Monday, 11 November 2019

Monos (Alejandro Landes, 2019)

Alejandro Landes' absorbing, unsettling Monos has received no end of rave reviews since it debuted at the beginning of this year.  Before it made its way into cinemas, it picked up numerous festival awards, including the top prize at last month's London Film Festival.  As with two other notable LFF 2019 titles - Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Lighthouse - you just know that the Dutch-backed Monos won't quite live up to the hype that's preceded it, but it is a taut, muscular and impressive work.  Landes' film appears to have been primarily designed as a sensory experience; admittedly, there's not much of a plot here, but that's not too much of a hindrance in a work which requires you to do little more than buckle up before it takes you on its nightmarish, hallucinatory journey.

The title refers to a group of child soldiers who are based at the top of a windswept, rain-lashed mountain, where they guard their American hostage Doctora (Julianne Nicholson).  The members of Monos, who are only identified by code names, receive their orders from a murky organisation known as, er, The Organisation, who frequently send a messenger known as - yes - The Messenger (Wilson Salazar) to oversee some of the soldiers' training.  The Monos and Doctora are joined by a dairy cow named Shakira, and the soldiers make a point of treating their bovine companion with great care - the logic being that supporters will no longer lend them things if they don't look after them.  It's a hard life for all on the mountaintop - wet, cold and very muddy - yet the Monos stick to their orders in a manner which belies their age.

Just as we're getting used to this setup, the Monos' compound comes under attack, and the group are forced to flee to the jungle, where the conditions they must endure - mosquitoes, mudslides and so on - make their erstwhile home seem like a luxury resort.  From this more makeshift base, Doctora realises that her odds of escaping have increased, as the Monos and their prisoner are now housed in less secure surroundings and, more crucially, the group is now characterised by in-fighting; among the many squabbles, a break from The Organisation is mooted.  Gone is the previous unity, and it could be argued that the children are now merely returning to something resembling their natural state.  Lord of the Flies is an obvious comparison point here - so much so that we even get to see a pig's head on a spike; refreshingly, Landes is quite transparent about his influences.

Monos is such an immersive experience that you soon forget to keep asking the many burning questions about the Monos, including: Who are they fighting?  Are they involved in a much bigger conflict?  Are they heroes or villains?  Why are they holding Doctora?  Context is lacking, which only adds to the argument that Landes wants us to respond to his film on a more primal level; a thunderous, unnerving score by British composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin) plays a huge part in conjuring an oppressive atmosphere, one in which you constantly feel as if you're on the verge of witnessing something terrible.  Monos really has to be seen in a cinema, as any stepping back from its enveloping madness only leads us to deal with the film in more logical terms - and this thrill ride can't withstand such scrutiny.  While Monos isn't quite as convincing a waking nightmare as those we've come to expect from Gaspar Noé (Irreversible and Climax being prime examples), Alejandro Landes' film is nonetheless a compelling, idiosyncratic and highly singular work. 
Darren Arnold

Image: Cineuropa

Friday, 1 November 2019

Intimate Audrey in Amsterdam (1/11/19–31/1/20)

Beurs van Berlage in the heart of Amsterdam welcomes the acclaimed living biography of Audrey Hepburn.

From November 1st to January 31st, walk behind the screen and through Audrey's life as a Flemish child, wife, mother and ambassador. 

Audrey was born in Brussels and spent her youth in the Netherlands. Her roots are Flemish. After the war, she returned to launch and bestow a trophy bearing her name for the BNMO veteran organization.

This exhibition was made possible by NH Collection hotels who gave us an extraordinary experience allowing us to successfully bring Audrey home to her roots. 

600m2 featuring hundreds of original and re-printed photographs, memorabilia, dresses and accessories as well as her never before seen fashion drawings and humanitarian writings. 

Words/image: Intimate Audrey

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Two of Us (Filippo Meneghetti, 2019)

Fassbinder favourite Barbara Sukowa gives a fine performance in this touching but rarely sentimental film which depicts a lesbian relationship between two pensioners; it's far removed from the likes of Blue is the Warmest Colour or current critical smash Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but, considering its focus on a couple of a certain age, it's arguably a more daring picture than those two Cannes-winning titles.  It's also a most assured feature debut from Filippo Meneghetti, who carefully handles material which could easily have ended up as overcooked as the scorched contents of the two frying pans which feature in key scenes here.

Sukowa's Nina lives across the hall from Madeleine (Martine Chevallier), and to everyone in their lives they're viewed as simply being friends and neighbours.  However, the two have actually been a couple for many years, and are now planning on moving to Italy.  Nina has no family, but the widowed Madeleine has two grown-up children and a grandson, all of whom live in the same town as her.  Madeleine resolves to tell her family about her plans to sell up and move away, but bottles it at the crucial moment.  Nina is furious, and lets Madeleine know it; shortly afterwards, Madeleine suffers a major stroke.  In a very short span of time, Madeleine and Nina's relatively minor problem of how to break some news has been replaced by something truly shattering.

