Sing Street (Eire-US-UK 2016)

sing-street

This is film is typical of those written and directed by John Carney. So audience responses will probably be similar to that for his earlier films Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013). The other factor to consider is how much you like the popular music of the 1980s — I did recognise some of it and it seemed fairly accurate for the decade.

The basic plot involves what I take to be a ‘boy band’ formed by a group of school students intertwined with the lead singer’s attraction to a teen girl. The material about the formation of the band is heavily influenced by The Commitments (1991), as the S&S review notes. However, I did not think this film was in the same class as the earlier. The musical talent is less and the story line is rather lightweight by comparison.

The lead character is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who, because of family problems, has just moved to a new school. The object of his romantic gaze is Raphina (Lucy Boyton) who provides the motivation for his musical entrepreneurship. These two, together with their supporting cast, are good at playing the teen’s world, though I thought the plotted ages were not always convincing.

In an ironic take on ‘boy bands’ we get the group experimenting with a variety of styles from the 1980′. This has much humour but does start to feel repetitious. And whilst the film is fairly comic, nearly all of the best lines come in the first 30 minutes. As with the cast, the dynamic of a Dublin school in the 1980s is effectively realised. And I thought the attempt to create a fairy-tale ending did not fully work. it also had a pinch from Fellini’s Amarcord (1973),

It sounds good and looks fine, but there is too much shallow focus. To give one example: following a reaction shot we get a second shot, a long shot from behind Conor, who is gazing at Raphina for the first time. But she is not in focus. This does not quite fit with the intent that the audience should register her impact on Conor. Technically it was filmed on both 35mm and RED digital. This seems to be the reason for this sort of shot.

It has a 12A certificate, nothing really untoward. And it has already had what seems to be a minor success in the USA.

A War (Krigen, Denmark 2015)

Under fire in Afghanistan.

Under fire in Afghanistan.

Over the last seven or eight years Danish film and television has become almost familiar in the UK. The major TV serials from the Danish public service broadcaster DR have attracted audiences of around 1 million each week for BBC4 – far larger than for any foreign language films in the cinema. But the same lead actors, writers and directors have also begun to feature in both ‘Nordic’ and Anglo-American films.

Tobias Lindholm is at the centre of much of this activity as a writer and also as a director. Between 2010 and 2012 he wrote 20 episodes of the TV serial Borgen and then the script for the Thomas Vinterberg film The Hunt before writing and directing his own second feature A Hijacking (2012). That film, about a Danish ship boarded by pirates off the Horn of Africa, had lead roles for Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling and Dar Salim – three of the actors who became known to UK viewers via Borgen and other Danish serials. The same trio appears in A War and Pilou Asbæk’s high profile in Denmark is an important factor in how the film works.

Danish shipping is central to Denmark’s profile in international affairs, as is the country’s role in NATO and its participation since Iraq in the so-called “coalition of the willing”, including supporting the Americans in Afghanistan. The aftermath of military service in Afghanistan was the setting for a crime thriller in The Killing 2 serial, but A War offers a rather different narrative in which the focus is on one man’s decision in the midst of battle and its impact both immediately and as examined in a tribunal back in Denmark.

Anti-war? Realism and personal stories?

Tobias Lindholm has made several statements about his film after its selection as the Danish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars – where it was nominated as one of the five finalists. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it received a great deal of attention in the US, including from other filmmakers such as Kathryn Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty (2012).

I wanted to make a film that you couldn’t tell in short words. We wanted a story that was complex and challenging enough that you would bring it back home, and confront your own self-image. I am sick to my stomach; every fibre of my body hates war and what suffering war is creating, so I thought, what if I could make a story where I could start to sympathise with a war criminal and even get the audience to cheer for him — then we’re getting closer to the complexity of the world. It became a private obsession of mine. I used my good old socialist Scandinavian mother as a role model for this. How do I make her feel sympathy towards this guy? (Tobias Lindholm interviewed on IndieWire: blogs.indiewire.com)

In the same interview Lindholm explains that he developed the script with soldiers who had been in Afghanistan and several of them appear in the film supporting Pilou Asbæk. Lindholm also worked with Afghan refugees from a camp in Turkey (where part of the film was shot, as well as Jordan, Spain and Morocco). Apart from a few key lines of dialogue much of the script was improvised/developed by the soldiers themselves, ‘reacting’ to the situation. In the same way, the interpreter gave Asbæk a ‘live’ translation of what the Afghans said during each scene. Lindholm also used the same technique for the Danish scenes of family life – the children were left to behave more or less as they would do at home with relatively few set lines of dialogue. All of this tends towards a mode of realism often associated with Ken Loach and others influenced by Italian neorealism. 

