Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fierce Hearts in Icy Climes

One of the similarities between today’s two movies is that they take place in isolated places.

The first, How I Ended This Summer, takes place on an island in the Arctic circle; the second, Ondine (out on DVD now), takes place in a remote Irish village.

Summer features two meteorologists, a senior and his junior, Gulybin (Sergei Puskepalis) and Davilov (Grigory Dobrygin), respectively. Their only connection to the outside world is a radio.

To say they are isolated and dwarfed by this hard, icy landscape doesn’t begin to explain it. Think of your index finger on your local cinema’s screen and you more or less have the scale.

Gulybin is a bear of a man, a boor and a bully. Davilov makes mistakes, he retreats behind his earphones and earring, and gets the odd smack when he makes wrong readings. So when he hears a bit of bad news about his boss, via the radio, he keeps it to himself. It’s the only power he’s got, and this simple omission gives the film its freezing tension.

The key to all of this is the pace. Nothing happens quickly in the Arctic wastes. The first third of the movie is all about their dull routine, but it’s fraught with expectation. Why, for example, doesn’t Davilov take a rifle with him when he goes outside? Does he not think there are real bears out there too? Or is he so bored, if not unhinged, already that he doesn’t care anymore?

Of course, a slow movie has to deliver the goods as much as a fast one has to. If the former has to reward our patience the latter has to convince us that it’s not just trying to bedazzle us.

How I Ended This Summer, directed by Aleksei Popugrebsky, delivers in a way that becomes a masterful display of deliberate, chess-like patience. There are no quick moves, nor are there any wasted ones. Every cliché is avoided as the film slowly becomes a metaphor for the old and the new Russia, with an endgame and conclusion that is startling in its simplicity.


Still on the theme of that country, Colin Farrell starred as a Russian recently, in Peter Weir’s The Way Back (also out on DVD now). If the others are political prisoners in the wastes of Siberia, circa 1941, he’s a lowdown Moscow gangster with comrades Stalin and Lenin tattooed on his chest. At least they care about his circumstances, Valka says.

When these escapees reach the border he cannot conceive of a life beyond Mother Russia and stays behind. The movie dies a kind of death at that point, because he is without a doubt the most interesting character in it.

In Ondine he plays Syracuse, a simple Irish fisherman who is divorced and has a daughter who has to have kidney dialysis. One fine day, however, he catches a woman in his nets and his daughter thinks she’s a mermaid.

The key here is that Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview With the Vampire), is the director: he who can make a woman getting dressed look as sexy as a woman getting undressed is cliched.

If his smart young protagonist, Annie (Alison Barry), looks a little like a fish in the most beautiful possible way, then he adorns his gorgeous leading lady, Ondine (Alicja Bachleda), in a dress that not only accentuates her considerable curves but also her "mermaid-ness".

After all, when she sings her strange songs, out-of-season fish seem to magically appear in Syracuse’s nets. So who says his daughter’s belief is so far-fetched? And there are many who say that when the Atlantians left the ocean, the first land they stepped on to was that of Eire.

That may be one truth, but it’s not the only one. The “real” truth is as much in the headlines (Eastern Europeans flocking to Ireland during that short-lived boom) as it is in How I Ended This Summer (nuclear radiation, poisoning the food of “traitors”).

If Ondine is a bit too long, though Summer is longer, then they have another similarity: they both beat with a fierce, original heart.

More Notes on Rabbit Hole and Chess

Last week I mentioned that Nicole Kidman had to fight to get Rabbit Hole made. Due to the pressure of a ridiculously self-imposed deadline, it only occurred to me afterwards that producers probably objected to her character’s opinion about God in a country obsessed with creationism.

During a group session of bereavement a woman says God wanted her little angel. Becca says if he wanted an angel he could just have made another one – he’s God, after all. Later on, in a conversation with her mother, she calls him “a sadistic prick”. Talk about a woman scorned.

Nor would the PC brigade have liked the fact that Becca’s husband, Howie (Aaron Eckhart), and another woman, played by Sandra Oh, smoke a joint before a session and burst out laughing as someone talks about losing a child to leukemia!

So more power to Ms Kidman for making a very brave, quietly subversive movie.


Moaning about a doccy during the recent New Zealand Film Festival, I forgot to mention that there is an excellent film that captures the independent spirit of something mentioned in Bobby Fischer Versus the World. That is, after the sixth game his opponent, Boris Spassky, joined the audience in applauding the American genius’s victory, Cold War or not.

That spirit is perfectly captured in The Luzhin Defence (2000) as a whole and in a moment when an Italian GM is offered a bribe in order to win. Fabio Sartor’s look of withering contempt is a cinematic moment to savour for life.

