La loi du marché [The Measure of a Man] (2015)

Measure of a Man, The (Poster)

Dir: Stéphane Brizé

Starr: Vincent Lindon, Karine de Mirbeck, Matthieu Schaller

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 1)

An award-winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the latest gut-wrenching work from Stéphane Brizé is a beautifully underplayed human drama, resistant to the increasingly melodramatic connivances that have begun to undermine similar work from the Dardennes brothers. Brizé is assisted by a strong central turn from Vincent Lindon as the put upon, recently redundant, father of an academically gifted disabled son. The hang dog expression of stolid defiance that Thierry increasingly comes to adopt is a world away from the twinkle-eyed lover he played in Claire Denis’ superb Vendredi Soir (2002), and it speaks of Lindon’s impressive range that he can go from the immediate and sensual intimacy of that film, to the detached voyeurism of this, whilst proving equally adept in both roles.

Mia Madre by Nanni Moretti, which also featured strongly at this year’s Cannes, poked fun at the kind of politically engaged, leftist, humanist cinema that Brizé’s work embodies. The director within Mia Madre is making a film about trade union politics and workers’ rights. The insinuation in Moretti’s film is that the director has long since moved away from the preachy politics of such films and now has a degree of worldliness to see these types of films as frauds. It could be instructive for Moretti to pay close attention to Brizé as here is a filmmaker who makes incisive, politically acute films about workers relations to employers, and the political institutions that perpetuate cycles of poverty and unemployment. Crucially Brizé does all of this whilst delivering a taut, formally intriguing and subtly underplayed morality play/character study. I know which of the two films I felt more in tune with. Lindon plays Thierry, a manual labourer who has been let go from long-term employment at an age where it is difficult for him to find new work. Thierry has a loving wife, who appears to be the full-time carer for their disabled son. The son is intelligent and academically ambitious, but heavily physically impaired to the point where his father has to assist him in getting dressed. Thierry needs to find work to ensure he can pay off the last few years of the mortgage upon the family home, as well as seeing to it that his son can get to study his preferred subject at a costly University. Whereas the Dardennes somewhat preposterously boiled down Marion Cotillard’s impending redundancy to a few glib psychological issues and the social politicking of a ridiculous 48 hour timeframe, Brizé embeds his audience within a much longer period of time, effectively a year in Thierry’s life. Rather than this extended timeframe making the drama seem ponderous and over-long, Brizé’s plotting and formal decisions draw the viewer in to a compelling and complex moral dilemma.

Thierry eventually finds work as a security guard in the supermarket of the French title. At this halfway point in the film Brizé chooses to shift the action from a conventional social-realist domestic drama, to a voyeuristic CCTV reality show, in which the supermarket comes to act as a microcosm for all that is fundamentally wrong in the consumer-capitalist culture of the 21st century. It is bravura filmmaking that acts as a direct and defiant riposte to Moretti’s sanctimonious and solipsistic posturing. Not only does the film work as a brilliant political drama, but it also has some of the most cruelly funny and affecting scenes I’ve seen in any film this year. Again, whereas Moretti’s comic drama was over-reliant upon the gurning and mugging of John Turturro’s preening Hollywood actor caricature, here Brizé mines discomfiting comic gold from the excruciating realities of hunting for jobs in a modern marketplace where employers hold most of the cards. During an early Skype interview Thierry is instructed by the prospective employer about how to craft a better CV. Later on during a jobcentre workshop in which jobseekers watch each other’s interview technique and then group critique them, Thierry is taking to task for everything from his posture, to his inability to seem amiable. Lindon is superb in this latter sequence, as each piece of criticism serves only to amplify his feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability. Just following those hang dog eyes is sufficient to get the point.

One of the strongest scenes in a film packed full of arresting moments of human drama actually comes right at the opening to the film. Here Thierry is insistent in trying to communicate his sense of disillusionment with the jobcentre and their training courses. During this sequence we learn a lot about the main dynamics of the film and its characters. Firstly, there is the degree of inflexibility that defines Thierry’s outlook on finding work. Secondly, there is the institutional inflexibility that fails to adequately address Thierry’s job-seeking issues. Finally, there is the complexities and corruptions of a system that creates work for one sector of the population, by placing another sector of the population into pointless and wasteful training programs. The flawed platitudes that Thierry’s job officer keeps trying to peddle, echo the opaque personalisation of language in the supermarket workplace that Thierry eventually finds himself working within. Both conversations hold to the pretence of maintaining ‘niceness’, even when the situation and its frustrations demand the exact opposite. The degree to which Brizé stands above the likes of Moretti and the Dardennes, is in the subtle manner in which he allows the drama to carry both the central protagonist’s overt struggle and the possibility of a similar perspective in the antagonist. In that opening scene we don’t just see Thierry’s frustrating predicament, but also the constraints and protocols that prevent the job officer from actually communicating in a direct, humane and truthful way with Thierry. We see how institutional systems effectively negate the individual human being, whilst incessantly wittering on about the individual and their choices.

