Movies of the Week #8 (2017)

I planned to watch my remaining Oscar contenders this week and make some informed choices. Not that it matters, we all know La La Land (2016) will sweep them – with merit. Instead, I went down memory lane again and compensated my dietary restrictions with food on (junk) film. Additionally, I found myself at a restaurant boasting an open kitchen, sat just across from the counter where all the orders I couldn’t eat were being readied. Awesome!

Two diametrically opposed movies for MotW, because you don’t argue with nostalgia.

Movies of the Week: Trainspotting (1996) / Il Postino (1994)

trainspotting

il-postino

Tuesday

  • Burnt (2015): Every man, woman and child needs to get a required dose of food porn a quarter. Burnt delivers just that, with a macho, do-it-all lead, portrayed by Bradley Cooper, who is searching for his third Michelin star after a self-imposed hiatus, the span of cleaning one million oysters. Although panned by critics, most will still begrudgingly accept that the movie is more fun than it deserves to be. I agree with the latter assertion, and was only really bothered by one pivotal set-up that’s both predictable and underwhelming. Also, it would have been worth capturing my face when I recognized a particular musical piece, originating from Donnie Darko (2001). Yum. 6/10
  • Jackie (2016): The only contender I did watch, turned out to be this rather unusual movie about Jackie Kennedy, portraying the former first lady of the US in and around the hours of the assassination. She didn’t grow on me with ease, yet I found myself fascinated by the inner tension the protagonist provided. The whole affair feels really tight around your neck, severe, austere and vulnerable, just like Jackie herself in those hours and days. I adore Natalie Portman, so naturally I ended up fawning over her. Nonetheless, something felt amiss, a higher purpose, a side of transcendence perhaps, to go with the combination of patriotic despair and political squalor. 7/10
  • Passengers (2016): How bad could it really be, right? God-awful bad, that’s how bad. It hurt my brains, really it did. Resident Evil bad! Right, get a grip. The movie has no personality at all, just like the interior aesthetics of the colonial spaceship carrying five thousand plus souls to a planet 130 light-years away. When a pod containing Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) misfires and wakes the man up some ninety years before the due date, an interesting premise is established. A few minutes and a montage or two later, things get really controversial, as Jim, overcome by solitude, starts chillin’ like a villain with Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence, but, seriously, that name!) and they have sex at some point. Oh, sorry, spoiler alert. Then the ever deteriorating ship starts choking up, a new plot element is introduced to solve the unsolvable situation our heroes find themselves in, and, surprise, all ends reasonably well. Except if you start wondering about some of the practicalities of what you’ve just seen or try to give a crap about a by-the-numbers romance in space. I kinda wanted to like this, me fawning over JLaw as well, but failed miserably. Shame on me. And shame on those who wrote this stuff. 4/10

Thursday

  • Trainspotting (1996): Having decided to indulge on some T2 the following day, a revisit of the original was required. One of my favourite movies back in the early 00s, Trainspotting has aged reasonably well, although the flair of drug-induced, over-narrated stories is not quite as popular now. Danny Boyle does a great job in offering an aggressively paced portrayal of a group of heroin addicted friends at their lowest, smacking hard at anything that moves, with consumerism and stifling societal expectations bearing the brunt of things for the first half of the film, as the latter repositions itself on more of an existential skewering of its protagonist(s). Some of the shockingly gross and deplorable moments haven’t lost their kick, with the descent into a toilet bowl full of diarrhea in search of the excrements containing two narcotic suppositories still amongst my favourites. Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. I think I’m still working on these. 9/10

Friday

  • T2 Trainspotting (2017): It was an almost impossible task for Boyle to come close to what he delivered in the original, since Trainspotting was about the disengaged, drug-riddled youth and its pursuit for instant gratification – and now all the characters found themselves in their forties. It’s much harder to be riveting, sharp and incisive about middle age. T2 feels like a film without a voice, especially in contrast to its predecessor. It’s competent enough and has some good moments, but mostly feels insignificant. The meta-nostalgia line that Boyle & co try to walk didn’t win me over, quite the opposite in fact. And whereas Trainspotting also offered some really sweet tunes of the 90s, anchoring it even more in the groveling depths of the decade, T2 lacks the same definition. It doesn’t help that the storyline is unimaginative, or that the characters are dull. Just sitting there in the cinema, getting all emotional and whatnot, I got a sense of something I am not used to – anger. Anger that such a banal sequel was allowed to exist. 5/10

