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Category Archives: Independent films

Night Moves

Night Moves film posterSynopsis

Joe (Jesse Eisenberg), Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) are planning to blow up a dam as an act of eco-rebellion to save nature. *** SPOILER ALERT!: they do this deed but someone is killed further down the lake as a result.  They drift apart, conscience bothers them and there is a murder. ***

Review

This is a terrifying film which shows the effect of conscience on the doers of a well meaning but lethally botched deed.  For me, this could be an excellent pilot film for a series showing how the effects of conscience corrode Joe’s mind.  It could be more gripping than The Fugitive in that the running, in this case, is from the ordeals of a bad conscience and the denouement could be the paranoid disintegration of a mind in an ordeal of signs of threat, or possible threat.  It explores the degeneration of misguided idealism into simple terrorism.  The recriminations amongst the perpetrators kill any initial moral certainty.  Reichardt made Meek’s Cut Off, another film about failed trust, and here Joe slowly and convincingly descends into murderous self protection.  The entire film seems to be shot in a gloomy dusk or dawn, as if daylight is almost unbearable for the conscience.  Harmon is self possessed and competent, and keeps his cool even when before the deed he is recognized by a waiter who is an ex-con.  Dena keeps her cool under the suspicious interrogations of the seller of fertilizer, knowing that this crucial circumstantial evidence of a purchase of the stuff used for explosives could damn them all.  As with any such tightly knit conspiracy, all outsiders are considered as innocent fools or potential enemies and this conspiratoralism already corrupts their relationships, as if trust gives way to the vigilante logic of group survival.  Dena’s feelings for Josh are mixed with her remorse and there are terrible consequences.  The conscience-stricken slow panic accentuates the suspicion about their motives in the first place.

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2014 in Film Reviews, Independent films

 

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Ida

Ida film posterSynopsis

A young nun Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a 17 year old novitate.  Before reccceivng her holy orders she is asked to leave tne convent and visit her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) who tells Ida she was born Jewish and her parents were murdered during the Holocaust.  They journey to find out the details of this war time event.  Wanda gets drunk and spends a night in jail (she is a Public Prosecutor who could inflict the death penalty in the early 50s).  They confront the perpetrators. Wanda tries to introduce Ida to alcohol, sex, and jazz.  Ida meets a jazz player (Dawid Ogrodnik) for whom she has sexual feelings.  Does Ida take her vows in the end?  What happens to Wanda?

Review

This is set in the early 60s in Communist Poland during the deep freeze of a winter and the Cold War.  Ida lived an innocent life in the convent.  The scene of the statue in the snow is a classical pose for a painting of the religious life.  There is the same lifeless austerity already seen in the asylum in Camille Claudel 1915.  The nuns are as statuesque as their convent.  Wanda is a hard drinking and smoking cynic who likes a good time and taunts the complacency of Ida’s untested austerity.  Wanda is a beacon of hedonism, all compulsive movements and furious cigarette smoking.  Ida by contrast is a study in imperturbable stillness, all the more unsettling for its apparent stoicism.  She does not feel the need to defend the religious life against Wanda’s cynicism  They both visit the farm stolen from their family, where weaselly-faced peasants defend their ill gotten gained cottage in a wintry landscape so raw you can feel it scrape your flesh.  They have initially got the wrong man but the murderer is the usual mixture of snivelling justification and conscience-evasion, taking final refuge in self-serving inscrutability.  The murderer unearths their remains, transformed by the black and white of the film into a sort of priordial ritual.  Given the enormity of what he and the others did to the Jewish victims, Ida and Wanda’s calm refusal to even hint at absolution is dignified.  This is a journey into Poland’s terrible past as well as its grey present day (1962).  There is a symmetry from the religious imagery from the start of the film (after Ida has renounced the prospect of married life) to the end where Ida walks back to the convent as if on pilgrimage.  In the nascent pop culture of Communist Poland the ballroom scenes are quaintly innocent in that anti-puritannical daring, bordering unintentionally on a David Lynch parody of a jazz band in a grey poverty-primitive culture.  The black and white compositions of the film are superb, the countryside is practically an Arctic wilderness as if Brueghel-esque grotesque lurked in the woods.  Domestic interiors seem more picked out in detail than in a colour film.  Faces can be almost superfluous to a scene dominated, for example, by a high wall. Superb.