With a rather surly round-the-clock carer (Muriel Bénazéraf) now looking after the stricken Madeleine, Nina no longer gets to spend much time with the love of her life, and her attempts to rectify this involve increasingly risky - and, to be honest, rather creepy - methods.  In addition to the belligerent Muriel, Nina must contend with Madeleine's daughter Anne (Léa Drucker, excellent), who initially appreciates Nina's neighbourliness - until the penny drops.  Upon realising what was going on behind her late father's back for so many years, Anne is in no mood to grant Nina any further access to Madeleine, who is now showing some small signs of recovery.

With the impressive Chevallier's Madeleine rendered mute for much of the film, it's not too surprising that this ends up largely being Sukowa's show, and she certainly puts it all in with a character who isn't, in the main, terribly likeable, yet the love and devotion she exhibits often serves to cancel out her bad behaviour - at least in the viewer's eyes.  But it's the tenderness at the heart of the relationship between these two women which elevates the film into something way beyond ordinary, and in Two of Us Meneghetti has crafted an authentic, moving and grown-up piece of cinema, one which hopefully won't fly under the radar.  It screens at the London Film Festival tomorrow and on Saturday.

Darren Arnold

Images: Cineuropa

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

#21XOXO / The Sasha (S. & I. Özbilge / M. M. Peiró, 2019)

The Culture is a collection of eight short films which screens at the London Film Festival on the 11th and 13th of October, and every film in the programme takes a look at online culture - something which only recently seemed very futuristic but is now firmly embedded in our everyday lives.  I've only seen a quarter of the films which feature in The Culture, but the ones I've watched have been quite impressive; on this basis, the other 75% of the programme should be worth catching.  The selection includes one film from the Netherlands and two from Belgium, although Belgian title Zombies - a co-production with DR Congo - has thus far eluded me.

The Belgian film in the programme which I have seen is #21XOXO - a clever, witty and rather adult slice of animation which sees a young woman use various forms of technology in her search for love.  As we all know, it's now possible to line up potential partners without even leaving the comfort of home, which is exactly what our protagonist does here; while such practice isn't especially new, it's nonetheless a significant marker of how social interaction has dramatically changed since the advent of new technologies, and the film reminds us of this as it forces us to consider our online selves.  #21XOXO is a fun, refreshing and colourful short, one which turns up something new just when you thought there wasn't much left to say about those who spend their days glued to one screen or another.

The Dutch offering in The Culture takes the form of The Sasha, a contemplative look at the work of astronaut Charles Duke, who was a member of the three-man crew on the Apollo 16 mission.  Among his other lunar duties, Duke was charged with taking photographs, and it's this aspect of his work in the Descartes Highlands that The Sasha focuses on.  Duke attempted to take a photo of the entire Earth from space, but the iconic image we all know as The Blue Marble was actually taken during the next (and final) Apollo mission.  There's a fascinating personal touch in the Apollo 16 story: Duke left a picture of himself, his wife and their two sons on the lunar surface, which he of course photographed.  On the back was an inscription: "This is the family of Astronaut Duke from Planet Earth. Landed on the Moon, April 1972", followed by the signatures of Duke's family.  In addition to their virtual visit to the moon via this photograph, Duke's wife and sons had lunar craters named after them. 

Nowadays, we can all enjoy a lunar excursion of sorts thanks to Google Moon (where the Duke family photo can be found at marker 20 in the Apollo 16 site), and footage from this has been used in The Sasha; thus, the film features the traditional chemical photography of Duke's pictures alongside the sophisticated 3D rendering of the moon's surface as provided by Google.  This illustrates just how far technology has advanced in the years since Apollo 16 (although we haven't set foot on the moon since the year of that mission).  As such, it's easy to see why the film has been grouped with #21XOXO, even if the two films boast very different styles.  The Sasha proves to be a hypnotic, eerie and thought-provoking work, one which will leave you reflecting on that old family photograph which, although now almost certainly bleached beyond all recognition, remains up there on the lunar highlands.

Darren Arnold


Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Instinct (Halina Reijn, 2019)

Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari enjoyed a huge international breakthrough just a few months ago, starring as Jafar in the live-action version of Aladdin.  His role in Instinct - which opened in the Netherlands last week and plays at the London Film Festival on Saturday - is markedly different to the one he played in that Disney blockbuster; while still very much the villain of the piece, his character in Halina Reijn's directorial debut is far removed from the pantomime shenanigans of the Grand Vizier.  In Instinct, Kenzari conveys a very real menace which underlines his abilities as a serious dramatic actor.  Unfortunately, he and his co-star Carice van Houten are let down by a faltering script and rather uncertain direction, and Instinct never lands the knockout blow which, judging by its arresting early stages, it seems certain to deliver.

