19 June, 2016

Power Redux

So here's the thing,

Once again, during the most recent film festival I wrote a bunch of comments on Facebook about each film as I saw them. These are not reviews; they're more an attempt to try to capture my thoughts and my immediate response to each film. There are things that I wrote below that I don't necessarily agree with now, where I've let a film sit in my mind and my thoughts have developed and changed. But this post isn't about how do I feel about these films now; it's just about what I thought shortly after seeing them. And other than fixing a few typos, I haven't really reworked my comments, and they were all written in a rush, so the writing is a little rough. That said, here are my comments about the films I saw in the 2015 film festival.

The Lobster
Where to begin? The new film by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster opens with Colin Farrell (playing David, the only character with an actual name) checking into a hotel. The film takes place in a weird society where everyone has to be in a couple; if at any point you find yourself suddenly single, you must check into this hotel, where you have 45 days to become part of a couple, or else you’re turned into the animal of your choice (Farrell chooses a lobster, hence the title). There are weird awkward dances and social events; there are points where the singles must watch demonstrations of the advantages of being in a couple (you’ve got someone to help you when you’re choking to death! women are less likely to be raped if they’re walking with a man!). Couples form. If two singles form a couple (which are based on a single superficial connection, like both people having nice hair, or both being prone to nosebleeds), they’re put into the couples’ area, where the progress of the relationship is intensely monitored; if a couple starts to seem in trouble, they’re given a child to raise, since having children solves all the problems in a relationship; and if they survive a month as a couple, they return to live in the city. Singles may only have 45 days before being changed, but they can earn more days by catching the Loners that hide out in a nearby forest; the Loners, incidentally, are led by a woman who inflicts severe punishments on anyone in the group who develops affection for another person.
I’d rather enjoyed Lanthimos’ earlier film Dogtooth, a blackly comic film about a couple who raise their children in a compound completely isolated from the rest of the world, and about the problems that arise when their teenaged children start to discover their sexuality. That film had quite an outlandish premise, but once you get past the premise, I felt like the actual characters and world made sense to me. But this film? Nothing worked. The whole turning into an animal idea is never really explained or explored; it’s a backdrop that the film mostly seems to forget about. There are whole subplots that it does nothing with; there’s one sequence where the Loners spend a lot of time preparing for a raid where they break into the homes of couples and force one of the partners to shoot the other, but after that sequence is over it’s never referenced again. There’s a deliberate halting awkwardness to every single person in the film that makes no-one feel natural, as though everyone is trying to think very slowly of the most blandly neutral thing they could say. Seriously, nothing makes sense.
It’s almost as though Lanthimos came up with this world of forced couplehood as a general metaphor for various types of relationships, but then he just kept piling on new wrinkles, new elements, new ideas that would apply to the world of the film, but that illuminated nothing about what the film is trying to say. I can think of a dozen different themes the film could be exploring, but those ideas are buried so deep down inside the film that it’s impossible to find what it’s saying. There are aspects of the film that I should have very easily related to right at this very moment, but I didn’t because nothing felt real and therefore nothing felt like it could connect to my own life. It’s fine to have a wacky “people are turned into animals” setup, as long as you then take the rest of the film seriously and explore the premise honestly. How would a person react in a world with these rules? But if the people don’t feel real, and the place seems unreal, and the actions seem absurd, then you lose a grasp on the film.
The ending also really bothered me. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but Colin Farrell has to make a decision on whether to undertake a certain action. It’s an unpleasant action; in fact, it touched on one of my few points of sensitivity, leaving me seriously fighting with myself over whether to watch or not (I was closing my eyes and opening them, blocking my eyes with my hands, I felt squeamish; it was horrible). And then the film ended without ever revealing if he did this thing. Now, let’s leave aside the big problem that I didn’t buy him undertaking this action; he’s doing it solely because of the nature of the world created by the film, rather than being anything any actual person would do. The main problem was that the lack of resolution was totally unmotivated. This is not me being annoyed because I wanted to know how it ends; there are many, many films that I love that end on a cliffhanger or unresolved ending. But where that happens, it’s usually because the ending speaks to the wider point or the themes of the film. (Indeed, Dogtooth has a brilliant ending that worked and that left us in suspension.) But this just felt like Lanthimos had written himself into a corner; he didn’t know how to end the film given the direction the story had taken, and rather than backtracking into the script and trying to undo some of the knots he’d tied for himself, he just ended the film rather than deal with the outcome of his setup.
The thing I found astonishing was the incredible cast Lanthimos gathered together and then seemed to not know what to do with. Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, Michael Smiley, Ben Whishaw: these are all people I really like and enjoy, and I was happy to see them all in the film. But the parts are mostly minor, and the performances are so intrusively artificial that there was nothing to enjoy about watching them.
I will admit, the film was funny, or at least funnyish. Mark Kermode talks about the “six-laugh test” for a comedy, and the film probably passed that test, but only barely, and what laughs it did elicit were closer to small amused chuckles. But ultimately, I genuinely do not know what the point of the film was. Why does this film exist? And that is not a satisfying response to a film. I’m hoping for a great film festival, but this was not a great start.

Seymour: An Introduction 
Early in the documentary film Seymour: An Introduction, Ethan Hawke talks about going to dinner with some friends, finding he was seated next to an elderly Seymour Bernstein, and how there was something about Bernstein that immediately made him feel safe. It’s a nice moment to hear about, and by the end of the film we completely understand what that moment was like.
Seymour Bernstein was an acclaimed concert pianist and occasional composer who never felt fully comfortable on stage; he was always dealing with stage fright and other such issues. So one day, he decided to secretly retire as a concert pianist (no-one knew his final concert would be his final concert), and instead turn to teaching, which he has been doing for nearly forty years. And the film just follows him, watching him teach, watching him meet up with friends and former students, living his life in the same one-room apartment he’s lived in for fifty years.
It’s an impossible film to explain. The entirety of the film is just wrapped up in watching and listening to this man, and there’s an incredible degree of affection for Bernstein expressed throughout the film. He’s soft-spoken and thoughtful, and he has a true talent for expressing why music has the effect that it has. When I think about the film, I think about the way he would encourage his students to read between the lines in their musical expression, rather than simply holding overly closely to the musical notation. I think about the discussion of the cult of the prodigy, and the inability of people to comprehend the amount of work that goes into practicing and perfecting your art. I think about the way the film opens, with Bernstein practicing a difficult piece, experimenting with different approaches until he finds the way to play the piece perfectly. I think about the haunted look on his face when he thinks about the body bags he saw during the Korean War.
But above all, I think about the music. Music that has stayed with me for the rest of the day. Some pieces I know well; others I’ve never heard before. But even with those pieces where we know every note, I felt like I was hearing these pieces for the first time. The music left the entire audience transfixed; I think this may have been the first screening I ever attended where no-one left during the closing credits, just because we were loving hearing Bernstein play, and didn’t want to miss a second of it.
This is not a film that will break new ground, that will challenge notions of cinema. It’s just a nice, crowd-pleasing heart-warming portrait of a man who I was glad to have been introduced to.

Hill of Freedom
After Hill of Freedom finished, I went and grabbed the first festival programme I could find to see if I could work out why I decided to see it. The film promised by the writeup sounded light and interesting; the film delivered was leaden and just dull. Even at a very short running time of 66 minutes, I found myself sitting there from very early in the screening just desperate for it to end.
The movie took place in Korea, with a woman called Kwon who had been away for some time undergoing medical treatment returning home to a package of letters; it seems a Japanese guy called Mori who she once had a relationship with had returned to Korea to try to reconnect with her, and these letters told of his experiences while he was looking for her. But Kwon dropped the letters down the stairs, and they all got out of order. So the conceit of the film is that, because she's reading the letters all out of order, the story is all out of order. And it's made more complicated as the story is intermingled with her own memories of their connection.
There was something weird going on with the film that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Firstly, the acting was terrible; all stiff and uncomfortable. Watching the film, I was convinced the entire film was populated by non-actors, so stilted were the performances, but I’ve looked them up and it seems the cast was quite experienced. Admittedly, the film does have this idea that Mori doesn’t speak Korean, and no-one around speaks Japanese, so they all speak textbook English as a default way of communicating. And it’s possible that this could be the reason for this issue; perhaps the acting was distracting because the actors weren’t comfortable acting in English, or maybe they were stiff and awkward because the types of conversations you learn from a textbook aren’t natural and make people feel like they’re stiff and unnatural. But whatever the reason for that, it just did not work for me at all. But the performances also feel highly improvised, with scenes that go nowhere and moments that play it as though the actors are just grasping for things to say. ("Have some watermelon; it's sweet." "Yes, that is certainly sweet.") It's astonishing how much padding and time wasting they put into a film that barely reaches the one-hour mark.
And the problem is that, because I found myself alienated by the performances, I was unable to accept the characters, which meant that I really didn’t care about the central thrust of the film. Because I was constantly being thrown out of the film, I realised I just lacked any motivation to try to engage with the film. The entire thing was a puzzle, where we’re supposed to try to piece together the story and work out when this scene happened or that moment took place. But I didn’t really care about solving this mystery, because I wasn’t engaged with the characters.
Perhaps the film was better than I thought; I do know that a quick Google search of the film has thrown up some wildly praising reviews from reputable sources. All I know is that I found so much more entertainment in the 20 minute short film (Oh, Lucy!, about an older Japanese woman going to English language class) that preceded Hill than I did in the main feature. And that is not what you want.

You probably don’t know the name Stanley Milgram, but you’ll have heard of his work. He’s best known for experiments he undertook in the early 1960s looking at the way people respond to authority by having people believe they were delivering potentially fatal electric shocks to another person under the direction of an authority figure. While he also undertook a number of other experiments, including one that lead to the development of the idea of “six degrees of separation”, it was his work to understand how people respond to instructions from people in authority that would prove to be his most celebrated, important, and controversial research.
The film manages to pack a lot into a short 90 minute running time, giving a good introduction into Milgram’s life, his work, his family, and his influence in popular culture (there’s even an appearance by an actor playing the most unconvincing William Shatner ever). And it’s never less than fascinating. Peter Sarsgaard, as Milgram, is an engaging presence (even if he has an awful fake-beard in later scenes), and he brings a fascinated passion to his work. And I enjoyed how playful the film was at times; there were points where it would elicit actual laughter out of the audience, with genuine set-up/punchline jokes laughing at human behaviour. Most filmmakers would approach this subject with a degree of solemnity and seriousness, but that would overburden the film; Almereyda treats Milgram's work itself with utmost seriousness, but knows how to use humour and a lightness of touch to prevent the film from self-seriousness and to keep the audience engaged with the material.
But despite my highly positive response to the film (which I really did love), I walked out of it with some definite issues. I was certainly troubled that the film was too much on his side; while ethical questions about his work are mentioned several times, the film is so certain that Milgram was right that the ethical issues are effectively dismissed without ever really engaging with them. And it’s not that I disagree with the film; I think the work he did is genuinely important and gives us a vital understanding of who we are as humans and how we behave. It gives us real insight into the “I was just following orders” mindset, and showed us that this is something within most of us. But I can see the view of those who opposed the experiment; I can recognise that causing someone to believe that they killed someone would inflict a terrible toll on that person, and even if they learn that the other person was unharmed they still need to live with the knowledge that they have it in them to let someone die. That is a terrible burden to have to live with, and I think it raised issues that the film was reluctant to genuinely engage with. Now, it could be that the film was just in the mindset of Milgram, and he was just utterly convinced of his rightness. But it did feel dishonest to the discussions that were taking place at the time.
There are also some weird stylistic approaches taken in the film. Early on in the film, Milgram turns to the audience and addresses us, explaining his work, and that’s a device the film returns to repeatedly. And it works; the breaking the fourth wall approach is used effectively to efficiently give us insight and understanding into his work. But early in the film Milgram is walking down the hallway discussing his work, when an elephant walks around the corner and starts walking behind Milgram. It’s incredibly distracting, and it takes you out of the film right at this key point where he’s explaining that he was inspired to do his work because he wanted to understand how the Holocaust happened. (In case you missed the symbolism, it’s spelled out by the end credits that refer to Minnie the elephant as the “elephant in the room”.) There are also moments where they adopt a deliberately artificial use of rear projection for no obvious reason. We first encounter this in a scene where Milgram and his wife are driving to visit a professor he once worked with; the driving scene looks utterly unconvincing, largely because our characters are in colour and the rear-projected images are in black and white. (This colour foreground/black-and-white backdrop continues through the visit with the professor.) And there are a number of other scenes that are presented using patently artificial rear projection approach for no obvious reason that I could see. So I have no doubt that it was a deliberate choice. And it’s possible that this artificiality is intended to be another element the playfulness of the film that I really loved. But at those moments, I just wasn’t in the film. It would be one thing if this approach were taken throughout the film; if this was just how the film told its story. But because these artificial moments are uncommon in the film, and just seem to appear randomly at odd moments (at times even just being a single insert shot before returning to “reality”), it wound up feeling out of place and every time violently pulled me out of the movie. And that was frustrating, because I was otherwise so connected to what the film was doing that it affected my enjoyment to be taken out of the film.
But I want to be clear: I have criticisms of this film, but I really loved it. It is engaging, it is funny, it is fascinating and thought-provoking and educational and just so much fun. Indeed, the reasons why I find the flaws in the movie to be so frustrating is because I did connect so much with the film. It’s worth seeking out.