Directed by Marleen Gorris and starring John Turturro and Emily Watson, the film is based on the novel by that lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov, who was also clearly obsessed with chess. Like the man who made the bribe, of course, he was Russian.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fire in the Hole

John Cameron Mitchell’s first feature film concerned a transsexual punk rocker, his second film started off with a very flexible man giving himself a blowjob, and his third film deals with a middle-class couple losing their child.

Some may say he’s gone soft and others might say he’s matured. What is certain is that he’s extremely talented. His treatment of sex is frank without being offensive, which is quite a feat in puritanical America.

In his latest film, Rabbit Hole, there is no sex, yet it is all about sex. More about this later.

Apparently his executive producer and leading lady, Nicole Kidman, had to fight to get this project off the ground, which is commendable, and chose Mitchell to direct it, which is just plain smart. She should have won her Oscar for it rather than Natalie Portman, who can act but not dance. But then Kidman won the statuette for playing Virginia Woolf, which was a mistake on all fronts through no fault of hers.

Kidman, whom a lot of woman don’t like, interestingly, plays the kind of role in which - from a male point of view - she excels. That is, a repressed woman. You could see it in the hugely underrated and terrifying The Others and you can see it here. The more she keeps it in the more she oozes one thing and one thing only. Sex.

As for the story, Mitchell takes us from the obscure to the known in startling ways. Kidman’s Becca sees a boy in a bus and effectively starts stalking him. It’s only much later that we realise he’s the boy who accidentally killed her son. That technique applies to the truth about losing loved ones too. It takes her mother, played by the superb Dianne Wiest, to finally deliver the sad, hard truth that the pain of loss doesn’t go away, you just learn to live with it.

Aaron Eckhart’s Howie wants to hang on to every visible reminder of his dead son but, eight months on, he also understandably wants sex. Becca, however, wants to get rid of every reminder of her son, because she doesn’t frankly need it to remind her of a child she can see and feel everywhere, but is not interested in sex, whether for its own sake or replacing her dead son with another child. So there you have your classic marital stalemate.

Unfortunately we don’t get to know what Howie does for their rather ideal lifestyle, except that he works in an office that brings in enough moola to afford a double-storey house by a lake and two very expensive German cars. This weakens and limits the drama a little because a lot of people would simply not be interested in what could be described as their comfortable misery.

But as a portrait of a marriage in difficulty it is spot-on, yet it is also more sexual than Mitchell’s second feature, Shortbus, which is as explicit as you can get. After all, even Kidman has said that “you don’t have to be naked to be sexy”.

Exactly, Nicole. Exactly.


Also out on DVD now is Restrepo, a documentary featuring an American platoon in the Korengal Valley, apparently the most dangerous area in war-torn Afghanistan.

Made by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Libya this year, we spend a year with these soldiers in what is described as the real The Hurt Locker, about which I beg to differ.

The latter, though fiction, is unbearably tense, and it is set in Iraq. Those are two vastly different “theatres of operation”, but neither addresses the question of why their soldiers are there.

This means they implicitly legitimise the American presence, rightly or wrongly, but therefore the latter especially fails, since it’s supposed to be a journalistic work. We have seen enough films that give us the “feel” of war – Platoon, Full Metal Jacket – to want to know more.

Restrepo, named after one of the soldiers who was killed during that year, doesn’t have a voice-over but gives us the basic facts in text on a black background. Other than that, the soldiers speak directly to camera, mostly after their “tour” is over, which further diminishes the so-called tension.

The camera also annoyingly stays on their eyes, in close up, waiting for these boys to cry. It is a particularly nauseating journalistic technique, which was handled well in the New Zealand doco Brother Number One, reviewed a few weeks ago.

If Junger and Hetherington should be commended for getting as close to the line of fire as possible, then the reason why Inside Job got the Oscar was because it showed us - often entertainingly - just how corrupt the upper echelons of American society are while their working-class compatriots kill and die for them in faraway, oil-rich countries.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Loving the Americas

Florian Habicht is a German-New Zealander who spent a year’s residency in the Big Apple in 2009 and, though he was under no obligation to make a film, he did.

What is the film “about”? Well, it concerns this guy who sees a woman walking in the street with a slice of cake on a plate. He becomes obsessed with the Russian-born actress, Masha Yakovenko, and starts filming their “relationship”.

Having no idea for a plot he asks people on the street to help him with it, so Love Story becomes just that about a city, too.

Startling things come to light. One man says he believes we come back as animals after we've died. A black woman gives us a philosophy of joy that is sounder than most philosophy. Another man says he doesn’t like New Zealanders. A tramp tells us about his first love. A muscular transvestite, like most of his/her fellow New Yorkers, has a proclivity for romance. A female stockbroker tells Florian to go real slow – that way he’ll get what he wants.

