Kino Keeno

"Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates…"

Month: November, 2015

Top 10 films of 2015

by Ben Diamond

 

It’s the anal-retentive’s most cherished of Christmas presents – The End-of-Year List.  In reverse chronological order of viewing…

10. Taxi Tehran (review)

taxi_tehran

I loved all the formal and meta-tricks going on in this one.  Very philosophical, very political, very accessible, funny and charming.  The idea of driving around in a taxi lent this film a mixture of claustrophobic confinement and a nervous energy, a very literal momentum.

9. By Our Selves (review)

by_our_selves

Admittedly, not as good as Kötting and Sinclair’s last adventure, Swandown, but I commend these two for going on a psychogeographical jaunt around Albion, retracing the steps of our forgotten national treasure, the poet John Clare.  These images are what Stewart Lee sees when he closes his eyes after he’s drunk his last ale of the evening.

8. 45 Years

45years

Perhaps, perhaps, a film for older people, older couples.  But the idea that things you do in the early days of a relationship come back to haunt you decades later stayed with me.  As a person in their mid twenties, I took this film as a challenge to look at my life and try to spot the seeds of destruction I’m already sowing…

7. The Falling

the_falling

I remember sitting through this and thinking halfway through that it had descended into silliness, but The Falling stayed with me for months after, especially the orchestrated faintings, en masse.  Grand choreography.  So much strangeness.  The possibilities for drawing parallels between the central mass-hysteria metaphor and all the other incidences of mass-hysteria in our daily lives are endless.

6. Wild Tales

wild_tales.jpeg

Six unrelated Argentinian shorts, all directed by Damián Szifron, stitched together into one anthology film.  Not entirely consistent in quality, but there’s enough humour, invention and savagery to see you through to the end.  My favourite was ‘El más fuerte‘, one of the funniest and most violent things I have ever seen.  The spirit of Bottom and Rik Mayall was looming large over that one.

5. Appropriate Behavior

appropriate_behavior

Featuring the most awkward threesome scene you’re ever likely to see.  Desiree Akhavan – just as funny and talented as Lena Dunham.  Perhaps less annoying, too.

4. It Follows

it_follows

I don’t go for horror films – but I went for this, massively.  The creepiness factor here was absolutely nuts.  Fantastic soundtrack, too.  A sudden noise can scare you, but a threatening person walking towards you in a long take from a distance will scar you for weeks.  Also love this one because it reminded me of the power of the multiplex after midnight on a Friday when you’re the only one watching in the cinema.  On the walk back to the car after, I kept looking from left to right.

3. The Duke of Burgundy

duke_of_burgundy

Even writing this annoys me, as it reminds me that I’ll probably have to wait another few years until Peter Strickland’s next film.  Both this and Berberian Sound Studio are amazing and unique.  Stan Brakhage and Belle de Jour are just some of the influences on display.  Deeply sexual, deeply unsettling, hats off too to Cat’s Eyes for lovely weird music to accompany the whole thing.

2. Leviathan

leviathan

If you want to try and understand modern Russia, you need to do two things.  The first is to read Emmanuel Carrère’s book Limonov, and the second is to watch this.

1. Whiplash

Whiplash

J. K. Simmons.  Terrifying.  It’s not really about the music.  Exhausting to watch.  Won’t be taking up the drums any time soon.  Will probably stick to the stylophone for now.  Anyone want to form a skiffle band?

Carol

by Ben Diamond

Carol

Carol (Haynes 2015, 118m)

I liked Carol, but I’m not sure I liked it as much as everyone else did.  In fact, I’m sure I didn’t like it anywhere near as much as everyone else seems to have done. The levels of hype on this one seem to have snowballed to such an extent that it stikes me as odd, the amount of noise generated for what is really a quiet, reserved piece, a mood piece, really.

