August 24, 2014
Review – From What Is Before (dir. Lav Diaz)

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Although Lav Diaz’s artistry is formidable, the first thing anyone ever mentions about his films is their prodigious length: the longest, 2004′s Evolution of a Filipino Family, clocks in at eleven and a half hours. Waggish aficionados refer to last year’sNorte, the End of History as his short — it’s just over four hours long. Apart from the attendant notoriety, this renders Diaz’s films extremely rare. With the exception of Norte, which was picked up for distribution in the US, UK and France, the only chance of seeing his work is at festivals and special screenings.

Whenever one of these occasions comes around, cinephiles get giddy with excitement. This was the case at this year’s Locarno International Film Festival, which has the international premiere of his latest, From What Is Before, marking Diaz’s first entry in the main competition of an A-list film festival. The blogo- and twitterspheres blew up when the film’s festival selection was announced prior to the festival. Five and a half hours after the first screening, hyperbole started gushing out — and rightly so.

All of Diaz’s films deal with his country’s turbulent recent history.From What Is Before is the third time he’s addressed the era of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos — “the Filipino nightmare,” as he describes it — completing a chronologically inverted trilogy: 2001′s Batang West Side depicts the nightmare’s aftermath, examining the plight of Filipinos living in Jersey City, Filipino Family spans its duration from 1971 to 1987, and From What Is Before hauntingly explores its genesis. From the start, the visuals are spectacular. Having deviated into color with Norte, here Diaz returns to his preferred black-and-white, whose low contrast bestows an almost sepia-like quality on the images befitting the historical material and once again proving his unparalleled mastery of digital video. Even the most hardened analog puritans would be hard pressed to find fault with Diaz’s breathtaking tableaux.

The opening shot of a rural landscape is overlaid with a caption reading “Philippines, 1970” and an elegiac voice-over informing us that “this film is based on memories [and] the characters are based on real people.” The first hour introduces the inhabitants of a tiny barrio buried in the countryside, observing them in a series of protracted extreme long shots, embedding the characters in monumental nature as they go about their daily chores and practice customs such as a healing possession ritual. In this initial chapter, the camera never moves and barely a word is spoken. The most vocal character is the wind, which rages incessantly and combines with the austere cinematography to instill an oppressive sense of dread that will intensify over the course of the film, reaching nigh unbearable levels at the climax. Slowly the film’s protagonists emerge: a young woman caring for her mentally disabled sister, a little boy and his uncle, a solitary winemaker, and the village priest. These characters are familiar from Diaz’s previous work and their role as archetypes is clear, as is the barrio’s function as a microcosm through which to revisit and assess a particularly painful chapter in the nation’s history.

[…]

This is an excerpt of my review from the Locarno Film Festival published by Filmmaker. You can read the full review here.

Since writing the above review, Lav Diaz went on to win the Golden Leopard at the 67th Locarno Film Festival for From What Is Before – congratulations!!

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July 15, 2013
Review - Csak a szél (Just the Wind)

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Considering it was one of the absolute highlights of the Berlinale’s 2012 Competition, taking home the Jury Grand Prix, it’s shameful that it has taken this long for Just the Wind to finally receive a theatrical release in Germany (not to mention its lack of distribution most everywhere else…).

In terms of cinematic portrayals of Romani people, it is one of the best and also one of the most uncompromising. Based on a series of violent attacks against Romani families that occurred in Hungary between 2008 and 2009, the film depicts a day in the life of such a family living in a squalid woodland community. Five families have recently been brutally murdered by unknown assailants and with the authorities all too happy to look the other way, the entire community has fallen victim to acute paranoia in anticipation of the next attack. 

Employing increasingly oppressive cinematography, Just the Wind builds up to a stupefying climax rendered no less horrifying by the fact that there’s never any doubt about the film’s inevitable conclusion. The most commendable feature is the film’s unwavering refusal to embellish its characters, instead embracing negative stereotypes for the specific purpose of underlining the humanity the Romani people are systematically denied.

Csak a szél (E: Just the Wind)| Directed by Benedek Fliegauf (Hungary/Germany/France 2012) with Katalin Toldi, Gyöngyi Lendvai, Lajos Sárkáni, György Toldi. Opens July 18

Originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Exberliner.