Van Houten's Nicoline is a psychologist who moves from job to job and doesn't appear to have much interest in staying in the one place for too long; her latest gig involves working in a prison for those convicted of serious offences.  Nicoline is experienced and assured, and few things seem to faze her, but this soon changes when she's charged with evaluating Idris (Kenzari), a man with multiple convictions - all of which pertain to violence against women.  Idris, who is on the verge of some unaccompanied parole, is clearly a very dangerous man but seems to be a fairly compliant inmate, and can often be quite charming - which is, presumably, how he snared many of those who went on to become his victims.  Idris' act - if it is an act - seems to persuade Nicoline's colleagues that he has been rehabilitated, but his assigned psychologist has real doubts.

While Nicoline appears to have the measure of Idris - you get the impression she's seen similar men countless times - there's something about this particular prisoner which gnaws away at her in a way she can't rationalise, and it's not long before her icy professionalism goes out of the window.  What follows is an increasingly preposterous game between Idris and Nicoline, one which sees the psychologist unravel as the prisoner toys with the mind of a woman who could well determine which side of the prison wall he ends up on.  Who's kidding who?  More pertinently, who cares?  In pitching the charismatic Idris against the aloof Nicoline, Reijn has created a strange level playing field, of sorts: Idris, unlike Nicoline, often seems to be doing things by the book, but does this current state of affairs mean we should blot out his terrible crimes?  After all, Nicoline's transgressions appear to be limited to this anomalous instance of unprofessionalism.  

Instinct's promisingly pulpy setup is the sort of thing which might just have worked in the mischievous hands of, say, François Ozon or Paul Verhoeven (side-note: Van Houten and Reijn both starred in Verhoeven's Zwartboek); the material really needs cranking up to a level where it would become enjoyably absurd (cf. Elle, L'amant double).  But Halina Reijn - who we're far more used to as a presence in front of the camera - seems to consciously pull back from such an approach, rendering Instinct an ostensibly trashy yarn that's had its guilty pleasures excised; it's a film caught between two stools.  It isn't a terrible movie - but it is a very frustrating one; while the two leads are very good, they're chained to a script which misses many opportunities to open up into something much more satisfying.  While Reijn hasn't made a bad job of her first feature film, she has opted to play it far too safe; given the subject matter, it seems most ironic that Instinct comes across as a film in which very few risks have been taken.

Darren Arnold

Images: Topkapi Films

Monday, 7 October 2019

Spring Fever/Eyes on the Road (A. Snowball/S. Kolk, 2019)

Spring Fever is one of seven films which make up London Film Festival shorts collection ...In an Age of Consent.  "De Week van de Lentekriebels" is, as many of you will know, a schools sex education programme which is well established in the Netherlands.  As with any sex ed class anywhere on the planet, "Lentekriebels" ("Spring Fever") has attracted some criticism and controversy, but much of the world has admired the way in which the programme has demystified sex and relationships for Dutch schoolchildren, thereby leading many a youngster to happy and healthy teenage years.  Anna Snowball's short, lively documentary captures snippets of the discussions in a Dutch classroom where "De Week van de Lentekriebels" is currently underway.

As you would expect, many of the pupils initially struggle to keep a straight face when discussing such a topic - but, to be fair to them, their teacher is no different - yet the smiles and nervous laughter soon give way to some thoughtful questions and answers; it's clear how little these children really know about the subject, but their friendly, good-humoured teacher is able to dispel a few of the myths and assumptions her pupils have picked up in their short lives thus far.  This could be an excruciating exercise for all concerned, but the children have no intention of making things difficult for their teacher.  The film provides an interesting glimpse into a situation many of us won't have encountered firsthand (or if we did it took a very different form); Spring Fever is very simple, but fairly effective. 

A separate LFF collection of seven shorts - Drive It Like You Stole It! - also features a Dutch film in the form of Eyes on the Road.  This film concentrates on three young women who are on a road trip in a car they appear to be living in.  The film's title is directly connected to the comments made by one of the women concerning another's driving, but this moment of friction (which soon dissipates) is not the, or even a, major event here.  Rather, the women's freewheeling conversation takes a turn into a dark and troubling area where they discuss a friend who was subjected to a terrible assault.  While this is a grim subject matter in itself, things get worse when differing opinions start to surface.

Although Eyes on the Road is to be applauded for dealing with a difficult issue, it's unfortunately not a very satisfying piece of work.  The actresses all do quite well, but there simply isn't enough in the script to keep Eyes on the Road going for its duration; even at a brief 17 minutes, the film still feels padded out.  The ending is also highly disappointing, and it's a great pity that what appears to have been a good idea has been so poorly executed.  Eyes on the Road has the air of an arbitrary chunk of a feature film, albeit one you probably wouldn't want to sit through.  But, if for some reason you do like the sort of cinema experience where it feels as if you've turned up late and left early, then it might just be for you.  It screens at the LFF on the 10th of October.