Saturday

  • Il Postino (1994): For a cozy dinner with friends, I had to impromptu change my Oscar viewing choice when one of our group declared to have seen them all. I had rewatched bits of Il Postino a few weeks back and felt like indulging once more in the fictional story of Pablo Neruda’s (Philippe Noiret) real-life exile in Italy and his friendship with Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi), the local postman. Ruoppolo is a person with little education who somehow intuitively manages to connect with Neruda’s poetry. The dream-like fairytale is framed by a distinguished musical score and Massimo Troisi’s spectacular performance in the leading role. While it might come across as overcooked for some, Troisi’s portrayal demands empathy, with no pretensions and soapy lines of self-enlightenment. It feels natural and believable or, rather, he feels natural and believable. The fact that Troisi himself tragically passed away of a heart attack a mere twelve hours after filming was finished tucks on your heartstrings and completes the romantic tragedy. Michael Radford has produced a truly gentle movie about our connection with writing in general and poetry in particular. It comes to show that just last week, at a book presentation, one of the authors told a story of a train meet-up with a fellow who used to work as a station attendant, where he spent most of his time reading poetry. There’s something there and whatever it is, Il Postino captures an expression thereof. 9/10

Movies of the Week #7 (2017)

Jumping down the artsy Berlinale ladder means dipping my toes into Oscar contenders and another Schwarzenegger classic. For a change, I have a hard time picking the movie of the week. I’ll go with Manchester by the Sea, because it hits so many right notes and the characters are pretty great and I’m pretentious, but at the antithesis of it I could have gone with John Wick: Chapter 2, a hell of an action romp with the character depth equal to Keanu’s acting chops.

Movie of the Week:

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

manchester-by-the-sea

Wednesday

  • Lion (2016): Sad to say, I’m not quite feeling Lion. The story of Saroo, an Indian boy living at the wrong side of the poverty line with his mother and brother, starts out portraying their struggle for survival, the day to day grittiness of the kind of work no child should have to do. Then poor Saroo gets stuck on a train, is freighted around the country for a while, to the extent that nobody can help him find home again. Ultimately, he gets adopted by a family in Australia and after growing up to be a real hunk, starts to seriously contemplate finding his mother and brother again. What irked me more than anything was the weird pacing of the movie, with most of the time spent in what I would have considered early exposition (the getting lost part), and less time on the complexities of adapting to a new family and the search itself. It just didn’t work, the character felt detached and the resolution didn’t carry an emotional punch. Underdeveloped secondary characters didn’t help either, and it all stems from the way the movie is structured. The cinematography is the best thing Lion has going for it. 6/10

Friday

  • Red Heat (1988): I was worried for a second I might need to justify rating a six-times Oscar nominated movie as highly/lowly as an 80s cop-comedy with Arnold passing off an Austrian interpretation of an American interpretation of a Russian accent. Thankfully, in spite of its charm and a bunch of ridiculous scenes that are worth spending some time with this Walter Hill movie, I couldn’t overlook numerous bland attempts at humour and a profoundly unlikable turn by Jim Belushi. And Rocky 4 did the whole American-Soviet thing better, which is saying a lot. 5/10

Saturday

  • John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017): John. Watson. Oh, you don’t remember? It’s fine, I had no recollection of the first part either, but a mention of a dog triggered something fuzzy. The second part picks up immediately after the first ended, as Wick turns up to recover his treasured vehicle and even shows a willingness for reconciliation. Then some dude knocks on his door with a pledge thing, forcing the man to go do some dirty work – not before an initial rejection, leading to the torching of Wick’s home. The execution is viciously cool, self-reflectively over-the-top and a lot of fun, which is why this whole thing works. Great editing and a proper musical theme set up a distinctive vibe in the moments of flow, during all the commotion and the countless head-shots – and not the daguerreian kind. Keanu Reeves, for all his blandness, is managed well, required to reproduce mostly concise lines of dialogue, delivered with angry aplomb. But where the movie stands out is in the world-building, which becomes apparent towards the end, as the whole scope of this secret man-hunting agency comes to the fore. The intricate system is all-encompassing and bears a weary sense of ‘wow, was this curtain here all long’? What’s even better is how seamlessly it forms as the story – excuse me, action unfolds, with it suddenly being absolutely normal by the end. Pretty awesome. 8/10

