Sep 14, 2017 - Corn Exchange.
Ricardo Darin and Javier Camara take Cesc Gay and Tomas Aragay’s superb screenplay and offer an acting masterclass in ‘Truman,’ a low key, character driven buddy movie laced with black humour and emotion. It’s a gem, one of those movies that distributors slot into limited release. Catch it if you can. Tomas (Javier Camara), a teacher in Canada returns to Madrid to spend 4 days with his old friend Julian (Ricardo Darin), an actor diagnosed with terminal cancer. So much to catch up on and so little time. Long chats in bars and restaurants fill the days. Laughter, tears, regrets and unfolding intensity as two friends reflect on their lives, mortality and their future. It’s full of wonderful moments. Julian apologises to his pal Luis (Eduard Fernandez) for sleeping with his wife and wrecking their marriage which ironically did Luis a favour. Veteran actor Jose Luis Gomex adds a perfect comic touch to his cameo role as a theatre producer tasked with sacking Julian, a spur of the moment trip to Amsterdam to see his son Nico (Oriol Pla) whom he thinks is unaware of his illness is beautifully played and Julian’s sister Paula (Dolores Fonzi) fussy and protective and ex-wife Gloria (Elvira Minguez), still loving. And what of Truman, the sad-eyed boxer dog who’s the centre of Julian’s life and up for adoption ? A wonderful screenplay, superb cast, cinematographer Andreu Rebas catches the fun of Madrid’s bars and restaurants and Truman melts your heart. A bitter sweet comedy that’s a joy. Don’t miss it. Clive Botting huffingtonpost.co.uk
Sep 18, 2017 - Plaza.
It’s always tricky using a modifier like “fantastic” in a movie’s title, because if the film doesn’t live up to it, the snarky review headlines just sort of write themselves. Sadly for copy editors the world over, Captain Fantastic won’t have that problem. Not only is it wonderful – it is heartfelt, comedic, gorgeous and just the right amount of sad. The sound of sniffling could be heard throughout the theater at Sundance, where it debuted this week. Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) is raising his six children off the grid in rural Washington. They live in a sort of yurt with adjacent tree houses and other buildings, they hunt and farm all of their own food, and they celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday like it’s Christmas. Ben is the sort of ideological-minded communist who hates the greater capitalist culture of America and teaches his children five languages as well as a doctrine to stick it to the man. Their life seems ideal, enough to make you want to cut up your Costco card, buy a VW bus and bathe under a waterfall after doing yoga in a meadow. Though the kids seem almost feral at times, the family meshes well, literally making beautiful music together by the campfire. That’s all threatened when Ben’s wife, who was bipolar, kills herself in a mental institution. Ben packs up the family bus (named Steve) and takes his brood on a five-day journey to New Mexico, where his wife’s parents are holding a funeral. Everything starts to unravel as the children experience the outside world for the first time (you can only imagine their reaction to violent video games) and Ben’s fitness as a father is attacked. Just like former Sundance success Little Miss Sunshine, Captain Fantastic questions what it means to be a father and just what values are important in a family. However, unlike that movie, it looks at the cost of idealism and questions to how far a person must go to live an authentic life. Ben isn’t quirky; he’s fighting for what he believes is right for himself, his kids and the world at large. Mortensen, looking his most mountain-man handsome, is winning and charismatic, walking on the knife’s edge between principled and unhinged. Shockingly, all the children, including the littlest tykes, are up to the challenge. The biggest standouts are George MacKay as the oldest, who is considering going off to college, and Nicholas Hamilton as the middle child, who starts to question why they live like they do. Gorgeously shot and peppered with genuine emotion, this is a great sophomore effort for writer/director Matt Ross, better known as an actor for his roles in Big Love, Silicon Valley and American Horror Story. Finely wrought and inventive, Captain Fantastic surely earns the lofty praise of its title. Brian Moylan, The Guardian (Jan 2016)
Sep 28, 2017 - Corn Exchange.
This bitter-sweet drama focuses on the odd friendship between a Japanese food vendor and an elderly lady replying to his ad for p/t staff. It’s a heart-warming tale with a rather sad ending though depending on one’s perspective it may well be the other way around. Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) is a middle-aged man who works very hard at a tiny dorayaki shop. For the uninitiated, dorayakis are little round pancakes filled with ‘An’, otherwise known as sweet red bean paste. It’s obvious that Sentaro isn’t exactly a happy man, going about his daily duties and serving the few locals, which mainly consist of noisy and chatty girl – all secondary school pupils. One girl named Wakana (Kyara Uchida) comes to visit the shop almost on a daily basis, eating dorayakis and engaging in small talk with Sentaro. Although he seems to tolerate the girl more than actually enjoying her company he never fails to give his ‘special customer’ a bag full of rejects before she leaves. Upon realising that work is simply getting too much for him, he places a notice on the shop’s window looking for a co-worker. Ideally, Sentaro would like nothing more than quit his job altogether but he can’t, because he is indebted to a loan shark whose wife is the owner of the shop. Some years ago Sentaro was involved in a bar brawl during which he seriously injured a man, the outcome for Sentaro was not only a prison sentence but a hefty pay-out to the victim and yes, he got the reparation money from said loan-shark… By the looks of it, Sentaro needs to bake dorayaki pancakes for all eternity until his debts are cleared! One day, a rather odd old lady in her mid-70’s happens to read the notice stuck on the shops window and expresses her interest in the position of a co-worker. Although Sentaro is polite he is also firm with the old woman, who introduces herself as Tokue (Kirin Kiki) and makes it clear that she may be too old and too weak for the job while handing her a complimentary dorayaki. But Tokue doesn’t give up easily and after several failed attempts she returns with a small container that’s filled with her very own red bean paste. At first, Sentaro chucks the container in the bin once the woman is out of sight, but then his curiosity gets the better of him and he actually tries the paste. It’s like nothing he ever tasted before and he has to admit that Tokue’s red bean paste is simply superb. Upon seeing her next, he offers her the job and soon after business flourishes with locals and school pupils patiently queuing for the pancakes. When he asks her for the secret of her bean paste recipe, he comes to realise that in Tokue’s case it’s not just a question of the ingredients but the strange woman actually ‘communicates’ with the beans before turning them into the precious paste, asking them about their journey from the harvest stage to the pre-cooking stage. In fact, Tokue also seems to communicate with the blossoms of cherry trees (her favourite) and the moon! Despite her eccentricities, Sentaro is grateful for having her as his co-worker and slowly but surely a bond of mutual trust and respect is established. Wakana and some of the other schoolgirls are equally intrigued by the old woman and want to know more about her background. Wakana in particular wants to know as to why Tokue’s fingers seem so deformed, to which she replies it’s down to an illness she had when she was young. A little later the shop’s owner turns up with rumours that the deformity of Tokue’s fingers is down to leprosy and asks Sentaro to ‘let her go’. When he reminds her that it’s thanks to Tokue that business is flourishing the bossy shop owner reminds him that he still owes them money, and as long a he owes them he has no saying in any matters. Reluctantly he lets Tokue go with the excuse that the work is too exhausting for her. Weeks pass, and business in the dorayaki shop is almost down to zero again. Sentaro, who still feels guilty about Tokue’s unfair dismissal, and Wakana decide to visit the old woman upon receiving a heartfelt letter from her with the address on it: a sanatorium for former leprosy sufferers. As it turns out, Wakana has just run away from home and taken her beloved budgie Marvy with her as no pets are allowed in her family’s apartment. Sentaro suggests that Tokue will no doubt look after Marvy. The sanatorium is located in vast parkland with beautiful trees and flowers. Tokue is visibly touched by the visit and re-assures Sentaro not too feel guilty about the dismissal, she simply had a great time working at the shop while it lasted. Back in the shop, Sentaro’s boss has plans for some changes and brings a young man along who looks like trouble – a favourite cousin of hers who’s good at grilling meats. Upon a second visit to the sanatorium both Sentaro and Wakana learn that Tokue has passed away as a result from pneumonia, and that she freed Marvy the budgie from his cage to ‘fly free in the skies’. A cherry tree has been planted in the sanatorium’s garden in Tokue’s memory, and before her death she gave instructions to leave her bean paste making equipment to Sentaro. She also left a recorded tape with a very personal message for him and Wakana… In the final scene, we see Sentaro in a park with his own little food stall – right underneath huge cherry trees – and selling dorayakis to the passing public. It would appear that although he still owes money to his boss’ husband, Sentaro is now a happier man thanks to his newfound independence! A gem in its own right, the film protrudes its magic from the subtle performances of the two protagonist and the believable chemistry between Nagase and Kiki. film-news.co.uk
Oct 2, 2017 - Plaza.
Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro has a “written by James Baldwin” credit in its opening sequence. At first this seems like a polite tip of the hat to the author, essayist and public intellectual who died nearly 30 years ago. Soon we realize this is an accurate statement of fact. Each line of the narration that permeates the film is taken directly from one of Baldwin’s texts or letters. His words dominate the archival clips as well. It in no way diminishes Peck’s work as a film-maker to suggest that Baldwin’s ideas and personality are the author of this movie. It is a striking work of storytelling. By assembling the scattered images and historical clips suggested by Baldwin’s writing, I Am Not Your Negro is a cinematic séance, and one of the best movies about the civil rights era ever made. Eschewing talking head interviews, Peck’s documentary ends up as Baldwin’s presumptive autobiography, but it gets there via an unexpected route. During the final years of his life, Baldwin was researching a book he planned to call Remember This House. It would profile three assassinated civil rights leaders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. He intended it to be a personal work, as he knew each of these men, and telling their stories would likely be a springboard to tell his own story at a more advanced age. Beginning with Baldwin’s pitch to his agent, we link to touch points with the slain men, hopping through time, juxtaposing Baldwin’s personal essays with his public statements. (As with last year’s wonderful Best of Enemies, I Am Not Your Negro excerpts from the Dick Cavett show. I can only imagine a documentary about him is headed our way soon.) The entirety of Baldwin’s written and on-camera oeuvre eventually mixes down to a roux, and while Peck uses the occasional chapter break, the effect is more of a Chris Marker-like cine-essay than typical Frontline-like reporter’s documentary. (Though they both focus on the topic of race in America, I Am Not Your Negro is quite the opposite of ESPN’s justly celebrated OJ: Made In America.) Peck occasionally takes advantage of some of Baldwin’s more prophetic passages to flash-forward through time. Images from Ferguson, the Obama inauguration and the dross of daytime TV aren’t there so much to say “see, he was right?” as to make us realize the timelessness of his greater arguments. Baldwin did much of his best writing about America while living as an expatriate, and this outsider’s perspective (shared by Peck, who is from Haiti) brings with it a tremendous amount of clarity. I Am Not Your Negro’s specifics are only intermittent, like reporting on different reactions between white and black audiences during Sidney Poitier films. By and large this film concerns itself with the greater philosophy of why groups in power behave the way they do. This might be the only movie about race relations I’ve ever seen that adequately explains – with sympathy – the root causes of a complacent white American mindset. And it took a black writer and director to do it. The narration is done by Samuel L Jackson, and it’s one of the best things he’s done in years. No offense to the many boldfaced names who swoop into a recording booth to lend their voice and celebrity to a well meaning issue-oriented documentary, but what Jackson does here is give a performance. He doesn’t exactly mimic Baldwin, who we see in many of the archival clips, but he does much more than read words on the page. (I didn’t even realize it was him until the closing credits.) We live at a time when almost every notable person from the 20th century has a documentary about them streaming somewhere. That’s all well and good if they are about someone whose work you fancy. I Am Not Your Negro isn’t a special interest title, it is a film. Jordan Hoffman theguardian.com
Oct 12, 2017 - Corn Exchange.