Darren Arnold


Sunday, 6 October 2019

The Prince's Voyage (J-F. Laguionie / X. Picard, 2019)

Xavier Picard, director of the excellent Moomins on the Riviera, teams up with veteran animator Jean-François Laguionie for this quasi-sequel to the latter's 1999 film A Monkey's Tale.  Laguionie has been working in animation for over 50 years yet, A Monkey's Tale aside, his work isn't especially well known beyond continental Europe.  While Laguionie's films bear similarities, in both mood and appearance, with those of Michel Ocelot, he's never really experienced anything like the same success as that enjoyed by his lauded contemporary (as a side note, Ocelot's BAFTA-winning The Three Inventors was filmed in Laguionie's home).  That said, Laguionie did receive an honoray award (and a standing ovation) at this year's Annecy IAFF, where A Prince's Voyage premiered; it continues its festival run at the London Film Festival, where it screens today as part of the Family programme.  The film will go on general release in early December.

When Prince Laurent is washed up on an unfamiliar shore, he's rescued by young Tom, whose name is just one letter away from that of Kom, the main character from A Monkey's Tale; Laurent notices, and comments on, this similarity.  Tom takes the injured Laurent to convalesce at the home of married couple Victor and Elisabeth who, like Tom and Laurent, are monkeys, as indeed are all the characters who populate the film.  Elisabeth is a botanist who is working to find a solution to the forest which seems bent on reclaiming every building it comes across, including the remote, abandoned museum where the couple now reside.  Victor is a professor who has long been obsessed with proving that other monkey civilisations exist on the same planet, a theory which has made him a black sheep in his academic circle.  So when Laurent - who speaks, but in another language - arrives, Victor sees the prince as a golden chance to prove his hypothesis to his peers.  Laurent is cultured and sophisticated, but, in scenes which nod towards François Truffaut's The Wild Child, acts in a primitive manner simply to irk the professor.

While Laurent doesn't care for the professor or the stern Elisabeth, he's far more taken with Tom, and the two enjoy spending time together, learning each other's language and trading stories about their different cultures.  This shared curiosity gives Laurent and Tom the urge to discover the sights of the nearest city, and the pair sneak out to spend a night exploring various metropolitan delights.  Laurent is struck by the sullen nature of the city dwellers, who fail to respond to his cheerful greetings as they trudge home after a day's work.  The city's population are allowed to have fun in the evenings, however, and Laurent and Tom join them in various leisure activities, including a showing of a film which, amusingly, riffs heavily on King Kong.  As the only member of the audience who's laughing at the spectacle, Laurent has to leave the screening, and as he and Tom begin to head home they are pursued by some shadowy figures; the prince's fortunes are about to take a turn for the worse.

As you'd expect, the animation in The Prince's Voyage is top notch, and at 77 minutes the film by no means outstays its welcome - although a late development which introduces some new characters feels slightly unnecessary.  As with much of the aforementioned Michel Ocelot's output, The Prince's Voyage isn't the ideal film for very young children; the LFF screening is subtitled - although an actor will read out the subtitles, via headphones, for the benefit of younger audience members - which is rather telling.  Unless a version with English audio exists (or is planned), the film probably won't travel much further than the majority of Laguionie's efforts.  While it's all a little bit low-key, there is much to like here, and the simple, clear message - that we shouldn't be afraid of the Other, but rather should look to what unites us all - is a fine one for children and adults alike.

Darren Arnold


Saturday, 5 October 2019

Transnistra (Anna Eborn, 2019)

Anna Eborn's Transnistra was produced with support from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF), and earlier this year it scooped the VPRO Big Screen Award at the IFF Rotterdam.  It continues its festival run today with a screening at the London Film Festival, and although it has enjoyed real success on the festival circuit, it's difficult to see it having much of a life as a theatrical release.  However, this documentary may just find a more suitable home on the small screen; indeed, winning Rotterdam's Big Screen Award guarantees it a screening slot on Dutch channel NPO 2.

As its title just about tells you (it's one vowel short), the film takes place in the breakaway state of Transnistria, which most of the world considers to be part of Moldova.  Eborn's film isn't really concerned with Transnistria's history nor its position in the world; there's no exposition here, so you'll have to read around the film if you don't (and wish to) know about the post-USSR birth of the republic and the ensuing conflict with Moldova.  Instead, the director focuses on half a dozen 16-year-olds: one girl, Tanya, and her five male friends.  Naturally, more than one boy has their sights on Tanya's affections, and the group dynamic shifts according to who she's closest to at any given time.  The youths spend much of their time hanging around a factory that appears to have been abandoned halfway through its construction, although in summertime they do enjoy swimming and generally messing around in the water.  There's little ambition in evidence until Tanya mentions she would like to move to Greece for work; this statement does not go down well with her peers.

While nicely shot (on 16mm), Transnistra can't overcome the dull and largely unappealing nature of the six people it chooses to track; Tanya is fitfully interesting, but the five boys soon become virtually interchangeable to us and, seemingly, to Tanya.  Quite why we're watching over 90 minutes of this group, who go through the film without doing or saying very much of note, is something of a mystery.  The film remains just on the right side of watchable, but it's a one-paced effort that left me with no idea as to what Anna Eborn was trying to say.  Take away the setting, which admittedly is rather novel for audiences outside of the former USSR, and you may as well be watching any bunch of bored, aimless teens.

