his life.
Hating his father for having moved him away when his mother died, although he only learns why first from those whom he meets at his father's burial (such as the priest), he comes to realize that he has burnt himself up with this hatred, so that, as he puts it, he no longer knew whether he was hating his father or himself. He has a scorn of things that, having lived in Johannesburg, he thinks himself above, but he learns first that Dineo had lived there, too, and then that terms such as 'Weevil' that his younger travelling companion, excellently brought out by Lebohang Ntsane, levels at him have their truth.
Also a sort of Pilgrim's Progress through wonderful landscape, we come to see the life that Atang (by abandoning his name, and turning his back on where he lived), in the words of the title, has forgotten traditions, ways of living, celebrations. Alongside that story, that of Dineo and her sick sister, and her struggle with her father to care for her and determine her own life.
At the end, nothing is promised or certain, but we feel that we can leave the journey to unfold as it will.
The Lebanese Rocket Society (2012)
Rocket-launchers and The Middle East
* Contains spoilers *
This is a curious film : as if it were not enough to have the achievements of that society commemorated in the film by a scale-model erected at Haigazian University (formerly College), it goes on to end (Disjunction 4) with an animation, which imagines (counterfactually) that the society went on, and continued where the Voyager mission left off, with gold discs sent into space. (Reasons are given why the society became part of the military, and was later closed down : an international incident concerning Cyprus; an accident when propellant was being mixed; and pressure from the French government, amongst others.)
Maybe this animation did not originally belong with the film (I can easily conceive of it as a quite separate celebratory screening on Lebanese t.v.), or maybe it would have been better as a fantasy beginning to the film, rather than the voice of the film-makers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, saying, in a puzzled voice, that they were born in the months either side of the Apollo Moon landings, so how did they never hear about this rocket society ?
In fact, I am told, they said to Professor Manoug Marougian (who led the society until he went back to Texas in 1968, not wishing, he said, to be drawn in by other interested powers) that they had first seen the commemorative postage-stamps (only mentioned later, and not, as I recall, shown), and had wanted to find out more. At the outset, then, these seemed something dressed up about visits to archives that had empty film-cans, and very little footage, and about the whole notion of just tracking down Professor Manougian (in Tampa, Florida) and forthwith going to see him (Disjunction 1).
If you can bear that they would have been in contact after Google and before going, and so would have known already what he had kept and handed over to them, then so good, but it seems a bit too much like a telling a story to an uninquisitive child. On the other hand, showing that what Google Images came up for 'Lebanese rocket' were not space rockets did make the point that no one was remembering rockets in those terms. What Manougian did not appear to have to hand over was all the footage that had been absent so far, and the film simply abandoned the idea of looking for the materials for simply presenting and explaining them as if it were self evident how Joreige and Hadjithomas had come by them (Disjunction 2).
At the time when the chronological story has been more or less told (Disjunction 3), we learn of the scale-model, and that the owner of the factory making it is nervous, in case permissions were needed to create something that looks like a rocket. In terms of us watching the film, we have no notion of how it has not been thought to obtain these permissions (not least if others had been funding it), and again, feeling a little false, we are shown top government officials (before the government falls) agreeing on screen to grant them (or that they are not needed).
Then the very impressive installation of the model rocket, which was supposed to be carried to the former launch-site on the coast and from there to the university (but of which, with no explanation, we only see the latter), and the final disjunction (already mentioned). The film did not need all these stages, but it seemed unwilling to tell any part of the story slowly and in full, and concentrated too much information - too much intense reading of subtitles - in the short period after the film-makers have met Professor Manougian.
Mirant al cel (2008)
The bombing of Barcelona - 70 years on
This review arose from a screening at Cambridge Film Festival - Cambridge, UK - between 19 and 29 September 2013
* Contains spoilers *
Eyes on the Sky (Mirant al Cel) (2008) is not an overtly flashy film, but deservedly it does make big claims on our attention, and on our hearts. As can be seen, it was being shown not because it was made in the last year, but it is a UK premiere, part of the Catalan strand, again curated by Ramon Lamarca after a successful first appearance at the Festival last year, which made many friends.