When the film veers into the surveillance culture of the supermarket then it becomes a scathing attack upon the flawed society that creates poverty traps and temptations and then condemns those who succumb to either. A repetitive over-shoulder shot of shoplifters and employees being marched down a corridor to an office where no good can come from the ensuing situation is the endgame for an overly condemnatory society. The supermarket uses its CCTV security system to scrutinise both customer and employee for evidence of any wrongdoing. The CCTV footage is inserted directly into large sections of the film, with Thierry and his fellow security guards manipulating the type of shot we see and the way these shots are edited together for maximum dramatic effect. Also, the security guards narrate what they are watching, which rapidly keys the viewer into how they should be seeing the society the film is presenting. There is a great degree of irony in the supermarket manager telling one of his employees – who has been keeping receipts thrown away by customers, so that she can use the voucher discounts on the back of them – that her actions have led to a breakdown in trust between them. As the CCTV inserts have made patently obvious, there was never any trust to breakdown in the first place.

The CCTV footage also operates as an incarnation of omniscience. The personal rigidity and inflexibility in Thierry is shown to have a direct corollary within the rigid and inflexible operating procedures of consumer capitalism, in which a young man thieving an i-phone charger is treated in the same manner as an elderly man stealing a cut of meat, or an employee hoarding discount vouchers that customers have chosen to throw away. All of these individuals have stolen, but the inflexibility of the consumer capitalist system, particularly at the point where it intersects with the justice system, doesn’t treat people as individuals, but simply treats them as ‘thieves’ and ‘not thieves’. Brizé’s decision to align Thierry’s own loosening and liberation with a forceful rejection of the dehumanising aspects of his job, points the audience toward the real object of condemnation, namely the culture and society that can create such heinous job situations in the first place. Literally every character in Brizé’s film has a carefully crafted backstory that slowly drips into Thierry’s central narrative. The overall effect of this wonderfully rich and textured approach to character is to highlight at all times the humanity of people in relation, and how that humanity is placed under unendurable pressure by the inhumane systems we have created to govern our social spheres.

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La loi du marché [The Measure of a Man] (2015)

Macbeth (2015)

Macbeth (Poster)

Dir: Justin Kurzel

Starr: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 1)

Brand Fassbender continues apace. An omnipresent figure in recent English-language cinema output, Fassbender has an easygoing charm and brooding good looks, yet he invariably seems drawn toward the coldest, dourest and sternest of characters. On screen he is most animated when imbued with a zealotry of purpose – Hunger (2008), 12 Years a Slave (2013), The Devil’s Whore (2008). In this regard Macbeth seems like an obvious extension of his carefully cultivated portfolio of louche and heartless bastards. Surprisingly, for someone who so clearly controls the seriousness of their onscreen presence – even Frank (2014) is more tragedy than comedy – Fassbender has resisted the urge of a production credit on this film. In promotional interviews both Fassbender and director Justin Kurzel have talked about their mutual respect for one another’s work and the strong desire they had to work with each other on a film project – this is what comes of being a ‘brand’, you have the possibilities to seek out specific director’s to work with. Both director and star have reunited with Marion Cotillard for the computer game adaptation of Assassin’s Creed (2016), which seems to suggest that all three enjoyed the experience of working on Macbeth. However, you wouldn’t necessarily know that from what you see up on the screen. It sounds churlish to decry an adaptation of the ‘Scottish play’ for being joyless, particularly considering it is essentially a work about the tyrannical mania of ambition and lust for power. Yet Kurzel’s beautiful and inventive adaptation could have done with a little of the spiciness and vitality of Roman Polanski’s Playboy-funded 1971 version.

That said there is much to admire in this latest screen rendition of the Bard. Kurzel has taken significant narrative risks in three areas of the adaptation, all of which appear to work successively in opening up this rather problematic of plays. Prefacing his film with the burial of Macbeth’s youngest son gives Lady Macbeth’s deviousness a vengeful edge, as well as fleshing out Macbeth’s own tragedy – the tragedy of outliving his offspring. The choice to foreground children in the feature also has the effect of highlighting the brutality of the Middle Ages, as seeing a clearly infant Fleance – Banquo’s son – hammers home the point that so many battles of the period were essentially fought by kids, teenagers and very young men. Kurzel also chooses to subtly interweave the courage and valour of Macbeth’s deeds in the opening battle, with the numbing loss of yet another son upon the battlefield.

It is in his approach to violence that the director once again distinguishes this adaptation. Much like in his debut film Snowtown (2011), which veered away from the sensationalism of its headline-grabbing brutality, Kurzel is an extremely moral filmmaker. In Macbeth violent actions are frequently played out to the very point of visceral enactment, at which point the action cuts away from the act and focuses upon the act’s reception, either through close-ups upon a perpetrator, or upon an onlooker. Essentially Kurzel and his editor Chris Dickens at all times seek to relate violence to the effects of violence, actions to consequences. This rigorous framing and editing justifies the oft-featured comments of both director and star, that this is a version of Macbeth interested in the trauma of violence. It is certainly a world away from the macabre embrace of fetishized blood-letting in both Polanski and Kurosawa’s versions of the play.