When Marnie Was There
I adore the work of Studio Ghibli, the famed Japanese animation studio that was the home of legendary animators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Sadly, following the retirement of Miyazaki, it was announced that the studio was halting production; whether the studio will ever reopen is uncertain at the moment. For all we know, When Marnie Was There could be the final Ghibli movie ever to be made. And while Marnie is not on the level of the studio’s greatest achievements (My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, or Grave of the Fireflies), watching the film was a reminder just how much we will be losing if Ghibli stops working.
Anna, a 12-year-old girl, is sent to a seaside town for the summer after suffering a serious asthma attack. While exploring the area, she finds an abandoned and run-down mansion on the other end of the marsh. Except that sometimes the mansion is in perfect condition, and there seems to be a blonde girl named Marnie living in the mansion. The two girls form a strong bond, but there’s this question of who Marnie really is; when the run-down mansion is purchased by a family with a young daughter, a diary is found that begins to offer answers.
One of the great joys of a Ghibli film is the fact that the studio is still so dedicated to traditional animation. I love Pixar films as much as the next person, but when I look at the current world of CG-animation, I miss that sense of someone just sitting down with a piece of paper and some ink and paint, and creating this incredible world. That’s what you get from even the lesser Ghibli movies; a tactile magic happening, of drawing and art coming alive. It’s impossible to describe how magical this all is; I know exactly how animated movies are made, and yet I’m struck with awe at even the smallest moments. I remember one moment where someone is preparing dinner and cuts a tomato into pieces, and I just watched that scene, a moment that would be utterly unmemorable in any other film, and I thought “I’m going to miss this.” I’m going to miss the perfectly created world; I’m going to miss the careful details in the way the characters move; I’m going to miss... this.
One thing I really am going to miss is the genuine emotional sincerity of Ghibli films. I love the relationships in the film; the subtle strains in the relationship between Anna and her “Aunty”, the sense of the unbreakable bond formed between Anna and Marnie, the heartbreak that forms when Anna thinks she’s lost her friend. Modern animation is so often suffused with superiority or sarcasm or just a general sense of immaturity that it’s easy to lose emotion. So when I was watching Anna telling Marnie how much she loves her, and it felt real and honest, I was struck by how that was a scene you wouldn’t get in any other animated film. Not even Pixar (whose work can hit incredible emotional notes at time) ever quite manages to sustain that purity of emotion throughout their films.
There’s really only one point where the film didn’t work for me. Towards the end of the film, we finally learn the truth about who Marnie is. We get her whole story, and in that instant, everything was explained, including the reason for Anna’s strong connection to Marnie. And I was completely satisfied, both by the reveal itself and by the way the reveal was made. And then five minutes later, another piece of information came in, and Anna suddenly realised why she had this connection with Marnie. And I was surprised, because I genuinely thought the film had established all of this, but it was being played as a big reveal. Now, I realise that as an adult I might be able to put together the pieces faster than younger audience members, and I can understand them feeling the need to spell it all out, but it was so obvious that I had no idea I was ahead of the film. In fact, I’m surprised they flubbed the reveal so much; if they were going to spell out the reveal, that’s fine, but it really needed to happen at the same time as the key information was given, rather than five minutes later. And what I understood to be the reveal was so obvious that I cannot imagine them not realising that a large proportion of the audience will figure it out at that point. I can think of several ways the film could have been tweaked with a very minor rewrite that would keep the entire audience together with the film. But this did not work.
But ultimately, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that, if this is the final film to bear the name of Studio Ghibli, it is a film that absolutely lives up to the quality that the name has come to mean. I don’t want it to end here, I want to be able to carry on seeing that blue screen with an image of Totoro for many years to come, but if this is it, it’s a good end point.

The Wolfpack
A fascinating documentary offering an insight into the bizarre life of a New York family. Oscar and Susanne Angulo live with their six teenage sons and one daughter In a 16th-floor apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Oscar has the only key to the apartment, and has forbidden the rest of the family from leaving. (The only real justification given for this is that it’s a dangerous neighbourhood.) So the children have literally not left the apartment in years. The only real interaction the children have ever had with the outside world is through movies, which they are obsessed with. So obsessed, in fact, that they film their own elaborate remakes of their favourite films (Reservoir Dogs, The Dark Knight, and so on) in their apartment. Then one day, the oldest brother manages to sneak out into the real world, and this experience begins to form cracks that open the children up to real world experiences for the first time.
The thing that’s surprising about the film is just how not-depressing it is. A real-life story about a group of kids who have spent their entire life within the walls of a four-room apartment should be brutal, but instead it’s genuinely enjoyable. Part of that is due to the brothers, who on the whole come across as inventive, thoughtful, and likeable presences. It’s genuinely surprising how well-adjusted these kids actually seem to be. While there are moments where you can see signs of the limited life experiences they’ve had, moments where they perhaps aren’t as good at reading social cues as one might hope, for the most part they seem like people who you could never recognise as having had this bizarre upbringing.
It’s also fortunate that, by the time the film was made, the brothers were already being exposed to the wider world. (I realise it’s also inevitable; if the kids hadn’t been going outside, the filmmaker would never have encountered them, and never would have known there was a story to tell.) This allows the film to avoid a gloomy tone, because when they started telling the story it was already a story that had a perspective of “there is hope; these kids are not just trapped in this apartment forever”.
And for a film festival, it’s always nice to watch a film where people are celebrating their love of films. We see a large number of clips from the remake films, and it’s genuinely impressive to watch just how inventive they are in recreating these famous movie scenes. Whether it be the hand-held chases down corridors, the Halloween party with surprisingly good Michael Myers and Freddy Kruger masks made from paper and tape, or the amusement of watching them restage the bank robbery sequence from the start of The Dark Knight in a tiny bedroom, I never failed to be impressed by their work. They have a full Batman suit made out of old mats and cardboard boxes, and while it may not look like the real thing, I wouldn’t know where to begin in making these things.
One of the things I love about the film festival is the opportunity it offers to get an insight into worlds and stories you might never imagine existing. This story is bizarre and surreal; the fact that it’s all real is genuinely depressing; and yet the way it ends with a real sense of this entire family coming to terms with the reality of the outside world gives the film a joy I never would have anticipated.

A Most Violent Year
Seriously, can someone tell me where on earth Oscar Isaac came from? Looking at his filmography, it seems that he’s been around, doing mostly small roles for the past decade, but no-one really knew who he was. Then, less than two years ago, he blew everyone away in the lead role of Inside Llewyn Davis; since then I’ve loved him in The Two Faces of January, and now A Most Violent Year, I’m looking forward to seeing him in Ex Machina later in the festival, he’s the lead in an upcoming mini-series from David Simon (creator of The Wire), and then at the end of the year he has a main role in Star Wars: Episode VII. All of a sudden, the guy is everywhere, he’s doing great work, and here he’s paired with Jessica Chastain, who similarly seemed to appear out of nowhere a couple of years earlier.
Isaac stars as Abel Morales, the owner of a small-but-growing heating oil company. There’s a lot of corruption and illegal practices in the industry, and Abel isn’t exactly pure, but he’s proud of having built the company honestly. When the film starts, he’s making a major investment, putting a 40 percent deposit on the purchase of a storage facility that will allow his company to grow exponentially. He has 30 days to secure the rest of the financing, or else he loses the property and his deposit. However, his trucks keep being hijacked, the head of the teamsters union wants the truck drivers to be armed, law enforcement are investigating him for various illegal practices, and he’s being subjected to intimidation by his competitors.
I was particularly excited to see this film, having previously been impressed at JC Chandor’s careful control over the difficult thriller All Is Lost. I was not disappointed. A Most Violent Year is an expertly executed thriller; it adopts a strong focus on character, fully aware that the stakes of a thriller don’t matter to an audience if they’re not engaged with the people involved. This means that for much of the film it just takes its time, building tension, escalating frustration, adding pressure, until everything erupts. And there are a number of great action scenes (I loved the bridge hijacking of the truck that turns into a footchase; I was on the edge of my seat as Morales drove blindly down a disused railway tunnel), and Chandor knows exactly how to use those scenes to release the tension he’s been building.
But as brilliant as those action sequences were, when I think about the film, I think about how invested I was in Abel’s desperation and the machinations he had to go through to secure financing; I think of the training scene where he taught his salespeople how to land a sale; I think about the police raid during the birthday party; I think of Abel walking through his darkened home at night looking for an intruder. And I particularly think of the pride that Abel takes in building his business legitimately and doing things the right way, and how this bring him into conflict with everyone, particularly his wife. Oscar Isaac is so strong, so clear in his portrayal of this character, that he just draws the audience in; we can’t help but like this guy. But I also adored every second Jessica Chastain was on screen as Abel’s wife. Her character is the daughter of a gangster, and she gives the character a nice edge; there’s a single-focus determination to do what needs to be done to protect her family, a frustration with her husband for choosing to hold back, and a level of moral flexibility, but she’s never allowed to go into full Lady Macbeth-mode. It’s a very sympathetic performance of a role that many films would have had go over-the-top.
This film really has been one of the highlights of the festival so far. It caught me in its opening sequence, and fully held me until its devastating but inevitable finale. I loved this film.

Last year, one of the highlights of the festival was Boyhood, a brilliant film that told the story of a young boy growing up. One of the hallmarks of the film was its fundamental optimism; things might be tough for the young lead of the film, but there was always a clear sense that it would all work out and he would be okay. Girlhood adopts a very different tone for its storytelling.
A young 16-year-old black French teenager named Marieme, with a mother who’s always at work and a drug-dealing abusive older brother, is disheartened when she learns she’s failed to pass her year at school again, and is being pushed off into vocational training. Instead, she decides to leave education altogether, and starts hanging out as the fourth member in a girl gang. It starts off with thefts and organised fights against girls from other gangs, and she is drawn inevitably into deeper and darker problems.
It’s not a fun film; it’s frustrating and a little bit depressing to watch. But it’s also fascinating to watch. We’ve seen plenty of films about dispossessed and disadvantaged young men entering gangs and the criminal life, but seeing that story told from the point of view of women felt unusual; adding the element of this events taking place in a foreign country with their own traditions made the film feel utterly unique.
Coming away from the film, the main impression it made on me was how impressed I was with Karidja Touré in the lead role. It’s a difficult role, in which she has to fluctuate between vulnerable out-of-her-depth youth and in-control determined master-of-all-she-surveys, and she’s able to navigate the emotional flows of the film expertly. It’s a moving, strong, and sympathetic performance, and I would like to see more from her in future.
There’s one scene that I feel deserves particular mention. Early on in the film, the gang hire a hotel room overnight to party together. They dress up, have some alcohol, and just want to party. And then the Rihanna song “Diamonds” starts, for several minutes, we’re just sitting watching these girls singing and dancing; meanwhile Marieme is sitting back, still new to the group and not quite feeling in place, until she can’t help herself, she gets up and starts dancing. It’s a brilliant sequence, perfectly communicating the bonding and connection she finds in the gang. I’d been watching the film with a degree of scepticism up to that point, wondering what Marieme was finding as part of the gang, but that one joyous moment completely sold me on her integration into the gang; without it, I’m honestly not sure whether the rest of the film would have worked for me.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Walking out of the film, I discovered I’d received a message from a friend. So I messaged him back, explaining that I’d been in a movie, seeing “an American-made black-and-white Iranian vampire film”; he messaged me back to say that the description had made both him and his wife laugh out loud. Afterwards I found myself reflecting that I really hadn’t adequately described the film; it’s really more of an American-made black-and-white Iranian feminist vampire film with a strong modern-day western tone.
Set in an anonymous Iranian ghost town, seemingly known as Bad City, it’s clear something is wrong in this world right from the opening sequence. We watch someone crossing a bridge over a ditch into which some 30 or 40 bodies have been dumped. It’s an eerie image for the audience, even as it’s so commonplace for the on-screen character that he doesn’t even notice the piles of corpses he walks past. We’re introduced into this world through Arash, a young man wanting to leave the city, but held back by his drug-addicted father. Meanwhile, a young woman wanders the streets in the dark, following and observing people, her traditional hajib hiding the modern youth beneath. And when she finds someone that warrants it, the teeth come out and the vampire attacks. One night the vampire meets Arash, at the time high on ecstasy and dressed for a costume party, and a rather sweet, if ominous, love story develops between the two.
There are a lot of very smart decisions made in the film. Firstly there’s the decision to shoot the film with a high-contrast black and white, where the blacks are dark and ominous and the white nearly blinds with the glare. It gives the film a beautiful stark look that emphasises the bleak empty feel of the world. And then they put the vampire into a long flowing hajib, which (a) gives her something that at times can function similarly to the traditional cape of classic vampires, but more importantly (b) turn her into this ominous black shape on-screen, particularly when seen from behind.
And the idea of putting the girl in a hajib is fascinating, because that choice makes a significant political point given the historical place of the vampire. There’s always been a strongly sexual component to the vampire as a monster, which is about giving in to desire, whereas (to my understanding) the hajib and other similar clothing is about preserving a woman’s modesty. The city where the film takes place seems to be strongly Westernised; other than the vampire, the other women wear clothing that would look entirely normal to our eyes. And even the vampire is very westernised; we first see her applying make-up to look her best before dancing in her room, Madonna posters on the wall, and then she hides all of this beneath the hajib. So putting this creature that is the very definition of lust and desire (and the film is definitely playing with eroticism in her portrayal) into clothing that is supposed to hide her away from such attention is to my mind making a very clear statement about a culture that tries to suppress the place of women and hide them away.
And yet, while there’s a real terrifying ferocity to the creature, and her first attack was particularly upsetting, there’s a genuine sweetness to the girl. As much as we may fear for Arash when he first meets the girl, we quickly come to recognise that this is not a relationship between a predator and prey; there’s a honest affection (and more) between the two that humanises the girl; so much so that, at points where it seems like the relationship could be at real risk, we’re in genuine fear for what will happen to the girl if this all comes to an end. We figure Arash could move on and live a perfectly happy life, but this is her one chance for a normal life, and we’re eager for her to have this.
And yet, for all the film is creepy and disturbing and thought-provoking, it’s also playful and genuinely funny, particularly with the cliches of the genre. We’ve all seen movies where the vampire glides effortlessly, barely moving a muscle; this film creates that moment by having the vampire rising down the street on a skateboard, her hajib flowing behind her like the wings of a bat. The scene where the vampire first meets Arash hits multiple laugh-points in a couple of minutes.
I strongly recommend people seek this film out.