What is quite exasperating is that there is more than one opportunity for Eborn to jump into more interesting waters; there's no better example of such oversight than when Tanya's little brother signs up for military academy, which seems like an ideal starting point for an examination of the state he's pledged to defend.  But the film sticks to its pedestrian path, with the director seemingly uninterested in anything which strays from the ennui depicted here.  Transnistra may not be a bad film per se but, most frustratingly, it chooses to disregard what many viewers will want from a documentary.

Darren Arnold


Friday, 4 October 2019

Cold Case Hammarskjöld (Mads Brügger, 2019)

Cold Case Hammarskjöld sees feather-ruffling filmmaker Mads Brügger turn his attention to the mysterious death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.  During the Congo Crisis, Hammarskjöld was en route to attempt to broker a ceasefire between Katangese troops and UN forces, but was killed in a plane crash in what was Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).  Congo had only recently gained independence from Belgium, and tensions were high in the region; Hammarskjöld was keen for newly-independent African countries to establish themselves and escape the long shadow of colonialism, and naturally this stance brought about many enemies.  It was widely known that mining companies such as Belgian venture Union Minière would benefit from the removal of Hammarskjöld, but quite who, if anyone, is responsible for his death - MI6, the CIA and South African intelligence have all been suggested as possible saboteurs of the plane - has remained the murkiest of mysteries for well over 50 years.

Brügger's investigation takes him to various African locations, including the spot where the Douglas DC-6 carrying Hammarskjöld went down; for much of the film, Brügger is joined by Göran Björkdahl, who possesses a metal plate - purportedly from Hammarskjöld's plane - which his father obtained while visiting the crash site in the 1970s.  Although Brügger is digging (quite literally, at one point) to find out the truth about Hammarskjöld's death, it's clear early on that the film, in many ways, is more the Mads Brügger show than anything else; perhaps this is to be expected, given his past life as a TV host.  There's a showboating, flippant and baiting side to Brügger, who's first seen proudly sporting an all-white outfit; later, he - like Melania Trump in Kenya - dons a pith helmet, that symbol of white colonial rule.  He also, for no discernible reason, chooses to dictate to two equally baffled secretaries.  But such eccentric behaviour masks a man who is actually quite adept when it comes to obtaining sensitive information, and Brügger goes further than many would dare, unearthing some unpleasant, genuinely disturbing findings concerning post-colonial Africa.

Black witnesses were not seen as credible at the time and place of Hammarskjöld's death so, as you'd both hope and expect, Brügger tracks down a number of of them, and they all recall certain common elements from that day in 1961: the sight of a second, smaller aircraft; a flash of light in the sky; a loud, gunshot-like noise.  From these (and other) interviews, a hypothesis emerges: a bomb was planted on the unguarded aircraft before it took off from Léopoldville, but this explosive device failed to detonate; thus, a backup plan was put into action, wherein a fighter jet was scrambled in order to shoot down Hammarskjöld's plane.  A Belgian-British pilot who served with the RAF in WW2, Jan van Risseghem, is here alleged to be the man who carried out the mission.  Van Risseghem died in 2007, but his links to breakaway state Katanga are well documented.  There's also the matter of a playing card - the ace of spades - which was apparently tucked under the dead Hammarskjöld's shirt collar; apparently this calling card - a "death card" - signals CIA involvement, although instinct tells us it may well have been planted by someone completely unconnected to Langley.

All this is sufficiently troubling, but Brügger's enquiries eventually lead him to an organisation called the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR).  Don't be fooled by its benign name - this was a shadowy paramilitary outfit which worked with the Apartheid regime, and its alleged activities range from involvement in Dag Hammarskjöld's murder to the spreading of AIDS (under the guise of giving vaccines against the virus) in order to eradicate black Africans.  SAIMR was headed by a figure known as "Commodore" Keith Maxwell (among other aliases), whose written ravings reveal an unhinged character, one who'd possibly read Heart of Darkness one too many times (but still missed Conrad's central point).  Maxwell has frequently been likened to Auschwitz's "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele, which perhaps tells you more than you wish to know about his deeds.  It's hard to work out what, if anything, is true among Maxwell's diaries, and a valid question is asked more than once: why would such classified, incriminating information be written down?  Cold Case Hammarskjöld is an unnerving, chilling and frequently horrifying film, and it stands as one of the year's finest documentaries.  It screens at the London Film Festival today and tomorrow.

Darren Arnold


Thursday, 3 October 2019

The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (Syllas Tzoumerkas, 2019)

The Netherlands Film Fund is one of the backers of The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea, which features a fine lead performance by Angeliki Papoulia, an actress best known for her work with Yorgos Lanthimos - namely Dogtooth, Alps and The LobsterSargasso's mood and feel are both very much in line with those found in Lanthimos' work, and Syllas Tzoumerkas' film is certainly a good fit for the rather clumsy "Weird Wave" label that's been thrown around for the past decade.  With its exposure of the darkness that lies at the heart of a seemingly sleepy town, comparisons to the work of David Lynch are as inevitable as they are helpful to the film's marketability, although to my mind it has more in common with Claire Denis' brilliant, if horrible, Les Salauds and Carol Morley's mood piece murder-mystery Out of Blue.