The presence of a prestige actor like Marion Cotillard in the role of Lady Macbeth is a rather strong indicator of the quiet shift in character understanding that Kurzel has applied to this most awkward of Shakespearan females. We are first shown Lady Macbeth silently grieving over the loss of her youngest son. Kurzel next chooses to present this character in the environs of an exquisitely crafted, small Nordic church, the suggestion being that she has intuited the loss of her second son on the field of battle. The film seems to operate both within the realm of the spirits and the material world, with many small inserts suggesting the presence of ghosts, long before Banquo takes to his haunting. The understated way in which the director mines these two different conceptions of time and space finds a conduit in Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth. Of all the characters within the film – with the exception of the near-silent witches – she is most frequently shown as being associated with both the natural landscape and the phantom figures that prowl around the fringes of the play. Whereas past adaptations of the play have focused upon her demonic self-possession and lust for power, that eventually gives way to outright mania, here Lady Macbeth is merely the initial enticement that worms out the innate tyranny of her husband. On her husband’s assumption of the crown, Lady Macbeth is shown to be a stabilising force aware of the need for propriety as the new King’s paranoia explodes. The incongruity of the banquet scene, in which the boundaries between public and private spheres seem to dissolve, shows Lady Macbeth as the sole figure trying to determinedly enforce this necessary division between what is announced and what is kept secret. Most impressively Kurzel reworks Lady Macbeth’s character by creating more plausible transitions from malevolent schemer to guilt-ridden and remorseful bystander. When Macbeth rounds upon Macduff’s family and publicly burns his wife and children the barbarity of this act is played out upon Cotillard’s shocked and anguished features. There is a sense here that having let the genie of Macbeth’s violent impulses out of the bottle, Lady Macbeth recoils at the horror of his subsequent acts, and her own inability to stop them. After all, as that preface established, this is a woman who has felt the trauma of losing her own child all too keenly.

Another crucial facet of this new Macbeth is potentially its most problematic. Being one of Shakespeare’s tragedies the play is obsessed with the machinations of destiny and fate. This is exquisitely rendered by Kurzel in a series of beguiling aerial birds-eye view shots at crucial moments in the narrative. Whenever Macbeth attempts to kick against the pricks, so to speak, this striking shot intervenes, usually isolating Fassbender within the centre of the shot, surrounded by the regulatory patterns of the castle’s chapel, or the natural world beyond the castle’s coldly detached walls. Light invariably is seen as piercing multiple rays into the darkness. Fate is the deus ex machina, the presiding invisible hand of a god-like force. It has been foretold in the opening encounter with the witches – another nice directorial touch being the simultaneous normalising and weirding of these wraith-like watchers – and Macbeth’s every attempt to evade his ultimate fate, is met with the implacable and relentless logic of its unfolding. What makes the final encounter with Macduff so powerful, other than the manner in which the withheld completion of the violent act gives way to a violent intimacy, is the silent power of a single close-up on Fassbender with his Macbeth finally realising he is no more than a pawn in a game of chess that has already been played out long before. There is something monumental and monolithic in the crushing weight of this close-up, which is essentially a reaction shot, but a reaction shot that looks back all the way to the very beginning of Macbeth’s journey. It makes the resulting coda of Malcolm and Fleance’s assumption of separate swords that bit more harrowing, as here we have the mechanisms of fate going out beyond the individual and into the complexities of people in relation. Rarely has the cycle of violence being so robustly illustrated on screen.

Now with all of this in mind it seems surprising that I find myself only really able to grudgingly admire the artistry and elan of Kurzel’s work. This partly stems from the decision to film the production predominately on location within Scotland. The choice of Skye as the main location for shooting enabled Kurzel to use some magisterial backdrops that are simultaneously laid wide open, accentuating the great distances between settlements, whilst remaining oddly claustrophobic long before Macbeth has retreated to his inner sanctum. This vertiginous aspect to the location shooting serves to add an alienating layer of verisimilitude to the production. By attempting to accurately approximate a sense of the land the historical figure of Macbeth may have trod it only highlights the inscrutability of this period to modern sensibilities. What is more it gives the production designers a thankless task of trying to evade inaccuracy. The overwhelming sense of alienation is most prominent in the questionable decisions of sound-editing and sound-mixing. Bizarrely Kurzel has chosen to render the already distractingly alien cadences and rhythms of Shakespearan English in what can only be described as a modern mumblecore manner. So much of the dialogue in the film is barely discernible, as it is muttered away method-like by Fassbender and friends. At least in the case of Cotillard she has the excuse of working in her second language, but when great British thesps like Thewlis, Hayman and Harris are struggling to make themselves heard then you know this has to be a fault of direction. These issues with dialogue aren’t aided by the imposing dirge of Jed Kurzel’s frequently bombastic score. Thus, a formal and thematic excellence is somewhat undone by the seemingly deliberate layers of alienation that Kurzel inexplicably foists upon the production, making this Macbeth admirable but unlikeable.

Macbeth (2015)

Back to the Future II (1989), Day 2 – Making like Mammon

Back to the Future II (Poster)

Dir: Robert Zemeckis

Starr: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F. Wilson, Lea Thompson, Elisabeth Shue

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 1)

The Back to the Future films were always great holiday viewing when I was growing up. I think I may have watched Back to the Future II on a cinema screen at the Butlins holiday camp in Skegness as late as 1992, having first managed to go to the cinema to see it during the original 1989 release. With a film that was probably the most gratuitously product placement saturated blockbuster of its time (AT&T, Mattel, Nintendo, Nike, Pepsi), the nostalgic hysteria that has gradually surrounded humanity’s arrival at the precise day that Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrive into the future could easily be viewed as great event planning on the part of Spielberg (executive producer) and Zemeckis. No need for anniversary celebrations here, instead you’ve got a built-in random date that gets the geeks and the hipsters amongst us genuflecting in the cinema screens. Our arrival at the 21st October 2015 also enables a further layer of ironic humour to be added to a genuinely entertaining film. How did BTTFII do with regard to its projections into the future? Hoverboards, flying cars and fusion engines running on trash are out there somewhere in the ether, but they haven’t yet taken off. Nike did however develop a 2015 BTTFII trainer with self-tightening laces, just like in the film. The thronged masses have all convened in new temples for one evening and one evening only. All so that they can marvel at the timeline turbulence of the film’s final third, including the sheer chutzpah of getting an audience to watch pretty much the same film as they watched in 1985, but in a condensed thirty-minute version, that awkwardly navigates around the absent Crispin Glover. Great Scott! Them Hollywood Movie brats of the 1970s were truly the astute businessmen of the 1980s. Although Howard the Duck (1986) may pour some cold water on George Lucas’s otherwise hawkish financial savvy.