The audience I watched the film with seemed to feel that Lindholm did indeed present the complexity of the situation. Claus Pedersen is a company commander in Afghanistan who, because he feels close to and wishes to protect his men, perhaps becomes too involved in the day-to-day routine patrols the men carry out. As a consequence he finds himself in a situation in which he makes an error of judgement – one which is quite understandable but as the senior officer he must be called to account when things go wrong. Back home in Denmark we see the effects of his absence on his wife Maria (Tuva Nuvotny) and his three small children – and we know that whatever awaits him after a tribunal, his family will also suffer. We are asked to think about the deaths of families (men, women and children) in Afghanistan alongside the dangers for Danish soldiers and the effects on their families. Only the deaths of the Taliban (seen here only in long-distance shots) seem to be ‘collateral damage’. But the Taliban didn’t invite the Danes to come and be shot – perhaps there is an argument that the Taliban (and their supporters too) should be humanised?

Pilou Asbæk as Claus Pedersen facing lay assessors at the tribunal (with his men behind him in the gallery)

Pilou Asbæk as Claus Pedersen facing lay assessors at the tribunal (with his men behind him in the gallery)

The political context

There are several key ‘absences’ in the film. We don’t see any media representations of what would presumably be a significant legal action in the military tribunal and we don’t hear any debates about why Denmark is in Afghanistan. Although we see a few TV vans in the distance and there are reporters in the court room, we don’t hear politicians or media commentators and the soldiers are not ‘doorstepped’ by the tabloids. Though the country is identified, the (English) title implies this is not specifically about Afghanistan but rather about ‘war’ in general (Lindholm’s previous film was ‘A’ Hijacking). For the World Socialist Website (wsw.org) this won’t wash at all:

A War is one of those ‘non-judgmental’, ‘apolitical’ films that is, in fact, thoroughly judgmental and political – its assumptions are simply so in tune with official public opinion as to go unnoticed by the filmmaker and critics.

There is something in this charge and it is certainly a valid point to make about many of these films about Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m not sure about the Danish polity but it would be fair to say in the UK that while a majority has been opposed to involvement in Afghanistan (post Blair and the Iraq fiasco) there has also been widespread support for the men and women who have been sent to Camp Bastion (where the Danes were also stationed up to 2014). But that seems to be Lindholm’s point. He wants us to sympathise with Claus Pedersen while at the same time considering what he has done and what the effects are. 

I was surprised by the ‘coolness’ and ‘flatness’ of the film in that it deals with quite shocking and emotional material. I found that I was engaged and I cared, but also that I was aware of the issues. Lindholm avoids all the genre trappings of the usual courtroom drama. It is a ‘lay court’ comprising three assessors hearing evidence presented by a judge-advocate with Pedersen defended by a lawyer (Søren Malling). By UK standards the tribunal is remarkably calm and civilised (and takes place in a typically low-key, modern setting). The film has a simple narrative and direct, often hand-held cinematography by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck. Lindholm makes the most of small scenes and, for all the improvised acting, a carefully-written script in terms of structure. The WSW criticism lambasts the film for not ding many things and ends up claiming that Lindholm:

seems to be making an effort to create a national-patriotic mythology, portraying the Danes as hardy, stoical and ‘straight-shooting’, precisely at the historical moment when anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment is being stoked up in the country.

I don’t agree with this and a film which tried to do everything that the WSW demands would be very difficult to produce. Lindholm cast Dar Salim (a prominent actor who was previously a soldier) as Pedersen’s second in command and close friend placed in a difficult position. He also cast Dulfi Al-Jabouri as ‘Lasse’, the soldier whose welfare Pedersen seeks to protect and who unwittingly becomes central to the incident which leads to the tribunal. Is this contrived casting to skew the argument or is Lindholm trying to act positively to represent Denmark’s immigrant communities? I don’t know, but I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

A War is definitely worth seeing and provides further evidence of the strength of Danish/Nordic production. The film is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal and I’m disappointed that one of Europe’s leading film companies hasn’t made a better job of promoting the film. I couldn’t find a Press Pack and the DVD (no Blu-ray?) is a barebones affair. As a film that deals with military procedures, one of the difficulties is that it is almost impossible to tell what rank Pedersen holds and as someone pointed out to me, in the British Army Pedersen would have been supported in the field by senior NCOs, experienced men with authority. Is the Danish Army different, just like the Danish legal system? It would be useful to know.