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu won the Palme d’Or here in 2007 with his pregnancy drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Now he’s closing in on the double. His new film Bacalaureat, or Graduation, is a masterly, complex movie of psychological subtlety and moral weight, about the shabby choices people make as they claw their way up: people constrained by loyalty to others who have helped them with wrongdoing, who use those others’ corruption as an alibi for their own failings, and those who hope that the resulting system of shifty back-scratching somehow constitutes an alternative ethical system. But how about the children, those innocent souls for whose sake all this grubbiness has been endured? Should they be preserved from graduating into an infected world of compromise and secret shame? Graduation stars the Romanian stage and screen actor Adrian Titieni as surgeon Dr Romeo Aldea; he has a difficult relationship with his 18-year-old daughter, Eliza, played by Maria Dragus – who played the priest’s daughter Klara in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. It isn’t just the presence of Dragus that will remind an audience of Haneke. There are many signs that Mungiu has been intelligently influenced by the Austrian director, particularly his 2005 classic Hidden: the same return of the repressed, the same queasy, opaque riddle of guilt-symptoms in the body politic, the same idea of a terrible disgrace being imperfectly buried in the shallow grave of ordinary, day-to-day life and likely to be uncovered at any time. There is also the intimate civil war between an exhausted and cynical middle-aged generation and their angry, bewildered children. Aldea lives with Eliza and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) in a tatty apartment on a grisly Ceausescu-era estate in the city of Cluj-Napoca in northwest Romania. The parents are intensely, almost desperately proud of Eliza: she has been a stellar pupil and has the offer of a scholarship from a British university to study psychology after graduating from high school, conditional on top marks in her final exams. (The exact British university isn’t specified, but Aldea’s beaming remarks about Eliza getting chased by squirrels in Kensington Gardens might indicate Imperial.) Eliza has a chance of getting out of Cluj that her parents could only dream of, yet her unsuitable, low-achieving, motorbike-riding boyfriend might yet drag her down.From the very first, it is clear that his relationship with both women is cool: his wife is clearly suffering from a depression which appears to be undiagnosed and untreated, despite Dr Aldea’s medical background. The opening sequence indicates that she is almost bedridden. Aldea himself is a success: he has risen to the top in his chosen profession, though there are signs that he clearly wished for something other than this provincial existence. The problem is that Aldea has a terrible secret of his own, a secret which may account for mysterious attacks on him: stones thrown at his flat window and car windshield. As the drama continues, Mungiu cleverly allows the audience to consider and discard the various possibilities concerning which characters might have an interest in harming Aldea, before finally offering an enigmatic partial solution at the end (like Haneke). The key reversal comes when Aldea gets a call with terrible news. On the day before her exams, Eliza is assaulted: an attempted, unsuccessful rape. She is physically all right, but in no condition to sit a public examination, still less get top marks. So Aldea has to call on a grisly system of favours and quiet words in friendly ears to see if his daughter can somehow be waved through: he is friendly with the school’s exam committee president (Gelu Colceag) and also the hatchet-faced police chief, investigating the assault case, (played by Mungiu regular Vlad Ivanov, who was the abortionist in 4 Months and also had a cameo as a corrupt oil executive in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann). This officer sets up a meeting with a notorious politician, Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru). But any cheat has to happen with Eliza’s conscious participation. These stomach-turningly awful negotiations are a very distant, bureaucratic cousin to Bonasera’s cringing petition to Don Corleone at the beginning of The Godfather and all the more loathsome because they could result in nothing more than extra guilt, and more bars in the self-created prison of corruption. This is pursued in plot-tandem with the police investigation, which Aldea believes is missing something vital. There is a moment worthy of both Haneke and Antonioni when Aldea prints out a screen-grab from some CCTV footage which he thinks gives an unnoticed clue. But Mungiu creates the queasy possibility that the attempted rape itself is part of a conspiracy of violence driven by envy or revenge – or even that the universe itself is punishing him, with intimate horror, for sexual misdeeds. The key scenes with Aldea and his daughter are almost unwatchably tragic: with no time to lose, he has to induct her into a world of shame – which is the price of survival. British audiences will wince as Aldea tells her that she has to wise up, because Romania isn’t like the UK, where there is no cronyism or backscratching. Well maybe. Graduation is an intricate, deeply intelligent film, and a bleak picture of a state of national depression in Romania, where the 90s generation hoped they would have a chance to start again. There are superb performances from Titien and Dragus. It’s a jewel in this exceptionally good Cannes lineup. Peter Bradshaw theguardian.com
Oct 26, 2017 - Corn Exchange.
This sweet and satisfying, truthful and truly moving 2015 Finnish Estonian drama plays like a sword-based, serious-minded, real-life version of Dead Poets Society or School of Rock. Director Klaus Härö’s film is incredibly good, never taking a false step, and Märt Avandi gives an exquisitely judged, so meticulous performance as Endel, the young Estonian fencer fleeing to his homeland from the Russian secret police. Biding his time, Endel decides to be useful, training a group of young children in the art of fencing – and of course inspiring them, but eventually endangering his own life in the process. Avandi is the heart and soul of the film, graduating slowly from chilly to warm as he finds he has a talent for teaching after all, and an empathy with the kids he hadn’t expected. The film concentrates partly on Endel’s relationship with one troubled boy Jaan (Joonas Koff), whose grandfather (Lembit Ulfsak) leads the parental support for the fencing classes against the school’s dour, uninterested head, who eventually also treacherous. There are girls in the class too, especially feisty little Marta (Liisa Koppel), while Kirill Käro has a significant role in the story as Endel’s helpful friend Aleksei. The inspiring film plays like Dead Poets Society until its long, nail-biting climax, and coda, both which will probably come as the intended big surprise. It's a feel-good film, a little manipulative perhaps, but in a good way. If cinema is passion, this film conveys passion brilliantly. Anna Heinämaa's screenplay is a fictionalised version of the life of Estonian fencer Endel Nelis (1925-1993). Derek Winnert screenjabber.com
Nov 9, 2017 - Corn Exchange.
This confident, relaxed British feature debut by director Chanya Button and screenwriter Charlie Covell is a sort of millennials’ mashup of Laughter in Paradise and Last Orders. Cynical twentysomething Dan (Jack Farthing) has just died of cancer, and has posthumously ordered his two best friends Seph (Laura Carmichael) and Alex (Chloe Perrie) to go on a road trip across Britain to scatter his ashes in personally important locations, for reasons he announces in separate videos which they have promised to watch in each place. In engineering this cathartic quest, Dan plans to sort out their personal issues from beyond the grave. It’s not the most original premise, but it’s very nicely acted by Carmichael and Perrie (who was the lead in Scott Graham’s 2012 movie Shell). There are some great cameos from Julian Rhind-Tutt and Alison Steadman, and some startling moments, such as the surreal scene in which Alex has to play the crucified Christ in an am-dram production of the Passion, and makes a personal confession from the cross. Seph is horrified by Rhind-Tutt’s loopy hippies and their dodgy folk-cultural happenings: “That’s what happens when you’re arty but essentially a bit shit.” Peter Bradshaw theguardian.com
Nov 13, 2017 - Plaza.
A big-hearted picture full of small, understated moments of magic, the New Zealand-based comedy-drama Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an off-kilter charmer. Directed by Taika Waititi (co-director of the uproarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows), this downplays the broad laughs of its predecessor, instead focusing on the emotional thrust of a mismatched buddy movie. Not that any of the central characters would admit to anything as fluffy as an emotional journey. Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a troubled orphan, raised on hip-hop and rejection. Placed with the latest in a series of foster families, this time on a farm far away from the city where he styles himself a gangster, Ricky is reluctant. But his foster aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) breaks down his defences with down-to-earth love and affectionate mockery. However, when a tragedy threatens to steal back the life that Ricky has come to love, the boy finds himself on the run in the bush with Bella’s grizzled husband Hec (Sam Neill) and a dog called Tupac. Gradually, the two rejected loners who only had Bella in common find a kinship, united against the authorities that hunt them down. Waititi has a weakness for sweeping helicopter shots that take in what Ricky describes as the “majestical” New Zealand countryside. More effective are the 360-degree pans, which are a neat alternative to the standard passing-of-time montage sequence. But the film’s main asset is an unaffected naturalism, both in the film-making, and in the unpolished characters that we root for. Wendy Ide The Observer
Nov 23, 2017 - Corn Exchange.