Returning to films of yesteryear on the big screen has become an increasingly common activity for me. I always find great satisfaction in sitting in a packed cinema with 200+ people and the nostalgic appeal of reissues tends to bring out that kind of audience. Being a child of the 1980s I can remember holiday periods spent at the old ABC Cinema in Kirkcaldy when people still queued around the block to get to see Batman (1989) on an opening Friday. These early experiences of moviegoing, when cinemas would still be full more often than not, have left me with a predisposition toward the bustling, communal screening. Thus, my enjoyment of such one-off retro screenings. Already this year I have enjoyed Now, Voyager (1942), The Terminator (1984) and Jaws (1975) in almost sold out screenings, so no matter what cynicism I might have toward the staging of this BTTFII cinema evening, it’s still wonderful to be enjoying this film in the company of so many others.

Early in the year, aware that this was indeed likely to be a screening, I had reacquainted myself with the original Back to the Future (1985) for the first time in about 15 years. I was surprised how well the whole thing still managed to hold up. Small town America Hill Valley may be, but it was still a place where an African-American had risen to significant public office, and the geopolitical issues of Reagan-era meddling were evidenced in an Arab terrorism subplot. Huey Lewis was more hip than square and the deranged oddity that is Crispin Glover was a significant cast member. The charisma and small guy doggedness that Michael J. Fox brought to his role as Marty McFly worked nicely alongside the rambling mania of Christopher Lloyd’s local Einstein. Back to the Future was almost the perfect blockbuster vehicle for a director like Zemeckis, one of the younger members of the Movie brat troupe that had conducted a putsch upon Hollywood in the 1970s if you believe Peter Biskind. It enabled the boomer generation to look back upon their beloved 50s childhoods without it seeming hopelessly out-of-place in a film of the 1980s. The future in this first film is, afterall, the 1980s, the contemporary period, and the film’s heart is very much with the 1950s. I’d actually long since lost interest in Zemeckis’s career. Post-Forrest Gump I can only think of The Polar Express (2004) as being vaguely enjoyable cinema. Then this year, the year when BTTFII was undoubtedly going to jog a few grey cells with regard to old Bob and his work, Zemeckis only goes and makes another film that is thoroughly enjoyable – The Walk (2015).

How about the BTTFII though, has it stood the test of time? When looking at how BTTFII tackles its futureworld of 2015, it is interesting to consider the way that the film focuses upon a similarly nostalgic view of the past as the first film, but this time from the vantage point of a future that is not the present. The 2015 future has a diner that is modelled upon zeitgeist elements of the 1980s – the Max Headroom show and MTV, for example. The film that is playing at the cinema is yet another sequel to Jaws the film that ushered in the blockbuster movies of the 1980s. The gadgets that are dotted around the future (fax machines, multiscreen TVs, hoverboards) are all just variants on existing technologies in the 1980s. There is a degree of prescience in the way that the McFly household of 2015 is centred around the communications and entertainment hub of a massive flatscreen television, where not only programs are viewed, but video conversations are conducted. The greatest gag of all is the selection of the DeLorean as a time-travelling device, a car that is forever identified with shoddy engineering and workmanship, underlining the all style and no substance nature of the 1980s.

A particularly admirable quality within BTTFII is undoubtedly the films non-alignment with the greed is good mentality of the decade. The McFly’s of 2015 are not successful people. They live in the town’s once attractive new housing development of the 1980s, which by 2015 has gone from being the property of the upwardly mobile middle classes to a dangerous and rundown suburb. The fact that the 2015 Marty isn’t a success in his work place casts the younger Marty in a different light, as he, if unimpeded, will grow into this wheedling, pot-bellied man. What is even more damning of the decade is the world that Doc and Marty return to after the elderly Biff Tannen has upset the timeline by taking the Sport’s Almanac back to his 1950s self. This 1985 is a hellish Hill Valley that Biff Tannen now lords over from his huge multi-storey casino complex. A millionaire many times over, Tannen’s personal corruption has spread out into Hill Valley as a whole. Strikingly, whereas in the 1985 Hill Valley has an African-American mayor, the alternate 1985 Hill Valley seems to have no such governance and the African-American community appear to be in the kind of ghetto that Republicans of the 1970s and 1980s were all too willing to characterise as an urban hell, whilst doing nothing to alleviate these circumstances. The disparity in wealth in this 1985 Hill Valley is what has skewed the community, Tannen’s rapacious pursuit of capital has come at the detriment of almost everyone else. Again there seems an eerie undercurrent of acuity in Zemeckis’s future forecasting.