June 24, 2013
Review - World War Z

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With $100,000, George A. Romero managed to make Night of the Living Dead (1968), one of the most outstanding examples of the zombie film. With $200 million, Marc Forster managed to make World War Z, an incongruous flip book (in 3D!).

World War Z is less a film than a constant barrage of images discharged at a pace so freneticthe average shot length can’t be over two seconds – it renders any attempt at following either narrative or action completely futile. We know that a zombie apocalypse has somehow gone down without anyone realizing and now the entire world is under siege by hordes of zombies with supernatural strength and agility (think 28 Days Later on meth an analogy that can be extended to the film as whole); however, exactly who any of the characters are or why they should fly to South Korea and then Israel before randomly stumbling upon the key to humanity’s salvation in Wales are trifling particulars we are never burdened with.

In its final act, the film mercifully switches mode, employing long, ominous takes and bloodcurdling silences to generate suspense in an unexpectedly effective climax. Pity that by the time it comes most viewers will be too plagued by nausea or migraine to care. 

World War Z | Directed by Marc Forster (USA/Malta 2013) with Brad Pitt, Mireille Einos, Peter Capaldi, Moritz Bleibtreu. Opens June 27

Originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Exberliner.

May 23, 2013
Review - Leviathan

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A film shot on a fishing ship without dialogue, characters, plot, context or even an apparent structure is an extremely difficult sell. Those willing to take the risk with Leviathan, however, will be rewarded with an extraordinary and purely cinematic voyage as absorbing as anything they’ve experienced on the screen before.

Fixing their GoPro cameras everywhere, co-directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel captured the brutal reality of life on the high seas from myriad perspectives – the fishermen’s, the nature’s and that of the ship itself – giving each equal priority. One moment we are surging forwards with the ship’s bow, splitting the raging waters of the North Atlantic, the next we are flying alongside the boat amongst a swarm of ravenous seagulls before being thrown back on deck, into a deluge of convulsing fish excreted by giant fishing nets dangling from an unseen above.

The editing masterfully conceals the cuts, creating a seamless and perfectly choreographed sequence of shots that combines with the visceral, relentlessly violent ambient sounds to engender a stupefying ballet that ensnares the viewer, leaving him utterly breathless in front of this staggering demonstration of the force of nature, human enterprise and, not least, cinema.

Leviathan | Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel (France/UK/USA 2012). Opens May 23. 

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Exberliner.

April 8, 2013
Review - Bestiaire

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In the Middle Ages, bestiaries were books made up of illustrations of animals accompanied by descriptions containing moral lessons for the reader. With Bestiaire, Côté has reclaimed this tradition, merging elements of the documentary, the essay film and the art film to craft a superb cinematic equivalent.

The film consists almost exclusively of static shots portraying several dozen species of exotic animals held at a Quebec safari park. Although without extra-diegetic soundtrack and virtually free of dialogue, Bestiaire derives much of its impact from the perfect synergy between image and sound. The first half, for example, shows the animals held in a warehouse during the park’s winter closure. In depicting these beautiful animals in a world of concrete and corrugated metal, the meticulous composition of the frame heightens the scene’s artificiality while the menacing ambient sounds of the warehouse – the echoing laments from other enclosures, the hollow reverberations of clanking hooves and banging cages, the snowstorm raging outside – compound the already violent absurdity of the image, rendering it immediate and inescapable.

While indisputably haunting, to consider the film an animal rights treatise would be reductive. Côté’s bestiary is not didactic; it invites introspection. Never tedious or repetitive, the film’s masterly executed minimalism generates a deep level of empathy in the viewer, which then inevitably reflects back, engendering a confrontation with one’s own morality that reaches far beyond the gates of the safari park

Bestiaire | Directed by Denis Côté (Canada/France 2012). Opens April 25 for a week-long run at the fsk - Kino am Oranienplatz. It will also screen on April 18 at the Arsenal as part of their Denis Côté retrospective.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Exberliner.

November 13, 2012
Review - Argo

Considering the way in which Iran dominated the U.S. presidential debate on foreign policy, Ben Affleck’s Argo, released in the States a month before the election, arrives just in time to stoke the fires of paranoia and xenophobia.