Papoulia plays what is quite possibly the angriest chief of police ever seen on screen, and her drunken, foul-mouthed but dogged Elisabeth strongly recalls the recent turns by Patricia Clarkson in the aforementioned Out of Blue and Nicole Kidman in Destroyer.  The film begins with Elisabeth leading a city anti-terrorist unit, but a botched raid forces her and her son to move away to a small, remote seaside town, which she thoroughly resents.  When Elisabeth isn't berating virtually everyone who crosses her path, she's drinking; sometimes, she combines these two pastimes to predictably chaotic effect.  Things get more interesting for Elisabeth when seedy lounge singer Manolis (Christos Passalis) is found dead on a beach; it's apparently a suicide, but the chief of police decides to dig deeper, which reveals a lot more about the town and its inhabitants.  Elisabeth takes a special interest in Manolis' sister, Rita (Youla Boudali, who co-wrote the film with the director), a withdrawn, timid young woman who has a grim job at an eel farm.

It's fairly clear that Elisabeth has more interest in getting to the bottom of things than the director does, and Tzoumerkas is far more concerned with peppering his film with religious imagery and nightmarish vignettes than he is with anything as trifling as the forensics of police work.  The mystery aspect, such as it is, doesn't take much solving by the viewer, but it doesn't really matter when there's such a rich, dark atmosphere to soak up, not to mention a leading actress on top form.  The supporting performances are good, too, with Passalis' standout moment coming when his creepy Manolis has an onstage meltdown and treats his audience to an expletive-heavy tirade against his, and their,  hometown; Manolis recalls Dave from Lost River, who in turn echoed Blue Velvet's Ben.

The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea is generally strong stuff - although Attenberg remains, by some distance, the best film out of the Weird Wave titles; if Sargasso has a weakness, it lies in the director's attempts to align his film with the movement via button-pushing.  After viewing the likes of Dogtooth, not many will be shocked by what is presented here, and the few explicit scenes in Tzoumerkas' film feel more tired than transgressive.  There's also a clunky, overdone analogy involving eels and the ocean of the title, which really should have been pruned back.  But, on the whole, The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea is an absorbing, atmospheric and well-made riff on the hard-boiled cop movie.  It screens at the London Film Festival today and tomorrow.

Darren Arnold


Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Mijn bijzonder rare week met Tess (S. Wouterlood, 2019)

The West Frisian Islands are the backdrop for this hugely enjoyable family drama, which is based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Dutch children's author Anna Woltz.  Mijn bijzonder rare week met Tess is the first film from director Steven Wouterlood, and he shows much promise here, keeping things nice and simple and avoiding the needless flashiness which often mars debut features.  He's aided by a set of winning performances from his cast, all of whom give well-judged turns in a story which features much in the way of friendship, love, family - and kibbeling.

10-year-old Sam (Sonny van Utteren) is on a family holiday on Terschelling when he encounters the slightly older Tess (Josephine Arendsen), who haughtily peppers Sam with seemingly random questions about subjects including, inter alia, Salsa dancing and the German language; as the story progresses, we begin to understand Tess' thirst for knowledge on these topics.  While she initially comes across as rather superior and unappealing, Sam - who obsesses over being the last one left alive in his family, and prepares for this eventuality via timed "aloneness training" - is sufficiently intrigued by Tess, as she seems to promise a bit more excitement than that offered by his family.  Certainly, quite why she's acting so strangely around the couple who are staying at her family's guest house is a mystery which both Sam and the audience would like to clear up.

The film neatly sidesteps a staple of many a coming-of-age yarn in that, contrary to the good-natured wisecracks which emanate from Sam's family, romance isn't at the forefront of Tess and Sam's relationship; admittedly, there is a slight hint of it, but it's by no means the driving force behind what makes this pair want to spend time with each other.  This makes for a refreshing change, as much of the time which might otherwise have been spent lazily plodding through a will-they-won't-they scenario is put to much more interesting use.  Considering the scant running time, there's possibly one character too many in the form of Hans Dagelet's elderly beachcomber (who is admittedly fun to watch), but this is a very minor quibble.

Mijn bijzonder rare week met Tess manages to be a sweet, charming tale, yet one which doesn't overly rely on sentimentality.  The film expertly captures the feel of childhood summer holidays, and in Tess it shows a character who is able to work through some complicated issues; here, there's no dodging the fact that "the best years of your life" can often be very confusing ones.  While this is a family film, there is a small amount of swearing, so it's probably not the best movie to take very young children to; the guidance from the London Film Festival - where it screens on the 6th of October - advises a minimum age of 8.  The LFF screening sold out long before the festival started, but you can - and should - pick up the DVD when it's released in the Netherlands next month.