I wrote about another Catalan film at the Festival (also a UK premiere), The Redemption of the Fish, which I watched twice, and I would if possible gladly have done the same with this film, but it is quality that the films have in common, not their subject-matter.
This one concerns the Spanish Civil War and the power of memory what is best forgotten about when Italian air forces bombed Barcelona, and what should never be forgotten. One review that I read challenges how the film is put together, and its story and pace, but, for me, these are what most attracted me to it, for it uses acted scenes, documentary, and faux-documentary, e.g. to introduce the men who were in the anti-aircraft batteries that ringed the city on a number of eminences.
We see men and women, down in the shelters and tunnels that also served to wait out air-raids, interviewed by the same woman who challenges a visiting professor, apparently a Dante scholar and visiting for a conference, and pesters to get to speak to him what some mistake for the monotonous course of this film is actually provoking us to ask ourselves (if we have not just read up all about it beforehand, which I avoid*) what is real, what is not, and what remembered, what feigned forgetfulness.
In this, we are as much in a confused state as the main characters (Maria (Gabriela Flores) and Mario (Paolo Ferrari), played with great conviction), who think that they know what is right, and not preconception, until life throws them up in each other's way. After all that we have seen and heard, the closing scenes, and the beautiful reading that the professor gives from the opening of the Inferno, are painfully touching, speaking for all who have been lost.
For the second time this Festival, I was moved to tears just by that simplicity.
* My approach to a film is that it should, for good or ill, stand for itself : if I need to have read the book or play on which it is based, it has failed in its own terms, and, if it cannot speak for itself, it is just images.
Thirteen kinds of comment
* Contains spoilers *
I had not expected simply to enjoy Tomas Leach's documentary so much.
These comments are a snapshot why if they speak to you at all, I hope that you will see this film :
1. Leiter has a cat the cat was deliberately incorporated into the film (although not introduced), as if to say something about him, e.g. when comically spread on its back with its paws in the air
2. The stills that we were shown, full screen against black, were very, very effective, very beautiful
3. We were shown Leiter taking photographs, but the temptation was resisted to show us what he took, although he did show us on the preview screen of his camera the brilliant shots that he captured of the knees of the girls on the bench
4. We were treated as if this were a feature, and who Soames (Bantry) was, and what she meant to Leiter, was carefully revealed
5. There was a candid provisionality in the shooting as to whether Leiter would approve and allow what we knew that we were watching (and therefore that he must have done)
6. Leiter is an immense trickster, with an unfailing comic timing, which put the largely impeccable Woody Allen in relief
7. We were allowed to watch, but not to forget that we were watching with a licence, with permission that mattered, and counted
8. The slightly off-putting because seeming pretentious sub-title about lessons in life just meant that the film was delicately punctuated by thirteen innocuous captions, often after a moment that had made my companion and me roar aloud
9. This was a better portrait than of Morten Lauridsen (Shining Night (2012)), because Leiter's humour was infectious, his candour and humanity to the forefront
10. At the same time, Leiter's putting things off, of piling things up, of not throwing things away, was a greater treasure, and he was noble and honest in revealing how such things defeat him, if he starts on a clear-out
11. And all those photographs, those boxes, those contact-sheets the integrity of keeping on creating, but the immensity of the task of seeking to order it all
12. That inchoate state mirrored Leiter's willingness to be filmed as incoherent, to start a sentence that he could not finish, or which he interrupted to death
13. Finally, just his photographs again, those aching pictures of his father, his mother, of Soames, with a different intensity from his equally wonderful fashion portraits
Thank you, Tomas and Saul !