A deceptively simple drama about a family and its thousand-year-old olive tree that is rooted in the best cinematic soil there is — emotional truth — The Olive Tree gets its hooks in early on, and then never lets up. Combining social crit with a deeply human story about the broken and unbroken bonds between generations, this yarn about a young Spanish woman’s literal and spiritual quest to recover a symbolically significant olive tree from its new corporate owners is, like the best work of Bollain, co-scriptwriter Paul Laverty and their colleague and mentor Ken Loach, cinema that cares and wants to make the world better. In Spain at least, sadly it’s an increasingly rare subgenre. Tree's raw human appeal has generated healthy pre-release sales across a range of territories, as well as recent festival play in Miami and Guadalajara: Word of mouth could see it blossom into extended international art house runs. The family of impulsive Alba (Anna Castillo) has fallen on hard times, and they’ve been forced into abandoning olive oil production for poultry farming. On the personal side too, the tensions are running high: Bad business decisions have been made, Alba’s uncle (Arti), embittered but kind-hearted, is unemployed and her grandfather (Manuel Cucala, a local man who has never acted before, and whose authenticity cannot quite be matched by the pros) wanders in hermetic silence around the lands in scenes visually redolent of Erice’s masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive, piling up stones where his and Alba’s favorite olive tree used to stand, before being uprooted (in one of the films emotionally punchy flashbacks) and sold, the money going to set up a beach restaurant that has now gone bust, a victim of the financial crisis. The magnificently gnarled tree, in the film’s defining trope, has been sold to a German energy company that is now using is as their logo: It’s a smart, sharp comment on our current moral crisis, in which marketing swiftly co-opts values. "He’s gone, Alba," her father (Miguel Angel Aladren) poignantly tells her with reference to her grandfather, but Alba is determined to bring him back. ‘I know you’re there,’ she tells him, and promises to bring the tree back to Castellon. For the benefit of the locals she fakes a letter from a German pastor who has promised to return the tree, so it will simply be a case of borrowing a truck and driving to Dusseldorf to get it. She enlists the reluctant help of Arti and the not-so reluctant help of Rafa (Pep Ambros), who has a crush on her, and off they go. Communities are important to Bollain and Laverty, and they borrow to strong effect from Laverty and Loach the technique of mixing pros and locals in wryly comic group scenes, in this case centered on the local bar, which is full of unemployed men. But, the film reminds us, other, Internet-based communities are arising to replace them, and Alba’s quest quickly becomes the focus of a social media protest campaign against the German energy company. There will be a catharsis for some Spaniards in all this, given the widespread feeling that it’s the Germans who have assumed control of the Spanish economy. It is easy for films like this to wear their political hearts too obviously on their sleeves (and this was an issue with Bollain and Laverty'’s 2010 feature, Even the Rain), but the social crit here is not laid on forbiddingly thickly, filtered as it is through these engaging characters. Phrases often heard throughout Spain during the (ongoing) crisis pop up — ‘the whole country has been deceiving itself’, says Arti, which makes the film in part a commentary on that crisis and on their mass exile (an issue dealt with in Bollain’s last film, the Spaniards-in-Scotland documentary In a Foreign Land). Perhaps the only false note is the pompous fiberglass model of the Statute of Liberty, which Arti steals from the house of a wealthy man who owes him money and attaches to the back of the truck. Later, it too obviously becomes the symbolic target of Arti’s working-man frustrations. Flashbacks are used subtly and to potent emotional effect to establish the emotional bonds on which the film depends for its meaning, whether it’s the child Alba putting makeup on her grandfather’s face (this is also a film about the vast gulf, in a country which has changed so rapidly over the last 40 years, which separates the elderly from their grandchildren), or the 10-year old Alba defiantly climbing the ancient olive tree as the bulldozers move in (incidentally, and logically, no olive trees were harmed during the making of this movie). The performances are uniformly strong, and therefore the all-important dynamics between the characters. Castillo is convincing as the healthily spiky Alba, a young woman guided by her emotions and a powerful sense of injustice, but this is equally a film about the recent injustices meted out to the working man, here represented by the tightly-wound Arti. Gutierrez, who delivered one of 2014’s finest performances in the Alberto Rodriguez's multiple award-winning Marshland, is equally nuanced, bristling and committed here as the too-open-hearted Arti. He's also responsible for much of the film’s sly, self-mocking humor. Pascal Gaigne’s gentle orchestral score, like the film as a whole, skillfully negotiates the tightrope between sentimentality and authentic emotion. Sergi Gallardo’s widescreen photography is as unfussily effective in its documentary-style hand-held scenes as it is when it is soaring over the stunning ochre landscapes of eastern Spain. Jonathan Holland hollywoodreporter.com
Dec 4, 2017 - Plaza.
These aren’t the bedtime stories your parents told you: if they were, you might still be lying awake. The new film from the Italian director Matteo Garrone stands apart from the social-realist fables of present-day Naples – the dizzying crime collage Gomorrah and the twinkling instant-fame satire Reality – that marked him out over the last few years as a serious talent. But then Tale of Tales stands apart from almost everything: there’s a reasonable chance it will be the strangest experience you’ll have in the cinema all year. Garrone’s film – his first in English – is a triptych of fables drawn from the Pentamerone, a 17th-century book of Neapolitan folk stories compiled by the Italian poet Giambattista Basile. Watching it often feels, in the best possible way, like wading through a pond of dream soup. Working with three co-writers, including his regular collaborators Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso, Garrone has adapted three stories from Basile’s collection: The Enchanted Doe, The Flea and The Flayed Old Lady. They’re retold here with a kind of mad-eyed fidelity, intent on wringing every last sweat-droplet of transgression and ambiguity from the original work. All three tales are lightly connected, and each one centres on a woman at a pivotal point in her neatly prescribed fairy-tale life. The first stars Salma Hayek as the Queen of Longtrellis, who conceives an heir after eating the heart of a sea-dragon retrieved by her husband, the King (John C. Reilly). But the spell, passed on to her by a wandering soothsayer (Franco Pistoni), also causes a virginal kitchen hand to fall pregnant – and the two women’s matching sons, played by identical twin brothers Christian and Jonah Lees, carry out a Prince-and-the-Pauper ruse against the Queen. Elsewhere, the King of Highhills (Toby Jones) allows his attention to wander from his accomplished daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) to a flea, which lands on his arm during one of her recitals. The scene is a masterpiece of clowning, with Jones’s every reaction to the (of course invisible) jumping insect calibrated to the nearest millimetre for maximum comic effect. Feeding the creature on his own blood, and later chunks of meat, it swells to the size of a sow – while his dwindling interest in his own daughter’s wellbeing causes trouble when the time comes to find her a husband. It’s the kind of film you’ve spent the 10 years wishing Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton would make Jones is on peak form here, but his 19-year-old co-star Cave is a serious match for him, and gives the kind of textured, keenly felt performance – fiery pathos tempered with a deft comic touch – that makes you want to see her cast in everything immediately. Meanwhile, in the kingdom of Strongcliff, a pustulent crone played by Hayley Carmichael and, later, Stacy Martin, tricks her way into the bedchamber of her sex-mad monarch with the help of her equally conniving and hideous sister (Shirley Henderson). The king, enthusiastically played by Vincent Cassel, is horrified and defenestrates her – but fate isn’t finished with this gruesome twosome quite yet, and an enchantment intervenes. Each story is performed and staged with prankish wit and a palpable sexual charge. Sequences of shadow-spun horror rub up against moments of searing baroque beauty: there is something of the haunting, tableaux-like illustrations of Edmund Dulac and Gustave Doré in Garrone’s image-making. The use of creative casting and practical special effects – perhaps most memorably in the scene in which Hayek devours the heart like some obscene, overripe giant fruit – grounds even its most phantasmagorical flights of fancy in the sticky, fleshy moment. The result is something of a readymade cult item – equal parts Pasolini and Python, and the kind of film you’ve spent the past 10 years wishing Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton would make. Though these shaggy-dog stories hail from a bygone age, their tricks feel intoxicatingly new. Robbie Collin telegraph.co.uk
Dec 14, 2017 - Corn Exchange.