Darren Arnold


Monday, 30 September 2019

LFF 2019 Preview: Love, Life and Laughter

The 63rd BFI London Film Festival is thrilled to announce George Pearson’s Love, Life and Laughter (1923) as this year’s Archive Special Presentation. Lost for nearly a century, this film was on the BFI 75 Most Wanted list and one of its most sought after titles for decades and has now been carefully restored by the team at the BFI National Archive. Its screening at this year’s Festival gives audiences the chance to fall under the spell of Betty Balfour, Britain’s ‘Queen of Happiness’ and the nation’s biggest star of the 1920s. The presentation will take place at BFI Southbank on Thursday 3rd October, 6.10pm in NFT1 with a live musical accompaniment.

This restoration is from a Dutch-language version of the film, which was identified by archivists at Eye Filmmuseum in the Netherlands while being catalogued following its arrival at the archive in November 2012. The archive responded to the BFI’s 75 Most Wanted list, a list compiled in 2010 outlining the film titles the BFI National Archive would like to preserve and make available. The print is part of a collection of film cans that belonged to a local cinema in the small town of Hattem (near Zwolle). Cinema Theater De Vries, run by the De Vries family had only been active for 3 years, from 1929 – 1932 and subsequently the film cans came into the possession of the Van Egmond family. In 2012, when the cinema building was about to be redeveloped, an employee at a local television station, Gerhard van der Worp, took the initiative of bringing the material to Eye. No-one had any idea of the contents of the film cans. Despite being an incomplete version of the film this discovery is hugely significant in terms of film history of that period, with over 80% of silent films made still missing.

Betty Balfour’s star persona, her bubbly personality and physical comedy were very popular in Holland, which is one of the reasons the film was found there. The film was found with Dutch intertitles, and the original English titles were missing – part of the painstaking restoration by the BFI team included the recreation of English intertitles in keeping with Betty Balfour’s working class dialect. Balfour previously worked with Pearson through the 1920s as the comic character Squibs, in a hugely popular series of films. She was much in demand as a popular foreign export and worked with leading directors in Germany, Austria and France (including the great Marcel L’Herbier). She starred in Hitchcock’s 1928 silent Champagne which was restored by the BFI National Archive in 2012. Born in London in 1903, she died in Weybridge in 1978.

Words: BFI


Monday, 23 September 2019

LFF 2019 Event: Mariette Rissenbeek / Inge de Leeuw

Mariette Rissenbeek. Image © German Films / Kurt Krieger
The London Film Festival’s series of Big Picture sessions will explore how the industry is adapting to disruption and change, from production to reaching audiences and across film, high-end television, streamers and in the immersive world. Leading international and UK figures in the industry will discuss the challenges, opportunities across the international sales, distribution, festival and emerging high-end television landscape and explore how these sectors move forwards over the next few years.

Tricia Tuttle, BFI London Film Festival Director said: "This year’s LFF industry programme tunes into the fact that the film, TV and wider screen industries are experiencing huge global change, and that UK businesses are continuing to seek international collaborations despite uncertainty. We wanted to offer a platform for urgent conversations about those industry changes, and how we are adapting."  
International Film Festival Rotterdam. Image: IFFR
The festival circuit currently finds itself in a moment of flux, with a widespread changing of the guard at the top level. It is also facing challenges to its traditional role in the distribution ecosystem as deep-pocketed streamers disrupt the traditional acquisitions markets at festivals, and with the emergence of new platforms including Apple+, HBO Max, Quibi and Disney+ over the coming year, premium content will increasingly be able to find its way directly to audiences on a variety of platforms, without having to rely on a traditional festival-theatrical-distribution model. There are urgent questions about the role that festivals play as gatekeepers and ensuring a more diverse range of voices are heard. Kate Taylor, LFF Senior Programmer, moderates Key Questions Facing the Festival Circuit [in Vue 6, at 15:30 on 7/10/19] with Giona Nazzaro, General Delegate, Venice International Film Critics’ Week; Inge de Leeuw, Programmer, International Film Festival Rotterdam; and Mariette Rissenbeek, Executive Director, Berlinale.

Words: BFI

Monday, 16 September 2019

LFF 2019 Preview: Monos / The Other Lamb

Alejandro Landes delivers one of the most talked-about films of the year in Monos: a hallucinogenic, intoxicating thriller about child soldiers that has inspired feverish buzz and earned comparisons to Apocalypse Now and Lord of the Flies.

High in the mountains of South America, above the billowing clouds but with gunshots heard in the distance, a motley group of child and teenage soldiers train and wait for instruction while in the presence of their American hostage, the Doctora.

Despite wearing its influences on its sleeve, the film is a wildly original vision from Landes and screenwriter Alexis dos Santos; the camera prowling over mud and organic decay, cutting swathes through the jungle, all to the strains of Mica Levi’s visceral score.

Małgorzata Szumowska’s (Berlin Jury Prize-winner Mug and LFF 2015’s Body) English-language debut The Other Lamb is a beguiling, genre-tinged examination of life in an otherworldly cult.