Official Trailer:

Eisenstein in Mexico

A still from Eisenstein's footage in Mexico.

A still from Eisenstein’s footage in Mexico.

Famously Sergei Eisenstein worked on an unfinished film in Mexico in 1931 and early 1932. The visit to this country came at the end of a tour that took in Europe and the USA, including Hollywood. Europe was productive, Eisenstein was involved in making a short avant-garde film at a conference of progressive filmmakers. Hollywood was [predictably] unproductive though Eisenstein did work on some unfinished screenplays. In Mexico he found an empathetic environment and, for a time, was supported by the US socialist Upton Sinclair in producing a film. The film was to be ¡Que viva México!, which remains one of those lost but tantalising projects in film history.

Now Peter Greenaway has written and directed a film about Eisenstein’s sojourn in Mexico. It is typical Greenaway fare, with his usual stylistic flair but also his idiosyncratic treatment of a subject. I saw Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015) at the Leeds International Film Festival. This screening was the low point of the Festival if not the entire year.

The characterisation of Eisenstein offered in the film clearly possesses some of his known traits, in particular his sexual orientation. There is an incredibly long sex scene. But there is little attention to his intellectual and artistic prowess. And whilst there are number of sequences where we see Eisenstein, with his colleagues Eduard Tissé and Grigori Alexandrov, filming, Greenaway’s treatment shows little real interest in this lost but much discussed film.

In addition Greenaway includes sequences from the seminal films that Eisenstein had already made in the Soviet Union. However, these appear to be from not great quality video and [even worse] they have been reframed in to the 2.39:1 anamorphic frame. There are other recent perpetrators of this practice, but few of them have actually inflicted the very wide letterbox on archive footage.

Greenaway does show more interest in the erotic drawings that Eisenstein produced during his stay. A whole truckload of these were confiscated by the US customs on his return journey. Some of them could be seen in the recent exhibition in London, Unexpected Eisenstein.

Greenaway’s film is now receiving a limited general release. It is recommended only for masochists and anti-Bolshevik types. What would have been more illuminating would be the event held in April at the Regent Cinema Eisenstein in Mexico. This event, jointly organised by A Nos Amours and Kino Klassica, included screenings of several films developed from the some 200,000 plus footage shot by Eisenstein and his colleagues. There was Marie Seton’s Time in the Sun (1939), Alexandrov’s  ¡Que viva México! (1979), and a film I have yet to see. Mexican Fantasy (1998). There were also talks and discussions during the event.

My fantasy wish is that the Metropolitans get the Greenaway film and that we deprived northerners get the three-film event.

Sirk #2: The Tarnished Angels (US 1957)

TarnishedAngelsposter

This is a film I have wanted to watch for a long time. I think I once caught it on TV but abandoned the ‘pan and scan’ screening. I finally caught up with it via Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray disc in its full Black & White CinemaScope glory. I was knocked out by what Douglas Sirk could achieve with limited resources and a small cast with four terrific leading players. The film was produced by Albert Zugsmith and written by George Zuckerman and the same pairing had been responsible for Sirk’s previous film Written on the Wind (US 1956). Three of the leads, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack were all in the previous film and again gave everything for Sirk, alongside Jack Carson, who will for me always be remembered for his role in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (US 1945).

The Tarnished Angels was adapted from the 1935 William Faulkner novel Pylons. Set in the early 1930s in New Orleans during Mardi Gras celebrations, the plot concerns Hudson’s alcohol-fuelled newspaperman who sees a human interest story in the tragic trio of Stack, Malone and Carson and the ten year-old boy who rumour suggests might be the son of either man. Stack is ‘Captain’ Roger Shumann, the World War One ace married to Malone’s LaVerne and Carson is the mechanic Jiggs who has followed his captain after the war. Shumann earns a living flying planes kept in the air by Jiggs in what is effectively a circus act – taking part in dangerous races around three pylons on a makeshift airfield (which in this case is by the sea in the delta). LaVerne also performs a thrilling parachute and trapeze act. Hudson’s character, Burke Devlin, is inevitably attracted to LaVerne but doesn’t initially realise quite how volatile the relationships between the three characters are.  Setting what a melodrama in this milieu is picked up again in two later Hollywood films, John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths (US 1969) with Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman and Deborah Kerr and George Roy Hill’s The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) with Robert Redford. (I’m sure there are other earlier titles as well – and other Depression era narratives with similar ingredients.)

One of the noir scenes with Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Middleton. Note the classic table lamps throwing light upwards.