Few debuts come punchier, cooler, and more influential than Louis Malle’s 1958 thriller about a Parisian murder plan unravelling, scene by fateful scene. Claude Chabrol’s Le beau serge, released later that year, is generally considered the first film of the French New Wave - why not this? Malle wasn’t in with the Cahiers du cinéma club, and tended to distance himself from their auteurist tenets. But his tight, resourceful, location-shot film, composed superbly with natural light by Henri Decaë, and achieving plenty of contemporary zing with its famous Miles Davis score, is a very clear precursor of the work of Godard and Truffaut. The ingenuity of the plot obviously evokes Hitchcock, and also resembles a superior episode of Columbo, though one with the malefactor mainly hoist by his own petard. He is Julien (Maurice Ronet), a war veteran planning to run off with the boss’s wife (Jeanne Moreau). First, the boss must be eliminated, and Julien concocts a devious scheme, using a rope and grappling hook, to shoot him, make it look like suicide, and return to his desk before anyone clocks his absence. He makes a single error while distracted, and then suffers a calamitous twist of fate in the building’s lift. Meanwhile, Moreau’s character wanders the streets in a tizzy, having formed a disastrously wrong idea of why Julien has failed to make their rendezvous. The construction has a mocking fatalism that might have felt oppressive, but Malle and his actors keep you constantly on the edge of your seat, wondering what curse will befall the desperate lovebirds next. Tim Robey telegraph.co.uk
Jan 11, 2018 - Corn Exchange.
François Ozon is nothing if not a restless film-maker. Despite his ridiculously prolific rate (he’s the Woody Allen of France, churning out one to two films a year), he seems adverse to ever being labelled an auteur. He’s tackled everything from a classic Gallic farce (Potiche), to a murder mystery (8 Women), to an erotic thriller (Swimming Pool), all with varying degrees of success. With an Ozon joint, you never quite know what you’re going to get. Yet still his latest comes as a big surprise. A largely black-and-white loose adaptation of the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch drama Broken Lullaby, which was in turn based on a play by French playwright Maurice Rostand, Frantz is also mostly told in German – a first for the director. It lacks the cheeky humour that characterised his three most inspired hits (8 Women, Potiche and Sitcom), instead favouring the mournful tone of his drama Under the Sand. Still, Frantz feels like new territory for Ozon. He radically shifts from the source material by imagining the entire second half of the story (which fittingly is the best part of the film). Vitally, Ozon has also changed the entire perspective to put a woman at the core of the tale. The original centered on a young Frenchman, who visits the titular German’s soldier’s grave after the end of the first world war. Frantz instead focuses on the German’s fiancee, who strikes up a quasi-romantic relationship with the mysterious stranger after he enters her life. Ozon is often at his best when working with women, and he has a fabulous talent in Paula Beer to bring his protagonist, Anna, to vivid life. She’s stunning in the role. When we first meet Anna, she’s understandably morose and quiet, having recently lost the love of her life to war. Her parents are eager to marry her off to another German suitor, but she’s unwilling to entertain the option. She perks up with the surprise arrival of Adrien (Pierre Niney), a lanky Frenchman with a sexy moustache, who claims to have been close friends with her late partner. Initially, her father wants nothing to do with the man (“Every French man is my son’s murderer,” he snarls). Adrien proves to be such a charming presence, however, that even Anna’s family soon come around to embracing him. Not long into Frantz, Ozon boldly shifts to full-blown colour for some key sequences. The flashbacks, recounting Adrien’s time spent with Frantz in Paris (they tour the Louvre; Adrien teaches Frantz how to play the violin), do away with the gloomy aesthetic, as does a lovely scene that sees Anna and Adrien grow closer over the course of a long hike in the mountains. The colour affords such needed respite from the misery that affects Anna’s circumstance, that when Ozon plunges back into darkness, it hurts. The Pleasantville-like approach is undeniably distracting, but its cumulative effect pays off profoundly in a final shot that’s too special to spoil. Ozon tends to favour a twisty narrative, and again offers a juicy one here that makes further plot description impossible. Suffice it to say that the film’s best stretch involves Anna journeying to Paris and take on a more active role as detective. It’s thrilling to watch such a sullen character finally take flight. Nigel M Smith theguardian.com
Jan 15, 2018 - Plaza.
Discussion of diversity in cinema has come increasingly to the fore in recent months, with female representation highlighted by the Bechdel Test (is there more than one woman in the film, do they talk about something other than men?), the Vito Test for LGBT characters (read more about that here) and campaigns such as this year's #Oscarssowhite, highlighting the lack of racial diversity in awards season - and, by extension, in films in general. Arguably the most under - and badly - represented people of all, however, are those with disability, and in particular, learning disabilities, whose onscreen characters are all too often only defined by the perceived 'limitations' of their situation or presented stereotypically. It's worth noting that, according to a GLAAD's 2015-16 survey just 1.7 per cent of series regulars on US broadcast TV have a disability. All of which makes My Feral Heart - which is, at its best, a warm character study of a protagonist who just happens to have Down's syndrome - a breath of fresh air. Rebutting stereotypes from the outset, Luke (Stephen Brandon) is shown in the role of a caregiver, looking after his elderly - and poorly - mum (Eileen Pollock) at home in what is a well-established and organised routine. When she dies, he finds himself uprooted and plonked in a group home for the disabled, which sees him add a layer of anger over a perceived loss of independence to his grief. So it is that Duncan Paveling and Jane Gull - both working on their first feature - having indicated we should consider any stereotypical views we might hold, explore how Luke's prejudice against the care home initially works against him. Just as we have been shown all may not be as we expect, so Luke comes to learn that things might not be so bad in his new home. He strikes up a sparky relationship with care worker Eve (Shana Swash) while also forming a friendship with Pete (Will Ralstall), who is carrying out his community service in the grounds of the home, while also carrying around his own hidden grief. This is Luke's life and we see things from his perspective, so that when he comes across an injured, feral girl (Pixie Le Knot) he reacts, not as we might expect, but in a way that is fully in keeping with his personality and his raw state of mind in the wake of the loss of his mother. The Girl, unfortunately, comes to add unneccessary melodramatics and confusion to a film that thrives in its simpler, more observational moments, as Paveling doesn't quite have the experience to fully integrate her with the more naturalistic elements of the plot. But if the latter part of the film succumbs to far too much in terms of incident, there is a great deal to enjoy along the way. Gull has a keen eye for nature, beautifully captured by cinematographer Susanne Salavati (another name to watch), giving us a vibrant sense of its emotional appeal to Luke and Pete. She also gets great performances from all three stars. Brandon has an easygoing charm and smoothly conveys both the tension Luke feels between his outgoing nature and his newly discovered introspective grief, while Ralstall embraces Pete's conflict, shifting subtly between the twin engines of rebellion and guilt. Swash is also full of energy as the bubbly Eve, bringing a depth of emotion that ensures her character is never sidelined. This particular narrative might not quite go the distance but I'd put money on almost everyone involved being around for the long haul in terms of future filmmaking. Amber Wilkinson eyeforeye.co.uk
Jan 25, 2018 - Corn Exchange.