Recently declassified information revealed that during the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, six members of staff managed to escape. They hid in the Canadian ambassador’s residence until the CIA camouflaged them as the Canadian film crew of a nonexistent film and ushered them out of the country on a commercial flight right under the Iranian officials’ noses. A true story this unbelievable would be any filmmaker’s dream; too bad it landed in the hands of a filmmaker with about as much tact as a Tea Party zealot.

Even ignoring the politics for a second, it’s not a particularly good film. Consider this painfully formulaic structure: a maverick (Affleck himself – who else?) presents an outlandish scheme to save the day; his superiors first dismiss him and then give in, mainly because of his charisma and wisecracks; he assembles a team of equally wisecracking experts; a number of obstacles arise, all of which threaten to destroy the mission but are heroically overcome at the last second; the day is saved, the maverick is a hero and his former sceptics are forced to admit that he was right all along.

Not only is nothing new, but everything is overdone. The relentless wisecracking is truly unbearable – you’d think everyone in the CIA spoke solely in witty one-liners, regardless of how drastic a diplomatic crisis lay at hand – and the number of mission-threatening obstacles piled up in the last 10 minutes becomes so ludicrous, it completely kills the suspense it so desperately tries to build (yet again, we know they made it, so how suspenseful could it really get?). 

Now for the politics, which upgrade the film from trite to despicable. Reminding us that Cold War-style dichotomy is alive and well in Hollywood, Argo presents the Americans as upstanding champions of freedom, democracy and all other values that are good and righteous, while the Iranians, what little characterization they get, are shown to be but a bunch of violent and deranged animals, barking their incomprehensible language while waving Kalashnikovs in the air. Yes, there is one exception, included no doubt to absolve the film of the criticism levied here: the Canadian ambassador’s servant who refrains from betraying the hostages. However, not only is she in her teens, still too young to have been corrupted by her nefarious environment, but her character isn’t given so much as a minute of screen time – to consider her inclusion as providing a balanced portrait is like arguing that the single shot depicting a pile of bodies in Roberto Benigni’s farcical Life is Beautiful does justice to the horror of the Holocaust.

Vilifying an entire population evidently wasn’t enough and the film’s climax makes sure to extend the discrimination just that comfortable bit further. Even though the plane has taken off, the group is still terrified and it’s only once the captain announces that alcoholic beverages may again be served that they start celebrating their escape. Ah, alcohol, that good old signifier for freedom. Affleck probably cut out the next bit, where one of the hostages happily munches on a bacon sandwich while his wife quips that now he has to start respecting her again – that wouldn’t have been subtle.

Argo | Directed by Ben Affleck (USA 2012) with Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman. Opens November 8

Originally published in Exberliner.

August 31, 2012
Review - Was bleibt

What happens when bourgeois families congregate in arthouse films? Crisis! Such is the case in Was bleibt, except with the customary fireworks replaced by passive aggression and bitter rancour.

All the elements for a good film are there: a convincing script, strong performances – Corinna Harfouch and Lars Eidinger as the mother and elder son are particularly noteworthy – and solid direction and cinematography. And yet, though there’s nothing bad about it, there isn’t anything particularly good either, resulting in a well-executed but bland and ultimately redundant rehash of truisms as old as the bourgeoisie itself.

Was bleibt (E: Home for the Weekend) | Directed by Hans-Christian Schmid (Germany 2012) with Lars Eidinger, Corinna Harfouch, Sebastian Zimmler. Opens September 6.

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Exberliner

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August 25, 2012
Review - Holy Motors

Considering his frequent dismissal as little more than a talented yet over-sensationalist fanboy fixated on the Nouvelle Vague, Leos Carax’s first feature in 13 years works as an exultant re-affirmation if not redemption of all the schismatic idiosyncrasies that have characterised his style, plus an extra bucketful thrown on top for good measure.

Without a narrative to speak of, Holy Motors follows Carax regular Denis Lavant as he’s driven around in a stretch limo that doubles as a dressing room, setting up a series of loony vignettes that see him transformed into ever-more outrageous characters: from the leader of a parade of bare-chested skinhead accordion players raging through a church, to Monsieur Merde, a flower-munching, erection-wielding goblin worthy of Rabelais, to a latex-clad cyber-pornstar performing a ‘sex’ scene so bizarre, it’ll have psychoanalysts frothing at the mouth.