 

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Camille Claudel 1915

Camille Claudel 1915 film posterSynopsis

It’s 1915 and Camille Claudel (Juliette Binoche) is in an as asylum run by nuns near Avignon.  Her family have confined her, they are worried about her mental condition.  Camille is intensely irritated by her fellow inmates.  She was Rodin’s lover and muse and she thinks he tried to take her studio from her.  She waits for her brother Paul Claudel to arrive.  On his way to see her, Paul talks about the state of his soul with a priest (Emmanuel Kaufmann ).  He visits his sister, but does he offer her hope?

Review

Dumont’s film broods a lot.  There are long scenes where the camera is at a distance from which it can easily escape if it needs to, and who can blame it?  Binoche is good as the twitchy paranoid artist who is living in an asylum hell that makes a trappist monastery look like a funfair.  The asylum scenes had me looking for the artist at his easel in a corner,  they look like invitations to painting and meditation.  The trip over the lunar rocks of windswept Provence are the promise of a sensual respite from the fossilized gloom and terrifying monotony of the asylum.  Camille insists on cooking her own food, paranoiacally convinced that a cook would poison her.  The laboriously starched linens, harsh stones, and stoical slowness of illness are a Stations of the Cross in some purgatorial neglect.  Practically every image in the film hints at some religious metaphor.  Camille’s cold fish of a brother Paul is a Catholic visionary poet whose self righteousness allows no recognition of the suffering of others.  He can turn out clever lapidary phrases and arguments about the state of his soul but his spiritual pride is insufferably egotistic in its self renunciation.  None of this is romantic stereotyping of the artist, there is nothing glamorous about Camille’s mental state, it is mean and pedestrian.  Are we supposed to feel extra sympathy because she is an artist rather than an ‘ordinary person’?  I felt uneasy about the use of real mental patients and I wonder whether Binoche is distancing herself from them as she mocks their attempts at acting in the film, is she portraying simple honesty about what separates her from them or is it acting as such?  I’m not sure which.  This is Camille a few decades on from her 1880s relationship with Rodin, played by Bruno Nytten’s 1988 film with Gerard Depardieu as Rodin and Isabelle Adjani as Camille.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2014 in Film Reviews, Independent films

 

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel film posterSynopsis

Jude Law reveals his past.  Hotel manager Gustave H  played by Ralph Fiennes in a sort of First World War Austro-Hungarian world.  He’s made love with elderly women and is suspected of murdering Madame D (Tilda Swinton) who has left a painting in her will to Gustave and this sets up a partnership with the lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori). Gustave is in jail and is pursued by villainous Willem Defoe.  Other Hollywood stars e.g.Owen Wilson and Tom Wilkinson have walk on parts in this chase comedy which goes through many snowy landscapes and weird hotels.

Review

Fiennes’ attempts at humour are reduced to tedious expressions of the “fuck” word as if we take his usual actorly fastidiousness at face value.  He’s a socially climbing controller and chancer and I’m sure Fiennes models his role on the Pink Panther. I managed to laugh a few times.  There are some embarrassingly stilted attempts at humour that you get in those 60’s caper movies especially Casino Royale (1967) and It’s a Mad Mad World.  We’re supposed to be amused when a well known actor turns up to do his routine until the next star vies for our attention by putting the current star back in his box.  Jerky actorly puppetry and idiosyncratic gurning are made to compensate for a decent story and sympathetic characters as we veer off on one smugly irrelevant tangent after another.  Willem Dafoe is simply a cartoonish thug looking like he’d strayed out of the set of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.  The hotel and other film scenes are like folding boxes in some stylized performance.  The hotel itself is served up like a First World War cardboard theatre. The chase scenes are so derivative that I kept expecting the director to arrive on set and shout “cut”, but then again that’s what he effectively does.  This is not so much a film as a scissors and cutting its way through any attempt at an amusing and coherent story.  The scenes in the film are certainly vivid to the point where colours seem to drench the set.  This is the Europe of Freud and Kafka but we wait in vain for any kind of wit or literary reference in ths failed nightmare.  A would be jolly romp that flogs to death its one joke of Ralph Fiennes trying to keep up appearances.

 

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Exhibition

Synopsis

Stars Viv Albertine (once of ‘punk’ pop group The Slits) who is an artist called D living in an expensive London house.  About her relationship with her partner H (Liam Gillick).  They are selling the house, we see their tensions and anxieties.