It reminded me of Tom Ford’s A Single Man, the adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel.  Here, director Todd Haynes has adapted Patricia Highsmiths’s novel The Price of Salt, which takes place exactly a decade before A Single Man, in 1952.  It still has the Mad Men feel, the revelling in the period details.  It does look fantastic.

But beneath the surfaces, the detailed interiors, through the windows, in the car, through the cigarette smoke, I was left with nothing to hold on to.

Rooney Mara plays Therese – young, nervous, introverted, sort of into men. Cate Blanchett’s Carol – the older, more experienced of the two, who has been in a relationship with a woman before – strides into the department store where Therese works, the two fall for each other, and we go on from there.

Why do they fall for each other, though?  I wasn’t sure, even by the end.  I wasn’t satisfied that the two were ever really in love.  In fact, they never really seem to have a direct conversation about their own relationship. Which I suppose is the point, partly.

The relationship hits the rocks when Carol realises that her (soon to be ex-) husband is using her relationship with Therese as leverage in the divorce settlement, where he is pushing for sole custody of their child.

I found the character of Harge, Carol’s husband, to be something of a cardboard cutout, not properly fleshed out.  The divorce proceedings metastasise and dominate the plot as the film goes on.  Meanwhile, the story of Carol and Therese by this point seems weirdly cold, distant, fast-forwarded, too much shorthand and not much to go on.  The agonised scenes at the lawyer’s office seemed to clash with the subtlety of the rest of the piece.

I must admit that I drifted through this one, slightly bewildered throughout, admiring the craft of the scenes, the photography, the way things looked, but not managing to delve much deeper than that.  There’s a moment where a character is projecting a film and claims to be looking for the discord between what someone is saying and how they’re really feeling.  I sat through Carol trying, and failing, to do much the same thing.

Bridge of Spies

by Ben Diamond

‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

Vous sortez du secteur Américain… Bridge of Spies (Spielberg 2015, 141m)

Only when you analyse Bridge of Spies after you’ve seen it do you realise what a strange beast it is.  It’s a thriller with no plot twists, or any real thrills per se.  But you simply don’t notice.

What, then, is keeping it chugging along?

Well, that would be Tom Hanks.

I shouldn’t have liked this film.  I shouldn’t have liked the clunking patriotic message of ‘let’s treat our captured Russian spies better than the Russians would treat our spies, because we’re America and we’re the best’.  I shouldn’t have liked the same diffused-light atmospheric setup Spielberg uses for every tense conversation in every room.

It’s 1957, the height of the Cold War, and Tom Hank’s character, a New York lawyer named James B. Donovan, is given the task of defending the indefensible – a Russian spy captured by the FBI. After striking up not quite a friendship, but a respectful relationship with said spy, Rudolf Abel, and managing to limit his sentence to 30 years in prison, narrowly avoiding the death penalty, he is sent on a diplomatic mission to Berlin to negotiate the exchange of Abel for Francis ‘Gary’ Powers, CIA spy shot down during a reconnaissance mission over Soviet Union airspace.

At the beginning of the film Donovan sets out his moral stall for a rival lawyer whilst they are discussing an insurance claim they are both involved in. Donovan’s client has driven into several motorcyclists.  The lawyer representing the claimaints says Donovan’s client is responsible for paying insurance claims for five separate incidents – the five injured parties.  But Donovan isn’t having any of it – using the analagy of knocking down ten pins in a game of bowling, he says that that is one event, not ten separate events.

On his trip to Berlin, Donovan continues this holistic approach to cause and effect by deciding to take matters into his own hands by negotiating for the release of two prisoners, not one, by dragging Frederic Pryor, a wrongly-imprisoned American economics student into what is now a three-way negotiation between the GDR, the Soviets, and the USA.  It’s all one big bowling game, and Donovan isn’t coming away with anything fewer than both pins.

This is no John Le Carré adaptation.  No double-crossings or moral ambiguities. It’s clear what Donovan wants.

Which brings us back the original question again.