The road to anywhere
* Contains spoilers * Lore is a film that, along the way of the journeys that we see made, shares beliefs current at the time of the fall of The Third Reich. In the case of Lore's family, neither parent is an ordinary German citizen, because he is a high-ranking SS officer and she appears implicated in unethical medical experimentation, and Lore is in the Hitlerjugend: occasional near-religious fervency for Hitler, and a disbelief in the American reports and evidence of atrocity, are the stuff of utterance in these times, when the idea that Holocaust denial could be legislated against seems impossible.
The film is not those beliefs or utterances, but they are an integral part of the travel that is encompassed from the Schwarzwald, in the far south-west, to the Baltic north of Hamburg to an island akin to, but not, Föhr, where we leave Lore. (Not before, as elsewhere, a tactile quality in the rich mud has been experienced, and the otherness of crossing by causeway to this island has vividly been shown.) Lore, as the eldest of five, has been put in charge of getting her brothers and sisters up to the North because her mother, having denounced her husband to him as a Feigling (coward) proudly strides off to deliver herself to the forces of occupation - one of the first striking moments for Lore is when, having raced after her mother and caught her up, she finds her mother already so resigned to what she is doing that she appears to have nothing to spare for Lore and the family after those parting instructions.
What follows is the journey, the confrontation with death, brutality and violence, and it is almost all the time just the passage of the five siblings, plus Thomas when he joins their number and (and as long as) makes himself useful. Director / co-screenwriter Cate Shortland and Saskia Rosendahl as Lore brilliantly show her teetering at the edge of whether she should associate with Thomas, as an assumed Jew, or feel sexually excited by him and his touch, just as, in her fascination for the various corpses, she challenges upbringing that she should not have curiosity, and should not harm others or steal.
This fractured sense of belonging in and relating to a world that is no longer the same Germany, but even split into three zones that they have to negotiate, is there in the cinematography of the characters, with part of a face here, maybe not in focus, a focus that varies through the shot to lead to a disjunction, or a conflict between the scene and the figure in it. By contrast, the sensual, even visceral, quality of nature is fed into every frame in which it alone features, in panorama and in close detail, touches reminiscent of great masters such as Tarkovsky, but with more of a sense of urgency, though none less of integration into the narrative.
The film shows a quest, and we have to decide - as does Lore - why, for what, and what matters, because all that she knew before and trusted now seems unreliable. What does happen next matters less than that Lore has made this journey and unlearnt much in the process. Getting to where we must leave her, having been allowed to be part of that transformation (although we always knew that we stood outside it), we leave her as herself, as Lore.
Better as it was...
Ronald Harwood's play Quartet premiered thirteen years ago. Many will gather that the film, too, centres on achieving a performance of a four-part Verdi aria (a pièce de résistance in Rigoletto, Act 3), the retired singers being Pauline Collins, Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, and Billy Connolly.
So far so good (or maybe raised eyebrows about plausibility, e.g. Connolly a tenor, and Collins as mezzo ?), but why mention the play, when it's Sir Ronald's own screenplay ? Simply because it is such a different beast that I believe that Harwood has virtually destroyed it to produce a film of lesser interest.
The play's cast is just the four singers, so we only hear, say, of Jean Horton's (Dame Maggie's) rival, Anne Langley. A film cannot easily do that (Anne is played here by singer Dame Gwyneth Jones), and the cinematic medium cannot reproduce dialogue. However, the casualty is losing the sparse effectiveness, *not* seeing anyone else.
Instead, real interiors, peopled by people such as resident impresario Michael Gambon, in full loudmouth mode, and Sheridan Smith, an unlikely managerial role. For me, the play's intimacy is overdiluted by staff and residents, and what remains is an imaginary portrait of a musicians' retirement home *not* the four, of whom only Jean looks like she might really have sung opera.
So why did Harwood bother reworking Quartet for cinema ? A gala screening, followed by a Q&A, took place in December 2012, in which he participated: not unusually, the evening's host absorbed most of the available time, and no one even asked Harwood why he wrote the screenplay.