One unavoidable diminishment of enjoyment on watching the film in 2015 comes with the difference in my own experience of the world. Back in 1989 Hill Valley seemed like a bigger place to me and BTTFII seemed like a larger movie, but from the vantage point of my mid-thirties it is the smallness of Hill Valley and the tightly written narrative of BTTFII that stand out as defining qualities of the film. In many ways it is not so dissimilar from classic tales of fictional small town America, such as It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). The inner geek in me was also satisfied to finally understand why the creepy cinephile projectionist from Zodiac (2007) was so disturbingly familiar. Who is it that works upon Biff Tannen’s car in 1955? None other than that man you never want to go down into a cellar with. So Back to the Future II Day, a film studios went dream of a bonus pay cheque, still delivered a cinema experience worthy of the manic hype.

Back to the Future II (1989), Day 2 – Making like Mammon

Rocks in my Pockets (2014)

Rocks in my Pockets (Poster)

Dir: Signe Baumane

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 2) as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival

Signe Baumane’s first film since 2009’s wonderful short Birth is also her first feature-length work, and what a disarming piece of cinema it is. Choosing to focus her attention upon five women within her own family, this is a film desperately trying to divine where depression comes from and what makes a depressed person suicidal. There is an obvious battle here between ideas of nature and nurture. With a family history like Baumane’s own – three members of her immediate family have killed themselves – it is inevitable that some forms of depression must have a hereditary origin. Yet as Baumane’s film expertly documents in its opening sections, the desperate history of Latvia in the 20th century – twice invaded by Russia, once invaded by Germany, constantly yo-yoing between independence and occupation – significantly contributes to creating extremely difficult situations for her family. What is more the entrenched chauvinism and traditional conservatism of 20th century Latvian society almost certainly placed greater psychological stress upon the female members of families rather than the male

What is immediately arresting about Baumane’s film is that in spite of the frank fashion in which it tackles its subject matter it is a frequently funny and ultimately rather uplifting portrait of survival. There is an extremely condensed poetry in the hand-drawn images – vaguely reminiscent of René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973) – that toys with idioms, historical re-enactments and bizarre flights of fancy. The opening sequence is emblematic of this approach, as Baumane depicts herself pushing a rock up a steep hill, only to stop, straining to hold her place upon the slope, grimly aware that to fall back would put her between a rock and a hard place.

Baumane takes the title for this work from a wonderful moment of empathy that bookends the film. The director’s grandmother was a highly intelligent woman who, thanks to the sacrifices of her father, was able to get educated in Riga. Escaping the small town life that would have otherwise been her lot the grandmother makes an unfortunate misstep of falling in love with her boss, an eccentric entrepreneurial fifty-something father of two. Barely into her mid-twenties Baumane’s grandmother finds herself back in the countryside, but this time jealously guarded by an overbearing husband, who wants nothing more than to bequeath Latvia a small army of intelligent and skilled offspring (8 children in total). Doing her upmost to raise her kids in a way that gives them a great chance in life, she teaches them about the natural world, giving them an innate knowledge and understand of the Latvian forests that surround them. Then she ensures that every one of them gets the best education possible at various different boarding schools across the country. Alone once more with her husband the grandmother is found wading fully clothed in a shallow river near the family home by a passing woodsman, who drags her out of the water. This is the strange family story that troubles Baumane. What exactly was her grandmother doing in the river? The conclusion to the film sees Baumane imagine a meeting with her adult self and her 40-year-old grandmother, in that river. Baumane comes armed with six heavy rocks that she offers up to the wading woman. It is an intelligent and emotionally charged frame for a film that demands answers to troubling questions, and chooses to concern itself with both the desperation of depression and the contradictory mania to live that also manifests itself within her family.

For anyone who is aware of Baumane’s short films over the past two decades then Rocks in my Pockets feels like a perfect distillation of the techniques she has gradually refined in these smaller works. The childlike simplicity of many of her images, particularly the unsettlingly benign, or even cheerful, representations of the ‘voices’ that seem to plague the women of her family, work on a very primal level, appearing to evoke the fear and wonder of the imaginary creatures of our formative years. The hand-drawn animation is also occasionally supplemented with frames and found objects, which lend a greater degree of depth to the image. This effect is particularly prevalent within the frequent cut-aways to how the Latvian forest influences the lives of successive generations of her family. In these moments the dense and colourful forest foliage seems to be made from a succession of fabric swatches. Throughout the film the use of colour is also deployed with a strong sense of how it complements what is being said in Baumane’s lyrical voiceover. There are incredibly rich and deep colours operating alongside cool and pale ones patterned in relation to the highs, lows and intensities of each woman’s feelings.

Perhaps, the most powerful section in the whole film, and one that reminded this viewer of Rithy Panh’s survivor trauma in The Missing Picture, was a protracted riff upon the stuff of nightmares: giant crushing wheels, whirring discs scything through the insides of a person, pain as an expression of guilt and anxiety, a knife driving its way from the inside out. This was Baumane’s attempt to communicate the inward trauma that she experiences on sinking into that dark and lonely place. The violence that is imagined during this sequence is all the more disturbing as it is the body in effect at war with the mind. The body does not wish to self-harm, but the mind has a compulsive desire to do so and creates the necessary torture to get its way. But Baumane never allows herself to give in. Her exploration of her troubled family and her own biological inheritance is just as much a source of black comedy and irony as it is horror and trauma. The survival instinct is most discernible in these moments, and these moments generate deep human empathy within the film that can only have a positive effect upon viewers who may be troubled by some of the same torments.