“A Man Called Ove” tells the familiar story of the curmudgeonly old man whose grumpy life is brightened by forces beyond his control. These forces take the guise of a much younger person who provides a sense of purpose for the old hero. A film like this rises or falls not only with its central performance, but also with its ability to engage the viewer’s emotions in a credible, honest fashion. Movies like this tend to get dismissed as “manipulative” because audience sympathy for the protagonist is at least partially elicited by flashbacks to a litany of tragic or unfair past events. But all movies are manipulative by default; the effectiveness of that manipulation is the more valid measurement to inspect. On that scale, “A Man Called Ove” is a morbidly funny and moving success. Adapting Frederick Backman’s Swedish best seller, writer/director Hannes Holm doesn’t veer too far from the storytelling structure we’ve come to expect. Instead, he tweaks expectations with the way he presents the material, and his grip on the film’s tricky, tragicomic tone is masterful. For example, several flashbacks are cleverly presented as the “life flashing before one’s eyes” moments triggered by the suicide attempts of Ove (Rolf Lassgård). Ove is a widower whose daily visits to his recently deceased wife’s gravesite end with his verbal promise to join her in the afterlife. His failures of self-annihilation are due more to bad timing than botched attempts—he is constantly interrupted by neighbors or some distracting event going on in his housing complex. Priding himself on his reliability, Ove feels compelled to stop killing himself to address each interruption. Keep in mind that the black humor in this situation doesn’t arise from any mockery of Ove’s pain over missing his spouse. That is presented as real, understandable pain. Instead, the humor comes from Ove’s stubbornness as a creature of habit. Perpetually enforcing neighborhood rules nobody cares about nor adheres to, Ove can’t resist the opportunity to scold those who violate them. Yet, for all his crabbiness, there’s a level of selflessness inherent in Ove’s character, a trait he finds infuriating yet he begrudgingly accepts. His wife, Sonja, played as a young woman in the flashbacks by Ida Engvoll, sees this in the younger version of Ove (Filip Berg), and the much older Ove acknowledges it after much bitching and griping. It’s almost as if Sonja is sending him interruptions from beyond the grave just so he can have an excuse to complain to her like he’s done every day since her passing. This compulsive adherence to routine will keep Ove distracted. Also distracting Ove is the new, young family who moves next door to him. They start off on the wrong foot by crushing his mailbox while ignoring his sign about not driving in the area, and the noise from their young kids is a major annoyance to the childless Ove. Though the husband is originally from the area, his pregnant wife Parvaneh (Bahar Pars) is of Iranian descent and new to the country. It is she who constantly irritates Ove while simultaneously endearing herself and her family to him. Many of his suicide attempts are interrupted by her, and their eventual father-daughter style bond is often predicated on Ove’s opinion that his help is required because he thinks her husband is an idiot. “You survived struggle in Iran, moving here and learning a new language, and being married to that idiot,” Ove tells her after taking up the task of her driving instructor, “driving a car should be no problem!” Of course, she can’t drive it wherever Ove has those “no driving” signs everybody else ignores. Admittedly, “A Man Called Ove” throws everything but the kitchen sink at poor Ove. There’s a shocking death early on that haunts him (and us), and he is the recipient of several slights by higher ups at work and in the government. The marriage between the shy Ove and the jovial Sonja is full of love but fraught with personal tragedies. There’s an almost Job-like mercilessness to some of the fates that befall him, yet the film never dwells on them. Instead, they’re presented rather stoically and serve as a means for us to understand why Ove is who he is. This is a movie that softens its hero by giving him a cat, which sounds syrupy until you see how jacked up and scraggly this cat is. “He likes to shit in private,” says Ove to Parvaneh. “Please give him that courtesy.” One gets the sense that the novel (and the award-winning film version) is so beloved because Ove represents a Scandinavian everyman who saunters on no matter what life throws at him. His admirable resilience toughens like leather, and his love of Saab and hatred of Volvo plays like a beautiful in-joke aimed straight at the hearts of his compatriots. That rivalry even costs him a friendship, though that same friend’s subplot also presents Ove angrily battling the unfeeling agents of bureaucracy that caused him such agony as a young man. Holm pulls everything together in a well-crafted, satisfying package that is nicely balanced between comedy and pathos. As Ove, Lassgård gives one of the year’s best performances. He’s well supported by the other actors (and the aforementioned cat), but this is a rich, complex performance that is both funny and moving. It would have been easy to just let Ove coast by on his amusing grouchiness, but Lassgård lets us see so deeply under that protective exterior. We feel as if we’ve walked a mile in Ove’s shoes and absorbed his catharsis as our own. rogerebert.com
Feb 8, 2018 - Corn Exchange.