Review

This is made by Joanna Hogg who also produced Archipelago.  Exhibition like Archipelago looks at the twitchy middle classes and the blood-sport of their relationships.  Like those affluent couples in posh versions of Jack Vettriano paintings, the subjects are not happy despite their wealth.  They look like they’re on the verge of losing it all, materially and psychologically.  The camera is an extra presence in the house, its fixed gaze picking out the domestic details with malevolent curiosity.  It’s the familiar fascination with domestic boredom.  D spends a lot of time at her desk, phoning her husband though they live in the same house.  She’s a performance artist but a pretentiously coy one, the film itself is a domestic performance art.  The house is stylish and bleak.  The camera peers at this to such a degree that it’s like you’re in a static world in a Janet Rego painting.  You feel increasingly suffocated by the nullity of this affluent hell hole.  The film’s palette is from bleak to sterile.  There is an underlying turmoil of unmet needs and frustrated eroticism.  The big question for me is, how can people live in a place like this?  When they condescend to summon up the energy to speak to each other face to face their dialogue is pretentious enough to fill ‘Pseud’s Corner’ several times over (‘Pseud’s Corner’ is an article in a satirical magazine Private Eye” that catches people out being very pretentious).  She won’t communicate her work and his criticism might prevent it happening at all.  Tom Hiddleston has a walk on part as an estate agent, his icy politeness in tune with this scarily lifeless domesticity.   Exhibition is bohemian hate mail to the God of money.

 

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Frank

Frank film posterSynopsis

Starring Michael Fassbender (in a papier mache head of South Park weirdness), as Frank written about by Jon Ronson (Domhnall Gleeson) who was bandmate of Chris Sievey who called himself Frank Sidebottom (who was an indie musician).  Jon wants to be a pop star but he falls foul of Frank and other band members Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Don (Scoot McNairy).  Jon tries to steer Frank in a commercial direction.  They play in Britain, the drummer tries to kill himself.  They do rehearsal sessions in Ireland and then are due to perform at SxSW in Texas and they break up.  Frank’s mental health fails, but they might get back together.  Jon learns wisdom…

Review

The weird papier mache pot that Frank hides his head in is intended to be disconcerting.  It’s an alienating joke and an Indie film leit motif which manages to avoid merely experimental caprice (because it’s part of Frank’s struggle for identity), and poses pertinent questions about our notions of acceptable behaviour.  At one point Frank says that the human face is a vulnerable wound so why not seek the freedom of the papier mache hideaway?  Those who talk to him must pay more attention to the intonation in his voice, in doing so they are at once in a what can descend to controlled monologue as they must cope with the attention drawing but emotionally deflecting absence of a face.  At times it’s like a satire on the retarded adolescence of a pop group with an artistic mission, but I do like their music.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is surely based on the Velvet Underground’s Nico, all Central European diva with a big bad attitude and questionable artistic talent.  She is like one of those people who want to spend their lives at the back of the class.  Jon is resolutely naive and exploitable, worshipping the religion of neglected genius that Frank has made of himself.  He tries to push them in a commercial direction and they despise him for it as they look like they’re auditioning for a David Lynch film.  Each of their solipistic personalities is the claustrophobic complaint of a group of outsiders whose very identity is based on rejecting the mainstream and being rejected by it.  My favourite song of theirs is “Lone Standing Tuft” (about a twist of carpet strand).  Jon becomes increasingly obtuse and you feel yourself like kicking him out of the band.

 

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Philomena

Philomena film posterSynopsis

Based on true events where by Martin Sixsmith, ex BBC journalist, is approached by the daughter of Philomena to find her long lost son.  Philomena’s child was taken from her by nuns and adopted by Americans in 1955.  Sixsmith and Philomena  find out what happened to her son and learn that he visited Ireland.  Sixsmith gets past the secretiveness of the nuns to a showdown.  Happily there is closure.

