The Drop (US-UK-Australia 2014)

Bob (Tom Hardy), Marv (James Gandolfini) and the Chechen mobster (Michael Aranov)

Bob (Tom Hardy), Marv (James Gandolfini) and the Chechen mobster (Michael Aranov)

Here’s a global film in the form of a Brooklyn-set crime story. The script is by Dennis Lehane, who has expanded his own short story, and one of the four leads is James Gandolfini. The other three comprise a Brit, a Swede and a Belgian and the film is directed by another Belgian, Michaël R. Roskam. We are back in the territory of the Europeans taking on the American crime film. The fact that the story is American distinguishes The Drop from Guillaume Canet’s Blood Ties but it still might be useful to think about the two films together as they both seem to channel the 1970s New York crime films of Sidney Lumet et al. Matthias Schoenaerts also appears in both films and here is reunited with the director (plus Nicolas Karakatsanis the cinematographer and music composer Raf Keunen) of Bullhead (Belgium 2011) which I really should put on the ‘to watch’ list.

Most audiences will go to see this film thinking it will be an American crime story dominated by Gandolfini and Lehane’s script. I suspect that many will end up feeling that the film belongs to Tom Hardy in another stunning performance. Hardy disappears into roles so much and so effectively that he’s hardly recognisable from one film to another. Here he is Bob Saginowski, the seemingly long-suffering bartender of a Brooklyn joint known as ‘Cousin Marv’s Bar’. It’s Bob’s voiceover at the beginning of the film that tells us that this is one of the bars used by organised crime gangs as a collection point for laundered money. Marv is played by James Gandolfini and in reality he doesn’t own the bar which is now one of the fronts for a gang of Chechen criminals. Marv is on the way out and it’s a fitting role for James Gandolfini whose last film appearance it turned out to be. When the bar is robbed and the Chechens demand their money back, Marv and Bob have to find it. The triangle between Marv, Bob and the Chechens is a familiar trope of the crime film and Lehane’s story here simply supplies the framework for the more interesting triangle (rectangle?) involving Bob and the pitbull puppy that he finds badly injured in a garbage bin. The bin belongs to the waitress Nadia (Noomi Rapace) who helps Bob care for the dog. It takes a while before we realise that the dog was probably put there by the disturbing Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts) who seems to be unusually interested in how the couple’s relationship develops. Lehane’s original story was ‘Animal Rescue’.

In one sense the film is like a genre exercise in constructing a film narrative. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to note that Lehane reveals the link between the separate elements via a line delivered by the local police detective who notices that Bob attends mass every week but never takes communion. “They never see you coming” he suggests to Bob at one point. And indeed Bob appears to be perhaps mildly autistic – giving the impression that he is a slow, dependable worker, speaking carefully, working methodically and always holding himself in check. Does he really find social interaction to be arduous – or is his self-restraint a cover?

Bob, Rocco and Nadia (Noomi Rapace)

Bob, Rocco and Nadia (Noomi Rapace)

In terms of how this all works out and what it means as a film narrative I have to largely agree with the Sight and Sound review by Matthew Taylor. Like Taylor, I think that all the constituent parts of the film work well. The performances are all good – though Noomi Rapace is under-used – and individual scenes and sequences are efficiently and economically presented. My feeling is that the script is the weakness in not giving us a compelling crime story to match the melodrama of emotional relationships. I’ve seen reviews that dismiss the film completely as too inert. I wouldn’t go that far but another reviewer who suggested that the film’s ending was more like the beginning of another more interesting story does make an interesting point. So, perhaps it’s back to those 70s movies – a Bob Rafelson film? I would have liked to see much more of Bob and Nadia and how they get on together. Overall though I did enjoy watching the film.

I’m not sure how Keith will get on with the film but I am sure he’ll like the dog – named after Saint Rocco, the patron saint of dogs. The church of Saint Rocco is about to be closed down and sold to a property developer. The appearance of the statue of Saint Rocco is also a reference to the feast day parade in Godfather II when a statue of the saint is carried through the streets of Little Italy.