Sunday

  • Manchester by the Sea (2016): It’s only director Lonergan’s third directing job, but his writing chops have been on display in a few well regarded movies, like Gangs of New York (2002) and the highly accomplished You Can Count on Me (2000) (see what I did there?). You couldn’t necessarily say so after watching Manchester by the Sea, which is not only written with almost profound deftness, but also carries you away in the midst of a tight community where forgetting is hard. It proves hardest for the lead, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who has to return home after his brother’s passing and sort out things for the family and his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The characters are just great, with the rapport between Lee and Patrick especially touching. Unfortunately, a lot of the limelight is directed towards Michelle Williams, because it makes commercial sense and, sure, the three scenes she’s in are good – and she’s good too. Yet, for me, her character was not among the most exciting ones – or, rather, it was exciting, but for what wasn’t on screen, which also goes to underline how well what is on screen resonates. I wonder why I haven’t fallen in love with the movie and I’m not sure I have the answer, but it’s really solid and personal and real – and there’s no reason to begrudge it any of the attention it’s been getting. 8/10

Movies of the Week #6 (2017)

Playing catch-up here, this is a short review of the Berlinale movies.

Thursday

  • The Wound (2017): All things considered, The Wound stands as a film that, at its best, conveys a unique poetic restraint. It might not shine all the way through, yet it provides insight into a corner of the world that’s usually left in the dark, tackling some big themes on the way. I would never want to fault someone for being too ambitious, so The Wound gets my recommendation.  7/10 Review Link

Friday

  • Django (2017): Django would have been a much better experience, had it stuck to its music, especially as some of the artist’s work was lost, which is a cause for grief. As another survival movie from the war, it falls flat, especially compared to some of the previously released hard-hitting productions, be they grim or soulful representations of the horror. 5/10 Review Link
  • Barrage (2017): The gorgeous scenery, the restrained performances and some unexpected, but well-suited musical arrangements come together into a coherent experience. It’s going to be an acquired taste, flying close to artistic pretention, because of the pacing. Perhaps what swayed me was the metaphorical use of tennis in framing the relationship of the three women, a sport that’s recognized for the battle one wages not so much with his or her opponent, but with oneself.It’s not an exciting movie, in a sense. Yet there are moments where it manages to connect and resonate, which has the power to outdo mere excitement. So yes, there is some reward at the end of this particular winding road.6/10 Review Link

Saturday

  • The Dinner (2017): I really liked the intensity, the grotesque and obscene affluence entailed by the dinner scenes, even some of the almost derivative monologues. The interpretative freedom made some of the drearier moments worthwhile, but more cohesion and restraint would have transformed The Dinner into something quite special all around. In spite of the backlash it’s being served, Oren Moverman’s film is a worthwhile exploration into how messy holding yourself consistent socially and philosophically can be. 7/10 Review Link
  • No Intenso Agora (2017): This was the best movie I had the chance of watching at the Berlinale. It’s a strange mix of analytical-poetic-social justice, that ultimately leaves a lingering sense of how fleeting and unique some of the most important moments of our lives can be. There is no recipe to it, but Salles clearly indicates that a tempestuously exhibited shared belief, with the deep tributaries of 1968, can change our perception of purpose and existence. I’m not sure I completely agree, but the thesis is compelling and No Intenso Agora is good at expressing it. 8/10 Review Link

Berlinale Day 4: Courage Against All Odds

To round off my Berlinale visit, I opted for an alternative to movies: a panel talk between jury president, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, jury member, American actress Maggie Gyllenhaal and moderated by the film historian and author, GB-born Peter Cowie.

courageagainstallodds

The discussion gravitated around some of the more popular movies the two guests had been involved in, with the tentative theme of courage somehow wiggled into it. But it was courage in its wider interpretation, with both protagonists venturing into the unknown at different times in their careers.