The project seems to have been a real labour of love, with Baumane, a long-term resident of New York City, providing her own voiceover in Latvian, as well as taking on most of the major production roles. It was yet another production to have been given full backing by Women Make Movies in recent years and was rightly entered as Latvia’s 2014 entrant for the Best Foreign Picture Oscar. It may well prove to be the culmination of Baumane’s long devotion to the animated film form. However, I personally hope that it is just the beginning of a powerful new direction in her work.

Rocks in my Pockets (2014)

Carte Blanche (2015)

Carte Blanche Poster

Dir: Jacek Lusiński

Starr: Andrzej Chyra, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Urszula Grabowska, Tomasz Ziętek

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 3) as part of the 2015 Play Poland Festival

This is a both a very safe Polish film production (based upon a headline grabbing news story, set in a public institution and dealing with a potentially tragic central protagonist) and also one that exhibits all the peculiar elements that Poland brings to standardised genre forms. British audiences will be well versed in the mechanics of the ‘disease-of-the-week’ drama, most often a television movie of US provenance aimed squarely at provoking maximum emotional response from the viewer. Carte Blanche doesn’t play by those rules, even if it is operating within the genre. It’s a grittier film, which constantly undercuts the clichéd dynamics of its characters with a particularly blunt attitude towards the disease itself. Perhaps, the hardest thing for a non-Polish audience to get their heads around will be the central dilemma of Andrzej Chyra’s quietly resourceful history teacher. Whereas in Britain a debilitating disease would only be of issue to a person’s employment prospects if it meant their abilities to do the job were grievously impaired, in Poland it is a more awkward issue. This is due to the social stigmas that are, at the very least, implicitly attached to any person who clearly exhibits a disability. Visible disabilities are still very much the stuff of the periphery and margins in Polish public life, with families often overly-insulating disabled relatives from the world, out of fear or embarrassment. Feliks Falk tackled this issue head-on in his melodramatic thriller Enen (a film that deserves greater recognition), and Lusiński does something similar here, only with a more optimistic outlook.

Chyra is one of my favourite contemporary Polish actors. His azure blue eyes are all too bewitching and Lusiński’s decision to focus attention upon them at every possible moment in the movie is a sensible one. Playing the middle-aged history teacher Kacper, based upon real-life Lublin teacher Maciej Białek (who appears in a brief cameo as Kacper’s sarcastic neighbour), Chyra is playing against type as a generally decent man stuck in a situation that requires him to lie. At the beginning of the movie, after the sudden death of his mother, Kacper is made aware that he has a medical condition that has been passed down maternally and will ultimately lead to his eventual blindness. From here on in Kacper is trying to come up with as many solutions to the problems of his disability that will enable him to continue in his teaching position. This complex cover-up ropes in Kacper’s closest friend, played by Arkadiusz Jakubik, who acts as a confidante and sounding board. However, it is only really through the complicity of his students that Kacper is ultimately able to pull the wool over the authorities of the school for long enough to make them question passing any rash judgement on his capacity to carry out his duties of work.

Lusiński and DOP Witold Plóciennik come up with a visual representation of the effects of Kacper’s disease that gradually narrows and distorts the camera lens’ field of vision. As well as limiting what it is Kacper can actually see, the image is further degraded by a switch to a progressively more monochrome colour palette. By the end of the film Kacper is barely able to make out anything and the images that the viewer are exposed to from Kacper’s POV are a murkily indiscernible swarm of motes and dots. It is as if the retina is quite literally raging against the dying of the light. Even though director and DOP do a good job of working out this issue of displaying visual deterioration, they are often prone to overly ostentatious shots of their Lublin locations. This is partly understandable as Lublin is a striking city that has gone somewhat underfilmed in the past. Yet the heavy-handedness of a few of these ‘artful’ shots undermines the otherwise modest and unassuming nature of the film. This is particularly obvious with one overhead shot of the staircase to a work colleague’s flat, Ewa (played by Urszula Grabowska), which forces the visual identification of this ornate spiral stairwell with the contours of the human eye. A shocking accident sequence is far more effective and arresting, as the camera placement suggests the blind spot that Kacper is hitherto unaware of, and does so in a way that barely draws attention to itself.

Another strength of the film is in the dialogue subversions of the script. Seemingly lifeless classroom sequences, in which it is unclear what exactly Kacper is teaching, are suddenly enlivened by a pointed remark from a student, usually Tomasz Ziętek’s cocksure Madejski. Staff meetings point up the petty grievances and jealousies of the teachers. When Kacper is forced to reveal his secret to a character he has come to care about a great deal, he is met with the cold anguish of a remark describing him as a cripple. At times Lusiński overplays the rapport between students and teacher, and there are baffling moments like when it is revealed that Kacper and one of his colleagues don’t even know each other’s names, but the director generally manages to navigate effectively between maudlin sentimentality and cool detachment.

In recent years there have been a number of Polish films tackling the issues related to disability within Polish society, among them the aforementioned Enen, Jacek Bławut’s intense docudrama Born Dead and the technically stunning international co-production Imagine directed by Andrzej Jakimowski. Carte Blanche doesn’t bear comparison to the best of these films, but within its own modest means and buoyed by an excellent central performance it is a light and engaging social drama worthy of a wider audience. Moreover, it is that rarest of films in Poland, namely a feel-good film.