Review

Partly produced by Steve Coogan, this film has a great emotional pull on us.  The relationship between Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as Sixsmith is an encounter between two cultures as they learn about each other.  Sixsmith comes from the Oxbridge elite, all liberal secular values, journalistic cynicism, aquaintance with ‘spin’ (or fancy lying), and the journalistic jet set.  Philomena started as an unsophisticated Irish girl victimized by the ferociously repressive regime seen in Magdeline Laundries.  These were, in effect, gulags for young women who fell foul of rigid Catholic morality.  Sixsmith is all easy cosmopolitan quips, his body language is that of the successful investigator pretty well up on the tricks and foibles of those he’s investigating.  The world to him is a newsroom and he seems to own it.  Philomena is working class and unapologetic about her poor education, turning this drawback into the unruffled virtues of Christian decency.  As Sixsmith can’t penetrate this armour, he’s reduced to mild sarcasm and quick judgementalism.  Philomena has an instinct for the proud and cynical, the mutual incomprehension livening their culture class comedy routine.  Critics are keen on saying that films like this are moving because there’s some emotional charge between the characters, as if that should be a surprise.  Perhaps it’s because such critics adhere to the myth of journalistic detachment.  As in the film Magdaline Laundries we are made to focus on the worst that some of these nuns did.  One sister simply echoes Mother Theresa’s refusal of medical treatment to her charges, on the grounds that it “would delay their journey to heaven”.  Interestingly the film exposes our double standards over tolerance of religious intolerance, it’s easy for us to expose the crimes committed by Christians but we seem reluctant to expose even worse abuses (such as infibulation) which take place under the auspices of other cultures and religions.  Sixsmith also enjoys the luxury of vicariousness as he’s unforgiving of the nuns whereas Philomena isn’t.

Judi Dench is the real anchor of the film, she brings that same impressive presence she can use as a bad person in Notes on a Scandal and as James Bond’s boss.  When she is impressed by the privileges and people Sixsmith knows she summons a life of quiet patience and decency.  When Sixsmith tells her that he briefly met her son I wondered if he could end up being a sort of surrogate son for her. Sometimes nearly unwatchable as a film about loss and love.

 

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Before Midnight

Before Midnight film posterSynopsis

Ethan Hawke (Jesse) says goodbye to his son (Seamus Davey- Fitzpatrick) who is returning to the States from Athens airport.  He wants more contact with his son.  He has two daughers with Celine (Julie Delpy).  For the rest of the film Jesse and Celine talk to each other in the car, in the kitchen, and the hotel room.  They talk at the dining table of Patrick who is an elderly writer and patriarch of the Greek hideaway.  The guests discuss their life experiences and ambitions.  Will Jesse and Celine be reunited after their hotel room argument?

Review

I watched Before Sunrise (1995) just before this film, in the Vienna train Jesse and Celine meet each other as they avoid a married couple arguing.  At the end of Before Midnight they become that married couple arguing.  In the previous films they seem to make a big deal out of what the rest of us can take in our stride.  I’ll concede that the argument in the hotel room where they reveal resentments and disappointments is often quite funny.  Celine tells Jesse the writer (who uses her as his muse) that he’s no Henry Miller.  She tells him he is a Socratic poseur wafting under the olive trees.  Their sex seems to have become predictable.  This final row reveals Jesse as a self-serving rather vain middle class US academic.  He has all the right psychobabble cliches and though he’s pretty quick on the riposte, one feels he’s out of his depth with the more complicated Celine.  In Before Sunrise (set in Paris) the pair struck me as reliably plodding, full of middle brow received wisdoms.  They speak as if to reflect the aspirations of what they imagine their cinema audience to be.  They sound like they’ve read from a Woody Allen script and I detested Woody Allen’s pseudo intellectual name dropping.  Admittedly their loquacious energy can be quite impressive as they guilt trip each other.  With their too easily assumed martyrdoms which are must-have accessories for us all.  Celine thinks Jesse uses Hank to manoeuvre her into a move to the US. At times it was like being in a theatre workshop on how to improvise a marital breakdown.  They were playing to an unseen presence in the hotel room: the embarrassed observer dragged through his/her old marital routines.

The scene at the Greek hideaway is the standard stereotype of the authority figure (like Robert Graves in Spain), holding court over a table with posh Greek food and compliant guests self consciously going through the motion of being literary and cutesy wise.  Their conversation comes out of a would-be thinking person’s airport novel.  Celine later confesses she didn’t like her Greek holiday (no mention of that country’s current terrible problems).  Celine is environmentally engaged whereas Jesse wants to write a novel about how brain disorders effect behaviour.  Science fiction as escapism from the consequences of a relationship perhaps?  I hope we’ve seen the last of these self absorbed irritating people.