It’s a bit difficult to discuss my views of Phoenix, because I feel like my viewpoint may have been heavily influenced by others. I was interested in the film after reading the writeup in the festival programme, which read “[Nina] Hoss plays Nelly, a jazz singer, injured while escaping from a concentration camp. Successful reconstructive surgery has rendered her barely recognisable to her few surviving acquaintances. Despite their warnings, she searches the blitzed city hoping to confront the missing husband who may have betrayed her to the Nazis in the first place. When he fails to recognise her, a bizarre new courtship ensues.” To me, that sounds like an interesting premise for a film, and I was excited to see how it would play out. Having seen the film, the programme’s description of her being “barely recognisable” is definitely overstating it; Nelly doesn’t seem to look completely different to how she originally appeared, so while the husband doesn’t recognise her as being his wife, he does see her as someone who looks a lot like her, and enlists her help to pose as his wife to secure some money that was in her estate, and Nelly decides to play along.
But the thing is, a couple of weeks ago I was listening to my favourite podcast, Battleship Pretension, and one of the hosts of the show (David Bax) discussed seeing Phoenix and had criticisms of the movie that gave me pause at the time. He observed that the film turned on a moment where (a) the husband didn’t recognise his wife, and (b) the wife didn’t say “It’s me!”. Then, for the rest of the film the husband was essentially living with “Nelly”, and suggested that the husband must have eventually realised this woman really was his wife. The entire film therefore seemed to hinge on several instances of wildly unbelievable human behaviour. I was a bit disappointed by these comments, as I find my tastes tend to correlate closely with those of the show’s hosts, but I was still hopeful about enjoying the film.
And then, the other night I ran into my friend Catherine and we discussed our films so far. And she discussed her disappointment with Phoenix, talking about how the film hinged on some people not recognising the woman and other people recognising her, and that contrivances like that don’t usually work in any film outside of a farce. That really worried me; the term “farcical” is seldom used as a positive description.
And then I saw the film, and sure it was well-made technically, and the acting was good, and cinematography was beautiful, and I enjoyed the idea of watching this world trying to get back onto its feet after the destruction of the war. But those criticisms lingered in my mind, and as I pondered them, I started being bothered by other things myself. Why is he not suspicious of this complete stranger, who seemed to know his name before they met? Why does he not question the fact that she can effortlessly and instantly demonstrate a perfect imitation of her handwriting? And seriously, just how good was reconstructive surgery 70 years ago? As David suggested on the podcast, the allegory of his inability to recognise his wife (of a society trying to be wilfully blind to its past actions) may be sound, but that doesn’t matter if the actual plot of the film hasn’t convinced me.
All of which meant, despite the solid filmmaking on the screen, I realised I was just disengaged from the film. Perhaps this is unfair; who knows how I would have felt about the film had my views not been influenced in advance. But that’s what my experience was like, and that’s how I responded.

I walked out of Victoria on such a high. I was exhausted and emotionally drained, sure, but I was also thrilled, excited, in awe of the incredible experience I had just had. I’d been anticipating the film since I’d heard about it, but words cannot contain just how much the film lived up to what I had been expecting. This is an incredible thriller. I’ve really loved a number of films at this festival so far, but this was truly special.
Leaving a Berlin nightclub early in the morning, the titular Victoria meets a charming and cute guy named Sonne, and decides to tag along with him and his friends. They spend the next while wandering the streets, messing around, talking. Eventually Victoria has to leave; she has to work in a couple of hours, and she needs to try and get a bit of rest. But then Sonne nervously approaches her with a request: one of his friends owes a debt to a gangster, now the gangster is demanding he undertake a bank robbery to repay the debt, and Sonne and the other guys are helping, but the getaway driver is too drunk, so is there any chance Victoria could help out as the driver? Victoria is intrigued by the idea; it seems like a bit of excitement for a girl working in a café in a foreign city. And so she does.
Now, the first part of the film, I will confess to being thrown by the film. Because for the first hour or so, it’s just these people walking and talking. And I was thoroughly enjoying it; it was a fun experience wandering the streets of Berlin with these people. But there was a part of my mind that was thinking “did I misunderstand what the film was? I thought this was supposed to be a thriller.” With hindsight, I appreciate that opening act so much more. We’re so used to films that will skip over the getting-to-know-you scenes to get to the good stuff. But a film like this has such an outlandish premise to begin with (what ordinary person would decide to help someone they’ve known for literally one hour to rob a bank?) that it becomes vital to invest the time into the relationship so that we can accept the eventual decision to help these guys out.
The other reason why that slower opening of the film is so essential is because it’s just fun. It’s a lark, it’s all going to be fine. The heist is no more serious than the time they nicked a few bottles of alcohol from the bottle store with the sleeping shop owner. That easy-going tone is vital so that holy shit that guy has a gun we’re fucked how the hell are we going to get out of this? Without that first hour, we might get to the action sooner, but it feels like some of the key impact moments, that sense of a situation suddenly spiralling out of control, would be lost.
This is a brilliant thriller, one that I would happily, eagerly, joyously encourage anyone to see. But there’s something unusual about the film that pushes it from just being one-of-the-best-thrillers-of-the-year to being a film that may possibly have a genuine claim to greatness. Because the key thing about the film is that it is shot in one single take, with no fakery, no disguised cuts. Just one camera that started recording, and was finally turned off 135 minutes later. It’s a real achievement, both on the part of the camera operator (there’s a reason why “Kamera” is the first on-screen credit at the end of the film), and logistically. This is a major exercise; there are hundreds of extras, a dozen different locations (some real, some constructed for the film) all across the city, action sequences and gunfights. This is a big film, and the sheer high-wire act involved in trying to execute it all seamlessly just seems genuinely impossible. And yet it all works out perfectly.
But what struck me watching the film is that there’s something much more impressive about making a film like this in a single take than just the sheer logistical exercise involved. A thriller in particular really depends on its sense of pacing; it can seriously damage a film if a scene, which probably read perfectly on the page, proves in execution to throw off the pacing of the film. In an ordinary film, that’s not a problem; a bit of editing or a minor reshoot can work wonders for a film. But shooting in one take denies the filmmaker the ability to implement any tweaks, to cut a line and tighten up the pacing. The film basically has to be fully and perfectly edited in the filmmaker’s mind long before filming begins. Which it apparently was, because from the time it hits you just how bad this situation has become until the film ends, it always feels like perfectly paced.
And the really great thing is that there are legitimate creative reasons for the one-take approach; it’s not just about showing off. By filming the entire thing in one take, it prevents the film from ever releasing you. Editing is the one element that is entirely unique to cinema; and that moment when they cut from one shot to another becomes something of a release; as an audience we’re unconsciously waiting for the next cut. But what if the cut never comes; what if the shot just goes on and on and you think that there must surely have been a cut somewhere because we were in an underground nightclub and then we were climbing those impossibly narrow stairs to the roof and no-one could walk up those stairs while carrying a camera and then somehow we were in a car driving across Berlin and now we’re running around an apartment block with guns firing and your mind starts to play tricks on you and tell you that there was a cut because you need it to have been there because otherwise it’s just this neverending experience and how uncomfortable is that for the audience to feel like you’re being pulled along in the way that Victoria was caught up in the excitement of going on this adventure and never having the chance to stop and pause and think about it and now the world is falling down on her and who can believe how much her life has changed in what we definitely know to have been just a couple of hours because there hasn’t been a single damned cut in this entire bloody movie and I just want people to have the chance to see and appreciate the greatness of this incredible movie.

While We're Young
I think I first realised that the film probably wasn’t going to work for me during the black screen that opened the film. It’s a common thing for a movie to open with a cultural quote that is relevant to the themes of the film. Here, it’s a quote from Ibsen’s The Master Builder; a dialogue, in fact, between two characters about how one has become afraid of the younger generation.
And then the screen goes black, and then the next lines of dialogue between the two appear on screen.
And then the screen goes black, and then the next lines of dialogue between the two appear on screen.
And then the screen goes black, and then the next lines of dialogue between the two appear on screen.
And then the screen goes black, and then the next lines of dialogue between the two appear on screen.
That is a thematic introductory quote that requires five different screens to get the point across. I’m fine with movies quoting Ibsen, but this just felt pretentious, and it irritated me so much.
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a middle-aged couple with no kids; she’s had miscarriages, and at this point they don’t want to go through that. So they just live their life together, happy knowing that they’re not tied down and that at any time they could just move to Paris if they wanted (even though they never do). Then one day, they meet a younger 20-something couple, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, and become inseparable friends. Driver’s character admires Stiller’s work as a documentary filmmaker, and they decide to work together on a project, but the more Stiller sees of Driver the more he comes to dislike what he sees.
Firstly, it’s not a good thing if, by the end of literally the first scene of the movie, I’ve already identified the lead characters’ problem and asked myself why they follow the most obvious solution to that problem. And we go through the entire film, and then end with the characters reaching the exact same conclusion that I reached after two minutes. That’s not a promising start for your film.
Secondly, the younger couple (particularly Driver) were so intolerable that I simply did not understand why the older couple were so keen to spend time with them. These were not just hipsters; these were people who had given in to every hipster pretension imaginable, up to and including a prized collection of VHS tapes! Sure, it’s partly a desire on the part of the middle-aged couple to cling onto their youth, and the fact that Driver has this admiration of Stiller probably helps (because it feels good to be around someone who admires your work), but still, they were so awful to be around that I had lost any belief in the reality of the relationship long before they attended the ceremony where they drank the juice of a South American root and then had a shaman chant over them while they throw up.
And the film seems to want to be about a million different subjects at the one time, without ever actually exploring them. So it’s about the desire to hold on to your youth as you get older, and it’s about being the only people without kids in your circle of friends. But it’s also about a superficial inter-generational cultural appropriation, it’s about an increasingly media-savvy culture that feels the need to record every moment rather than living and that is acutely aware of how it is presenting itself, it’s about documentary ethics and a world with no interest in actual truth. But it never seems to actually have anything to say, which is highlighted by a climactic moment where Ben Stiller has to deliver a big long badly written monologue that baldly states the themes of the film, and he comes across like a madman jumping around from idea or idea without ever reaching a point of coherence because the film doesn’t know what it’s saying.
It’s frustrating. I like all of the performers (including Charles Grodin, who I was surprised to see turn up, since I thought he had retired nearly 20 years ago), and they are excellent here. And the film did make me laugh at times. But most of the comedy is broad and ridiculous, to the point that it undid what little realism the film created. Add to that the confusion of see-what-sticks ideas the film keeps throwing out, and it just ended up as a mess. I walked out of the cinema at the end amazed at how much I had hated the experience. I have a lot that I could write about the film, but just sitting here thinking about it is making me angry, and I’m not enjoying it. So I’m just going to finish this sentence, and then be done with this movie.

The Misfits
One thing I love about the festival is that it will often offer me the opportunity to watch a classic movie that I’ve never seen before, and to be able to enjoy it on the big screen. This was my first time seeing The Misfits, which has the final performances of two screen legends, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and also has some greatly entertaining turns from Thelma Ritter and Eli Wallach.
Out one night at a bar to mark her divorce, Monroe and her friend Ritter meet an older cowboy, played by Gable, as well as a local mechanic, Wallach. Wallach has a half-built house in the country, and they decide to go out there to get away from it all. Eventually Monroe and Gable move in together into the house and start to work on it. They enjoy their life of isolation together, the wide expanse of outdoors and all that it offers. But the relationship is tested when Wallach comes bearing news of a group of mustangs roaming nearby, and Monroe is horrified to learn that they’re catching the horses to sell for pet food.
The performances by Monroe and Gable are good; both are playing parts that fit their typical onscreen characters, and they play them well. But the real highlight of the film were the supporting performances. I always enjoy it when I see Thelma Ritter; she can always be relied on for a nice acidic comedic performance, and here she was a true delight as a woman who got divorced years ago, hasn’t looked back, and now takes positive delight in helping others through their divorces. Her dialogue is sharp and quick and funny, and it’s a disappointment when she just leaves the film halfway through. Fortunately, Eli Wallach remains throughout the film. Wallach plays a guy who lost his wife in childbirth and has felt adrift ever since, and his hopes for a relationship with Monroe are dashed when she is drawn towards his older friend. I just enjoyed watching Wallach, his friendly genial presence constantly hopeful for a split between the two for him to take advantage of.
One thing I particularly enjoyed was the film’s exploration of a culture that romanticises the old west, of living outdoors on the land, but that refuses to acknowledge the harsh realities of the lifestyle. It may be nice to go horse-back riding across the plains, or to go swimming in a lake that’s miles away from anywhere else, but sometimes you have to be willing to kill a rabbit if you want to stop it from eating your garden. And it goes further than that, discussing how the passage of time can render people obsolete; Gable delivers a great speech early in the third act where he defends catching the mustangs for food, pointing out that he’s just doing what he always did to allow him to live the life he wants, and how the horses were once caught for riding, and he’s not responsible for a culture that treats these animals as dog food.
I really enjoyed this. It’s not a perfect film – the third act in particular could have been tightened up a bit, as the mustang rustling, while fascinating to watch and see how they would catch these horses, did go on a little long – but it was a genuine delight to see.

