Category: Film Reviews

Kynodontas (Dogtooth, Greece 2009)

The ‘children’ perform for their parents in Dogtooth.

Not sure what to make of this film and perhaps I wasn’t in the best position to assess its merits – taking refuge on a very hot day and allowing my mind to wander at various points. This is the third feature by writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos. It won the prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2009 and has since been well received by some cinéphile audiences and dismissed by some more mainstream audiences.

The main idea is to offer a metaphor/allegory for contemporary society via a focus on an anonymous (but affluent) Greek family. The father, who owns or at least manages a nondescript factory, has placed his family in a country estate which they are not allowed to leave. His wife is complicit in an arrangement that means that his three grown-up children have never left the estate. They have been deliberately mis-educated so that they have no knowledge of the outside world. The only other person allowed into the estate (blindfolded) is Christina – a security guard from the factory who is paid to service the son sexually. This, of course, provides the possibility for the ‘inciting incident’ that drives the narrative forward in a conventional way. In some ways this is the key to the central problem with the film – although perhaps for some audiences it also provides the means of access.

The events that inevitably follow from Christina’s presence in the household draw on several genre repertoires – prison films, psychological experiment films, family melodramas etc. These narratives promise a resolution, but the film also draws on various art cinema models such as the films of Jean Cocteau or Luis Buñuel. Meanwhile, the style of the film is quite austere with careful framing and a relatively static camera. Some critics have suggested an observational documentary style. It is certainly effective in developing a mood. This is a mood or tone that on the one hand plays to our sense of voyeurism drawing us in to speculation about the sexual activities of three young adults who will be forced to ‘discover’ their sexuality. (None of the characters are named and they have few forms of intellectual stimulus available alongside many ‘distorting’ facts that their father has provided.) The overall approach also lulls the audience so that the isolated moments of real violence are even more shocking.

I can’t say that I enjoyed the film – but I can see that it is well-made (and certainly very well performed). I don’t think I gained any particular insights into a specific critique of contemporary society but I’ve seen suggestions that there is a metaphor for the Greek position within the EU discernible in the narrative. I think younger audiences might enjoy the film more because they may not have seen so many similar films from European art cinema. The film’s title has a specific meaning which I won’t reveal, but I should warn cat-lovers that this might not be the film for them!

If you don’t mind spoilers, there is a full review here which is quite helpful.

Robin Hood (UK/US 2010)

Cate Blanchett takes direction from Ridley Scott (shame on Universal – this was the only decent image of Ms Blanchett I could find).

I remember Russell Crowe in The Insider, a movie in which he successfully represented a three-dimensional human being – a vulnerable central character in a wonderful male melodrama. He also rose to the challenge in Master and CommanderAmerican Gangster was worth watching for Denzel (and Chiwetel Ejiofor) rather than Mr. Crowe and I thought Gladiator vastly overpraised apart from Joaquin Phoenix – although I’m probably in a minority on that. Crowe needs a decent script and a director who knows how to construct a strong narrative. I’m not sure that Ridley Scott can do that consistently and I’m equally unsure as to whether Scott and Crowe together is really the perfect marriage they seem to think it is.

I found this film to be flabby and confused, though the production design and the lesser characters kept my attention throughout. At its centre was a much more interesting film trying to get out – the one with Max von Sydow and Cate Blanchett, who with a little more time allocation (in what is a long film) might have humanised Crowe. This plot strand rehearsed ideas from Sommersby – the man who turns up after years away from war and assumes a dead man’s identity – before occupying the narrative space of Robin and Marian, Dick Lester’s lovely film about an ageing outlaw and his lady. This would have been much more fun than the weird re-writing of Saving Private Ryan offered here.

I hope someone can explain to me why we need this juddering camerawork with the missing frames in order to represent action. There are several fight sequences in the film and none were particularly interesting as fights – my interest was in the ideological import of portraying the baddies as truly evil in their prosecution of the peasantry. I remember some critics praising Ridley Scott as a true heir to Kurosawa after the battle scenes in Gladiator. I don’t think so. Kurosawa and Peckinpah are still the masters for camerawork and editing of large-scale action scenes.