One of the noir scenes with Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and advertising sponsor Robert Middleton. Note the classic table lamp throwing light upwards behind Middleton. The costume design emphasise the effect by dressing Malone in black and white. Similarly, in the outdoor flying scenes, the planes tend to be ‘white’ or ‘black’.

I think what surprised me most was just how ‘expressionist’ the film was and how much it resembled classic films noirs in several nighttime scenes. I note that producer Zugsmith went on next to put together Touch of Evil (US 1958), often quoted as the ‘final’ noir of the classic period. Sirk had one outdoor set of the airfield, several studio interiors of offices/hotel rooms/hangars/newspaper room and a restaurant and then some presumably stock footage of the Mardi Gras. The giant heads of the Carnival are a gift to expressionist mise en scène and Sirk also makes good use of the fairground rides on the airfield on which the boy Jack ‘flies’ a plane while his father is in the air. The cinematographer is Irving Glassberg, about whom I know little except that he seems to have mainly shot Westerns (including one for Anthony Mann). He was born in Warsaw so perhaps he had a Central European feel for noir. He previously shot Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot (1955). He may not have credits for well-known noirs but his work on this film is excellent and is beautifully rendered on this MoC disc.

Dorothy Malone as LaVerne is the real star of the film

Dorothy Malone as LaVerne is the real star of the film

The visual qualities of the film are well-served by the casting. Stack is wonderfully stern, dark and brooding. I’m surprised that I don’t know that many others of his film titles – but as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (US 1959-63) he was an essential part of my childhood TV viewing. Dorothy Malone is the revelation of the film. It’s a sensational performance in which her long hair, seemingly platinum blonde, is matched by a loose white dress for the parachute scenes. One of the extras on the disc reveals how uncomfortable the good Catholic girl from Texas felt about being ‘exposed’ in her costume. If she felt uncomfortable she doesn’t show it. She seems perfectly suited to Sirk’s 1950s films but after The Tarnished Angels, only Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (US 1959) offered her a memorable role. Rock Hudson is also very good, though he does seem rather larger and more powerful than the standard representation of the newspaperman (although he reveals the character’s vulnerabilities very well). I would also have to agree with one comment I read which suggested that Sirk’s usual control was usurped by the wordy script which gives Devlin/Hudson a rousing speech in the last few scenes of the film.

The other clever aspect of the script is to introduce Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia to the narrative. LaVerne is a country girl seduced by the excitement of Shumann’s appearance as the ‘barnstorming pilot’ when the air circus hits her Iowa farm country. Cather’s novel of 1918 was seen as introducing ‘Western’ lives to the literary world. The link between LaVerne and Devlin is made through the novel which she discovers in his room. The farm life promises something much more secure that LaVerne has abandoned to follow Roger (though agrarian life in the US would suffer greatly during the Depression).

Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) has 'no way out' in the noir melodrama

Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) has ‘no way out’ in the noir melodrama

But what’s the narrative really about? (Spoilers coming!) Sirk was certainly interested in flying and he’d tried to adapt Faulkner’s novel when he was at Ufa in the 1930s. For the Stack character, flying is not only exciting but also provides both a means of escape and possibly a means of displacement for his love for Laverne. The central moment of the narrative is when Roger searches for a replacement plane after a crash. He needs a new plane for the big race but the only one available needs an overhaul and it belongs to Matt Ord (Roger Middleton) the big-time sponsor. For Roger to fly requires Jiggs to work all night on the plane’s engine – but only if LaVerne can ‘persuade’ Ord to let Roger have the aircraft. Roger in effect ‘uses’ both of the people who love and respect him. This is a melodrama and we know what will happen. It is Sirk’s brilliance that makes the ensuing drama so compulsively watchable. In his interviews with Jon Halliday (Sirk on Sirk, faber & faber 1997) Sirk discusses the concept of échec which he argues means more than simply ‘failure’ and conveys the sense of being ‘blocked’ with no way out. Sirk’s characters can’t be ‘redeemed’ with a happy ending. Roger can only attempt to ‘save’ LaVerne and Jack by taking away what they most want – his love. Poor old Jiggs seems to be discarded completely. The irony is, too, that the ostensible star of the film, Rock Hudson, is in effect only the narrator (whose interventions move the story forward) – the real protagonists are Roger and LaVerne. From my perspective it seems like Dorothy Malone’s film and she emerges as the noir melodrama survivor.

The Tarnished Angels runs a little over 90 minutes and the Blu-ray is packed with extras, all worth exploring. It looks wonderful in Black & White ‘Scope, the perfect format for this melodrama. I’m tempted now to go back to other Sirk B & W melos.