 

Carte Blanche (2015)

Martian, The (2015)

Martian, The (Poster)

Dir: Ridley Scott

Starr: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara

Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 12) in 2D Drew Goddard and Ridley

Scott bookend their sci-fi rescue mission movie with two brazen touches that suggest screenwriter and director are more interested in the comic than may be expected. First of all the film opens with a mirror image shot of Scott’s 1978 classic Alien. This resemblance is even present in the font of the opening title and that distinct audio cue – a signal ping – that is one of the loneliest sounds in cinema. At the close of a film that has been all about survival against considerable odds what note can be struck other than the comic in Scott’s use of Gloria Gaynor’s disco diva classic ‘I Will Survive’? It’s these seemingly minor elements of the narrative that help to puncture some of the potential for pomposity in a film that is one long celebration of modern scientific ingenuity and the American can-do mentality.

It is a shame then that one of Scott’s more obviously playful films chooses to lazily cast Matt Damon as yet another variation on the everyman hero identifier beloved of white Hollywood leading men for decades. Thinking back to Scott’s breakthrough movie it is interesting to consider how Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, as a woman growing into the almost exclusively male film role of the action hero, does not conform to this everyman trope. Although Alien doesn’t go quite as far as its sequel in establishing her leadership credentials, it is still undoubtedly a rare film in the sci-fi, horror and action genres that foregrounds a strong female fighter. Fast forward to The Martian and we have Jessica Chastain commanding an exploratory mission to mars. However, it isn’t Chastain’s commander left stranded upon the planet, but rather Matt Damon’s WASP-ishly self-confident botanist. What I would have paid to see the version of The Martian that had Chastain battling to survive. Protecting ‘home’ from a monstrous invasive organism is one thing, but apparently we still don’t feel comfortable extending frontier expansion and intrepid exploration to the list of plausible things women can be identified with. The regressive gender politics of The Martian’s seemingly assiduously balanced casting, comes to the fore not only in the choice to make Damon’s Mark Watney the central character, but also in the way Kristen Wiig’s PR chief is the highest profile female figure on display in the NASA hierarchy, and the clumsy film coda that earths the female crew members in safely domestic spheres (Mara’s tech geek having a baby, Chastain’s commander in civvies with her husband).

That said The Martian is a beautiful work of sci-fi cinema, using location shoots in Jordan and Senegal to lend some materiality to the predominately CGI-rendered Martian landscapes. The deep space shots are crisply rendered and the visual effects team have clearly benefitted from insider access to NASA science and technology when composing the various spacecrafts featured throughout. I particularly enjoyed the weightlessness of the zero gravity components of the main craft, with crew members swimming breaststroke-style through the various modules, pods and interconnecting tunnels. The film also manages to find a positive use for the found-footage aesthetic that so haunts modern horror films. The manner in which Watney takes to recording his survivalist endeavours on the Space Hub’s video diary system is both an expression of the character’s confident ego, as well as means for Scott and his long-time editor Pietro Scalia to neatly construct visual progression through what would otherwise be long periods of dead time.

Another similarity between The Martian and Alien is that both films subtly convey a dread of space’s isolation. Of primary concern here is the manner in which technology is a significant alienating factor. Alien’s siren call is an unknown frequency, suggesting that something is out there and in distress. In responding to this communication the crew of the Nostromo bring about their own downfall, until there is only one left alive, with a maniacal machine divining an agenda that does not have Ripley’s safety at heart. In The Martian, Watney’s tomfoolery on a communications channel between the different crew members, ultimately leads to the team having to spend a longer period in storm conditions than is otherwise safe. Watney is cut off from the group after a telecommunications mast blasts into him. Assuming he is dead the crew are forced to head for home without him, leaving him with the remnants of their mission’s technology, and older items left upon the planet by past missions. These technologies give Watney the pretence of being connected, but gradually the film shows this extremely practical mind, becoming more untethered, even as the rescue mission gets ever closer. Watney’s repeated frustrations with failures in technology are the narrative ups and downs of his quest to survive, although fear only really shows itself with the thought that he might have to leave terra firma in a ‘convertible’. Mars is loneliness but it is bearable, space is the terrifying unknown.

Damon, as Watney, blends easy-going charm with the arrogance and determination that comes from being more than aware of your capabilities and expertise. One of the quietly effective sequences that occurs back on earth, in the NASA centre, revolves around an assessment of Watney’s state of mind after so long without human contact. Ejiofor’s mission manager Vincent Kapoor tells the NASA bigwigs how Watney is convincing the various experts speaking to him of his ability to keep producing potatoes for a long enough period to survive. Kapoor then underlines Watney’s liberal recourse to the F-word during these arguments.

Goddard’s script is at its strongest in these early stages of the film when Damon is battling against the conditions on Mars, his inability to communicate his predicament to Earth and his own occasionally over-zealous glee in problem-solving. Efficiency is a key aspect of the film’s first hour, with Watney’s own need to make economies being duplicated in the immediacy with which the audience are sunk into the central predicament of the film and the manner in which Watney’s struggle for survival is neatly broken down into a series of tick-box tasks. As the film drifts into the political quagmires of its mid-period the narrative loses a bit of its initial vibrancy. Strong supporting actors like Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig all deliver commendable performances but the lack of tension in many of the NASA meetings smacks of a movie far too cautious about anything that may paint a major supporter of the production in a bad light (NASA really are the main product on placement here and there will almost certainly be an uptake in applications to the organisation). Likewise, the unnecessary incursion of geopolitics into the films central passages feels like nothing more than another vapid appeal to stronger Sino-American relations; something that has become ever more prevalent in Hollywood movies since China became the dominant global economy outside of the US. The film finally regains some of its equilibrium when the crew come to Watney’s rescue. The camaraderie among these skilled professionals dovetails nicely with Watney’s increasingly urgent situation upon Mars. It is the chemistry between the likes of Chastain, Mara and Pẽna that ultimately transports a potentially clichéd ‘impossible’ rescue into something quietly affective.