Jim Broadbent gives an engaging and sympathetic performance in this movie, directed by Ritesh Batra (known for his Mumbai-set heartwarmer The Lunchbox) and adapted by Nick Payne from the 2011 Booker-winning novel by Julian Barnes, who is to be glimpsed fleetingly in the background of a pub scene. It is a film with an intriguing premise and it’s never anything other than watchable and well acted. But, considering that the story is about suicide and forbidden love, it is oddly desiccated, detached, even passionless sometimes. Despite the title, and despite the emphasis on the lead character’s supposed attainment of emotional closure, there is no satisfying sense of an ending. The flashbacks to the leading character’s 1960s youth are important for giving the story depth and drama, and for taking it out of the parochial world of well-to-do north London. The disclosure of assumed mystery in the flashbacks is deferred, scene-by-scene. But the fiery blast of real emotion and real revelation never truly arrives. And it’s difficult to tell how intentional that reticence is. Broadbent plays Tony Webster, a grumpy retiree, divorced from his elegant and beautiful QC wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) and on reasonably good terms with their grownup daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) who is heavily pregnant and preparing to be a single mother. Amusingly, Tony accompanies Susie to NCT antenatal classes in the place of a partner and embarrasses her horribly with his dad-joke attempts at lightening the mood.Then, Margaret is astonished and quietly angry when Tony takes her out for lunch (in London’s leafy Crouch End, typically) to tell her about a part of his early life she’d had no idea about. Tony has received something in the will of a woman who was the mother of his first girlfriend, Veronica: it is the diary of his brilliant, troubled best friend from school, Adrian (Joe Alwyn), who committed suicide when they were at university, and had been in a painful love triangle with Veronica. Veronica is played as a young woman by Freya Mavor, and by Charlotte Rampling when she and Tony are to meet again. The mother is interestingly played by Emily Mortimer. The past – in the form of an explosively emotional letter he once sent – has caught up with Tony. Jim Broadbent gives an engaging and sympathetic performance in this movie, directed by Ritesh Batra (known for his Mumbai-set heartwarmer The Lunchbox) and adapted by Nick Payne from the 2011 Booker-winning novel by Julian Barnes, who is to be glimpsed fleetingly in the background of a pub scene. It is a film with an intriguing premise and it’s never anything other than watchable and well acted. But, considering that the story is about suicide and forbidden love, it is oddly desiccated, detached, even passionless sometimes. Despite the title, and despite the emphasis on the lead character’s supposed attainment of emotional closure, there is no satisfying sense of an ending. The flashbacks to the leading character’s 1960s youth are important for giving the story depth and drama, and for taking it out of the parochial world of well-to-do north London. The disclosure of assumed mystery in the flashbacks is deferred, scene-by-scene. But the fiery blast of real emotion and real revelation never truly arrives. And it’s difficult to tell how intentional that reticence is. Broadbent plays Tony Webster, a grumpy retiree, divorced from his elegant and beautiful QC wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) and on reasonably good terms with their grownup daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) who is heavily pregnant and preparing to be a single mother. Amusingly, Tony accompanies Susie to NCT antenatal classes in the place of a partner and embarrasses her horribly with his dad-joke attempts at lightening the mood. Then, Margaret is astonished and quietly angry when Tony takes her out for lunch (in London’s leafy Crouch End, typically) to tell her about a part of his early life she’d had no idea about. Tony has received something in the will of a woman who was the mother of his first girlfriend, Veronica: it is the diary of his brilliant, troubled best friend from school, Adrian (Joe Alwyn), who committed suicide when they were at university, and had been in a painful love triangle with Veronica. Veronica is played as a young woman by Freya Mavor, and by Charlotte Rampling when she and Tony are to meet again. The mother is interestingly played by Emily Mortimer. The past – in the form of an explosively emotional letter he once sent – has caught up with Tony.
Feb 22, 2018 - Corn Exchange.
Much of Anne Fontaine’s blistering film “The Innocents” is set within the walls of a Polish convent in December 1945, just after the end of World War II. What at first appears to be an austere, holy retreat from surrounding horrors is revealed to be a savagely violated sanctuary awash in fear, trauma and shame. The snow-covered, forested landscape of the convent is photographed to suggest an ominous frontier that offers no refuge from marauding outsiders. The central character, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge, of “Breathe”), is a young doctor caring for French soldiers in a Red Cross hospital. One day, a young nun appears and pleads with Mathilde to make an emergency visit to a Benedictine convent to save the life of a sister who lies gravely ill. Defying hospital protocol, Mathilde slips away to the convent, where she discovers a pregnant novice in the throes of labor. Mathilde delivers the baby by cesarean section but is sworn to secrecy by the fearful Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza, of “Ida”), who is terrified lest the news of a pregnant nun tarnish the convent’s reputation. Mathilde, a nonbeliever, learns that several months earlier, Soviet soldiers occupying Poland stormed the convent and repeatedly raped the nuns, leaving many pregnant. Mathilde agrees to return and assist in the deliveries of their babies. “The Innocents” is based on real events, recounted in notes by Madeleine Pauliac, a Red Cross doctor on whom Mathilde is based. Ms. Fontaine (“Coco Before Chanel,” “Gemma Bovery”), who extensively researched these atrocities and spent time in two Benedictine convents, writes in the production notes that the soldiers felt no sense of wrongdoing, because they were encouraged by their superiors to commit these crimes as a reward for their hard work on the battlefield. While driving back to the hospital, Mathilde is intercepted at a Soviet checkpoint and pounced on by soldiers, one of whom announces, “She wants all of us!” Were the assault not interrupted by a senior officer, the scene would be unwatchable. “The Innocents” weaves several narrative strands into a complex of themes that sometimes pull against one another. Mathilde, serenely acted by Ms. de Laâge, is a beautiful, preternaturally wise and compassionate young woman: a modern heroine undaunted by the horrors of the world. When a band of soldiers returns to the convent while she is there, her quick thinking saves the nuns from another harrowing round of assaults. The movie gives her a semi-love story in her affair with a medical supervisor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), a soulful Jewish doctor. The screenplay (by Ms. Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer, Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial, working from a concept by Philippe Maynial) depicts the relationship as a friendly romance of convenience by two lonely, overstressed people who may never meet again. When Mathilde returns to the convent, he accompanies her, and they work as a team to deliver the remaining babies. The film takes care to distinguish the sisters from one another in their responses to a kind of brutality that the most naïve among them couldn’t have imagined. Those with more worldly backgrounds are better able to cope. “The Innocents” resists the temptation to wallow in sentiment as the nuns give birth, and images of new mothers cuddling their newborns are kept to a minimum. What you feel is their agony, terror and confusion. But the film surrenders to convention once a too-neat solution is found for the care of the little ones. It is a soggy end to an otherwise tough, troubling film whose images of brutality and helplessness are hard to shake. “The Innocents” is most interested in exploring how the atrocities test the sisters’ religious faith. As more of them give birth, the movie creates a complex group portrait. To a degree, Maria (Agata Buzek), the sister who showed up at the hospital begging for help, speaks for all of them when she describes the challenges and rewards of belief and self-sacrifice as “24 hours of doubt for one minute of hope.” The most complicated and compelling character is the severe Mother Abbess, who faces an excruciating choice between saving a baby’s life and risking disgrace, or abandoning the infant. Ms. Kulesza’s anguished performance conveys the weight of an almost unbearable choice, which she believes condemns her to eternal damnation. “The Innocents” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for a scene of sexual assault and some bloody images. It is in French and Polish, with English subtitles. Stephen Holden nytimes.com
Mar 5, 2018 - Plaza.