There is no reason why an historical adventure film should be historically accurate or particularly realist – ‘Robin Hood’ is not, after all, an historical figure. But any film electing for ‘Hollywood realism’ does need to be plausible. The plot was riddled with holes in this film. I have no idea where the battle on the beach took place but it seemed physically impossible to get there. Surely the whole point about warfare in England in the 12th Century is that it took a long time to get your army from one part of the country to another – and in that time all kinds of other things could happen.

Of course, this film isn’t for me – although I’m not sure why I can’t be part of a mainstream audience. I watched the film in a sell-out crowd for one of three early evening shows at the swanky new multiplex in London’s Westfield Shopping Centre. It was a mixed audience. A man a couple of seats away from me brought a tiny baby which he tried to lull to sleep on his shoulder. What are Vue cinemas doing letting him in? Most cinemas have separate parent and baby screenings. The film appears to have cleaned up on its first weekend, but I have heard rumblings that the core audience is not impressed – I wonder if we will see a big fall in Week 2?

Four Lions (UK 2010)

Riz Ahmed as Omar – 'leader of the gang'

Cards on the table first – although I was a big fan of the early work of Chris Morris on UK radio and TV (On The Hour and The Day Today), I haven’t seen much of his later work. I’ve also avoided the whole Sacha Baron-Cohen thing, so I can’t make comparisons. I  came to this film with an open mind, fully aware of the interest in it, but not really knowing how the film would pan out. At first, I was wary, keeping stumm when two groups of people in the sparsely occupied auditorium were happily chortling to themselves. Eventually though, I burst out laughing and for the last half hour I could barely contain myself (despite the possibly sobering shocks offered by aspects of the script).

Outline (no spoilers)

Most people in the UK will know the score by now (the film has been very successful on a relatively limited release so far with a £5,000 plus screen average over the first weekend on 115 screens). There are actually five would-be jihadists from Sheffield. The five cover the spectrum from the relatively sane through the delusional and deranged to the completely confused. Bad taste writ large, the plot entertains suicide bombings in various locations/occasions.

I’ve read reviews that suggest that the film is intermittently funny but overall incoherent. I couldn’t disagree more. I found it be thoroughly coherent and brilliantly written (and performed). Morris and his co-writers have several targets and specific aims. Bull’s-eye one is the challenge to show that there are no taboos in comedy. If you can tut-tut at all this film’s scenes and manage not to laugh during the shocking moments, you may have a humour problem.

The comedy comes via an attack on several fronts. The satire on surveillance, security, police hit squads and politicians is perhaps an easy target, but Morris hits it consistently. The idiocies of popular culture, junk food and consumerism get the same treatment (these jihadists communicate via a children’s social networking game and the title refers (I think) to The Lion King). The more contentious targets are of course the extreme conservative elements of Islam in the UK (which are attacked and then the conservatives themselves are treated with some humanity). The five lads are indeed inept, but so are most of the other groups of people. In fact, the only group Morris finds difficult to attack are the real jihadists in Pakistan – and perhaps that is the right approach? The reports of the research Morris undertook point to a belief that in the UK there are more fantasy and inept would-be terrorists than the real thing.

The crunch finally comes with the relationship between Omar (Riz Ahmed) the leader of the five and his wife and son. I’ve seen arguments that suggest that this is the weakest part of the film and also others that suggest that these are the most chilling scenes because they deal with a seemingly rational family that can contemplate martyrdom. I’m not sure. I still think that the film overall hangs together, but any exploration of the ‘real’ psychological study of suicide bombing pushes Morris towards the rather different comedic elements of the Palestinian film Paradise Now. This issue feels like the real heart of the film that we might discuss with students.

The reason everything else works is because, as in all the best films, Morris gives his five characters humanity. These are not crude stereotypes but recognisable lads from South Yorkshire. We know these guys and, daft as they are and utterly misguided, we are on their side. (OK, one’s not from Yorkshire and he’s a dickhead, but we are with the other four.) What this actually means, I’m not sure, but it is a step on from simply demonising Muslim youth in the North of England. I can’t comment on what West Yorkshire Muslims are making of the film, but I’ve heard reports of Muslim audiences who laughed long and hard. I certainly felt better after watching the film – more confident that we (all of us, not the Con-Dems in Whitehall) could sort something out. Putting something like this out so that audiences can engage both their emotions and their brains seems like a good thing.

All the performances are very good and I enjoyed the music. After this film and Shifty, Riz Ahmed has certainly risen to the top of the pile of young male leads in the UK. Researching a little, I’ve learned that a lot of the cast are UK TV stars from programmes that I don’t watch (including Nathan Barley from Chris Morris). That might explain why they work so well together in an ensemble way.

