Ida (Poland-Denmark-France-UK, 2014)

In the bleak midwinter

It’s taken me a while to catch up with this extraordinary film and I have to berate myself for not seeing it in the cinema such is the power of the visual imagery. The image above is misleading as director Paweł Pawlikowski uses the 4:3 Academy ratio. This frame shape emphasises vertical composition and in this interview in Film Comment he suggests that the decision to tilt the camera up for many of shots was whimsical (he was bored). The effect is to leave protagonists ‘drowning’ in the bottom of the frame, oppressed by what’s above them; often the ‘big sky’ seen above.

Ida (debutant Agata Trzebuchowska) is sent by Mother Superior to her remaining family, an estranged aunt (Agata Kulesza brilliant), before taking her vows. Reluctantly Ida finds herself investigating her Jewishness and Polish collaboration with the Nazis; the film is set in 1961. This portentous theme is dealt with fairly matter of factly though when her family are dug up in an unmarked grave the anti-drama mise en scene finds itself ‘compromised’ for a moment. By this I mean, Pawlikowski’s restrained aesthetics, such as little camera movement and non diegetic music, allow the drama to play out with seemingly little comment from himself.

It’s only Pawlikowski’s third feature in 15 years; it’s wrong to think of him as anti-commercial but he is uncompromising in his vision. The fabulous ‘look’ (ironically it’s a drained out black and white) of the film almost makes it appear as if was made in the time it was set although the unconventional framing mentioned above means it avoids pastiche. Polish cinema at this time was awash with brilliance and the young saxophonist that Ida meets reminds me of the great Zbigniew Cybulski (see for example Ashes and Diamonds). So it’s an unusual experience watching Ida which seems at once old and new.

It’s a proper arthouse film that lets the audience think and opens a window on history.

Moonlight (US, 2016)

Moonlight shadow

Moonlight won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, not something that particularly interests me as they are hardly a reliable barometer of great films. The commercial bent of Hollywood, the Oscars are designed to market films that are harder to sell than its usual product, has meant that non mainstream fare is rarely celebrated. Was it because ‘films of colour’ were badly treated at last year’s Academy Awards that this year members leaned toward such minority filmmaking as Moonlighting? Whatever the reason, this year the voters have got it right, not because Moonlight is necessarily the best film of 2016, but because it is a great film about vastly under-represented people, gay men of colour, that should be widely seen.

I’m not going to judge the film as a work of Queer cinema but as a melodrama; not for any ideological reason just I understood the film primarily as melodrama. The three-part story covers roughly three decades of the bullied Chiron’s life from being ‘Little’ to a young man (‘Black’) with the teenage years (‘Chiron’) in between. Melodrama focuses on relationships and often uses narrative in an overtly exaggerated fashion, using coincidence for dramatic effect. Moonlight eschews this aspect of the genre, however, and its relatively slow pace, and sometimes alienating use of rack focus, situates the film’s aesthetics in ‘art house’. Although the narrative is slow, punctuated by one particularly explosive moment of violence that is all the more shocking in the ‘slow’ context, it never drags; the rack focus (a change in the depth of field in the shot so different parts of the image go either in or out of focus) occasionally puts the image’s subject out of focus for no apparent reason which I haven’t seen before. I think the visual style, quite violently handheld at the start, and point-of-view shots, is intended to emphasise Chiron’s subjective experience of a hostile world. In this, the film is expressionist a style that fits with melodrama.

Without spoiling, the most melodramatic moment is near the end of the film when Barbara Lewis’ ‘Hello Stranger’ is played on a jukebox and the song’s words speak the character’s thoughts – a moment to wallow in cinema’s power. The drug dealing milieux is represented through some great hip hop and the film starts with ‘Every Nigger is a Star’. In addition, the character with a Cuban background is celebrated with Caetano Veloso’s classic ‘Cucurrucucú Paloma’ and there’s even room for Mozart. Melos = music and writer-director (adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play) Barry Jenkins has excelled in bringing melodrama back to its roots where music substituted for dialogue.

Obviously we are invited to empathise with the bullied Chiron… I was about to write ‘who wouldn’t?’ but The (London) Times film critic, Camilla Long, managed to spark outrage with her review that suggested that the film would only be watched by straight, white and middle class audiences (you can see enough of the review here). Her bizarre contention seems to be that such art cinema as Moonlight is only for people like herself, such mono-vision is itself evidence of the necessity for diversity in representations. Piers Morgan recently complained that he wasn’t considered to be ‘diverse’ in a spat about… well, I’ve forgotten what the publicity seeking hound was bellyaching about but his response was indicative of the fact that challenges to white, male (and straight) hegemony are often seen to have gone ‘too far’ (when they’ve really gone nowhere) by those in the position of privilege. My MP, the execrable Philip Davies, persistently tries to ‘talk out’ legislation designed to protect women on the grounds that men are being discriminated against. You couldn’t make it up but rather than berate the straight-white-middle aged-males for their stupidity it’s best to remember that it is ignorance rather than a lack of intellect that informs their perspective. Where was I…?