The Assassin
I ran into a friend after the screening of The Assassin, and I mentioned that I had just seen the film. “Oh,” she said. “Everyone I know who saw that said it was shit.” And oh, the relief, to know I wasn’t the only one.
During the 9th century, China is divided up into a number of different provinces, the largest of which is Weibo. There’s unease between Weibo and the Imperial Court, and a female assassin has been sent to kill the governor of Weibo. Unfortunately, the assassin happens to be the governor’s cousin, and someone who was once been promised in marriage to him.
You’d think that a film about a 9th century assassin would be exciting, full of action setpieces. This film has maybe five or six action scenes, which would be a reasonable number were it not for the fact that by my reckoning only one of those scenes lasts for more than 30 seconds. The action when it comes is definitely fun, sure, but it’s almost always over so fast that you don’t get a chance to enjoy it. In fact there are points where the film almost takes a perverse delight in not showing us the action. In one scene, the assassin finds someone who has been attacked by someone else; the guards find her and attack, thinking she is the culprit; we get a few seconds of the fight, then cut to a prolonged shot of the recovering victim being comforted by someone else with the sound of an off-screen fight going on; when we finally do get to see the end of that fight, it’s over in a matter of 10 seconds.
The rest of the film is just slow. So slow. So many shots of people sitting still, of people having pins put in their hair, of people just walking. There are points where I’m sure the film goes a good five minutes without a single character actually speaking. At one point, I’d become so used to just watching the screen that I actually missed a short scene of dialogue because I’d forgotten that I needed to read the subtitles. That is not an exaggeration; that literally happened. The film seems to confuse a lack of events for a contemplative tone, and slow pacing for profundity. It’s not; all it did was cause me to completely disengage from the movie. To be clear, it’s not that I object to slow films. Slow films can be fascinating and enthralling. Hell, my favourite film has a 20 minute dialogue-free sequence of the main character driving around following another person. You just need to feel that the film is going somewhere with its leisurely pace, that there’s a purpose in the storytelling. And I do not think that was happening with The Assassin.
I’ll be generous here, and complement the film on one point: it has great cinematography. Whether we’re watching someone having their hair arranged, or just watching one of the many, many shots of empty nature, it’s never less than beautiful. And there are moments that did actually stick with me; there’s one shot of a lake with the mists circling around the waters that I actually loved. But I need more than that. I need characters, I need story, I need a sense that people are engaged with the life-and-death situation they find themselves in. I did not get that with this film.

Ex Machina
The great thing about the film festival is the fact that, if you do see a film that you hate, there’s another film coming soon after that you might like more. So after the depression and frustration of enduring The Assassin, I was glad to see and engage with a film as good as Ex Machina.
Domhnall Gleeson plays a computer programmer who is given the opportunity to work with one of the world’s top technology figures on a secret project at a secure and isolated research facility. It turns out that this genius (played by Oscar Isaac) has developed an artificial intelligence, and he wants Gleeson to test the intelligence. He wants to know whether this AI he’s developed is so good that Gleeson can forget that he’s dealing with a computer. And so Gleeson sits down and starts his sessions with Ava (played incredibly by Alicia Vikander), and there’s flirtation and a definite sexual tension in their relationship, but things start to go wrong when Ava tells Gleeson that Isaac cannot be trusted.
The film is essentially a three-header between Gleeson, Isaac, and Vikander, and all are doing remarkable work. Isaac is smug and proud; his character was a young genius, he’s been a billionaire since a teenager, and he has an arrogance to him that is been untempered by interactions with other people. It’s there in the way he can just casually reference and joke about the colossal intrusions on privacy that he’s implemented in pursuit of his goals. He’s someone who is superficially charming and friendly, but there are clear indications from early on just how much of an effort these interactions are; there’s a really possibility that he’s been driven mad by his isolation. Meanwhile, Gleeson gives a vulnerable, pained performance; as someone who has been alone for much of his life, he’s likable but distant, carrying an intense pain that translates into the way he treats others.
But the film’s true star is Alicia Vikander. Her performance of the AI Ava is a true marvel, and genuinely unsettling. She fully convinces as someone who is right at the midpoint of convincing real emotions and completely alien precision. You’re probably familiar with the concept of the uncanny valley, where the closer something artificial comes to looking like a real human the more uncomfortable it becomes, because we’re increasingly aware of all the micro-differences that evidence their artifice. The closest I can come to describing her performance is to say that Vikander manages to sit in the middle of an emotional uncanny valley. And it works, exceptionally well.
Perhaps inevitably, given the fact that the entire premise of the film is focused on the humanity or otherwise of a character, it’s a strongly character-based thriller. And while the film takes a huge number of twists and turns throughout its story, it never really shocked me. And that’s a good thing. Often the word “predictable” is thrown around as a criticism, as though every twist and turn of the tale should leave us stunned and reeling. But that predictability was something I actually appreciated about the film; it was a mark of how well constructed the film actually was. There was never any contrivance in the plotting. Where I predicted particular plot developments, it’s because the film actually set up those developments and establishes clear motivation in the characters that inevitably leads to that action. And even where the film did surprise me with a sudden reveal or moment that I didn’t expect, I always found it satisfying because “of course that person would do that”.
And the film uses its setup and premise for some interesting questions. There’s obviously the obvious issues about what makes us human, how our behaviour is influenced by our own programming, there’s a lot of stuff about our willingness to be surveilled without even thinking about it. It’s all in there, and it’s all really interesting. But the a lot of that is stuff I’ve seen elsewhere. The thing I found really interesting, and that I found myself reflecting on after the movie, is, how to put it... As a culture, I think we’ve just accepted that, when we do eventually get fully humanoid robots, we’re going to have sex with them; that’s just a given, because with all new technology the first thing that happens is that someone find a way to use it to enjoy themselves. We’ve all heard the term sexbots, and we’ve all seen them portrayed in movies, be it the pleasure model Pris in Blade Runner, Gigolo Joe in AI, or even the machine that relieves Robert Duvall in THX-1138. It’s just a thing that will happen. The film is certainly aware of Ava as a sexually-alluring being, despite the fact that the only actual “flesh” she has is on her face and her hands. (Just look at the poster to see how sexualised the character really is.) And yet I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film that ever grapples with the reality of that, and that taps into our own attitudes to technology. It asks questions about consent and free will; if we did have a machine that has full consciousness, awareness, and emotional complexity, but that can be manipulated by programming into “choosing” to do or accept something, is that okay? Are we just comfortable with it because “it’s not really human”. Which is not to say that this is a “let’s watch him getting it on with a robot!” film. It’s not. But it’s a definite element in the film, whether in the discussion where Gleeson asks Isaac why he gave a Ava a gender, or it’s in the way Ava tries to hide her robotic elements to make herself prettier for Gleeson, or the way that Ava appears to be attracted to Gleeson, and definitely recognises Gleeson’s attraction to her.
All I can say is, Ex Machina just blew me away. It’s beautiful, it’s intense, it’s exciting, it’s interesting and thoughtful, and it has one hell of an ending. I loved it.

The End of the Tour
The real test of a film about a real person is whether someone could approach the film without any knowledge of the key figure, and walk away with an appreciation of the person, or at the very least an understanding of why the film needed to be made. I've never read any of David Foster Wallace 's work, but after the film, I'm seriously considering digging into his work. (Although I might start with something lighter than his 1000-page landmark work Infinite Jest.)
Following the publication of Infinite Jest and the rapturous critical praise it attracted, author David Lipsky convinced Rolling Stone Magazine to let him write a portrait of Wallace. This leads him to go with Wallace on the last leg of his promotional book tour, spending five days with the author.
There's no big overarching plot to the film, no great mystery to the film. It's basically two people talking for nearly two hours. My assumption is that the dialogue is mostly taken from the transcripts of the actual conversations (at least, I hope it is). Which means that the people talking are smart and thoughtful and engaged, and fascinating to listen to. They discuss life, love, their insecurities, passions, and fears. They discuss creativity, sex, and what it's like to be a rock-star author. They discuss Wallace's depression, alcoholism, and addiction to television. They watch dumb movies and classic movies, eat bad food, and get so angry they can barely look at each other. And all through it, the film is just this great story of guys bonding. For all that the cinematic and cultural landscape is filed with "white guy stories", it's rare to get a story like this, where guys just sit and talk honestly with each other and come out with a genuine love for each other. And it was a true joy to watch.
Jesse Eisenberg, as Lipsky, is enjoyable to watch, but Jason Segal’s performance as David Foster Wallace is a career-making turn. I’ve admired Segal ever since he starred on Freaks and Geeks over 15 years ago (and it was nice when the film had a short reunion of Segal with fellow F&G alumni Becky Ann Baker), and he’s always been an actor with exceptional comic ability and a fearless willingness to go where a performance needs to go. But I never expected this from him. Wallace was certainly a very funny person (at least, that’s my understanding of his work), and Segal knows how to do funny. But he’s also called on to be vulnerable, to be pained and hurt and angry, combative and insecure. And the fact of Wallace’s depression and suicide hangs over the film; the movie opens with Lipsky hearing the news, and from there flashes back to the events of the interview, so every moment where the film delves into this area becomes a moment of bleakness. And Segal knows how to play it; the film takes place in a period where Wallace seems to have been in a good space, but when the topic comes up Segal manages to play the defensiveness , his pain at the knowledge of his weakness, and his fear at this blackness that he knows could come on him at any moment. It’s an extremely sympathetic and real performance, and I’m hopeful that this film will open Segal’s career up to new and wider types of characters.
The End of the Tour is a small, intimate film, and one that could easily go overlooked. Don’t let it. It’s a very human film, honest and moving. Wonderful.

Kiss Me Kate
In 1948 Cole Porter premiered his new stage musical, a comedy based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. The show was a massive success, and won a Tony award for Best Musical. In an era of major movie musicals, it was inevitable that a big-screen adaptation would arrive five years later.
The plot: Fred Graham (played by Howard Keel) has been cast in the role of Petruchio on Cole Porter’s new musical adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. Fred thinks his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) would be perfect for the role of Katherine, and he invites her to meet Cole Porter (played by someone who isn’t Cole Porter) and to hear the songs to try to convince her to play the part. The evening does not go well, especially when the young, attractive, and exuberant Lois Lane (Ann Miller), who has been cast as Bianca and who Fred has been pursuing, turns up. Nevertheless, Lilli takes on the role. Events on the opening night of the show turn farcical when a misdirected bunch of flowers causes Lilli to believe Fred is still in love with her, and a couple of gangsters turn up to muscle Fred mistakenly believing him to owe the local mob boss a lot of money.
Firstly, it has to be mentioned: you’ll be shocked to hear that a 1950s movie inspired by The Taming of the Shrew has gender politics that are questionable in today’s world. I tend to try to be accommodating to films in such areas, recognising that a film is a product of its time and can offer value even if certain elements are dated; in fact it annoys me whenever I’m watching a classic film and people are offended by or laugh at a film simply because it portrays attitudes that are no longer prevalent. Even so, I was extremely uncomfortable by parts of this movie. There is a scene in the film where Fred grabs Lilli, puts this grown woman over his knee, and spanks her, angrily, repeatedly, and hard. So hard, in fact, that it’s a running joke throughout the rest of the film that Lilli cannot sit down because she’s in such pain. And the whole thing is played for laughs; indeed, the spanking is even used as the main image for the movie’s poster, as an example of the fun hijinks in the film. I hate to be that guy, but even for the era, wow.
Beyond that, the film is fine. It’s a fairly typical example of the big-budget stage-to-screen musical spectaculars of the era, and while it’s not bad, it’s also not a particularly memorable instance of that type of film. The interworking of the backstage drama and the onstage production was something I did not expect to see in a film of this era, but I don’t know that they quite managed to make the two mesh terribly well; some early sequences where we just watch the show play out didn’t work for me because it felt too disengaged from the back-stage drama we were invested in. The performers are strong; Ann Miller in particular is spectacular, bringing a shameless energy and verve to her performance that constantly drew the attention. The dancing is good, and the songs (save one) are good but nothing memorable. The one exception is the song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, which is a genuinely brilliant and entertaining comedic song (and worth seeking out). But even there, something seemed odd about the song; it’s sung by the two gangsters for no real reason as they leave the film. It made so much more sense when I read that in the original version it’s performed when the gangsters accidentally end up on stage.
What really makes the film distinctive is the fact that it was shot in 3D. The film is very aware of this fact, and seems to take great delight in throwing things at the screen. (Indeed, in her first song, Ann Miller arrives seemingly overburdened with excess scarves, gloves, and jewellery for the sole purpose of having things to throw at the camera during the performance.) But that show-off element is always the least interesting part about the use of 3D. The real advantage of 3D in a film like this is that it gives a real sense of space. Dancing isn’t just about fancy footwork; it’s about the way the body moves and interact with the space around. And that worked so, so well, and it gives the songs and dances in the film a particular edge and advantage that most other musicals of the era don’t have.
The final moment of the film is also fascinating to watch, to be reminded of how primitive the 3D technology really was in that era, and how poorly implemented 3D can actually hurt to look at. 3D is certainly a challenge to work with, even today, but at least if you’re filming something in reality, you should be able to get something that vaguely approximates the necessary 3D effect; you shouldn’t have any objects dimensionally out-of-place. But the final moment of the film is a shot from the back of the full theatre applauding the performers at the end of the Shrew musical, and it’s done as a trick shot, taking a shot of the stage set and laying it over the top of a shot of a full theatre. It’s a basic effect shot that had been done thousands of times by this point in time, but clearly not a shot that had been perfected in 3D. The end result is a shot where the stage seems to float, literally in mid-air, unconnected to anything that surrounded it. It’s a deeply unsettling experience, since it’s an image that the brain simply cannot process or make sense of. (In the end, I had to close one eye for the final seconds of the shot, just to turn it into a tolerable 2D image that I could stand to look at.)
Despite that unfortunate last moment, if you can get a chance to see the film in 3D, do so; it really is worth seeing in the format. If you can only see it in 2D, then it really depends on how you feel about 1950s movie musicals. It’s by no means essential, but there is definite entertainment to be found.