Beaufort (Israel 2007)

Soldiers from the fort prepare to deal with a roadside 'explosive device'

Beaufort is set at the time of the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in 1999-2000 after 18 years of military occupation. The title refers to a hill-top observation post manned by a small group of IDF (‘Israeli Defence Forces’) soldiers and built in the ruins of a Crusader fort first established in the 12th Century and occupied by successive groups of soldiers ever since (including the PLO in the 1970s up to the Israeli attack in 1982). Writer-director Joseph Cedar is a Jewish- American who grew up in a Zionist family and lived in a settlement in Occupied Palestine for two years whilst writing one of his two earlier Israeli films, Time of Favour (2000) (as he explains in an interview in Cineaste Vol XXXIII No 2 in 2008). All three of Cedar’s films (Campfire (2004) about Zionist settlers is the third) have been hits in Israel and Beaufort was the official Israeli Oscar contender in 2008, receiving a Nomination as Best Foreign Language Film – it won a Silver Bear at Berlin.

In many ways the film is a classic Hollywood B movie ‘combat picture’ about the grunts who find themselves effectively abandoned by the their military chiefs. Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller come to mind. Cedar himself says he was inspired by Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959), Malick’s Thin Red Line, Petersen’s Das Boot and Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. I have to say that visually and in terms of the fort’s defenders’ behaviour, I was strongly reminded of several science fiction films. The poster below shows a shot that occurs several times and uses the strange mise en scène created by the prefabricated living quarters and tunnels connecting the various parts of the base. Given the cumbersome kit the soldiers carry and their helmet camouflage, they at times resemble astronauts on a space station under attack from an unseen enemy. They observe the world much of the time through video cameras and the only evidence of the enemy is the barrage of incoming missiles.

One of the striking aspects of the IDF is the age of the soldiers. The commander of the fort is a Lieutenant who is only 22. Although there are a couple of older men, most of the fort defenders seem to be late teens, early 20s. I understand that the IDF mainly comprises conscripts who have three years of service starting at age 18 (for men – women only have to do two years and this won’t usually be front-line service) followed by annual possible reserve call-ups up to age 49.

I confess that when I first watched the film, I thought it was going to be an anti-war statement, but on reflection I’m starting to find it a more disturbing piece – especially after I read a critical commentary that I found very convincing (an excellent resource on the film from a US Israeli Studies scholar). The main conflict in the film is not so much offered by the Hezbollah missiles which rain down on the Israelis with ever-increasing accuracy, but the mismatch between the experience of the ‘grunts’ in the bunkers of Beaufort and the political machinations of the army chiefs and politicians. The focus for the conflict is the young base commander Liraz. He is himself on the edge of some kind of breakdown. He isn’t the greatest military commander and at one point he has a complete funk when he fails to drag a comrade out of danger. But he feels for his men and he generally tries to do what is best for them. At the climactic point in the film he rails against the top brass who order that the troops must stay in the firing line (with extra protection) when everyone knows that a few days later they will retreat anyway. Liraz seems like a riposte to the heroic young commander from earlier Israeli war films and the whole group on the base are portrayed as disintegrating as a disciplined unit.

The film is very much associated with a siege mentality and I was intrigued to read an essay by  Nitzan Ben-Shaul in 24 Frames: The cinema of North Africa and the Middle East on an earlier Israeli war film, Kippur (2000) written and directed by Amos Gitai. Ben-Shaul describes it as a ‘siege film’ and this seems to fit several Israeli films, including Beaufort. The argument is that the siege mentality is built into the Israeli psyche. It comes from religious doctrine, from the history of Zionism and from the recent history of the conflict with the Palestinians. The sense of siege becomes acute in films after 1980 and Ben Shaul argues:

“War is posited as the sole origin of a society that is morally, emotionally, aesthetically and mentally corrupt. Society is represented as anxious and suspicious, its members being malicious and violent, or naive and therefore lost, confused and in despair. This confusion, anxiety and despair are supported by disjointed story and plot lines, articulated within a closed narrative space.” (op cit p.214)

I’m not sure all of that is applicable to Beaufort, but much of it is. The other important point to note is that like the other recent Israeli war film released in the UK in 2008, Waltz With Bashir, Beaufort never shows the enemy and never properly explains the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. The suffering brought about by occupation is thus represented by the effects on Israeli soldiers – not the Lebanese and Palestinians.