If Tom Hanks is the reason why the film works, and Hanks plays it straight down the line, what is he doing that’s so special?

I don’t know.  It’s the Spielbergian magic.  It has something to do with his understated way of playing a character with such decency and moral seriousness.  He really shines in a very tense scene after he’s crossed over into east Berlin where a gang approaches him and tries to steal his coat.  Just by being Tom Hanks, he comes out of the situation intact.  It’s Catch Me If You Can Hanks we’re talking about here – decent man doing a difficult job, in the most decorous way possible.  There is something completely charged and magnetic about his onscreen persona, without even the whiff of ham.

I must confess to having a similar feeling leaving the cinema that I had with SPECTRE – that it didn’t all quite add up, a sense of dissatisfaction at how things had resolved themselves by the end.  Except, with SPECTRE, the whole film didn’t add up and the individual set pieces weren’t all that either, and in Bridge of Spies, without much actual action going on, individual scenes have a real sense of momentum to them.

Bridge of Spies strings its disparate parts together like Picasso’s Guernica.  In this corner we’ve got an action sequence where Powers’s plane gets shot down.  In that corner we’re watching Abel be pursued by the FBI on the New York subway (despite the obvious conclusion of this scene, it is a compelling opening).  Over here we’re witnessing the revulsion which the public feel towards Donovan for defending a spy.  And over there, there’s a runny nose, being passed from a Soviet spy, to Hanks, to others.  Spielberg tries to spin a lot of plates at the same time.  But it all adds up to something rather good.

Güeros

by Ben Diamond

Güeros

Who are you calling a Güero? (Ruizpalacios 2014, 106m)

Young lad Tomás has been a bit naughty – dropped a water bomb from the roof of his block of flats onto an unsuspecting mother and child below – and so has been packed off by his mum to stay with his brother, Federico, who is living with his flatmate Santos in a state of semi-squalor. Federico and Santos are straddling the line between being diligent students who should be working on their respective theses and being conscientious student-protestors, occupying their university campus.  They end up being neither.  As Federico says, they are on strike from the strike.  Their efforts are more fruitfully employed in stealing electricity from the flat below them, utilising a complex system of tin-can-on-a-string communication with the little girl whose bedroom window they use to ferry the power cable up in a bucket.  Problem sorted.

I loved the stark black and white photography of Güeros.  I loved the concept of a road trip that isn’t a road trip.  The protagonists never seem to cover much ground.  I loved the ‘fuck it, let’s give it a try’ attitude towards innovation and invention in the film.  A particular highlight being when Federico & co. create their own traffic jam simply by coming to a stop, a riposte to the statement ‘No one would care if we died’ – well, they would, but only because you’re blocking their way.  Certainly, getting stuck in traffic isn’t a common feature of the empty open stretches which dominate the genre.  This is road trip, Mexico City style. Federico’s panic attack in the back of the car, feathers flying and tinnitus ringing, was especially well done.  Mentions of Veracruz and the 90s feel of the film situated it firmly in my own head in the same shared space occupied by Roberto Bolaño’s epic work of fiction 2666.

Güeros is a film of two halves, though.  Although in part the gang are on the trail of the legendary musician Epigmenio Cruz (once supposedly made Bob Dylan cry), who they learn through a newspaper is ill and in hospital, a large part of the film is dedicated to the ins-and-outs of student politics during the university occupation, which I must admit I found a little tiresome, especially the hackneyed discussions about revolution, whether it should come Now or Later, what kind of an active role people should play in it, etc etc.  The political points were perhaps unsubtle, but maybe important in terms of Mexican history – my own fault for being ignorant of any form of university-based activism beyond clocking students selling copies of the Socialist Worker on the Strand during my own tenure at university.

I liked Güeros most when it was at its most aimless – Tomás, Federico and Santos sat on a car bonnet in the sun listening to Epigmenio on a tape walkman. One pair of headphones between three.  No sound for the cinema audience – just a look of bliss.