 

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Elena

Elena

Synopsis

Elena (Nadezdha Markina) is a middle aged woman living in a swish Moscow apartment with her partner the affluent Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov).  They sleep separately and eat together.  Elena’s son Sergei (Aleksey Rogin) is unemployed, living with his family in a shabby flat.  Elena gives him money.  Vladimir’s daughter Katya (Yelena Lyadeva) lives off her father’s money.  Vladimir has a heart attack and dies because Elena gives him the wrong medication.  Vladimir hasn’t left a will, what will Katya and Elena do with the money…?

Criticism

One is always aware of this being a film set in contemporary Russia.  For me, it’s a moral fable about the (for a few) more affluent post-communist world of that country.  There is a growing affluent middle class in Russia and it lives in a style unimaginable a bare twenty or so years ago.  When we see the austerely still camera gaze on the apartment and Elena starting her daily routine, we might expect her to be the reliable stereotype of the strong, wise Russian woman primed with the peasant resilience of her forbears, but she commits murder to satisfy her family’s greed.  She calmly and efficiently gives Vladimir the wrong medication.  The film gives much attention to this as it does to the details of her apartment and her routine. She keeps her nerve through the emotional turmoil of guilt and regret that she must feel.  The mask stays tightly on.  This is a very hard look at contemporary Russia, none of the characters are likeable.  Vladimir and Elena self righteously argue about the merits of their own family whilst dis’ing the other’s.  Elena’s son Sergei is a wife-bulling slob and his is a surly waster.  Vladimir’s daughter Katya  is a self serving attitudinising cynic who lives off her father.  There might be some affection between Vladimir and Katya but one doubts her disinterestedness given her prospect of a moneyed inheritance.  Despite the lingering shots (reminding me of Tarkovsky and Haneka), Elena cleverly sustains a plot tension which tautens the film’s nervous system to a highly watchable pitch.  Along this tension the money-grabbing characters trickle their drops of acid.

My only problem with the plot is that the medical authorities would surely suspect something especially when a few people will gain from Vladimir’s death.  Elena is a nurse, and there is nothing dubious about the medication?  The film does not tell us what Katya will do about Elena’s family moving into her father’s apartment, will she just accept it?  This is unresolved and it leaves us guessing.  An absorbing film.

 

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Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Synopsis

Set in the bayou of Louisiana at the time of a flood (like Katrina?).  It’s about a small girl, Hushpuppy, who lives with her father Wink and their life in this region known as the “Bathtub”.  Their house is cast adrift in a storm, then they are taken in by social services, then they escape back to the swamp.  Hushpuppy has been taught by ecologically aware teachers and she shares their mystical attitude to nature.  She meets partygoers on a ship…

Criticism

This is quite an art house film and as such it smugly flaunts its offbeat credentials.  Hushpuppy is a partygoer on a modern Noah’s Ark they’ve made of their floating house.  In one scene we see its roof porcupined with planks so it looks like a Maurice Sendak lodge (Where the Wild Things Are).  Some of the scenes on the water seem timeless, it wants to be prehistoric or post-apocalyptic (reminders of J.G.Ballard’s Doomed World), so this ‘atemporality’ appears to give the images a mythic quality but it’s really very much of the present time.  It pretentiously punts away from an industrial reality it is parasitic upon.  I was also reminded a bit of Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast, but without that film’s wit or humour.  We’re supposed to be awestruck by this precocious kid (six years old) and we’re meant to think the actors are inspired amateurs adrift in an innocent artiness.  The film wants us to share Hushpuppy’s sense of wonder at the oddities of the surrounding adult world.  Social service workers are treated as insolent intruders on this world, they are given no credit for trying to help so I think the film sides with Hushpuppy and her pals.  Her father clearly needs medical attention, he has some sort of blood disease.  Hushpuppy has a cutesily animistic scene with her mother’s spirit, so we know she’s ever so sensitive.  At the start of the film Hushpuppy and her classmates are told about extinct aurochs cattle and later we see giant wart hogs that are supposed to be like those creatures and this is magical realism, very arty my dear.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is in love with its quirkiness which masquerades as originality of vision.  It too easily sentimentalizes the child’s lack of self consciousness, a sort of primitive performance art.  The Cajun music and shots of southern colourfulness are like UN promo films, a contrivance that wants to be poetic but is a capricious farrago of visions.  We’re used to films set in deep south being ‘exotic’ (featuring inbreeding, alcoholism and suspicious rednecks), all that’s missing is the magnolia and the pet iguana.  An overblown, self important film.

 
 

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