In the end the film could have probably been shorn of twenty minutes of the politicking and have worked more effectively as a tense and nail-biting work of sci-fi. Equally, I could have easily spent far longer in either the company of Watney or the crew. As it is the film feels both overlong and oddly rushed. One sequence toward the very end of the film points the way toward what Scott is capable of when he puts his mind to it. Back on Earth Watney is shown on a bench in the grounds of NASA’s training centre. The sequence carries over some of the alienation and wonder of Mars and deep space by focusing upon the familiar environs of home, but in a manner suggestive of Watney seeing the commonplace with a renewed sense of its strangeness. It’s a simple and effective sequence that does so much, with so little. If only Ridley Scott were as disciplined and frugal as his protagonist.

Martian, The (2015)

Walk, The (2015)

Walk, The (Poster)

Dir: Robert Zemeckis

Starr: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale

Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 5) in 2D

I don’t believe in getting a permit.

(Philippe as narrator)

Why bother to make a fictionalised account of a self-proclaimed artistic coup that has only recently been the subject of a successful and award-winning documentary? Robert Zemeckis effectively answers this with The Walk’s stunning final third, which showcases the grand digital reconstruction of the Twin Towers carried out by Kevin Baillie’s visual effects team. Not only do we have a convincing rendering of the outlandish artistry and showmanship of Philippe Petit’s high-wire act, but we also have the digital wizardry of Baillie and his team uncannily resurrecting the Twin Towers which, since 9/11, have become as much a part of New York folklore as Petit himself.

All artists are anarchists to some degree.

(Jean-Louis when first meeting Philippe)

Zemeckis’s stroke of genius, and one that he only occasionally allows to slip into Gumpian sentimentality, is to keep the film appealingly simple. The opening credits give us the clarity of a true and straight line, Petit’s obsession and the film’s fundamental guiding principle. Making Gordon-Levitt’s charismatic turn as Petit a narrating presence within the film’s story highlights the qualities of performance that the Frenchman schooled himself in from an early age. Also, this narrator framework is presented from an idealised post-event time, with Petit standing upon the torch of the Statue of Liberty, the Twin Towers resplendent in the background skyline of New York City. Immediately the audience is asked to consider the anarchic activities of this French performer as a pure expression of the most idealistic principles that American democracy is said to represent, notably freedom. The film’s coda closes this narrator framing very neatly by allowing Petit’s telling of how he came to have a free pass to the top of the Twin Towers, forever, to personalise and represent the overwhelming sense of loss that 9/11 has left on the American psyche. It should come as no surprise, or spoiler, that the film’s closing image is that of those incredible computer-rendered Twin Towers descending into the darkness of memory.

Your heart will tell you what to do.

(A sentimental and clichéd line Annie spins to appease Philippe’s doubts on the night before ‘the Coup’)

The sheer pleasure with which Zemeckis embraces the general heist vibe of Petit’s ‘Coup’, is reminiscent of Spielberg’s return to entertaining form in Catch Me If You Can. Like that film – and as the quote above evidences – The Walk can be guilty of the standard Hollywood clichéd homilies and moments of saccharine sweet sentimentality. However, Zemeckis barely pauses in his narrative momentum, thus never really allowing any of these weaker elements to become overly foregrounded. Gordon-Levitt is a massive boon in this regard. Even with his rather hideous Franglais accent, he manages to exude the impish and eccentric charm of the real-life Petit. It is this performance that effectively settles the film in just the right tonal spot, light-hearted but not too whimsical, elegiac but without being a drag. Supporting turns from James Badge Dale and Charlotte Le Bon offer further ballast to the final high-wire pyrotechnics. Perhaps, the only blot on the copy book is yet another overly ripe Ben Kingsley turn in the role of Petit’s mentor Papa Rudy. Once more, however, Zemeckis shows that he is entirely in control of his material by swiftly moving on from the more histrionic Kingsley moments. Undoubtedly the razor-sharp editing of Jeremiah O’Driscoll is a trump card in this regard, giving the film its fluid and focused momentum. The sequence in which Petit and his crew gather knowledge of the Twin Towers to enable them to put together ‘the Coup’ effectively, is confidently depicted in a series of highly mobile and discreetly cut shots.

The film is a teasingly entertaining build-up to the main event, Petit’s traversal of the void between North and South towers upon only a thin sliver of reinforced steel. In that expertly crafted sequence there is much of the vertiginous horror, tension and wonder of another high altitude fall drama, Everest. Much like that film The Walk aims its awesome moments directly at the pit of the stomach. The weight of gravity seemingly so absent from Petit’s/Gordon-Levitt’s performance, manifests itself instead within the individual audience members. You really do not need the repeated horror and bewilderment of the police officers who pile up on the roofs of both towers, because Zemeckis and his production design team have already extracted maximum effect from their rendering of the daring and insanity of the venture. Zemeckis’s spectacular film can stand alongside James Marsh’s superb documentary as Petit’s own twin monument to a beautiful liberating moment of lunacy. All in all this walk is one well worth remembering.

Walk, The (2015)