Black Souls

by Ben Diamond

Black Souls (Munzi 2014, 109m)

Black Souls (Munzi 2014, 109m)

Black Souls is a Sopranos-style tale of power struggle and revenge, but with an anthropological, analytical, plodding approach, as opposed to a high-octane, flashily-edited package of drive-by retributions.

Giuseppe Fumo plays Leo, with a huge, serious bloodhound’s face.  Bored with the agricultural life, he leaves his dad’s farm and takes off for Milan to get involved in his uncle’s less wholesome ‘ndràngheta business.  Before he leaves, he shoots up the shutters of a bar owned by a local mafia boss who (I think) was involved in killing his grandfather.  This unwittingly sets a chain of events in motion which ultimately has dire consequences for his own family, who get dragged back into an old feud where perhaps it would’ve been best to let the dust settle.

I got the feeling that these tensions that have been stirred up by Leo were actually revelled in by other members of the gang, simply because modern mafia life is really boring.  The most exciting thing these associates get up to in the film’s prologue appears to be stealing some goats for their dinner, hastily stuffing them in their car boot and speeding away from a farm.  There are other scenes where goat-herding plays a part, reminiscent of another recent Italian film, Le Quattro Volte. The film alternates between tension and boredom, almost mocking its audience for wanting some sort of quick-fix or burst of violence.  Munzi goads us with goats.

Fabrizio Ferracane plays Leo’s dad, Luciano, looking like a Jeremy Corbyn-Jose Mourinho hybrid.  Starting from a position of reluctance to get involved in his family’s violent business, he slowly gets dragged back towards the fray, leading to some brilliantly tense stand-offs between himself and Leo.  As they tussle for the reins to control the narrative of the developing mafia war, Luciano tries to grasp onto a fading notion of parental supremacy, whereas Leo appears to be wielding a more masculine, alpha-male power, which he enjoys lording over his dad.

In the world of Black Souls, goats, farming, the beautiful Calabrian countryside – all have some purpose, fit in to the natural order.  The human beings in this film really do represent the titular Black Souls – the living dead, serving no purpose other than to finish each other off with their bitter feuds.  A ‘don’ from a neighbouring clan makes his way up the mountainside to facilitate some interspecies breeding, bringing a young granddaughter in the hope that she’ll hit it off with Leo.  Ancient breeding rituals amongst a dying breed, doomed to extinction.

A large portion of the film is devoted to the process of mourning, and the rituals surrounding it. These people are living on the fringe of the land of the dead, devoted to ushering their kind from one world to the next.  Marking out the time until it’s their own turn to go.  This is an anti-Goodfellas, where the rewards of the lifestyle never yield, as the members of the clan dig their own graves.  Nothing to see here.  Move along.

No Home Movie

by Ben Diamond

Chantal Akerman lurking in the shadow of her mother, Nelly

I’ve already tackled a holocaust-themed documentary before on these pages – the more direct Night Will Fall – but here is something altogether different.  No Home Movie is a slow, thoughtful documentary about Chantal Akerman’s mother, Nelly Akerman, nearing the end of her life.  I was aware of Chantal Akerman’s work only through her 1975 three-and-a-half-hour epic Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, but I could draw parallels between the two, in particular the presence in both films of brutally drawn out still-frame long takes, which force the viewer to go through a sort of protracted inner monologue, and at the same time try to work out what these silent pauses mean for the filmmaker.  In the 40 years since Jeanne Dielman, Akerman appears to have kept her edginess, and her ability to challenge audiences.  It even crossed my mind to directly consider Nelly as a real-life Jeanne Dielman, especially as Chantal appears to have been heavily influenced, if not defined, by her mother, and her mother’s past.  Is it just me, or was there something in the kitchen tiles, reminiscent of that 1975 apartment?