Well, Giuseppe Verdi was born on 10 October 1813, which Radio 3 is already marking by broadcasting all his operas in 2013. The film is from BBC Films. So no tie-in there, then ! Call me cynical, but the facts and seeing the play transferred to the screen make me wonder whether Harwood's heart was in the work, or it was a job that paid. Promoting films is tacky, but the tag-line 'Four friends looking for a little harmony' is appalling !
Long Distance Information (2011)
What do we choose to hear ?
* Contains spoilers * This film was presented as one six short films at the Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge (UK), under the umbrella The Joy of Six, by Soda Pictures and New British Cinema Quarterly.
Curiously enough, a 75-minute play of this name was directed by Stephen Frears in 1979 as an episode of Play for Today.
Be that as it may, because looking for the dates of these shorts has unearthed other exact or similar matches on IMDb, it adeptly explores the characters' assumptions and ours about what is happening, and it is often what we - or they - hear, or imagine that they hear.
We are straight into the film, with Alan Tripney's head seen sideways on a stained piece of wood, and the sounds, as he rouses, of a raised Scottish male voice from below. Tripney makes clear both that he is used to this, and that he despises the man.
We begin to make assumptions about who this man is, where Tripney is, and, eventually, what he is doing when he picks up the phone and - unusually enough - literally dials a number, from memory. (As to how long the number was, marks off for not paying attention, but I had thought him irritated enough to be ringing downstairs, although it was unlikely that he would know the number.)
In the meantime, we have been introduced to Peter Mullan, exercising his tyranny (and not seeing how it is received by Caroline Paterson) from a chair that bears a passing resemblance to the one in Tripney's room, and refusing a suggestion that he should watch The Queen, so we believe that we know where we are, for his cantankerous reign is conducted firmly, but not by shouting.
(There is, though, a feeling that Paterson just lets him think that his assured condescension rules the roost, and that asking him about the Christmas broadcast was done to irritate without him realizing.) Once he stirs himself to answer the phone, there is just about a conversation during which Tripney and he talk to each other, though it is clear that they have nothing to say, and that the one question that gets asked - why the son isn't there - would have been better not asked. And then these males have it all turned on their heads, and the stunned response that comes from them is, seemingly, their pride jolted too much for their ease.
I'd gladly see this again, this time to see how it builds to an end. All three principals are excellent, with Tripney seeming like a son who would have such a father, but the accolade must go to Mullan, for embodying him.
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In a nutshell
* Contains spoilers * This film was seen at, and has been reviewed for, Cambridge Film Festival (UK) in September 2012 It will be clear early on, when we meet Prince Myshkin during a journey, that pews in the aisle of what turns out to be a very large church are representing a railway-carriage. (His title means next to nothing at this stage, in practical terms, for he is penniless.) However, arrival at the destination and coming face to face with a neon-fuelled icon is enough to show that we are not going to be playing with physical spaces (as in Lars von Trier's Dogville (2003), but transforming them.
Moreover, they are discreet, identifiably different spaces, and, without leaving the building at any point, we will see a flower-garden and the sea. Yet, as Dostoyevsky's novel runs to at least 700 pages, and we have a little over two hours, we must necessarily concentrate on what most centrally concerns Myshkin. Played by Risto Kübar, we learn early on of his medical history, about which - this is his complete and utter nature - he is unnecessarily open, and its manifests itself, as the role is played, as a helplessly shimmering passivity.
All the more contrast, which is at the heart of the book, not just with his distant relative's husband and family, but with the vibrancy, to everyone's cost, of Nastasja Filippovna, which it would have been tempting for Katariina Unt to overdo. The adaptation and direction by Rainer Sarnet have taken risks, but confined them, leaving the abiding feeling that the claustrophobic nature of the setting, with all its overtones of the influence of the church on convention and conduct, has strengthened the telling of the central part of Myshkin's story.
My only regret is being so tired during this screening, which, through my fault, detracted from the compelling nature of the production.