Beaufort needs to be analysed and mulled over for the reasons outlined above. Having said that, it is still worth watching for its representation of the futility of most military actions.

Ushpizin (Israel 2004)

Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) and (Moshe (Shuli Rand) admire the 'perfect citron', an essential part of the Sukkoth celebrations in 'Ushpizin'

What do we expect from Israeli Cinema? The 10 or so films produced each year in Israel all tend to benefit from ‘soft money’ – funding from public sector organisations in Israel or for European co-producers. Many of the films tend to be ‘internationalist’ in outlook so that they are accessible to film festivals and arthouse distributors around the world. These tendencies have been criticised as leading to a ‘formula’ in terms of style and to a focus on what are seen as ‘peripheral’ subjects – meaning not that the subjects are unimportant, but that the stories are about Israeli Arabs, contact with Palestinians, ‘marginal’ figures in Israeli society etc. I’ve seen Ushpizin described as belonging to this group, even though, for those outside Israel, it looks on the surface as if it is offering a glimpse of a specifically Israeli community. In fact (like many films) it is both ‘local’ and ‘universal’ and the characters it depicts are both ‘marginal’ and ‘only human’.

‘Ushpizin’ refers to ‘visitors’ who should be welcomed in during the Orthodox Jewish festival of Sukkot which commemorates the period spent in the wilderness by the Jews after the Exodus from Egypt. Families erect temporary huts in outside yards where meals are taken and families will sleep for a week. Visits to the synagogue must be made with the men carrying four items (‘four species’) symbolising the resources available in the wilderness – myrtle, palm, willow and citron. There is much symbolism in all of this, explained in detail on various Wikipedia pages.

The film focuses on a couple living in a Hassidic community in Jerusalem (references are made to ‘Breslau’, which my research suggests actually refers to a town in Ukraine, not the German/Polish city, as the origin of the particular style of the rituals in the film). The couple have run out of funds, since as tradition demands, the man is studying and the woman is not allowed to work outside the home. They fear that they won’t be able to celebrate Sukkot and that their prayers for a child will not be answered. However, two pieces of good fortune provide both a temporary dwelling for Sukkot and the funds to buy food and the ‘four species’. They also receive an unexpected visit from two men, only one of whom is known to the husband. This visit proves the catalyst for a series of events which will transform the couple’s life together.

Once I got past the details of the Orthodox life-style – which wasn’t as unfamiliar as I expected – I realised that this was actually a well-known narrative premise. I was reminded of the Jewish stories that have come out of Eastern Europe and seeped into Anglo-American literary culture. The focus on the citron (devout Jews are supposed to buy the most ‘perfect’ specimen they can find within their means) seems to fit many such stories. The ‘visitors’ are characters from many plays and films – seemingly sent to the couple as a ‘test’ of their beliefs and integrity and their self-knowledge. The same story could have taken place in many communities. The ‘authenticity’ of this particular representation lies partly in the fact that the couple are played by a real-life couple who like the characters in the film are relatively recent converts to the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. Shuli Rand who plays Moshe, the husband, retired from his acting career when he converted and presumably returned for this role (he also wrote the script) because he believed it would promote understanding. The director, Giddi Dar, is, I think, a secular Jew according to the reviews.

I enjoyed the film and it certainly kept my interest as an unusual drama with touches of social comedy. I was also intrigued by the various reviews I found. Mainstream critics and reviewers tended, I think, to be a little condescending to the film, giving it quite high ratings but not really attempting to explore what it meant. Jewish audiences seemed very grateful that somebody had put such a story on the screen. I’m not sure what I think about it as an Israeli film. It is set in Jerusalem (which was the pilgrim city for the original celebrations) and Orthodox communities are gradually moving into the city with the possible outcome that there will be clashes with other communities, especially in the old city. But there are relatively few references to the details of Israeli life today, except for mention of one location in the city as being ‘where the Iraqis are’. Moshe is said to come from Eilat which is down on the Red Sea. I find these little sociological details fascinating, but I guess it is wrong of me to want more of a sense of what other, secular, Israelis make of communities like this – and how different or similar they are to Orthodox communities in the UK and North America.