Wikipedia suggests a budget of $13.5 million – low for Hollywood but high for a European film. There appear to be several companies involved in a co-production which I’ve classified as ‘independent’.

Persona (Sweden 1966)

Elisabet and Alma

This was the key film in the Leeds International Film Festival’s short retrospective of films directed by Ingmar Bergman and set on his adopted home Island of Fårö. This seems to me not only the finest film ever made by Bergman but also one of the outstanding masterworks in World Cinema. It parallels other films that address their own medium of cinema, like Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (Otto e Mezzo, 1963) and Chris Marker’s La Jetée, [a proposed title early in the project was Cinematography]. This is an intense character study involving two very fine actresses, Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson.

The film opens with an avant-garde montage of film – including the cinematic apparatus and apparently disconnected images: at least some of which do relate to the narrative that follows and some to other films by Bergman. Film as the subject re-appears near the middle of this work and again at the end with another montage which returns us to the cinematic apparatus on which the film relies. In between the narrative is presented in a more conventional style, which at the same time employs rigorous mise en scène, cinematography, sound design and editing. The film is graced by outstanding craft inputs from Bergman’s regular collaborators, Sven Nykvist, Ulla Ryghe, and P.O. Pettersson: and with more extracts from Bach on the soundtrack, [his Violin Concerto in E major]. There is also judicious accompanying music from Lars Johan Werle. And there is [once again] the influence of Strindberg.

The film offers a tight focus on two women characters, Elisabet Vogler (Ullman) and Nurse Alma (Andersson). We also meet a doctor who specialises in mental or psychological illnesses and the Elisabet’s husband .And we hear in the dialogue references to several characters including Alma’s fiancée. Bibi Andersson dominates the narrative because we learn most about the characters through her dialogue. For much of the film Ullman’s character is silent. There is a marvellous moment when we [think that we] hear her speak: reminiscent of the imperceptible movement after continuous stasis in La Jetée.

Whilst there is a tight focus on the two women, the Island of Fårö is important and it is recognisable from earlier films. There is a splendid long tracking shot as the two women walk along the beach. Much of the film occurs in the interiors, [mostly shot in a Stockholm Studio]. Later in the film there is a wonderful sequence running about eight minutes in length which consists of a long take that opens with a dolly, followed by a brief transition shot and then another long take in reverse shot, three increasingly large close-ups and then carefully crafted composite shots. What makes this sequence even more daring is the dialogue. The writing and delivery are impressive. There is an earlier monologue which relies almost completely on voice and tone – and it is far more erotic than many a visual sequence. Whilst near the middle of the film there is a brief male voice over

This is certainly a challenging film: a friend at the screening reckoned that one needed to see the film two or three times to fully comprehend it. It is also a richly complex film that pays the repeated viewings. This was my fifth or sixth screening of the film and I was still noticing aspects or noting possible meanings and references. We were fortunate to see the film in a good 35mm print: the cinematography benefits from the characteristic of the traditional medium. The Festival provides slips so audience members can vote on a scale of 1 to 5 – I ticked 5 on two slips and handed them in together.

Short Film City – British Short Film Competition

Anthony

Anthony

This was another strand in the Leeds International Film Festival extremely extensive coverage of short films – local and international, features, documentaries and animation. The British selection comprised 15 films spread over two programmes.

Exchange and Mart (2013 – 15 minutes).The film was set in 1986 in a girls’ boarding school somewhere in the Highlands. The film opened with the teenage girls attending self-defence classes. Then it explored the way that two particular girls responded to and explored the issue of men and sex. The treatment and performances were nicely done. Rather than being dramatic the film struck a droll note, as suggested by the title which is also refers to a prop.

A Generation of Vipers (2013 – 15 minutes). ‘A day in the life of a violent and nihilistic youth …’.As the Catalogue description suggests this is a bleak character study. The young lad is effectively portrayed and there is some context; though I felt this needed more development.