For Verhoeven, who has established himself as a rather kooky, commercially successful director, it was the transition from the Dutch film world into that of Hollywood. After his first foray, Flesh + Blood (1985), failed to impress, he was ready to go back home, when the script of Robocop (1987) was sent to him. While on holiday, Verhoeven read a bit of it and duly proceeded to throw it in the bin, before going for a long swim. Upon his return, he found his wife, Martine, holding the script, suggesting he take a closer look at it. And, indeed, Verhoeven did, realizing the potential for such a movie, which ended up winning an Academy Award (Special Achievement), spawning two sequels and two TV series, and resting to the present day as a classic of the action-packed 80s. Its influence still lasts, with a fairly recent remake trying (poorly) to re-envision the original.

Equally cult movies followed, with Total Recall (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992) becoming staples of the 90s. Verhoeven’s challenge in getting Sharon Stone to be chosen for the part in Basic Instinct was considerable, as the actress had more of a B-movie status and didn’t really fit the bill alongside Michael Douglas. It had been one particular scene in Total Recall that convinced the director that Sharon Stone was the best choice for the part – a scene culminating in one of Schwarzenegger’s famous lines: Consider this a divorce.

But then Showgirls (1995) turned out to be a miserable failure, and as is common in Hollywood, Verhoeven’s stock plummeted. Labeled as a Sci-Fi auteur, he got another couple of opportunities in Starship Troopers (1997) and the remake of The Invisible Man, entitled Hollow Man (2000). Fun fact, the latter was probably the movie that really triggered my passion for film, as a bunch of classmates and I got together to watch it after school one Friday afternoon. We missed the first few minutes and were excited by the prospect of it being rated above our age group, so we ate it all up, even though I probably wouldn’t rate it any more now. But, alas, it will always matter to me and it took me years to overcome the frustration that Gladiator had beaten it to the Best Visual Effects Academy Award. C’mon, that was just people with silly swords, Hollow Man turned a guy invisible for chrissake!

Unsurprisingly, the combination of factors sent Verhoeven back to the Netherlands, where, several years later, he directed the critically acclaimed WW2 movie about the Dutch Resistence, Zwartboek (2006) – Black Book. An interesting factor in some of his work is the influence of Stravinsky, whose rhythm Verhoeven has found to translate well into film. The best of which was yet to come, as last year’s Elle (2016) first took Cannes by storm, before becoming a critics’s darling, praise falling especially onto Isabelle Huppert with the heft of a waterfall. Interestingly, the movie failed to be nominated for Best Foreign Picture, but Huppert is the front-runner in the Best Actress category. After having worked in Dutch and English, a major challenge was moving into French for Elle, which Verhoeven did by refreshing his language knowledge in a two-week boot camp. Yet, his communication with Huppert mostly came about through ‘the language of film’.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s career started, for me, at Donne Darko (2001), another one of the defining movies of my youth. As matter of fact, a particular point of discussion for both talkers was that the films we see between the ages of 12 and 16 end up defining our taste in cinema, with Verhoeven focusing on the influence of Bunuel, while Gyllenhaal mentioned Tarantino. I’m afraid my choices don’t quite stand up.

Whereas her most memorable scene in Darko was the family dinner, climaxing with the this little line, her next project, Secretary (2002), proved to be a big step for Gyllenhaal. Starring alongside James Spader, the unusual movie about dominance and sadomasochism wasn’t quite what a self declared feminist expected to be a part of, yet there are important nuances to how it all comes together in Steven Shainberg’s production. To underscore this, we got to watch one of the Secretary’s highlights, the infamous reading of the letter.

After several other (minor) roles in good movies of the 00s, the leap to AAA movies came with The Dark Knight (2008). The differences in production mechanics were considerable for Gyllenhaal, who remarked that whereas a smaller movie might be constrained to resort to second or third choice talent in certain crew positions, a blockbuster like Christopher Nolan’s Batman works similarly to a ‘well oiled machine’, at the cutting edge. The challenge in TDK was to carve out a space for her character, something which Heath Ledger did exceptionally well in his take on the Joker. After working with one to-be Academy Award winner, Gyllenhaal made another inspired choice in Crazy Heart (2009), which brought Jeff Bridges the prize and Gyllenhaal herself a nomination. The difference in this experience was that Bridges and Gyllenhaal had to support first time director Scott Cooper, which they did in an effort that empowered everyone involved.