“You are nothing but a white!” So shouts indigenous Amazonian shaman Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) to the seemingly on-the-level but still suspicious German scientist/explorer Theodor (Jan Bijvoet) in Ciro Guerra’s enthralling, politically tinged, psychedelic, historical adventure film Embrace of the Serpent. Reversing the perspective of more familiar movies such as Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo or Roland Joffé’s The Mission, Embrace of the Serpent’s snaky crawl up the river investigates imperialism’s cultural pollution from the inside out, with the mystical Karamakate as a reluctant tour guide in two time periods. One of the film’s many exciting features is how it slowly cuts between parallel expeditions. Theodor, accompanied by a westernised local, arrives in a canoe, sick with fever. Begrudgingly, the loincloth-wearing Karamakate nurses him back to health by regularly blasting massive doses of white powder (“the sun’s semen”) up his nose. It is 1909 and Theodor is searching for something called the yakruna flower, the only thing that can cure him. Many years later (the exact date’s revelation is something of an unexpected plot turn), an American botanist, Evans (Brionne Davis), paddles up to a much older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) hoping to finish Theodor’s work. Evans has a book of Theodor’s final trek, which his aide sent back to Europe, as he did not survive the jungle. The book includes an image of Karamakate, which he refers to as his chullachaqui, a native term for hollow spirit. The older Karamakate is a broken man who has forgotten the customs of his own people (“Now they are just pictures on rocks,” he laments, looking at petroglyphs) but he agrees to help Evans look for yakruna. When Evans describes himself as someone who has devoted himself to plants, Karamakate counters that this is the first reasonable thing he’s ever heard a white man say. If this theme of “noble savage” seems a bit passé, know that you are in good hands with Ciro Guerra. The bulk of the film is devoted to dreamlike exploration, observing the folklore of individual tribes and learning about their greater spiritual belief system. A marvellous side trip stumbles upon a Spanish mission, both in 1909 and later. Our first visit, at the height of Colombia’s rubber wars, presents a lone, slightly sadistic priest “saving the souls” of orphaned boys with the lash and scrubbing them of their native language. Our party only dips in for the night, rowing away when things get a bit Lord of the Flies. The decades-later return shows the children grown into a surreal Apocalypse Now scenario. Their society has pieced together scraps of Catholicism and their forgotten indigenous culture creating, as a demoralised Karamakate puts it, the worst of two worlds. While this bombastic sequence (which includes a rather literal interpretation of the “body of Christ”) takes the familiar “don’t play God” attitude concerning emerging societies (a position familiar to anyone who has seen more than one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation), an earlier moment puts some spin on the notion of cultural interference. When Theodor realises his compass has been nicked by tribal children, he’s about to resort to violence to get it back. “These people navigate by the moon and stars,” he argues to Karamakate, exuding the misdirected good will of the privileged westerner. “Who are you to withhold knowledge?” Karamakate spits back. You are nothing but a white. Arriving full circle is appropriate for a film of twin voyages, and Embrace of the Serpent finds its port in a fitting but far-out place. A little post-screening research shows that the two westerners are, indeed, based on real people, even if the yakruna plant is fiction. Richard Evans Schultes’ work in the Amazon exceeded the secretive purposes shown in the film. His research led to important developments in the cultivation of rubber and medicine, and to crucial breakthroughs in psychedelics. In 1979, he and Dr Albert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD, published a book called Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers. Embrace of the Serpent is photographed in shimmering black and white save for one mind-bending scene in explosive colour. Antonio Bolívar, left, as the older Karamakate in Embrace of the Serpent. Photograph: Alamy Enough can’t be said about the character Karamakate, in both his old and new versions. He’s a vision of pride and of tragedy, a sorcerer and a saint but also just a man facing the unstoppable current of history. He is wise, but not above laughing when a know-it-all white guy is acting foolishly. Good luck finding a richer, more fascinating character than he at the movies this year. When I first saw the film at Cannes (where it won the top prize at the Director’s Fortnight sidebar), it was the middle of a hot day during a sleep-deprived week. The atmospheric music, unhurried pace and the accompanying sound of water lapping against the side of a canoe had me convinced that I must have nodded off at some point during its more-than-two-hour run time. Watching the film again in New York for its theatrical release, timed for the Oscars (where it is nominated for best foreign language film), I was surprised to find that, no, I hadn’t dozed during that scorching day in the south of France. Ciro Guerra’s gorgeous picture just has that ripped-from-your-dreams sensibility, where surprising turns float alongside a story you feel like you’ve known your whole life. Embrace of the Serpent is the type of film we’re always searching for, yet seems so obvious once we’ve found it. Jordan Hoffman guardian.com
Mar 22, 2018 - Corn Exchange.
Consider yourself forewarned. This Oscar-nominated stop-motion animation, which arrives in British cinemas three months after its valiant clash with Zootropolis, Moana et al at February’s Academy Awards, should be approached with extreme caution by the quivery of lip and delicate of tear duct. That much should be clear from the opening shots of Swiss filmmaker Claude Barras’s slim but nimble 66-minute debut feature, in which a child’s crayons lie on a wooden attic floor among crumpled beer cans. It’s an electrifyingly concise image, rendered in hand-crafted scale models, that captures both a young imagination’s means of escape, and the monster it might be escaping from. The imagination in question belongs to nine-year-old Icare, and the empty cans to his mother, who calls her boy Courgette for reasons that aren’t made clear, but don’t seem to be wholly affectionate. After a tragic incident that nonetheless feels bleakly for the best, Courgette (voiced by Erick Abbate in the French-language version, on which this review is based, and Gaspar Schlatter in the English dub) is taken to a rural orphanage, where he lives under the protection of caring headmistress Madame Papineau (Monica Budde/Susanne Blakeslee). Courgette’s half-dozen or so dorm-mates each has their own sad story to tell. It’s to the credit of both Barras and his collaborator Céline Sciamma – the French director adapted the screenplay from a 2003 young-adult novel – that none of the children feels like a standard classroom type. Even Simon (Paulin Jacquod/Romy Beckman), who seems at first to be the alpha bully of the roost, is far more complex and loveable than that tag allows. This isn’t just good writing, it’s humane and honourable. Every child here feels like a real human being, and as such is accorded a dignity the world invariably hasn’t extended to them in their lives to date. Anyone familiar with Sciamma’s own tremendous coming-of-age and discovering-of-identity films, such as Girlhood (2014) and Tomboy (2011), will immediately recognise her sure touch. The setup – particularly in tandem with the accents, if you watch the French version – can’t help but recall François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Except here the children’s home itself is where freedom resides, while the wide world outside is the source of threat. Courgette and his fellow orphans have come to think of love as something conditional, perhaps even unavailable, and the film’s beauty lies in watching that understanding slowly shift, through lessons, games, class outings and conversations with this new set of adults helping to guide their lives. (In addition to Mme Papineau there are two teachers and a police liaison officer – kindly roles in which the English-language version stashes Ellen Page, Will Forte and Nick Offerman, i.e. its brand-name talent.) Think of My Life as a Courgette as less of a children’s film than a film about childhood which children can watch, and you’ll have some idea of the quietly extraordinary tone it manages to strike. Heartbreaking as it frequently is – though it’s funny just as often – the toughest details are always delicately expressed, while the scuffs and scars on the gorgeous character models’ peach-like faces are so subtle you could miss them at first glance. Stop-motion proves to be the ideal medium: part of the reason your heart aches to wrap these kids in cotton wool is that you know if you were on set, you actually could. Their round, glassy eyes pick up the light with a piercing constancy no drawing or digital character could ever recreate, while the modelling-clay texture of their hair and skin gets to a fundamental truth about their sad but still hopeful plight. Like real children, they’re remouldable. Robbie Collin telegraph.co.uk