Inherent Vice
Inherent Vice was easily my most anticipated movie of the festival. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most important filmmakers working today, and it was a bitter disappointment to me when it became clear earlier in the year that his newest film was not going to get a cinema release. I was therefore thrilled when it was announced as part of the festival schedule, and it did not disappoint. I am aware that the film is very divisive; some people really connect to it, while others cannot bear it. But for me, it was a real joy.
Joaquin Pheonix stars as “Doc”, a dopehead private investigator working out of an LA medical centre in 1970. One night he’s approached by his ex-girlfriend, who tells him that she’s been having an affair with a married property developer, and that she has been approached by the property developer’s wife and her lover to help the two of them get the developer into the looney bin. Doc is then given a second case, to find a member of the Aryan Brotherhood who’s now working as a bodyguard for the developer, but during his investigations he’s knocked unconscious and awakes to find himself surrounded by police and lying next to the dead bodyguard. He then learns that his ex has gone missing, as has the developer. Meanwhile he’s also hired to try and find a dead saxophonist who may not be dead. And his investigations also bring him into contact with an organisation that is either an international drug smuggling organisation or an investment fund for dentists. And all through this, he’s continually dealing with, and being beaten up by, a detective who takes pride in civil rights violations and who hates hippies but plays one in television adverts for the developer’s properties. Also, all of this setup takes place in the first half-hour of a 2½ hour movie.
Everyone talks about how confusing the film is. And so I sat down, determined to understand the film. I will know what’s going on! I think I made it about an hour into the film before surrendering and just going with the movie. This is not a film that cares about plot. It actively disregards plot. Major mysteries are resolved with barely a shrug, with no explanation. There’s very little connective tissue here. Doc just goes where he will and is often surprised to realise he’s stumbled over something or someone of relevance to his investigation. The film is much, much more interested in its characters, its setting, and its comedy, than its plotting. I’ll be interested in rewatching and rewatching the film on Blu-ray, and trying to piece everything together for myself, but for a first viewing, it’s much better to let the experience wash over you. And frankly, that’s the way it should be. After all, this is essentially a take on the noir genre; the detective drawn by a dame he can’t resist into a puzzle of corruption and greed. And those stories always had an absurdly complex plot (rather famously, The Big Sleep has one murder where even the story’s author Raymond Chandler didn’t know who the killer was), so why should this be any different?
What is different is the wildly varying tone of this film. There are moments of incredible drama, where you’re completely swept up in the pain and the brokenness of these characters and their lives, but for the most part it’s a comedy. And what a comedy. There’s the knockabout slapstick; there’s sharp and witty wordplay; there’s rich character-based comedy; and there’s a schoolboy’s giggling immature amusement at innuendo. Basically, think of a style of comedy, and it’s probably been mashed into the film. This film includes scenes as moving and mournful as anything I’ve seen, and it also includes one of the most absurd and insane performances imaginable. It’s like the entire tone of the film is a high-wire act where the wire itself is swinging back and forth, and Anderson does not fall off. It’s a positive miracle to watch.
For most of the cast (with one significant exception), he makes a fascinating choice, putting the big comedic roles in the hands of serious actors, and putting talented comedians in small serious roles. And one of the reasons why the film does work is the commitment of the actors to the film and a complete willingness to go along with whatever was needed for the film. We already knew Joaquin Phoenix will do whatever Anderson asks of him; he already proved that in his work on The Master. But still, his work here is so good, playing every ounce of confusion, desperation, excitement, and what-the-f bewilderment at every development. (It’s also an amusing performance to put in the lead of a complicated thriller, since the character is naturally a very low-key mumbler, which means that all of the significant information is put in the mouth of a man who’s only coherent about a third of the time.) Or you get Josh Bolin being consistently and utterly hilarious as this abusive police detective who’s extremely proud of his record, but who really just wants to be an actor. And he’s brilliant; there’s a scene where he’s eating a frozen banana and he starts gagging as he absent-mindedly deep-throats the thing; it’s the most immature, dumbest joke in the entire film, and it’s also one of the funniest jokes because Brolin sells the joke perfectly. Meanwhile you look at the pure comedians he casts (people like Maya Rudolph or Timothy Simons), they’re either in very straight roles or very small, nothing roles; he knows he doesn’t need to waste them on the big comedy roles, since he can use them to punch up the humour in scenes and characters that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Now, there is an exception to Anderson’s against-type casting approach. There’s one character in particular, a dentist, who is played by a very significant recognisable comedic figure. When he appears on-screen, there was a laugh of recognition from my audience, clearly wondering where this would go. And it was fascinating, because having made the choice to tamp down the performances of all of the other comedians, he then gives the biggest most insane role to the biggest most insane performer you can imagine, and then gets that performer to go as big and as insane as possible. This film should not work with this performance; instead that character’s scenes prove to be one of the highlights of the movie.
The one area where there really isn’t much comedy is in anything surrounding the character of the ex-girlfriend Shasta. And that makes sense; there’s a real sense that Shasta is the only person Doc really cares about, and so she’s the only person the film is unwilling to ridicule. Katherine Waterson is enchanting in the role, and I’m excited to see where she goes next. She’s playing the closest thing in the film to the classic femme fatale character that’s in every noir, but it’s a fascinating take on it; the traditional femme fatale is confident and in control, but her performance as Shasta is much sadder, mournful, and broken, and while she’s aware of her effect on Doc and she takes advantage of that, there’s no enjoyment in it. She also has the best scene in the film, and when I think about that scene I feel haunted just by the tone of her voice as she delivers that monologue.
My friend Ethan compared the film to The Big Lebowski, and that’s not a bad comparison. Myself, I’d compare it to Robert Altman’s work on The Long Goodbye (and we all know what an admirer of Altman’s work Anderson is) if Elliot Gould weren’t playing such a square. But regardless of your cultural touchstone for this type of work, it is a type of film that does not get made these days. I won’t promise that you’ll like it; many, many people don’t. But I will promise that the film is special.

Alice Cares
An extremely crowd-pleasing documentary. Researchers in the Netherlands are running a pilot programme involving Alice, a 60 cm tall care robot with a human-style face and a robotic body, which is given to three different women in their 80s. The robot can’t really do anything for the women; indeed, there’s no evidence that its arms and legs serve any practical function. It’s also too small to do anything, but that’s a conscious choice, since a full human-sized robot might seem threatening, whereas Alice in both her size and her facial features seems more like a child. But when we meet each of the women, they discuss their loneliness, how they seldom have visitors, how they can go long stretches without speaking to anyone. And that’s the main function Alice serves: to just be company for these women.
It’s quite fascinating to watch these women develop their relationships with their Alice. My favourite story followed one woman who started out saying that she didn’t really want to interact with a robot, preferring to talk to a real person, but who slowly seemed to become quite fond of Alice, even taking the robot out for coffee. Another woman seems to throw herself wholeheartedly into the relationship with the robot, who helps her keep track of her exercises and who will watch football with her. The third woman starts off quite positively at first, but seems to quickly become disillusioned by the technology and frustrated with its faults, the way it can sometimes be slow to respond; it’s only at the end when Alice suggests that she could sing for the woman (and by singing, I mean that she plays pre-existing recordings from various artists, both male and female) that any sign of connection or affection is shown.
Much of the film’s enjoyment comes from the women and their fascination with Alice. There’s never-ending amusement at the fact that Alice cannot eat cookies or drink coffee, and there’s genuine delight whenever Alice makes comments that seem like an actual joke. The film’s best moment comes when Alice asks if one woman wants to watch football with her. When we next see the two together, they’re watching the game; Alice with a garland of orange flowers in her hair to match the team’s colours, dispassionately saying “Go, Holland, go”, and observing “2-2” when a goal is scored. In some ways, it’s an absurd image, and yet there’s a real affection evident in the way the woman and her robot interact.
The surprising thing to me was how much I came to care about the Alices. I genuinely wanted them to engage with the women, and found myself frustrated when an Alice would take too long to respond, or when the women would just lose interest or become frustrated with the experience. It’s surprising how well the technology works and how effective the Alice robot is, even though it’s all still very primitive. And when the pilot ended, and they came to collect the Alices, I was surprised at how sad the women seemed to be to be saying Goodbye, and how poignant those moments seemed to be. All in all, it offers some fascinating glimpses into what may become commonplace reality for us all in the future. I don’t imagine the documentary will be easy to access outside of the festival, but if you do ever have a chance to see it, it’s definitely worth your 80 minutes.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
The opening screen in this marvellously-titled movie tells us this is the final part in a trilogy of human existence. I’ve not seen the first film, Songs from the Second Floor, but I had seen You, the Living back in 2009. I barely remembered any details about it, merely a few vague images and the fact that it was basically just a bunch of small vignettes, small scenes simply staged to great comedic effect. After watching Pigeon, I’ve decided I really need to seek out the earliest film, and revisit the follow-up.
The film opens with a title card promising three scenes of people meeting death. Even that is a lie, since only two of the scenes actually feature death, and only in one do we see the person meeting death. First we watch someone struggle to open a bottle of wine until his heart gives out and he dies while his wife works in the kitchen unaware of what has happened; next we watch as a son comes into the hospital room of his near-dead (but still-alive) mother and begins fighting with her to take her handbag that contains all of her jewellery; finally, we find a scene in a ship’s cafeteria, the captain looking down at the already-dead body trying to decide what to do with the meal the dead man has already paid for. And I laughed. I laughed so, so much.
Following these introductory scenes, we move onto the substance of the film. Taking place in a washed-out grey-brown coloured world, filled with people that look like cadavers, we watch as each individual scene plays out. Some scenes feature recurring characters; others feature people who just appear once (like the girl who tells the poem that gives the film its title). Slowly we come to realise that our main characters are two salesmen down on their luck. They sell entertainment, novelty toys, because they want to make people happy. Specifically, they sell vampire teeth, with extra-long fangs; they sell a bag of laughter, with a tinny-sounding speaker making an awful laughter sound; they sell something they’re quite optimistic about, a mask called Uncle One-Tooth, which is the most nightmarish image you can imagine (one woman screams and runs out of the room when she see it). They are the two most miserable people you can imagine. And they become our guides through this world.
There are small scenes that play out and then leave. There are unexpected flashbacks to 70 years earlier. There are recurring jokes, like the repeated demonstrations of the salesmen’s wares, or the reminders to be quiet because people have to work early, or how the Battle Hymn of the Republic becomes the basic tune for most songs in this world. Occasionally there will be laughs of recognition; the man who is surprised to discover it’s Wednesday because it felt like a Thursday, only to be told off because you can’t tell feel what day it is, you need to keep track of that. But mostly the film is outside of our common experience, even though it all feels recognisably human. There’s weird absurdist sketches; the film may take place in a modern world, but suddenly Charles XII will ride into a bar on a horse on his way to war with Russia, demanding the women all leave and ordering another patron to be whipped, before trying to pick up the bartender, while literally hundreds of troops march past the window.
I cannot articulate why any of this is funny. I genuinely do not know how it works. There’s seldom anything obviously comedic about anything going on; if anything, it’s usually rather melancholic and depressing. And yet this film hit such a perfect note of hilarity that there were times where I became light-headed from laughing too much.
One thing I do appreciate is the precision Andersson brings to his staging. His style is to never move the camera, not one inch, in a scene. So every shot is set up precisely to give you all of the information you need. So when you’re watching the man make a call to check if he had the wrong date for the dinner appointment, we’re also supposed to be watching through the windows into the restaurant where a silent drama is playing out between the love-struck dance instructor and the object of her affections. You wind up searching the image, looking for every detail in the image, hoping to not overlook some great drama or some weird joke. But it also has the effect of distancing the audience; we’re not able to be part of the dramas playing out in front on us, we’re just observers of humanity.
In the last half hour, the tone changes; it becomes noticeably less funny, sadder, more contemplative. This film that for the first hour had more laughs than any other comedy this decade was suddenly sombre, mournful. It culminated in a scene (that I don’t want to spoil) where horrific things are happening and we know what they are, and they’re actually happening within the framing of the image, but we can’t see them because the image and the sounds are being blocked by an object that fills the screen. It turns out this scene was probably/possibly a dream by one character, and he’s incredibly burdened by the image. The film seems to be speaking to a kind of psychic pain, perhaps that we all as humanity are weighed down by our knowledge of the cruelty that humans have shown to other humans. And then, having raised that matter, it’s time for a few more quick jokes to end on a high note, and the movie’s over. I can’t speak to how this type of ending fits in with the other films in the trilogy, although I do seem to remember that You, the Living had a much more optimistic and hopeful ending. But that makes sense. If this is the end of a trilogy about living, and the film starts with death, it has to end with the pain of mortality and the burdens of our shared humanity.
I know this probably doesn’t sound appealing. It certainly doesn’t sound fun, especially when I say that the film makes me think about man’s inhumanity to man. All I can say is, this is a funny film; maybe not towards the end, but for most of its runtime, it’s constantly and consistently laugh-out-loud hilarious. This is absurd, surreal, mad comedy that made me laugh more than anything else I’ve seen in years. It is a unique experience, and one that I treasured having.