Telstar (UK 2008)

Carl Barât as Gene Vincent with the Outlaws/Tornados (Ralf Little, James Corden and Mathew Baynton

Carl Barât as Gene Vincent with the Outlaws/Tornados (Ralf Little, James Corden and Mathew Baynton

It wasn’t a good omen that this 2008 film didn’t get a release until Summer 2009 – and then only on 33 screens. I enjoyed it as a British film, but it faces all kinds of problems in attracting a wide audience. Perhaps it will finally find the audience it deserves on DVD.

For those not as ancient as me, Joe Meek was a self-taught genius of the 1950s/60s recording industry and the producer of several great British pop hits of the early 1960s. He was also a gay man when sex between consenting males was still illegal in the UK and to cap it all he suffered from depression and became addicted to uppers and downers. (The Wikipedia entry on Meek is comprehensive.) His was a story that came straight out of a pop biopic and it’s perhaps surprising that it hadn’t been produced as a fiction feature before (there have been two documentaries so far).  Telstar (the title of his most famous recording from 1962) was first a stageplay, written by Nick Moran and James Hicks and Moran is credited as writer-director of the film adaptation.

I think the film faces two common problems. The story is well-known to a relatively small group of 1960s music fans (and to a general audience aged 60+ who remember the songs). For this audience, the film will be attractive, but there will be doubts about the ‘authenticity’ of the script. For the general cinema audience, many of the references will be obscure and they will either be attracted (or repelled) by the appearance of many UK television personalities (the unfortunate James Corden in particular, cast as the famous drummer Clem Cattini). Inevitably, both audiences will be frustrated by the problems of compression that Moran and Hicks faced in presenting the last six years of Meek’s life on screen. The fans will feel short-changed and the general audience possibly bewildered. The latter is understandable since the story is told using quite a complex structure flitting between childhood memories, the final tragic scenes and the major events of the early 1960s. The most noticeable ‘invention’ would appear to be the collapsing of Meek’s two ‘house bands’ the Outlaws and the Tornados into a trio with flexible members.

This is a common problem with biopics and it is unreasonable, if understandable, to complain about the great gaps in the story. (It would be fascinating to learn something about Meek in the 1950s working as an engineer on major label recordings for instance.) Instead, I think it’s worth thinking about how the film works in terms of the British pop picture of the 1960s/70s and 80s, including the pop biopics. On that score, I think it matches up quite well with films like That’ll Be The Day (1973), although its stage origins do hold it back and the lack of budget means that every show on the road for Heinz and Gene Vincent et al seems to be shot in the same theatre. The stage origins also made me think of Little Voice (1998) and the flashbacks to Meek’s Gloucestershire childhood recalled Denis Potter’s TV plays. In some ways the story is similar to Control (2007), although, of course, that film looks and feels very different because of Anton Corbijn’s distinctive photographer’s approach. The other major film which comes to mind is the Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears (1987). Orton was another gay man and conflicted artist whose last days were also in 1967 in the same London borough (Islington) as Joe Meek.

The first half of the film plays as a comedy. Meek was an eccentric figure with his ‘recording studio’ comprising rooms in a flat above a leather goods shop on the Holloway Road (including the backing singer in the toilet). He was also into spiritualism and believed that his hero Buddy Holly had ‘spoken’ to him. Passionate about his recording ideas (he was a genuine innovator), he is portrayed by Con O’Neill as short-tempered, slightly camp and slightly preposterous. O’Neill created the role on stage and he looks good on screen, though I do wonder if a more experienced director might have coaxed a slightly more nuanced performance from him. Some of the younger cast members do sometimes seem to be on a stage. The genre story of a band on the road with a ‘manufactured’ star is also good for several comic scenes. All of this is fine, but personally I would have done without the famous faces of the TV stars and gone for lesser known actors or musicians (there are several musicians in other roles). The comedy might then have seemed more a part of the narrative and the shift to tragedy in the second half would have been smoother.

The songs used in the film are mostly the original recordings and the overall sound design seemed fine to me. I was very taken by the opening credits and by the use of B+W filmed TV archive material from the early 1960s – but the closing titles looked clunky. Overall, I thought this was a very worthwhile effort that continued a tradition of British pop biopics and social dramas of the early 1960s. And if you were wondering, Kevin Spacey does a good job as that familiar figure from the period, the ‘Major’ who acts as Meek’s business partner.