Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss, Iceland-Germany-Norway, 2013)

You couldn’t make it up

One of the attractions of watching films from around the world is to learn about different cultures. Of Horses and Men collects vignettes of ‘soap opera’ life in rural Iceland: a close-knit community’s going-ons with a focus on sexual jealousy. This community is built around horses and climaxes with a community round up of the beasts which, a character states, has been going on for a thousand years. An ancient culture then and I wondered a little about my reaction, whilst watching this film, because much of what we see is farcical. However, as the superb soundtrack by Davíð Þór Jónsson makes clear with its jaunty accompaniment, writer and first time director Benedikt Erlingsson is poking affectionate fun.

The fun, however, is often dark and surreal; in one episode a character’s desperation for alcohol leads him to get a horse to swim to a passing freighter to buy Russian ‘vodka’ (it’s not clear what he actually consumes). The scene is extraordinary. The horses themselves, as the title suggests, are central characters and they are exceptionally beautifully shot by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson.

Roy suggests that the translation of the title misses out ‘women’ and they certainly come off better than many of the men who are often driven by stupid impulses. In one scene an older guy keeps suggesting that he take over from capturing horses from a young woman and what follows is a marvellously triumphant moment.

At the film’s end we are assured that no horses were injured during the filming and all the actors love the creatures. Their skill with the animals is obvious as is their affection for the beasts. Of Horses and Men is a superb glimpse into another world.


Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes, Argentina-Spain, 2014)

Expectedly unexpected

Expectedly unexpected

Wild Tales has one of those rare beasts: a good trailer. Although I enjoyed watching the film it hardly lived up to the rave reviews it’s received in some quarters or its excellent publicity. Possibly the problem is its short story nature, the film consists of six unrelated tales, as I’m not fond of the form. I find it dissatisfying that a story comes to an end just as I’m getting into it. This dissatisfaction can be overcome if the stories are thematically linked, such as in Dead Of Night (UK, 1945), however the only common factor in these tales is the fact they are ‘wild’.

I don’t mean to sound overly-negative, most of the tales have a logic where the protagonist is pushed beyond the boundaries of ‘decent’ behaviour. Particularly good is Ricardo Darín (also seen in The White Elephant) as the explosive expert who cracks when his car is towed away despite being legally parked; apparently this is common in Buenos Aires. The bride who discovers her husband’s infidelity during the wedding party also has a narrative that satisfyingly spirals out of control.

However the lack of a strong thread between the segments was disappointing. If they had all, for example, attacked bourgeois mores (which a few do) then it would have been more successful. It reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, adapted for British television in the 1970s; Wild Tales may have been better as a series of six programmes.

PS After writing the above it was pointed out to me, by someone who’d only seen the trailer(!), that revenge links the stories. Now you might ask how I missed that… I’m wondering too.

Eroica (Poland, 1958)

An accidental hero

An accidental hero

Eroica is an example of the Polish School, films made in the 1950s concerning World War II. It’s in two parts, originally meant to be three but the director, Andrzej Munk, was dissatisfied with the final section, and tells two stories of heroism. ‘Eroica’ is Italian for ‘heroic’ and, in the context of the film, refers to Beethoven’s third symphony; a brief extract from which is heard at the start of the film. I don’t think the musical reference is particularly important, but the film is clearly about heroism.

The first section is a funny tale of a chancer, Gorkiewicz, who we see at the start fleeing from being conscripted into the Polish Resistance; an entirely unheroic action. He blags his way back to Warsaw only to find his wife apparently ‘shacked up’ with a Hungarian officer. Gorkiewicz takes this philosophically and becomes embroiled in helping the Resistance anyway. The humour rises from Gorkiewicz’s behaviour as he finds himself in a number of precarious situations. At one point, whilst he’s boozing sitting on a river bank, a German tank fires a volley, making him jump, before moving on its way. The laughter of the German soldiers can be heard; the film humanises the conflict with humour.

Behind you!

Behind you!

The second part is sombre and is set in a POW camp. It portrays the relationships of men who’ve been incarcerated for the whole of the war and how they pin their faith on the one of their number who managed to escape.

The third part may have balanced the narrative of the film more; just two, basically unconnected, tales are little more than two short films, one after the other. The second film only tangentially deals with heroism. However, it is still an essential to see film if only because of the humour of the first part and some brilliant mise en scene: devastated settings form the backdrop to a number of the scenes. Munk’s career was curtailed by an early death, which was a loss to Polish, and World, cinema.

The Trip to Italy (UK, 2014)

Perfect doubt act

Perfect doubt act

This sequel to The Trip (UK. 2010) is the same as before as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon riff against one another as, usually, friendly, comedian rivals. The improvisation is stunningly high in quality and often difficult to keep up with as the depth of reference, both cultural and to the ennui of middle age, is delivered with such rapidity that laughter has to be stifled or the next hilarious observation might be missed.

Despite the humour, the series is melancholy in nature as one of the themes is male middle age angst, emphasised in the regular use of the autumnal music of Mahler, I Am Lost to the World, and Strauss, At Twilght. At one point Coogan muses that he is now invisible to young woman that surround them on a restaurant balcony. To solve the problem, he suggests that he and Brydon look the other way.

The Inbetweeners (UK, 2012)

Stretching out onto the big screen

There is a history of transferring British TV successes onto the big screen only to find they lose the quality that made them popular in the first place. There is a real challenge in turning a 23-minute per episode sitcom into a hour and a half feature. Clearly the box office suggests that The Inbetweeners in the cinema was a massive success, it grossed over £41m, but the appreciation rating on imdb tells a different story: 8.6 plays 6.9. This was the lads’ swansong after all, so there was little point in being snobby and not going to the cinema even though you knew it couldn’t be as good as the brilliant series.

There’s not a lot to say: one episode is stretched into a holiday on Crete and the script manages to retread all the tropes we expect, Simon getting naked for example. The success of the series was based around, like most sitcom, what is the most ridiculous situation can we get the protagonists into? However, the original ‘had a heart’; even the obnoxious Jay was shown to be vulnerable. That quality is in the movie too. So, overall, a terrific success story for both British TV and cinema.

Sherlock Jr. (US, 1924)

On to the next pratfall

This is my favourite Buster Keaton film as it encapsulates his genius for stunts and the surreal world in which his character, the Great Stone Face, existed. The set piece where he rides on the handlebars of a motorcycle, unaware the rider has fallen off, must be one of the great comic scenes in cinema. You can see it on YouTube:

Skeletons (UK, 2010)

Rattling closets

After a summer when Hollywood seemed even more constipated than usual, writer-director Nick Whitfield’s debut feature is a wonderful blast of daftness and pathos. Mixing Dickian (ie Philip K) ‘reality’ with very English mundane humour (though the conversation between the protagonists does have a whiff of Tarantino), the film follows two characters who reveal what skeletons are in people’s closets. Its all done in a low budget-low tech way but Whitfield’s direction, aligned with an excellent sound design, more than adequately conveys the supernatural aspects of the narrative.

Narratively it is very interesting in that it approaches events tangentially, and it must be about 20 minutes into the film before it’s (er) clear what’s going on. The cast is uniformally excellent, featuring newcomers Andrew Buckley and Ed Gaughan as well as Jason Isaacs and Paprika Steen (from Festen).

If you’re interested in the imaginative and quirky go see Skeletons; a top class debut film.

Bechdel test: Fail (7/3)
Protagonist: Male (1/6)