The Tribe
Back when Mel Gibson was making The Passion of the Christ, it was revealed that he did not intend for that film (which had its entire dialogue in ancient Aramaic and Latin) to have subtitles. He was trying to make the film work without the need to know exactly what was being said. In the end, that didn’t eventuate; the film was released subtitled, and while I could always turn the subtitle track off at home, I’ve never quite been able to bring myself to revisit the move. But it was for that reason that I was curious about The Tribe, an entire film told in Ukrainian Sign Language and where the director has insisted that the film not be subtitled. Just how easy would it be to follow the film where you have literally no way to comprehend what is being said?
The film focuses on Serhiy (or so the end credits tell me), a young man who at the start of the film is arriving at his new school, a boarding school for the deaf. Initially he’s tormented by the school’s main gang, but he quickly gains their respect, going out with them at night to commit assaults and robberies. Eventually he even takes over responsibilities for taking a couple of girls down to the local truck stop to turn tricks. But problems emerge when he starts to fall in love with one of the girls.
It’s an interesting experience watching a film where you have no idea what’s being communicated. You become intensely focused, searching every action, hunting for every clue to follow what’s going on. In fact, it really wasn’t that difficult. There were a couple of conversations where I wasn’t certain what was being said, but between the specific sign language, as well as expressions, posture, behaviour, and just general context information, I was usually able to figure out exactly what was happening; where I wasn’t sure, later scenes would usually provide an explanation. For example, there’s a fascinating scene where two characters have a major argument, hands flying as though screaming as loud as possible. I realised I completely understood what they were arguing about, but there were multiple positions each character could have adopted, and I was only guessing what positions they were taking. But then I was able to use later scenes and actions of the characters to determine whether I had been accurate in my assumptions.
It’s an incredibly brutal film at times. There’s a nighttime death scene where I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone die quite in that way, and it’s shocking and horrifying and for the second time this festival I found myself half-shielding my eyes from what was on-screen. There’s also one scene involving one of the girls being restrained and tied up that is just a horrible, horrible scene, involving images that I do not want in my head. And it’s made even worse by the fact that this winds up being the first time in the entire film that we hear anyone’s voice, and it’s while she’s crying out in pain and agony.
The film does have a problem, in that it doesn’t always know how to deal with such troubling scenes. In particular, the scene that immediately follows after the latter scene features that same girl who we literally just crying her heart out, and now she’s all happy and excited. And it doesn’t track; the jump is too much too quick. I’m not saying that people in traumatic experiences can’t move on and be happy, but I do think it would have been wiser to put an extra scene into the film to create some small separation between the two moments for the character. Indeed, a later scene involving the exact same character repeats the mistake, cutting from a distressed young woman to the same girl being all cheerful. In moments like this, it seems clear that the editor wasn’t quite sure how to cut the movie.
I found it an interesting idea to make this specific film in this type of context. It seemed to me to be a very specific declaration about the way people with disabilities are portrayed in the media. They’re often seen as candidates for sainthood, long-suffering but brave, and able to overcome every obstacle that confronts them. And that may be true of many people with disabilities. But some people are assholes, some people are bullies, some people are violent and angry, and just because someone has to deal with disabilities doesn’t mean that they stop being the person they would otherwise be.
But here’s the thing. It’s a brilliantly made film. It’s exciting, interesting, and it really provokes a reaction. But the question I keep coming back to is: just how good a film is it? Yes, it’s an impressive feat to make a film where literally no-one in the audience understands the dialogue, and yet to make that accessible and understandable. That’s really well-done. But if this film were in English, or subtitled, would we feel the same way? I don’t know that we would. There are incredible moments of great power in the film, to be sure, but I suspect the decision to keep the film unsubtitled forced the director into a position where he had to paint the story with broad strokes, because he couldn’t rely on dialogue to tell the story with fine details. He got to make the film he wanted to make, and good for him. Well done, and good job. But could the film have been better, might the ending have come less out-of-nowhere, if he had made use of tools such as subtitles to actually communicate who these characters are through dialogue? I think it might very well have been. But that leads to a separate question: is it right to judge a film based not on what it is, but what it could have been. And I don’t know the answer to that.

Tehran Taxi
In 2010, Jafar Panahi, one of the most significant figures in modern Iranian cinema, was arrested for allegedly trying to make a documentary about the unrest that arose following the reelection of Ahmadinejad. Eventually he was found guilty; one of his punishments was a 20-year ban on making movies. Tehran Taxi is the third movie Panahi has made since he was banned from making movies. The film finds Panahi working as a cab driver, driving around the city of Tehran picking up and dropping off passengers. Cameras mounted all throughout the cab capture every incident, every conversation that takes place.
I wasn’t initially sold on the film. In fact, when sound issues affected the screening half an hour in, requiring the projector server to be rebooted and causing the already late-running screening to run an extra 15 minutes late, I seriously considered just leaving out of fear that I might be late for my next screening, and because that was of more concern to me than a movie that I was not connecting with. In the end I remained (and still made my next film with seconds to spare), and was so glad to have done so, because it was really only in the second half that I came to understand exactly what the film was.
The thing is, the film is the happiest, friendliest, nicest “angry” film you’ll ever see. As the central figure in the film, Panahi is always smiling, cheerful, a good guy. And yet when you realise what the film is about, it’s clear that the film is Panahi trying to beat his fists against the establishment that are trying to prevent his self-expression.
One of Panahi’s passengers turns out to be the guy who sells Panahi’s son pirated DVDs, including movies that haven’t yet been released, and movies that will never be released under this restrictive regime. Panahi comes across an accident and takes a seriously injured man for assistance; his wife also comes in the taxi, and is desperate for them to video the man declaring that he left his property to his wife (in defiance of Islamic tradition), because she needs proof of this. An old school friend meets up with Panahi, and has security video footage of people assaulting him. Panahi’s young niece comes for a ride, and talks about the “make a short film” contest at school, although she rejects all of the story suggestions from her filmmaker uncle. She videos a young boy stealing money from a bride and groom who are themselves having their celebrations videoed.
The message is clear; you simply can’t suppress cinema and self-expression in today’s world, and to try to do so is absurd. It doesn’t matter if you ban a movie from paying in cinemas; it’s just going to sneak its way in and find its audience at home. We live in a world where we all have video cameras in our pockets, and the ability to play high-definition video on the go. There’s so much more content being generated than the authorities can deal with. And yet they try, they impose controls on anyone they see as subversive, anyone trying to use their art to say something important or to capture the realities of life.
The full theme becomes clear with the appearance of Panahi’s young niece. Her interaction with her famous filmmaker uncle is sweet and playful and fun to watch (and the young girl strongly reminded me of the young girl who twenty years ago starred in Panahi’s first film, the incredible The White Balloon). The niece talks about having witnessed and videoed another family fighting over the race of the daughter’s fiancé. Panahi points out that that would make a great film for her short film, but she disagrees. The rules of the contest state that the film has to be “screenable”, which means it must comply with a collection of rules more restrictive than the Hayes Code was, covering everything from a need to comply with Islamic ideas to restrictions on the names of characters and on their clothing. When the niece meets Panahi’s old friend, the victim of a distressing crime, it’s observed that the friend could never be the hero in a “screenable” film, as he’s not named after an Islamic saint, he doesn’t have a beard, and he wears a tie; all three elements that would prevent him from being the “good guy”. For him to be a hero in a movie, he would have to be completely reinvented into something he’s not. The attitude is explicitly stated: films should be real, but avoid sordid realism; if reality is unpleasant or immoral or uncomfortable, don’t focus on that reality. So it is that, when the niece videos a street urchin stealing money, she insists that he go and return the money; not out of concern for the man who lost this money, but because a video of the young child stealing contravenes a requirement that cinema must always be moral, whereas a video of the money being returned is nice and pleasant and doesn’t contravene any rules, even if it’s all utterly unreal.
Tehran Taxi, in its own small way, is the work of a man who is passionate about cinema as a way of exploring the realities of human existences, bristling against the restrictions his own country places on the art form in pursuit of expressing a lie, and a strong declaration that art cannot be suppressed.

So apparently Northern Ireland in 1971 was not a positive environment. Jack O'Connell plays a young inexperienced soldier in the British Army, going over to Northern Ireland for the first time. But his first operation goes disastrously wrong; after the squad finds itself poorly protected with a riot rapidly building up, it just turns around and escapes. Which left O’Connell, who had separated from his squad, alone and defenceless and at the front line of the conflict.
The film has a lot to recommend it. I loved the way that it created a real sense of a place that is completely tearing itself apart, a place where there was just so much emotion and rage and anger boiling up that it felt unsafe to be out in the public. There’s a palpable sense of fear that completely inhabits the film.
I also really enjoyed the nuances that the film found to explore in the premise. Going in, I had been expecting something a bit more black-and-white, where there are two sides to the conflict, and everything is clear and delineated. I appreciated the complicated setup, where each side had different factions that disagreed about the approaches to be taken to achieve the desired end, and how people often felt more comfortable with people from the other side of the conflict who at least agreed about how the war should be fought, than with people ostensibly on their own side who seemed either willing to go too far or unwilling to go far enough to achieve the desired end. And then you’ve got some genuinely sympathetic people who may want to stay out of the conflict and live their lives, but are forced to accept their involvement in the side that has been picked for them. The twisting loyalties of the characters, and the way they responded to the chaos and confusion that was building up, was wonderful, and really left the audience feeling like we were constantly on edge, unable to truly settle into the film.
The film also made an incredibly smart decision around the way they treated the main character. By the time the main plot begins, he’s already defenceless; the only way he can survive is just by running. Soon after, he’s seriously injured. And so his ability to protect himself is very limited; while he’s able to take action at points where needed, for the most part, he’s extremely vulnerable, and reliant on the assistance of people where he doesn’t know if he can trust them. It might seem counter-intuitive to incapacitate the main character in an action thriller, but it worked, and if anything it built a greater connection between the audience and the lead.
And I really loved the limited location around the second half of the film. From the moment we learn of the existence of the Divis Flats, an apartment block that was a republican stronghold, and we’re told to avoid there at all costs, it’s obvious that our hero will find himself trapped in these flats. There’s a brilliant, intense extended sequence where he’s trying to evade detection even while the exits are blocked off and a level-by-level hunt. The film made great use of this complicated maze, the audience caught up as he hunts through every inch of the block trying to find somewhere, anywhere, that he can escape to.
The only real problem is that I saw it at the film festival. If I had seen it at any other time, I probably would have loved it, would have been raving about it for weeks, urging everyone to see it. But the problem is, I’ve seen so many great films this past two weeks that very good just becomes unmemorable. The weird thing is, this is better than 90 percent of the films you will see this year; it’s more thrilling, more interesting, more challenging, more surprising. And yet I’m struggling to work up any enthusiasm for it.

The Look of Silence
If you have never seen Joshua Oppenheimer’s first film, The Act of Killing, I would urge you to rectify that immediately. One of the most powerful and important documentaries I have ever seen, that film takes a look at the Indonesian massacre that took place in 1965, where the military took control of the government and murdered one million “communists”, and because the government that authorised these killings is still in place, the killers have never faced justice for their actions. The film took an unusual approach to the subject; rather than being a general overview of the events, it focused very specifically on the murderers, allowing them to tell their stories. It’s truly shocking; they boast and laugh as they remember these murders, they demonstrate their murder techniques, and in the most disturbing scenes in the film they recreate their crimes as though they were scenes from a movie, casting themselves as the hero in a western or a gangster movie, freeing the country from the evil “communist”. It has been two years since I saw The Act of Killing, and there are moments that film left in me that still haunt me.
It’s impossible to discuss The Look of Silence without discussing The Act of Killing, as the two are basically a pair. Each one definitely stands alone, and you don’t need to have seen the one to see the other, but together they form a more full picture about the continuing impact these events are having on the country fifty years after they occurred. Where the earlier film looked at the perpetrators of the atrocities, this film looks at the victims. It focuses on Adi, a man whose oldest brother was brutally, horrifically murdered. He never knew his brother, as he was born after the killings took place. Adi and his elderly parents live in a small village, where everyone knows who everyone is, including who the local leaders of the death squads were. Which means that at any time they could be walking down the streets and see the man who killed their son, their brother standing there, enjoying his life. And so, Adi talks to the perpetrators of these murders. He talks to those higher up the food chain, who ordered the killings and who disclaim responsibility because they weren’t holding the knife. He talks to the prison guard who handed the brother over to be killed, and who had a personal connection to the family that should have caused him to act differently. He talks to other killers, and to the families of other killers. And he talks to the man who held the knife and murdered his brother.
The thing that I really admire about Oppenheimer’s work is how genuinely human it is. Yes, he’s making a film about this massacre, and yes, he’s exposing the truth of this incident to a world that doesn’t really know that it ever occurred, and to a country that has chosen to forget that it happened. But I feel that ir would be easy to just leave it there, happy to have told this story that needs to be told, whereas Oppenheimer is interested in exploring these incidents as a way of trying to uncover broader truths about humanity. The filmmaker was at the screening, and when he introduced the films, he talked about how The Act of Killing was about the lies and stories that the perpetrators of these atrocities tell themselves to deal with the things they have done and the impact on a society that has come to believe those lies, while The Look of Silence is about the effects on a person of having to live in fear for fifty years. Yes, these films are specifically about the incidents in Indonesia, but their interest and focus is so much wider.
The Look of Silence is not as flashy as the earlier film. That film reflected the boastful show-off airs of people who have never faced any consequences for their actions. This film carries all of the pain and suffering of people who have been living with the consequences of those actions for half a century. As with the first film, there are moments that I feel will haunt me. The sight of Adi’s father, blind and disoriented, having forgotten who his family is or where he was, crawling around on the ground in complete fear because that’s what he’s become used to, even though he doesn’t understand why he’s so afraid. The moment where one killer discusses drinking the blood of his victims as a way of warding off the insanity that comes with his actions, and his daughter hears him say this for the first time, and you can see her realising that her father is completely different to the man she’s always admired.
Above all, I think I’ll remember Adi. I can’t begin to imagine how impossible it must have seemed to sit and talk to your brother’s murderer about what he did. Yet what you see when you look at Adi is an incredible amount of restraint. He’s testing the people, sure, trying to get them to acknowledge and accept what they did was wrong, and at times he pushes them in ways that they don’t like. But he’s not confrontational or angry; in fact it seems less like he wants them to accept their crimes for himself, and more because it would be better for them that they recognise what they did. It’s an incredible demonstration of forgiveness, like few I’ve ever seen before.
At the Q&A after the film, Oppenheimer talked about the response to the film in Indonesia. I’d remembered hearing how The Act of Killing would never have been released in the country, so it was made available for free on the internet (in unsubtitled form) so that the people in Indonesia who needed to see this story would be able to. It was a great relief to learn that the films have apparently had a great impact, creating a space for the first time for a national discussion about those events. Apparently even the government has acknowledged the need to try to address what happened, and has at least accepted that the events of 1965 were wrong. Where The Act of Killing was distributed in secret, the follow-up film has played to full cinemas. There’s still a long way to go (the school curriculum still includes propaganda that holds up the death squad leaders as heroes protecting the country), but the tone of the Q&A was hopeful for the possibility of change and healing in the country. I hope it comes to pass.