For a change of pace, the actress then moved to a different format, electing to lead the TV Mini-series The Honourable Woman (2014). Acting in an eight hour show, filmed in the chronological order that the production plan required (i.e. possibly a scene from episode one shot after a scene from episode eight) brought with itself a different rhythm to that of movies, a feeling ‘unusual and strange’ to Gyllenhaal. Her performance was rewarded with a Golden Globe in 2015 and her upcoming role is particularly exciting, in a new TV series entitled The Deuce (2017), helmed by The Wire creators David Simon and George Pelecanos.

The conversation drew to a close after ninety minutes, with one question from the public arousing my attention: are movies inherently political? Gyllenhaal mused about it, saying that good movies have an element of the unconscious to them and that our politics are inevitably etched into that. Verhoeven, on the other hand, focused on the fact that one should not force a particular political vision on a movie or a director, in the sense that there is no need for explicit (or implicit) politics. This is particularly relevant now, with so much political opining flying around, that trying to do an explicitly political film, say, about a certain US president, could easily be undermined by day-to-day developments. If politics, then with perspective.

Berlinale Day 3: No Intenso Agora (2017)

Brazilian director Joao Moreira Salles wrote and directed this documentary (English Title: In the Intense Now) wrapped around the years 1966-1968 and the intense revolutionary spirit that engulfed certain parts of the world: France, foremost, but also Czechoslovakia, China and Brazil. Although the movie is inherently political, it rises above politics to express the fleetingness of self-actualization, the kind moments of such a spiritual coming together catalyzes. Although a tad long and sometimes too explicitly ponderous, Salles’s work provides a unique frame to a very particular moment in time which is exceptionally relevant in the present day climate, all around the world.

in-the-intense-now

The starting point for this project, composed predominantly of amateur archival footage, was Salles stumbling across film recordings his mother had shot during her visit to China in 1966. It was the first year of the Cultural Revolution, but what’s really striking is the almost transformative effect the experience had on his mother. Providing a somewhat pedantic observational narrative, brimming with suppositions about what certain scenes mean, or what protagonists recorded on video might be thinking and feeling, the director spends most of the movie in Paris, where he lived for a while around the same period. Then, in May 1968, protests broke out among students in France, against the class-driven hierarchization of society and sexual conservatism. The dispute between students, on the one side, and university administration and the government on the other, escalated quickly, as worker unions joined the protests. All of a sudden, France was paralyzed. And liberated, at the same time, as Salles observes.

The events of those months are about more than social discord though. Salles nuances the idealism which spread like brushfire, manifesting itself in certain leading characters of the otherwise leaderless ‘revolution’, like Daniel Cohn-Bendit – a student at the University of Nanterre, where the protests were ignited before reaching the Sorbonne and Paris. The shift in communication dynamics, from a stifling top-down approach rooted in centuries of class division, stood out in interviews of the time. Yet, more than anything else, the protests also developed a renewed sense of belonging and generated an artistic flurry of dissent, Banksy-esque almost, including:

Les Affiches de mai 68 ou l'Imagination graphique : [exposition,
Be young and shut up.
Soyez réalistes demandez l'impossible
Be realistic, ask the impossible.
plage
Under the paving stones, the beach.

It’s hard not to feel something. And then, the movement slowly withered – in the approximate words of Jean-Paul Sartre, who personally interviewed Cohn-Bendit: Spring belongs to the students, but Summer belongs to the holidays. Moreso, the commercial potential became obvious and even Cohn-Bendit, exiled for a short while in Germany, ended up writing a memoir of the events for a quick buck and a publishing deal. The Revolution that never was, lead with spontaneity and not with political manifestos and lists of demands, then faded, resulting in minimal, percentage-sized improvements to worker wages. The divide persisted as well, even between the protesters, as the worker class and the student class never found the equal footing. In the wake of it, desolation set in for the idealists, even though the landscape for social and political movements had changed forever. Salles contrasts martyrdom across Paris, Prague (the Soviet occupation, after the Spring protests) and Rio (march against the military dictatorship), focusing on the familial textures as well as the wider social impact of these deaths, questioning whether they represent persistent hope or the effigy thereof.