The film’s strength is not only in its sympathetic representation of black gay men, the first character we meet is the local drug ‘king pin’, played with vast charisma by Mahershala Ali, and the street dealer stereotype is thoroughly challenged as he becomes a father figure to the besieged  ‘Little’ in the first part of the story; we might have expected him to cultivate the youngster as a worker for his business. He’s humanised but the film also doesn’t fail to highlight his hypocrisy when he berates the young boy’s mother (a fantastic Noami Harris) for her addiction; she points out that it is he who sells her the rocks. The nuances portrayed in the film offer a complex representation of life.

According to imdb the film cost an estimated $1.5m to make. This is a sensationally small amount for a film with such high production values. Clearly the lives of black men are cheap in America and such humanising representations of an ethnicity under fire need to be widely circulated to call out the racism of those that have made #blacklivesmatter a necessary locus of resistance. So well done to the Oscars for doing social good; if La La Land had won at the expense of Moonlight then 2017 would have been another year of Academy Award irrelevance.  

Manchester by the Sea (US, 2016)

Split personalities

It’s wrong to judge anything against something it’s not trying to be so I’m hesitant in criticising Manchester by the Sea as I’m probably falling into this trap. However, having been impressed with the first half of the film I found my engagement derailed by the flashback of the narrative enigma, a traumatic event (spoilers ahead).

The film focuses on Lee whose past returns to haunt him. That sounds formulaic but the narrative and visual style takes its cue from early 1970s New Hollywood, which favoured art over commerce. Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Lee is point perfect: a youngish man who is trapped within inarticulate masculinity; he habitually chooses to end his solo boozing sessions with a fight. He is a man whose manual work offers no fulfilment and he speaks his mind to ungrateful customers. The slow paced early scenes that introduce his mundane existence, in a snow littered Boston, are reminiscent of the down-at-heel locations favoured by, for example, Bob Rafelson (The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972, and Five Easy Pieces, 1970). The relatively long takes of Lee’s routine work, beautifully framed and using a long lens to flatten the mise en scene, are redolent of such ‘70s American art cinema and I was delighted to watch this part. Rafelson’s films also dealt with delusional and ‘bottled up’ males who won’t engage with their reality. For Rafelson this was the ‘human condition’ of a certain type of man, however Kenneth Lonergan’s (he wrote and directed) Lee actually has a reason for his emotional stunting. And that’s where the film took the wrong path for me.

About half way we find that Lee is responsible for his children’s death in an accidental fire. Unfortunately Lonergan uses Albinoni’s Adagio, a saccharine-sweet ersatz piece of classical music, in the staging of the fire and this lurches the film into full blown melodrama that is at odds with the realism of the first part. Was the death of the children needed to explain Lee’s obtuseness or would it have been enough that he’d lost his wife (the incredible Michelle Williams) through his boorish behaviour we see in one of the many flashbacks? Either way, the melodrama (a genre I love) turned me off the film and it took Williams’ all-to-brief appearances to get me involved again; she is an amazing actor.

Lee becomes his nephew’s trustee, after his brother’s death (the motivating incident for Lee to return to his hometown) and I wasn’t convinced by the young man’s (he’s 17) response; this wasn’t Lucas Hedge’s performance but the script’s fault. He – Patrick – obviously yearned for a parent, he wants a relationship with his absent mother but his grief at the loss of his father, to whom he was clearly close, is muted at best.

Lonergan shoots Lee’s brother’s funeral, like the fire scene, ‘at a distance’ with no diegetic sound (sound derived from what we see on screen) with only music accompanying the images; this aestheticism struck me at odds with the New Hollywood style. However, of course, maybe that wasn’t the film Lonergan was making so my criticism should be moot. I suggest he makes a female version of the film, sans the fire incident, that focuses on an emotionally damaged woman (or Sarah Polley could do this – see her great Take This Waltz with Williams). I am bored of male stories; women have them too.

Lion (Aus-US-UK, 2016)

lionfilm17a

Lost

About half way through Lion, which tells the astonishing tale of how a foundling finds his mum despite being brought up in a different continent, I wondered what the film was going to say. It was brilliantly done: the direction from Garth Davis (his first feature) is highly promising and the young Saroo (who’s 5 years old ) gets an amazing performance from Sunny Pawar. But the film lacked a focus as it didn’t seem to adding anything to my understanding of the world. The last third of the film filled that absence and spoilers follow.

Davis, with the editor Alexandre de Franceschi, links the two worlds – of India and Tasmania – with great skill. Close ups of the protagonists in crowds emphasises the anonymity and massive populations of cities showing how miraculous it would be for Saroo to be reunited with his mother. When, as an adult, he is having a ‘nervous breakdown’ the editing serves to illustrate his memories with graphic (the composition in the frame) and content matches between where he is and the past he is remembering. For example, when he breaks with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara brilliant in a necessarily somewhat passive role of the female encouraging the man) Saroo walks across a bridge (a melodramatic emblem for transition in life) which is matched with a shot of the young Saroo on a bridge. It is a very effective way of dramatizing how memories, which he struggles to recover, can overwhelm  after they’d been triggered in a Proustian moment set off by food.