99 Homes
Homes are a funny thing. There's a weird amount of emotion that we have caught up in these four walls. When my parents recently told me that they were putting their house on the market, I was surprised how upset I was at the prospect. I've never actually lived in that house, since I had moved out of home before they bought it, but still there were so many rich memories and intense feelings about that place that it just seems wrong for someone else to be living there. And these connections seem to live on long after they should have been severed. I remember one afternoon, years and years ago, driving with my parents up to see the homes where they grew up, and just how upset it made them when they realised the houses had been demolished, even though it had been a number of decades some they lived there.
99 Homes is a film that really manages to tap into those emotions that we have for these places. Andrew Garfield stars as Dennis Nash, a single father raising his son in a home he shares with his mother. But after the economic downturn hits and construction work dries up, he's evicted from his foreclosed home, moving into a rundown motel mostly populated by others who also were foreclosed on and who have been trapped here for years. Through a somewhat contrived situation, Garfield winds up working for Rick Carver, the realtor who was involved in his home’s foreclosure, and after he impresses Carver with his initiative, the two develop into a mentor/mentee relationship.
I primarily wanted to see the film for the cast. Garfield does a nice conflicted line; his character starts the film in complete desperation, just wanting, needing things to go right for him. The highpoint of the film for me was the way he plays his eviction scene, where his desperation mixed in with a heartbreaking humiliation and a willing delusion and hope that this could all just go away. There’s a genuine sense of internal conflict as we see him start to work with Carver; he’s reluctant to work with the man who he views as having destroyed his life, but he needs work, and there’s substantial amounts of money being offered to him, and he needs to get his family home back; that emotional connection he feels to his family home becomes his primary motivation. I also particularly enjoyed the scene where he has to evict his first family, the waves of self-loathing and grief overcoming him as he struggles to fight down his own sympathy for this family where he knows exactly what they’re going through.
I also greatly enjoyed Michael Shannon as Carver. Shannon is always a highlight in any film, and here he holds down his usual rage for something more akin to a steeled determination. He delivers a great speech at one point where he discusses how he got into realty to help get people into a home, not to throw people out, that seems genuine and heartfelt, and yet there's a clear glee, not at destroying the dreams of other people per se, but certainly at the opportunity that these events have brought for him to make money. There's a cold and brutal focus to his performance that is fascinating to watch.
The main problem with the film really comes when writer/director Ramin Bahrani has to find a resolution to his story. With Nash having been completely seduced into this lifestyle, the film introduces a major investment deal for Carver and Nash to take on, one that will net them huge amounts of money. The problem is that the entire process becomes one entire corrupt practice after another. While some of their actions so far were definitely been criminal, there was a degree to which Nash could justify his actions by pretending they were victimless, just creating a situation where they were able to take advantage of a loophole and get some extra government money. But the situation in the final act is unambiguously wrong. There’s theft, there’s forgery and perjury, they literally steal the home from one guy, until the whole thing culminates in an armed showdown. The film just felt like it was suddenly hitting this over-the-top histrionic line for the sole purpose of creating a simplistic moral conflict that didn’t need to be there, and frankly the film would have been better had it followed through with the story it had been telling. It all just meant that this film I had been genuinely enjoying wound up leaving me frustrated and dissatisfied. And that's always disappointing.

I found Dreamcatcher to be a frustratingly ordinary documentary. The film introduces us to Brenda Myers-Powell, a woman who became a prostitute while just a young girl, at an age where she really didn't understand what she was even doing, and who stayed in the lifestyle for 25 years before leaving. Now she works for the prison service helping convicted prostitutes in prison, she runs an after-school club for at-risk girls, and she runs a foundation to help sex workers, whether it be to just provide condoms to the girls or helping them to go to rehab and find a way off the street.
Myers-Powell comes across very well here. She's an extremely charismatic and likeable woman with boundless energy and determination. It's extraordinary to hear her as she tells these stories about her experiences, about the times she was stabbed, or the time she was dragged behind a car until her face was completely destroyed, because there's no sign of bitterness there. There's genuine love, compassion, and (especially) patience in everything she does, in her interactions with girls on the street, in her friendship with a former pimp, and in her constant frustrating work to keep troubled teens from destroying their lives.
Much of the film's power and impact comes from the horrific stories we hear. There's one scene where we watch the after-school club that Brenda organises for young at-risk girls, and they all have horrifying stories about being raped at 11, or letting themselves be molested at 9 to protect their younger sister. There's the pregnant drug-using prostitute who started out being employed at the age of 9 by pimps to collect the money from clients. There's a million different stories we hear during the film, to the point that it almost becomes sickening, a horrific insight into the depths of depravity that humanity is capable of.
The problem with the film is just that I don't know how well formed it really is. The film has a great amount of power and impact, but it all comes from the horrific and harrowing stories we hear. As a piece of filmmaking, I don't know that it really holds up all that well. It feels aimless, unstructured, as though they just started filming one day, filmed for a few weeks, and then stuck it all together, without trying to make the pieces work. There were points where I thought that if this scene were paired with that scene, then the film could begin to express some interesting points, but because the film was all unconnected moments without a clear through-line, it just became disjointed. Occasionally it might hint towards a bigger theme (there was one point, for instance, where for a minute it was raising the impact that criminalisation of prostitution has in turning victims into criminals, which I was finding to be a fascinating and challenging issue) but it would quickly lose interest in any substantive discussion of some big issues. The end result was a film that was interesting, but where you walked out thinking more about the woman at the centre of the film than the issues she's devoted her life to fighting. And that is problematic.

Coming Home
This broke my heart. A still, quiet, and beautiful drama from Zhang Yimou taking place during and after the Cultural Revolution in China, the film focuses on a family where the father, Lu, has been sent to labour camp for "rightist thinking". One night he escapes and returns home, but is betrayed by his teenage daughter Dandan, who wants to prove her loyalty to the party as a way of removing the stigma of having an imprisoned father (and therefore of advancing her ballet career). Three years later, Lu is released legitimately and returns home to find that his wife Wanyu suffering from a form of amnesia. She's unable to recognise her husband and, even worse, occasionally mistakes him for someone who severely mistreated and traumatised her. So he tries to find a way to help his wife recognise who he is, and to try and bring healing to the relationship between mother and daughter.
There’s really very little to the film. Other than the early sequence where Lu is betrayed, there’s not really a lot happening, and at times the film is almost wordless for long stretches. But there was a richness and depth of emotion underpinning every on-screen action. We watch as Lu tries desperately to make Wanyu recognise him, and struggles with the notion that she might never know who he is, that he’ll never be able to be her husband in any real sense, and how can he react to that? There was genuine pain and grief and frustration and sadness, and it really just attacked me, hurt me, in the best possible way. It was just this beautiful, not a love story, but a story of love.
I’ve only seen a small number of Yimou films (basically just Hero and the other wuxia films that immediately followed it) (and yes, I know that I really need to see more of his work), but based on the films I have seen, in my mind Yimou is a fantastic visual stylist, creating these big bright beautiful canvases on which he can paint. Coming Home has moments of that, particularly early on with some short ballet sequences, but once we get into the substance of the story, the film becomes very drab, almost monochrome. It would not make sense for there to be a lot of brightness and colour in this film, because the world of the film is so tied up in this aching sadness. And yet Yimou finds incredible beauty in the browns and the greys, the shadows and the gloom of this world.
The cast of the film is just a joy to watch work. Gong Li is a legend of Chinese cinema, and there's something about her performance, sitting halfway between heartbroken and ever-hopeful, that was just fascinating to watch. Zhang Huiwen, in her first role, shows remarkable promise as someone carrying an impossible burden of guilt, and relying on delusions to try to justify her actions to herself. But the real star is Chen Daoming as Lu. He's restrained, haunted, hopeful, weary, loving, and because the setup of the film means the character can never be honest, Daoming has to carry huge weights of acting in his eyes. And he never once rang false. When the film broke my heart, it was because of Daoming's performance.
A beautiful, intensely moving film. I can imagine a lot of audiences might not care for the film, feeling that there's no story to it, but if it connects with you, it truly is devastating.

The frustrating thing about Dope is the fact that there's so much in the film that I genuinely liked that it's disappointing that the film didn't work for me. The film focuses on three black geeks in their final year of high school. Through a long and convoluted series of events, their leader Malcolm accidentally finds himself in possession of a large quantity of a popular synthetic drug. He makes several unsuccessful efforts to pass the drugs on to their rightful owner, but is eventually put in a position where he is forced to sell the drugs himself. Which is how the three friends turn the high school into the centre of a drug operation.
The problems with the film, to me, start with the main characters. Now, I loved the main characters. I loved that they were people we don't really see on-screen; sadly we get so used to having one type of black character that the idea of a movie about a black geek seems positively revolutionary. (The film also features plenty of the usual types of black characters as well, so it’s not quite a full blow against stereotypes.) And I found the lead actors to be appealing and fun to spend time with. But they make this weird choice to have these kids be such fans of 90s hip-hop that they look to the era for their style tips. (Seriously, I was so convinced it was a 90s period piece for the first couple of minutes that my brain nearly broke when they suddenly referenced Bitcoin.)  It feels weird, so out of place, as though these kids are actively trying to make themselves stand out even though they’re teenagers, and are at an age when conformity is of paramount importance and where such difference will inevitably attract bullies and tormentors. I genuinely lost almost any belief in these characters as actual people. In fact, the costumes seemed like such a weird creative choice that I wondered if the characters could be based on the director/screenwriter during his adolescence, and the story just contrived an excuse to put these 90s escapees into a modern era.
The other reason why I thought the film might be inspired by the director’s own life was because of the way the film treated women. There are really only three women of any substance in the film: one is a lesbian, but the other two women (both older women in their twenties) are irresistibly attracted to Malcolm, this geeky weird teenage virgin; one seems to genuinely fall in love with him at first sight, while the other is introduced to us in a near-naked state and only becomes more lust-filled the more we know her. The whole thing feels less like genuine character behaviour, and more like the creation of a writer who didn't have much luck with women in high school and wants his alter ego to do better than him. I’m not saying that’s the case, but the character seems so unbelievably attractive to all women (seriously, he’s approaching James Bond-level of success with women) that I found myself trying to find an explanation for why it would be written like that.
And the whole film seems terribly contrived; it was clear that the entire film was driving towards them selling these drugs, but it takes so much effort to get these characters into a position where they have to sell these drugs that you almost wonder whether it’s worth it. Now, I don’t have a problem with a film taking its time to develop towards the main plot thread of the film; after all, my favourite film doesn’t become about what it’s actually about until the two-thirds mark in the film. But if you’re going to adopt a frantic hyperactive style, you might want to avoid throwing a ton of extra complications into the story that just delay the inevitable.
And there’s lots of weird loose threads and slack scriptwriting throughout the film. There are characters who appear to be significant but then disappear; there’s one guy who I was convinced would prove to be the main antagonist in the entire film, and then as soon as the plot gets started he gets written out of the story in a single scene. There are mysteries that I don’t think ever get answered. In the most annoying instance, the one girl who falls in love with Malcolm is in a couple of early scenes and then vanishes, is nowhere to be seen, for an entire hour; when she does reappear, we’re supposed to just accept this big great passion that we had forgotten was a thing because it hadn’t been mentioned for literally half the movie.
And then there was the climax of the film, where Malcolm writes a college application letter that just turns into a straw man diatribe that seems to condemn the audience for holding attitudes against this kid when we’re on his side. It was weird. We’ve reached a point where I wonder whether films should just abandon the college application essay as a plot element, since I can’t think of any instances of the essay being well used, whereas with some recent films like Dope or The Spectacular Now the application essay scenes were my least favourite part of the films.
The thing is: I liked the film in the moment. I didn’t find it as funny as much of the audience seemed to, but I did laugh reasonably often. It’s a likeable film, with fun characters, and real energy. And it’s doing some good things: centring the film around these non-stereotypical characters is a great choice. But the film falls apart the moment you give it any thought, and that is disappointing.