What really hits hard is the sense that for many involved, especially among the students, those days of 1968 were the highlights of their lives, the purest form of ébouillant existence, living ‘in the intense now’. There’s a joy of camaraderie, of a mutual and subliminal understanding which stem from the joint struggle. One wonders whether the depth of those weeks of protests, of standstill, is something that can still be today, with the rhythm of life and the exhibitionist nature of social media. Although subverting the status quo should be easier, just by looking at the recent (and ongoing) protests in my home country, Romania, I’m left more with vague hope, than conviction. I don’t dare draw further parallels, because these are not trifles; they are intricate manifestations of a shared design of what life should be, in spite of apparent similarities.

Salles stumbled across the perfect time frame per chance. His work on No Intenso Agora started in 2012, before the world went aflame – in his native Brazil, in Europe, in the United States. The choice of spanning over four different manifestations of revolt is overbearing and tentative at times, but one can sense an inner core holding them together. Perhaps what bothered me, if anything in particular, was some of the narration, coming across as professorial. Once purpose was established, more natural expression and feeling coming directly from the images could have enhanced their impact and their significance, not unlike something as eccentric as The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010).

Other than that though, this was the best movie I had the chance of watching at the Berlinale. It’s a strange mix of analytical-poetic-social justice, that ultimately leaves a lingering sense of how fleeting and unique some of the most important moments of our lives can be. There is no recipe to it, but Salles clearly indicates that a tempestuously exhibited shared belief, with the deep tributaries of 1968, can change our perception of purpose and existence. I’m not sure I completely agree, but the thesis is compelling and No Intenso Agora is good at expressing it.

****

Berlinale Day 3: The Dinner (2017)

Oren Moverman’s latest movie is quite the challenge. It has difficult characters, discomforting dialogue, an intricate construction and spreads over two hours. Nobody can accuse The Dinner of being unambitious, but I would like to accuse it of being an ambitious mess. Thankfully, not an unbearable mess.

Although Richard Gere (Stan) headlines, it’s Steve Coogan (Paul), playing his brother, who appears to lead at the beginning. In an unexpected American accent, he narrates with misanthropic cynicism, as preparations for a dinner event are underway. The narration stops at some point and comes back randomly throughout the movie – just one of several small incoherences that make everything feel unusual. Stan and Paul’s relationship is strained, at best, while their wives Kate (Rebecca Hall) and Claire (Laura Linney) act as mediators. Some dark matter seems to have brought them together at an elitist restaurant boasting culinary lushness; a matter which unfolds at a slow pace, interlaced with Stan fighting to pass a bill in congress, Paul’s Gettysburg obsessions, their children’s suspect affairs, past personal traumas, all across several courses of an impressive sounding meal.

For a movie that desires to tackle the lofty theme of social divide, it starts out feeling very personal. As it progresses, it distances itself from Paul to focus on thr bigger picture and gravitate around Stan. It’s a difficult move to pull off, as some sense of alienation occurs in the viewer, who has to accept the deep flaws surfacing in the ‘object of attachment’. I felt a bit stranded, which culminated in a subpar ending.

But it wasn’t a complete shipwreck, as Stan, alongside Kathey and Claire, managed to wrestle my attention. Indeed, wrestle is the right word, in what turns out to be a less than peaceful digestif. The whole preachiness of the last thirty minutes or so is borderline crass, yet engaging, in a visceral kind of way. It’s a decent payout after ninety minutes of fluctuating intensity. 

Do the themes and motives really blend though? It’s hard to find a ‘red string’ to carry you through, as Paul’s Hobbesian worldview overlaps with discussions of mental illness, political maneuvering and familial discord. You get pushed into finding personal interpretations to allegorical content, which is fun and rewarding, yet the movie proves heavy-handed in framing its moral questions and imperatives. Next to its schizophrenic identity dilemma, this just works against itself in the final scenes.

I really liked the intensity, the grotesque and obscene affluence entailed by the dinner scenes, even some of the almost derivative monologues. The interpretative freedom made some of the drearier moments worthwhile, but more cohesion and restraint would have transformed The Dinner into something quite special all around. In spite of the backlash it’s being served, Oren Moverman’s film is a worthwhile exploration into how messy holding yourself consistent socially and philosophically can be.