Although it is well done, Saroo’s breakdown did cause the narrative to sag and it struck me that this might be a consequence of the difficulties film has of dramatizing small events that encompass a lot of time. Conventionally, as it is here, montage is used to signify this however because screen time is inevitably much shorter than narrative time, it is difficult to emotionally understand the profound mental trauma Saroo, now in his late twenties, was experiencing. A paragraph in a book could convey this much better I suspect.

Despite this the film does convincingly demonstrate the strength of familial ties. Even though he’d only been five when he’d lost his family it is clear that Saroo will forever be missing a part of himself if he can’t find them again. Unsurprisingly the reunion is extremely emotional and Dev Patel and Priyanka Bose (mum) are exceptional in the scene.

Nicole Kidman must also be mentioned as she is at her brilliant best here as Saroo’s adoptive mum. It is difficult for a star with Kidman’s charisma to convincingly play an ‘ordinary person’ however she does it brilliantly and then we realise that Sue Brierley is anything but ordinary.

13th (US, 2016)

Black voices matter

Black voices matter

13th refers to the 13th amendment that abolished slavery and, at the same time, stripped criminals of their rights. An improvement you might assume but as Ava DuVernay’s brilliant documentary shows the inhumanity of slavery is now enacted upon those who are incarcerated (and not necessarily guilty of a crime). Disproportionately the criminal population of America is made up of African-Americans and the first striking thing about this documentary is the preponderance of talking heads ‘of colour’. The fact it is striking emphasises the white hegemony of mainstream media.

DuVernay’s history of prisons in US shows how they have increasingly become profit centres and how lobbying groups have been successful in creating government policy to facilitate their money-making. It’s a judicious mix of library footage and interviews, including some right-wing pundits, culminating in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign that was created from a reaction against police violence against African-Americans (the actuality footage is truly distressing). Included is the Fruitvale Station shooting.

This is a Netflix original that received some cinema showings and so qualified for an Oscar nomination; I hope it wins.

 

The Past (Le passé, France-Italy-Iran)

Temporal triangle

Contemporary triangle

Asghar Farhadi’s profile rose recently as he became a victim of Trump’s bigotry when he was (temporarily for now) unable to travel to America for the Oscar ceremony because he happened to be Iranian (and Muslim). Such crass prejudice exists because many people cannot deal with nuance: vast groups of people are consigned to the Other to confirm supposed superiority. In contrast, Farhadi’s films (that I’ve seen: The Separation and About Elly) focus on the entangled dynamics of relationships showing  complexity without crass judgement about who’s to blame.

In The Past, Ahmad (Ali Mousaffa) returns to Paris to finalise his divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who’s in a relationship with Samir (the brilliantly bewildered Tahar Raham). The film progresses with a series of changes of perspective; just when you think you understand the dynamics of the relationships new information alters our viewpoint. It’s as if the narrative is a series of frames of reference that are added as soon as we think we know what is going on. The growing complexity beautifully portrays the mess, and excitement, of human relationships.

The victims, as far as there are any when couples fall apart, are the children. The teenager, Céline, (Aleksandra Klebanska) is particularly vividly drawn as she torments herself with guilt because of her (imaginary?) role in the destruction of the relationship between Ahmad and Marie.

Superb acting and thoughtful direction, windows and doors obstruct communication, as well as humour (Ahmad’s discussion with Marie is interrupting – in editing – by Samir’s drilling), make this a gripping film.

 

La La Land (USA, 2016)

Not a do-do

Not a do-do

‘Don’t believe the hype,’ rapped Chuck D, in the eponymous song, which is good advice because hype is about selling and the need to sell is often corrupting. Indeed, such is the effect of selling that I suspect most people treat hyperbole, especially if written by an estate agent or spoken by a politician, with scepticism. Film fandom tends to be resistant to scepticism, indeed it fuels the hype so, for example, all things Star Wars and Marvel are wonderful.

La La Land has been buzzing for months and is typical of the hype surrounding a film that’s unusual for mainstream cinema (in this case a musical) and yet is still (surprisingly) entertaining. For some the ‘surprise’ can make it the ‘best film I’ve ever seen’ (to quote a student) simply because they haven’t seen anything like it before. This isn’t to patronise as the ‘awe and wonder’ of discovery is the essence of film watching; if only I still had it!

So my expectations for La La Land were resisting the hype but my renaissance of enjoying film ‘insisted’ I go and see it and, I’m afraid, you need to believe the hype (in this case). The film is a tribute to ‘50s Hollywood musicals, through narrative (Singin’ in the Rain) and form (Vincente Minnelli’s cinemascope framed long, flowing takes) but doesn’t forget it’s in the 21st century in its clever narrative resolution.

A distinct difference from Golden Age musicals is the limited, if perfectly utilised, song and dance talents of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone; they ain’t Astaire and Rogers, but that is of no matter. I even enjoyed Gosling’s taciturnity for once and Stone is entirely engaging.

Will La La Land lead audiences, not in the know, to the classics musicals or will it remain an exciting ‘one off’?