Best of Enemies
In 1968, ABC was in last place among American TV broadcasters. Things were so bad that, when the other two networks broadcast wall-to-wall coverage of the Republican and Democratic Party Conventions in that year, ABC only had the resources to broadcast a short highlights package. So they decided to supplement this by having leading conservative figure William F. Buckley Jr and prominent liberal Gore Vidal debate the issues. The consequences of the debates would be carried on for years afterwards, with long-running legal disputes resulting from events in the debates. But most importantly, it was a series of ten debates that changed the way media approach discussion of politics, for good and (mostly) for ill.
Best of Enemies is an extremely entertaining documentary about these debates, and packs an incredible amount into the short running time. The film gives us plenty of context, whether it be of the place America was at the time, the political environment in place, or the specific circumstances around the broadcast, it gives us a good introduction to the key figures, how the debates came together, we get a lot of footage from each of the debates (which were always thoroughly entertaining to watch), and the chaotic aftermath that resulted. There’s a great deal of art and construction in the film, in the way this idea interacts with that moment, in the way it builds tensions between the two lead figures until a explosion proves inevitable. And I appreciated the fact that the film seemed to be about something: it wasn’t just “Here’s an interesting story”; the film had a much wider focus in explaining why this story needed to be told, using this as a vehicle for discussing the emergence of identity politics, or particularly looking at how the state of modern political discourse and punditry, with increasing antagonism between the sides, can be traced back to the Buckley/Vidal debates.
At the centre of the film are these two figures, Buckley and Vidal. And these two people are just so wonderful to spend time with. Intelligent, thoughtful, and sharp, it’s fun to watch these two trying to dismantle the other with quick wits and carful arguments. These were two people who despised each other, hated each other, viewed each other as being genuinely dangerous for the state of the country. And it’s fascinating to watch these two just try to destroy each other, prove themselves right, and justify the contempt each has for the other.
One thing I appreciated is that the filmmakers seemed to take great care to be even-handed in their treatment of the two. One can probably guess where their political allegiances lie, but for much of the film I genuinely wasn’t sure which side they personally agreed with. It really wasn’t until late into the film, when they seemed to focus on a particular outburst by Buckley, and only briefly acknowledging the provocative comment by Vidal that prompted it. There are reasons for that choice; that outburst was genuinely terrible, it is apparently what the debates are best remembered for, and the ramifications of that outburst ran for years, even decades after. But I did wonder whether the filmmakers were possibly a little biased and let Vidal off a bit for his actions in provoking that response. (That said, we later see a clip from Sunset Blvd as Vidal is compared to Norma Desmond, so it’s not like Vidal gets away untarnished.) But on the whole it is fair and even-handed, approaching the characters with sympathy and sincerity, without the type of polemic that passes for political discussion today.
I particularly liked how the film gives time to reflect on the impact these debates had on society today. Across the entire spectrum of media, political discussion today is often abrasive, confrontation, and shrieking. When we look at Buckley and Vidal, we see two intelligent erudite men, fascinating and entertaining to listen to, who are certainly able to and excited about throwing out cutting remarks and insults, sure, but they’re also able to provide reasoned discussion on points, refute arguments. It’s quite a change from today’s media landscape, where political debate has turned into people just yelling at each other, and where posturing has replaced reasoned argument. When I listened to Vidal and Buckley talking, I heard two intelligent and thoughtful men, and I was interested to hear what they had to say because I like having my thinking challenged and learning things from people smarter than me. If I watch the news these days, most of the time I feel like the pundits are no smarter than myself, and I have no interest in hearing from them because I know how stupid I am. It’s depressing just how lowest-common-denominator much of television news has turned into, and it’s astonishing because, as much as the Buckley-Vidal debates created the modern world of punditry, you get a strong sense that nether of them would be happy to see how far the modern television world has fallen.
Best of Enemies is a carefully constructed, highly entertaining film, frequently laugh-out-loud funny, that fascinates and challenges you, and also leaves you depressed as you reflect on the state of intelligent discourse in the world we live in today. It really is a fantastic film.

I always look forward to the Live Cinema events, where a silent film is screened with live accompaniment. The musical performances always bring a particular amount of energy and excitement to the films, and while Wellington for some reason always seems to miss out on the big recognisable films (as well as Lonesome, this year both Auckland and Christchurch had screenings of Chaplin’s The Kid), I always find that the lesser-known films we get here always prove to be genuine gems that might otherwise have slipped past me unseen.
Lonesome is a sweet little film with a very simple plot. Jim and Mary are two completely isolated singles living a busy and hectic life in New York City. One Fourth of July weekend, sweltering under the heat of a hot summer day with no air conditioning, they both decide to travel to the beach at Coney Island, where they meet, and instantly fall in love. Most of the film consists of their courtship, as they wander the attractions, talking, playing, getting to know each other, as day turns into night, until a major climactic moment that sees the two of them separated. Oh no! They don’t even know each other’s surnames! How ever will they be reunited?
Introducing the film, festival director Bill Gosden promised us a technically inventive film, with every technique known at the time. And he wasn’t lying. There’s some real ambition in the way the movie was shot and edited together. There’s a boldness and energy of movement in the opening scenes, reflecting the hustle and bustle of city life, the constant hurry of a job that never stops. And then, the two of them fall in love, and the film adopts this dreamy excitement, where we get the elation of being in love combined with a sense of time standing still and passing too quickly simultaneously. There’s real invention in the transitions, in the way scenes are overlaid over each other, in the way one scene interplays with another. There’s a roller coaster scene that is genuinely thrilling in a way that I’ve never seen a roller-coaster scene before. There’s also some of the most inventive use of colour tinting that I’ve ever seen. It was quite common for black-and-white films to be dyed in certain scenes to create an effect (say, dark blue for night scenes), and I feel like I’ve even seen the rare film with two different colours on-screen, but there are points where I’m positive there are three or more colours painted onto the film. These days it’s nothing impressive to see a film in colour, but when you’ve been watching a black and white film it’s genuinely striking to see Coney Island completely lit up looking bright and colourful, or see the scene completed washed through with a nighttime blue, except for the merest hint of light from the sliver of an almost-new-moon above. I really did look at the screen at those moments and just thought “wow”.
It’s often been said that the invention of sound set the movies back decades. The idea is that movies towards the end of the silent era were bold and inventive, as directors found new and exciting ways to use the camera to tell the story. But sound came along, and suddenly you couldn’t move the camera and you couldn’t move the characters, or else the sound technology wouldn’t work. This was particularly noticeable in Lonesome. The film was entirely made as a silent film, but since sound came along before it was released, there were three scenes restaged and refilmed with sound technology. And it’s really noticeable how different the film feels in the scenes with sound. This film that was free and exciting and impressionistic suddenly is completely locked off and tied up. Fortunately these scenes were short, and generally sufficiently funny that we could enjoy them until the film got back to its silent greatness.
And yet, for all this inventiveness with the form, director Paul Fejös never loses track of the fact that we’re watching a love story. The two stars are people who never really made it in Hollywood, but they are so sweet and tender and fun that I really did fall in love with the two of them. This is important, because literally half the film is occupied with these two falling in love, and if we don’t buy it, the film doesn’t work. Instead, we get so invested in this love story that I was genuinely frustrated when the two of them are separated, silently yelling at Jim to do this and don’t do that in order to keep with Mary. It just works.
The one disappointment about the film, to be honest, was the live music. Now, I’m not familiar with Lawrence Arabia, which composed and performed a new score for the film. And the music itself was a lot of fun; I would quite happily listen to a recording of that music without hesitation. But there was something about it that didn’t sit quite right for me. Perhaps it was that the music, generally not period-appropriate, jarred a bit too much with the film. Perhaps it was that it was just too damned loud, demanding my attention when I wanted to get lost in the film. Perhaps it was that I could see the performers, particularly the two right in front of the screen obscuring the lower quarter of the image like some musical MST3K show. All I know is that I enjoy watching silent films with live musical accompaniment, but what I really love is when I forget about the live musicians and just get caught up in the film. And I never felt like I could do that here.
Still, it was a delight and a real excitement to be introduced to this wonderful film.

Our Little Sister
A few years ago, one of the biggest films from the festival was I Wish, about a couple of young brothers separated by divorce. I wanted to see the film, but sadly was unable to fit it in during the festival, and never quite got around to catching it later. When Koreeda Hirokazu’s follow-up Like Father, Like Son (about a swapped-at-birth situation) was in the festival, again I was unable to find a screening that I could catch, and was frustrated to hear from friends how much they enjoyed it. So this year I was determined to see Hirokazu’s newest film, Our Little Sister, even if it did mean I had just a five minute window between films to get to the screening. Having seen the film, I am genuinely annoyed at myself for not prioritising the earlier films more, because this was an exceptional film.
Three sisters in their twenties, living together in their family home, receive the news that their father has died. They hadn’t seen him in fifteen years, ever since he left their mother for another woman. Attending the funeral, they meet their half-sister, a teenage schoolgirl who really has no-one with the passing of her father. Instantly liking this young girl, the sisters invite her to come and live with them. And that’s about it, I guess.
What I really appreciated about the film was just the richness of characters and of the relationships between the two. Admittedly, the characters comply with a very strong and broad type; of the three sisters, we’ve got the uptight oldest sister, the fun-loving middle sister, and the weird kooky youngest sister. But within those broad types, a lot of nice rich shading is employed that helps these people feel real. Certainly the relationships between the sisters feel genuine and lived in, with clarity in the way each character relates with each of the other two. And then into this perfectly drawn family comes this new girl, and it’s just a delight watching as she tries to find her place, and tries to navigate the collective experiences that make them a family.
The fact is, I just loved this film so, so much, solely because of the sisters. It’s a very simple film; there are a few points where different characters need to make choices or where tensions arise, but it feels like it all comes second to just spending time with these women as they talk and laugh, decorate and repair the house, or make plum wine. And everything just worked. I loved watching the little rituals that the family had, I loved watching everyone coming together to help someone with a problem they were dealing with, I loved watching how they would tease each other, I just loved watching them. It reached a point where it would annoy me when it would occasionally move to a subplot centred on a non-sister character, simply because it felt like it was taking time away from these wonderful moments of sisterly bonding.
There are other things to praise about the film, but I feel that those are things that are common to most excellent films. The thing that made the film unique, the thing that made the film special, the thing that moves me whenever I think about this film, is the honest love and affection it has for this family, and how clearly this affection was communicated. Hirakazu’s career seems to have been defined by movies that explore various family dynamics, and if this is any indication of his work then I’m thrilled to finally be prompted to start exploring his world.

Tale of Tales
My final film of this year’s festival. I was a bit nervous going into this, as my experience with the other two “big night” films this year, The Lobster and The Assassin, had been so negative. Fortunately I found Tale of Tales to be thoroughly entertaining, and a satisfying end to the festival. I may not quite be certain what exactly the film adds up to, but the experience of watching the film was so much fun.
In a fairy tale kingdom, one king and queen are having difficulty conceiving an heir, until a sinister magician advises them of a piece of magic that will allow the queen to give birth; 16 years later, the resulting albino prince has an unbreakable bond with an identical albino born the same night to a lowly servant. In a neighbouring kingdom, the king adopts a pet flea that grows to an incredible size, and inadvertently pledges his daughter’s hand in marriage to an ogre. And in a third kingdom, a lecherous king falls in lust with a local woman after only hearing her singing, unaware that this divine voice belongs to an aged crone; when he does discover the truth, things go badly.
I’m really trying to resist making the obvious comparison, but it's umavoidable: Tale of Tales is like an episode of Game of Thrones, if GoT took place in a fairy tale world rather than a medieval fantasy one. It’s utterly gleeful in its enjoyment of its excesses, be they gory (an early scene features a character gnawing at a massive heart, blood covering their face), violent (one climactic moment features a bloodstained character revealing a severed head), or sexual (basically, if Vincent Cassel is on-screen, there’s definitely a naked woman nearby). The meshing of this strongly content within a dreamlike fairy tale context feels like it shouldn’t work, but then you remember how fairy tales were originally intended just as much for adults as children, and how (for example) in the original Cinderella story the sisters were cutting off their toes to try to squeeze into the shoe, and the entire thing just makes a lot more sense. The film is definitely stripping out the Disneyfication of these types of stories and returning to their origins.
I’m always a sucker for a beautiful looking film, and this may be one of the best of the festival. It seemed as though every shot was an incredible mix of production design, costuming, effects, and exquisite cinematography. Whether it be the insane black figure in the white room with a massive stain of red in the middle of the image, the eerie underwater mists that revealed the sea monster, the weird tableaux of indulgence and licentiousness, the mother chasing her son through the disorienting maze early in the film (and the way it echoes in the resolution of a completely different story), the strikingly beautiful red-clad figure in a verdant forest, or the beautiful final shot looking out over this beautiful land, every moment seemed to want to force itself to imprint on my brain.
The weird thing is, if I sit and analyse the component parts of the film, I feel like I should feel more dissatisfied than I do. The story of the albino prince is easily the least successful of the three tales; I found myself completely uninvolved in the story of the twins, the film set up various elements that I don’t think ever got resolved, and indeed I don’t know that the actual story ever got a real ending worth mentioning. Much more satisfying was the tale of the king and the crone, which was wonderfully entertaining right until the point where it suddenly had a major plot development that completely changed the story ending in about ten second flat, and then tried desperately to end the film as fast as possible. The best story was the story of the flea and the ogre; it was certainly my favourite part of the film. But even there, it’s not without faults; that plotline just completely changes the story its telling halfway through. All of which brings me to a point of saying: I feel like I should have been bothered by the film, between the story I didn’t care for at all, the story that ended badly, and the story that’s two stories glued together, and yet there’s something about the way these three came together that just brilliant, that just worked, and elevated the material, until it became greater than the sum of its parts.
I also don’t know that I’ve got a very clear view of exactly what the film was trying to achieve, what it was trying to say. Was there a reason why it was telling these particular stories? Is there any thematic connection that ties the film together. There’s possibly a female-empowerment connection, but since each of the main females has a degree of insanity or imbalance to them, I don’t know what it could be trying to say about that. But then, I don’t know that I care. After 32 films, I was just exhausted. I just wanted to watch something and be entertained. And I enjoyed this. What else could I want?

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