***

Berlinale Day 2: Barrage (2017)

‘A solo woman facing the void’ is the expression someone used during the film’s Q&A, when describing herself. The tag applies equally to the leading character in Barrage, Catherine (Lolita Chammah), a woman in her thirties trying to reconnect with her daughter, who had been raised by her grandmother for most of her life. Seen from a wider perspective, it looks a lot like a movie about a single mother and the struggle to prevent family-inherent traumas.  But it’s just as much about the struggle with oneself.

barrage

Story-wise, there’s very little to say: Catherine shows up and wants to spend time with her daughter, to the disapproval of her own mother, both on and off-screen, Elisabeth (Isabelle Huppert). A few hours turns into half a day which turns into a weekend, as the two struggle to feel at ease with one another. And then the movie ends.

A more cynical person than myself could claim that the whole experience represents what European films are denigrated for: almost two hours of nothing happening. But that assessment would only be partially true. Overlong at its current run-time and with a heavy observational period that spans for about an hour in the middle, the movie tests your patience. But it also builds on the bony relationship of the mother-daughter couple, in real-to-life process that just is painfully slow. Wrought with tension due to the expectation of failure on Catherine’s part, even as she does come short, there is no sense of artificial doom, only for it to be swapped by some deeper recognition in the last three scenes. Rather the movie sets up a finale that offers relevant insights into the further dynamic of the characters, the generationally conditioned aspects of who they are and where they will go from there.

Somehow, I find myself writing that it all works, in spite of its shortcomings. The gorgeous scenery, the restrained performances and some unexpected, but well-suited musical arrangements come together into a coherent experience. It’s going to be an acquired taste, flying close to artistic pretention, because of the pacing. Perhaps what swayed me was the metaphorical use of tennis in framing the relationship of the three women, a sport that’s recognized for the battle one wages not so much with his or her opponent, but with oneself.

It’s not an exciting movie, in a sense. Yet there are moments where it manages to connect and resonate, which has the power to outdo mere excitement. So yes, there is some reward at the end of this particular winding road.

***

Berlinale Day 2: Django (2017)

The opening film of the Berlinale competition is yet another take on the sufferings brought on by the second World War. In a mixture of biopic and historical drama, Django fails in standing out from the crowd, walking down the one-dimensional route of escape from Nazi persecution, while rendering its characters secondary.

Django Reinhardt, a guitarist of Romani ethnicity, is dazzling the crowds in Paris during the later days of the German occupation. The specter of deportation looms over his family, his band, yet he refuses to accept the idea that anyone would harm him, due to his positive notoriety. However, after declining to tour in Germany, a quick visit to a local police station makes him see the light, as he flees close to the Swiss border, awaiting transfer. There, he comes across a local Romani camp and they come together to perform music in the area, as a means for survival. 

That’s pretty much the gist of the story, which is as bland as it sounds. After a great opening scene, followed by an equally impressive musical performance, the movie drifts into this grey area where not much happens. Reda Kateb’s performance is strong enough to retain some interest, yet the production lingers without delving deeply into either Django’s person, nor the plight of the Romani people. Whenever music starts playing, the film comes to life, but this is not sufficient to keep a rhythm.

It’s a shame, really, because there are glances of why Reinhardt could have been a relevant leading figure. Being unable to read or write, and bearing a childhood injury on his playing hand,his performances come from a deeply rooted passion for music, seemingly instilled by his Romani heritage and culture. This generates the contrast of music from the heart and music from the head, which is not subtle, yet it plays well with how ridiculously rigurous and lifeless Nazi censorship was. The close knit relations with his family, band and the fellow survivors he meets at the Swiss camp are well shaded against Reinhardt’s privileged position, and his sense of entitlement. Yet, there is no clear sense of inner conflict, although the movie does imply that his personal quest is to learn some self sacrifice, putting himself second.

This is part of the problem, that Django just can’t set itself apart and come across without conviction. Supporting characters have little to no personality, and function as either plot enhancers, or easy to swap band members. Only the relationship between Reinhardt and his mother is distinguishing, even if it feels at times like comic relief. The generic portrayal of the Nazi oppressors doesn’t help either, as is the case with some of the elliptical moments in the story. Even the name of the movie should have given pause for thought: how does one make something distinctive with such an overused title?

Django would have been a much better experience, had it stuck to its music, especially as some of the artist’s work was lost, which is a cause for grief. As another survival movie from the war, it falls flat, especially compared to some of the previously released hard-hitting productions, be they grim or soulful representations of the horror.

**