Love Me Tinder (2014 – 11 minutes). This is an evening between two online daters – an older woman and a younger man. The treatment is deliberately oddball, as the title suggests. I found it not surreal enough to be funny but lacking realism it seemed to lack comment.

The Outside In (2014 – 20 minutes). This film used an unconventional set to present a couple where the man dominates and virtually imprisons the young girl. I never quite figured out how the setting was supposed to comment on the relationship, though the intent was clearly symbolic.

  1. Enstone (2014, 15 minutes. The film was developed from the discovery of 89 reels of Super 8mm film shot in the 1980s by the aforesaid Richard Enstone. The introduction suggested ‘hidden messages’, which never actually seemed to materialise. The film used the Super-8mm footage in a variety of ways – original ratio, stretched, split screen and speeded up. There were also interviews with people who knew Enstone. I thought there was interesting material here but that this documentary did not make adequate use of it.

Woodhouse (2013 – 9 minutes).The film is set in the Woodhouse Nature Reserve in South East London.  This is partly fantasy, mainly from the viewpoint of a child. The film makes good use of effects and school artefacts. As the mystery develops a local journalist also becomes involved, but this mystery is too whimsical for the media.

Anthony (UK / Finland, 2014 – 15 minutes). This is a droll tale of Santa, elves, reindeer and, of course, Rudolph. It offers a sardonic take on the winter festival, just the entertainment to follow over-indulgence during the festivities. It has bright, pleasing snow covered settings and has some fine unconventional gags.

Sex Life

Sex Life

Sexlife (2014 – 15 minutes). Another film which is letterboxed within a 2.37:1 frame. It presents a couple facing a minor crisis, to which the husband responds with extreme measures. The opening belies the direction of the story, which presents an intriguing and revealing exchange between the couple. It is effective though I found the conclusion not completely convincing.

Alice (2014 – 5 minutes).Thomas was ten when his grandmother was diagnosed with dementia. The adults in the family are quite inhibited in the relationship, Thomas, unencumbered by adult attitudes, relates effectively and playfully with her. A warn portrait of a very positive relationship.

The Stomach (2014 – 15 minutes). This is a bizarre tale of an extremely unconventional medium. It is definitely sardonic and does tend to schlock. There are some visceral moments and a very effective reversal.

Seagulls (2014 – 14 minutes).  This was one of several films produced by Creative Scotland. They all enjoyed high production values: and this was for me the most completely realised. Ryan and his mother, who run a fair attraction, arrive in a small seaside town on the West Coast. Ryan’s life style has limited his opportunities for bonding with other teenagers. Meeting a group of local boys he is invited to join in on their celebration of the longest night. This involves climbing up into the surrounding foothills and soon an unfortunate incident. The film makes good use of both the small town environment and the mountainscape. The there is very effective staging and blocking to comment on the characters and events.

Crow (2014 – 5 minutes). The film uses an extract from a reading by Ted Hughes of his major poem, ‘Crow’. The film adds to this music by Leafcutter John. The animation is visceral and exceedingly well done. Five very rewarding minutes.

Crocodile (A Life to Live, 2014 – 16 minutes). This is a film about bereavement: in this case the loss for a head teacher and his wife of their teenage daughter whilst working for Voluntary Service overseas. The sense of loss and the accompanying performance was extremely well done. The film leads up to a moment of catharsis: I found the final scene unconvincing, but I have always thought crocodiles, whilst dangerous are also oddly attractive.

Blue Train (2014 – 15 minutes}. The train journey in this film is by a man into his past, his dreams and imaginings. The journey involves magical landscapes, and figures from his actual life. The combination is extremely intriguing and the visual splendour gives great pleasure. The film has original music Alexandros Kavadas and Paul Tyan, but there are also some extracts from Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’.