Not much about the holocaust is revealed when Chantal talks to Nelly.  The one piece of concrete information is that Nelly and her husband escaped Poland and arrived in Belgium, only to be recaptured and sent back to Poland, where the horrors of Auschwitz awaited them.  And that’s about it in terms of directly related holocaust conversation in No Home Movie.  The rest is done through introspection and insinuation.  Chantal Akerman chooses to largely be absent in the film, as she is either behind the camera, with her back to the camera, or obscured by an object in the apartment when she chooses to create an impromptu mise-en-scène with objects having the effect of naturally occurring points of abyss in Nelly’s apartment.  Akerman is most present in the film when she’s behind the camera, crafting disturbing ambient-visual metaphors, such as long takes in the car, out of the window, of desolate Oaklahoman landscapes (reflecting the vicissitudes and the disquiet of her own mind), or running round Nelly’s apartment at night, with the lights off, Nelly out of the frame, desperately trying to retrace her steps and find something, or recapture something.  The apartment space itself is turned into a memory vortex with its own warping qualities, the air thick with nostalgia, but also stifling, as we are reminded with a long take chronicling Nelly’s respiratory problems, the pathology her demise already being mapped out.  In another shot Chantal simply gazes into a body of water.  Still waters run deep.

I see the film as an extended goodbye to her mother.  She says goodbye over and over when they finish their Skype conversations, or when either Nelly or Chantal leave the apartment.  These goodbyes often take minutes because each time is as if they are saying goodbye forever.  When Nelly is led out of the apartment by her carer, and Chantal is left their on her own, it felt like the grim reaper had come to finally lead Nelly away and finally separate the two.  By the end of the film I realised how often they’d been saying goodbye to each other throughout.  Is this film Chantal Akerman’s way of letting go?  By erasing herself from her documentary and instead focusing on her mother, is she in fact saying: this is who made me; this is who I really am?  I was reminded of WG Sebald’s novels in that the holocaust always present but rarely spoken about, explored instead through trauma and metaphors, scarred landscapes.  At one point Nelly’s condition is obliquely explained away by and off-screen interlocutor thusly: ‘She’s that way because of the holocaust’.  Need we any further direct storytelling?  Much more interesting to explore the everyday, and the effects the holocaust have had on the quotidian and mundane.

Of course, Chantal Akerman – directly, indirectly, whatever – is, or was, saying goodbye to us as well.  This is her last film.  Her mother died after this film was made, and Chantal took her own life a few weeks ago.  The screening, scheduled by A Nos Amours, was due to be the crowning piece at the end of a 2-year complete retrospective of Akerman’s massive, and massively influential, body of work.  Akerman herself was due to be there for a post-screening Q+A.  Tragically, that was not to be.  It was good to see so many Akerman devotees in the audience – the event was sold out.  An exhibition of Chantal Akerman’s video installation work is currently on at the P3 gallery and runs from 29 October to 6 December – http://www.p3exhibitions.com/.

People think it’s easy to point a camera at a landscape and shoot a static bit of footage and call it art.  With Chantal Akerman – it really fucking was art, though.  There is something wholesome and truthful about landscapes.  Her conversations with Nelly are edited and allude to greater truths, but landscapes cannot hide anything – their truth is evident in every pixel onscreen, gloriously unedited, a visual stream-of-consciousness.  I loved the long, still takes which bookended the film. The opening is simply of a tree blowing in the wind.  So much meaning in such a simple metaphor.  I can’t really describe one of the final long takes of the film, except to say that after puzzling over it for several minutes, it came to uncannily resemble another troubled landscape of sorts – the one on the cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures LP.  I don’t quite understand how much depth, both visually and in terms of meaning, Akerman managed to squeeze into a 2D image.  But she does.  Over and over again. In another take, a bucolic setting is in the foreground. A city, barely recognisable, hovers at the top of the frame.  As if to say – ‘forget about where the people are. All you need to know about what I’m trying to say is right here.’

Chantal Akerman – 6 June 1950 – 5 October 2015