In structure and intent, it’s strongly reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s lit classic If on a winter’s night a traveller. Just as Calvino celebrated literature by offering the opening chapters of ten different novels that were never written, so too Carax celebrates cinema by giving us a glimpse of ten different films that could have been. Unfortunately, the film also shares the book’s weakness: while most of the episodes are brilliant, those that fail kill its momentum and, lacking anything concrete for the viewer to be invested in, highlight a lack of substance beneath the stylistic flourishes and unbridled intertextuality.

Regardless, in sheer lunatic audacity and ambition, it makes for a laudable and incredibly refreshing spectacle.

Holy Motors | Directed by Leos Carax (France/Germany 2012) with Denis Lavant, Michel Piccoli, Kylie Minogue, Eva Mendes. Opens August 30.

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Exberliner

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August 5, 2012
Review - We Need To Talk About Kevin

Horror films have often dealt with a mother’s fear of bearing a wicked offspring. Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen took it literally, bestowing the seed of Satan on their heroines. What if, however, there are no demonic forces involved? The child is yours and as much as you tried, you’ve never been able to convince yourself that you truly wanted him. Despite all your best efforts and sacrifice, you watched him grow from a harrowing baby, to an insufferable brat, to a full-blown sociopath, and just before turning 16, he commits an unspeakable act of terror designed specifically, it seems, to bring your whole world to ruins – what if you aren’t blameless after all? 

Brilliantly adapted from Lionel Shriver’s best-selling novel of the same name, We Need To Talk About Kevin features Tilda Swinton as the protagonist Eva, mother of the wicked offspring Kevin. Her performance is phenomenal (even for her incredible standards), perfectly conveying both Eva’s torments raising Kevin and her devastated psychology after the horror. Ezra Miller is also excellent as the sinister and frighteningly intelligent son and his muted yet palpable hostility towards Eva creates a terrifying tension that gradually builds up to a fierce climax.

Complemented by stunning cinematography and a perfect soundtrack by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood (also the composer for There Will Be Blood), this film’s instilment of genuine horror into suburban domesticity is a real tour de force.

We Need To Talk About Kevin | Directed by Lynne Ramsay  (UK/USA 2011) with Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly. Opens August 16.

Originally published in the July/August 2012 issue of Exberliner

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July 8, 2012
Review - 360

Describing itself on iMDb as a “vivid, suspenseful and deeply moving tale of love in the 21st century”, 360 by erstwhile Cidade de Deus (City of God) director Fernando Meirelles is a veritably trite affair that despite its arthouse and Altman-esque pretensions is only a step above such star-studded atrocities as Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve.

The film depicts the various romantic tribulations of a multi-generational, multi-national ensemble cast as they jet around the world, ‘randomly’ run into one another and have improbably intimate interactions in airport lounges, hotel lobbies and other such cinematically apposite locales. A twenty-something girl (Flor) leaves London for her native Brazil to embrace promiscuity after her boyfriend (Cazarré) cheats on her once too often; a woman nearing middle age (Weisz) ends her affair with aforementioned boyfriend — who else? — while in Vienna her husband (Law) resists picking up a prostitute; an old man (Hopkins) looks back at his adulterous life with regretful wisdom in a monologue delivered at an AA meeting in backwater USA…

360 is painfully formulaic and tries to mask the fact that it has absolutely nothing original, meaningful or even charming to say with a pseudo-complex plot of parallels and interconnections rendered only more artificial and blatant through heavyhanded cinematic techniques such as the overused and highly irritating split screens. Cidade de Deus was a sensational film in so many respects — the scriptwriter Bráulio Mantovani went on to pen the not-so-borderline fascist Tropa de Elite (which, yes, did win the Golden Bear) and Meirelles to make this… what happened?

360 | Directed by Fernando Meirelles (UK/Austria/France/Brazil 2011) with Rachel Weisz, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Foster, Moritz Bleibtreu, Jamel Debbouze, Juliano Cazarré, Maria Flor. Opens August 16.

Shorter version of review originally published in the July/August 2012 issue of Exberliner

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