1946 (2014 – 15 minutes). Set in a gleaming chromium bar we meet Jimmy Stewart home from World WWII. His agent has a new prestige script but Jimmy will actually go on to make the classic It’s a wonderful Life (1946). This was pastiche, and I always think this is the most difficult type of treatment to get right. The film did not work for me: possibly because the actual Jimmy Stewart is one of my two or three favourite |Hollywood stars.

I thought the second programme was much the stronger of the two. There were a number of fine films in that programme. With some of the weaker productions I felt that they either failed to combine narrative and style effectively, or that generic qualities tended to cliché: I rather thought these stemmed from weaknesses in the script writing. But there are promising young filmmakers out there, as the Brochure suggests,

Prepare to meet the film directors / actors/ key grips of top morrow.

Given what I saw in the best shorts there are also certainly the cinematographers and animators of tomorrow. Plus a number of technical craftspeople whose work contributed to effectiveness of the films.

Through a Glass Darkly (Sasom i en Spegel, Sweden 1961)

Martin, Karin, Minos and David.

Martin, Karin, Minos and David.

The Leeds International Film Festival is screening a short retrospective of the films of Ingmar Bergman. Happily the programme opened with this film – a masterpiece and for me one of the finest films by the director. Two friends seeing the film for the first time were impressed. This is one of what are described as Bergman’s ‘chamber works’, strongly influenced by August Strindberg and with the title taken from a Letter by the Apostle Saint Paul to the Corinthians. There is a dedication to his wife Kabi, who provided an important influence on his musical taste and knowledge

The film is set on the Island of Fårö. It involves four characters – a writer and father David (Gunnar Björnstrand), his daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson), her husband a university professor Martin (Max von Sydow), and David’s young son Minos (Lars Passgård). We also hear of two other characters, David’s dead wife and his ex-girl-friend. The action takes place over 24 hours, from evening to evening. The film opens as the four finish a swim in the sea. We learn that David has just returned from Switzerland where he was writing a novel. Karin recently left hospital where she was being treated for mental illness. They have supper and then Minos and Karin (with help from Martin) perform a short play for David. The play appears to have a purpose directed at David. Next day David and Martin leave the Island to buy necessities: their conversation and its filming are very revealing of the two men. Karin and Minos, talk, walk and then shelter in a wrecked boat in the rain. The crisis in the story follows. At the end of the film David talks to Minos as evening closes in. The final shot of the film is a large close-up of Minos in front of a window – behind him we can see the sun low over the horizon. The film then ends with a blank screen or on this occasion the logo of the Festival.

All the performances are superb, but the film is dominated by Harriet Andersson’s Karin. This is a marvellously complex and moving performance. All the performances bring out the tensions, evasions, psychological wounds and character changes in the film. The setting of the Island is beautifully evoked by the superb cinematography of Sven Nykvist, ably supported by the editor Ulla Ryghe and the art director P A Lindgren. And the film makes limited but judicious use of Johan Sebastian Bach’s Violoncello Suite No 2.  The light shimmers on the sea, and the changes from dusk to daylight and from light to shadow are exceptional. Fortunately the film was screened in 35mm – it would have need an above average transfer and at least 4K digital to do it justice.

The film is part of a trilogy including Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1962) and The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963). Time Out comments

… films that are generally seen as addressing Bergman’s increasing disillusionment with the emotional coldness of his inherited Lutheran religion.

The Catalogue quotes Bergman’s own claim that

What I wanted, most deeply, was to depict a case of religions hysteria.

But I thought the film was not really about religion but spirituality, possibly in a humanist sense – rather in the manner found in the films of Carl Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu. It is a powerful representation of the trials and difficulties of family relationships, albeit not a typical family. Like much of Bergman’s work it also relates the past to the present. I think viewers will find themselves considering the influence on Karin’s state of her father, husband and brother. The film is bleak but also offer lyrical moments. In the final sequence there is an ambiguity of the last light of day. And the abrupt ending leaves us to consider what we have seen and heard.