A lot of people suggest that when the sex scene comes (sorry), he should discover that she’s a he, because he wants it to be a letdown. That scene is one of the funniest and also gives us the biggest fright in the film.

At one stage Florian seems to be truly falling for Masha, but by then we don’t know what is “real” or not. He looks genuinely let down when she tells him that he must realise she’s only acting, and she does it with such naturalness – singing a Russian folk song half naked - that you couldn’t exactly blame him if he really did.

Also there to help him with the plot is his very open-minded and enthusiastic father back in New Zealand or Germany, dispensing encouragement from that cyber country, Skype. His enthusiasm has clearly rubbed off on his lanky, dishevelled son, whose offbeat goodwill keeps the film running through the slow spots, and they are there occasionally.

The whole project is helped along by a wonderfully moody soundtrack from other films and eras, and you do come out of the film feeling much better about most things – including Americans, if New Yorkers are indeed such. 


About a month ago I missed a festival film and thought I’ll see Copacabana with Isabelle Huppert as an alternative. I like her (lots) and the title promised something bright and, well, festive - which I needed.

But I should have known it was a trap. After all, it’s a French movie, directed by Marc Fitoussi.

The film is set mainly in Oostende, a grey harbour city in Belgium, which is as pleasing on the eye as an old wet rag. I felt a little cheated, but the story has stuck with me.

Huppert plays a freewheeling, middle-aged woman who has travelled the world doing odd jobs. The problem is she had a daughter during those wandering years and Esmerelda (played, I think, by Huppert’s real-life daughter, Lolita Chammah) is so embarrassed by her mother that she doesn’t want her at her wedding. Esmerelda’s going to marry an accountant and settle down to a boring little middle-class life.

Mama decides to prove that she can hold a job and ends up trying to sell timeshares in Oostende, one of those places Keith Richards would call the arse end of the world.

Whence the title, one might ask. Well, Mama wants to go to the country and city of samba once she’s made some money, which she proves she can - rather well. And she does go there in the end, kind of.

But her natural deviance, if not humanity, gets in the way, and if ever there was an indictment of capitalist greed then it’s this droll little comedy, which shows us that it can be as grey and nasty (but sexy, in the guise of chief saleslady Aure Atika) as any socialist dystopia.

Try to remember watching it if you ever see it in your specialist video store. It’ll stay with you like that mother or daughter you neglected. 

Neil Sonnekus

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Sweet Here and Now

Who would ever have thought of Clint Eastwood wondering out visually what happens to us after we die?

More than that, who would ever have thought he’d make a Claude Lelouch-like film about fate bringing three people together?

Knowing nothing about the film, out on DVD now, I wasn’t expecting it to invert Sam Goldwyn’s famous dictum that you should start with an earthquake and build towards a climax.

Well, Eastwood starts off with the result of a quake, a shocking tsunami, and builds towards A Man and a Woman handshake.

You can only do that kind of thing in Hollywood because you’re Eastwood, who delivers the goods as usual in that steady, assured way of his. Only he can take two comedy actors, Richard Kind (of Spin City fame) and Jay Mohr (of Gary Unmarried fame) and cast them in serious roles.

Eastwood and Matt Damon obviously clicked on Invictus and here Damon plays a San Francisco psychic who doesn’t like seeing into other people’s lives. After all, most of it is misery anyway. So he works as a labourer at a sugar mill instead.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays a smallish part as his cooking partner and proves, once again, that she’s a very good (and very beautiful) young actress.

The third strand to the story is a young boy whose mother’s a London junkie and his twin brother is killed by a truck after running away from a gang of young louts. He also misses a metro train bomb thanks to his brother’s cap being swept off his head.

So there you have it. Five things you’ve seen on your TV set recently. A tsunami, talking to the dead via a “medium”, a cooking masterclass, gang warfare on the streets of London – though a knife death would have been more pertinent right now - and terror bombs.

How will le directeur bring a laid-off American labourer with a strange talent, a high-powered French journalist who’s had an after-death experience (played by Belgian-born actress Cecille de France) and a sad little Pom together?

That creates about the only tension in this story, whose premise you either buy or don't, but it's really about unimportant things – politics, career - falling away and finding your inner courage. And that is still firmly Eastwood territory.

If the little-boy section of Hereafter is not entirely convincing, it’s still a gentle, slyly witty and highly original romance that doesn’t ignore the ugly realities of early-21st century life. But then neither does it celebrate or indulge them.

Neil Sonnekus