Selah was born into The Flock, a community of women and girls ruled over by Shepherd, the only male, and a seemingly benevolent but undisputed leader of the strictly regimented and isolated woodland settlement. Selah appears the most perfect of the faithful flock, until unsettling revelations see her devotion shaken.

Szumowska offers an eerie ethereal vision that compellingly recalls a range of references, from David Koresh’s Waco, Texas cult to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian science fiction.

Words: BFI

Images: Cineuropa (top), TrustNordisk

Monday, 9 September 2019

9th Cairo Video Festival (9/9/19–30/9/19)

The 9th edition of the Cairo Video Festival will be launched at Cinema Zawya with a public screening of one of the festival’s programs titled Peripheral Vision at 7pm on Monday, 9th of September 2019.
A total of 101 works from over 30 countries are featured in this edition, which includes individual artists, collectives, the outcome of creative writing workshop Butterflies Are Not Drawn to Light and 4 commissioned works. Video works featured in the 9th edition are produced after January 2017. All videos have Arabic and English subtitles wherever intended.
The 9th edition of the Cairo Video Festival consists of 9 programs, each program contains a selection of videos that will be screened and installed across the city, in addition to the online showcase. Screenings will be screened amongst venues such as public vitrines, bookstores and community spaces in order to promote, expand and harvest attention to the practice of video art and experimental film.
The works in this edition have been nominated and selected by the festival’s team, as well as the Selection and Programmers Committee, including: Ahmed Refaat, Alaa Abdelhamid, Islam Kamal, Mai Elwakil, Mona Gamil, Sarrah Abdelrahman and 96 negative. The 9th edition contains reflections and input from contributors including Islam Shabana, Lara El Gibaly, Marwan Elgamal, Nour El Safoury, Samir El Kordy and Wael Abdel Fattah.
The 9th Cairo Video Festival is organized by Medrar and supported by British Council, DEDI - Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute, the French Institute, Pro Helvetia Cairo, Swiss Arts Council, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Egypt and Elaraby Group.

Words/image: copyright © Cairo Video Festival 2019


Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Programme Launch: London Film Festival 2019

The 63rd BFI London Film Festival (LFF) announced its full programme on Thursday 29th August, 2019, presenting 229 feature films from some of the world’s greatest filmmakers and emerging talent.

For 12 days from 2-13 October 2019 the LFF will celebrate the diverse landscape of international cinema, showcasing films set to entertain and inspire, provoke debate and tackle the urgent issues of our time.

As Britain’s leading cinema event and one of the world’s most important film festivals, the programme offers UK audiences the chance to see some of the most anticipated new films from around the globe, including a host of new works destined to be major awards contenders. This October, the Festival will present 28 World Premieres, 12 International Premieres and 28 European Premieres, welcoming an impressive line up of first-class filmmakers and acting talent.

The programme presents stories from a broad range of voices, continuing to support both home-grown cinema and international productions. 78 countries are represented across short films and features, with 40% of all films directed or co-directed by women. The Festival continues to act as a launch pad for debut filmmakers, often supporting them throughout their career, demonstrated by returning Festival alumni in this year’s programme. The 229 feature films screening include: 41 documentaries, 7 animations, 13 archive restorations and 7 artists’ moving image features. The programme also includes 116 short films.

The Competitive sections serve to recognise remarkable creative achievements from British and international filmmakers. Winners are selected by hand-picked juries across four categories: Official Competition, First Feature, Documentary and Short Film. Last year, audiences were placed at the heart of the awards celebrations for the first time, when the winning film from each section was presented to the public as a surprise screening, following the on-stage announcement of the winner. Building on last year’s sell-out success, audiences will once again have the chance to buy tickets to these awards screenings and be part of the proceedings.

Alongside the Galas, Special Presentations and films in Competition, the Festival will show a range of new world cinema in sections Love, Debate, Laugh, Dare, Thrill, Cult, Journey, Create, Experimenta and Family – which provide pathways for audiences to navigate the extensive programme.

Words: BFI


Tuesday, 20 August 2019

November (Rainer Sarnet, 2017)

Rainer Sarnet's film, produced with support from the Netherlands Film Fund and the Netherlands Film Production Incentive, is an ambitious work which sits somewhere between Hard to Be a God and the work of David Lynch.  A folk tale set in the 19th century, November centres on the stories of poor farm girl Liina (Rea Lest) and fellow peasant Hans (Jörgen Liik).  Although she's promised to a grotesque farmer, Liina has romantic designs on Hans, who in turn only has eyes for the somnambulist daughter (Jette Loona Hermanis) of a German aristocrat (Dieter Laser, familiar from Tom Six's Human Centipede trilogy).  Both Hans and Liina are stretching for a love which seems out of reach, yet with superstition and magic seemingly all around the village (despite - or because of - the presence of the Church), the pair resort to other, darker means in order to capture the hearts of those they desire.

One way in which magic manifests itself is in the form of kratt, creatures who live to work and are usually made up of tools and other pieces of wood and metal; these oddities only come to life when they're furnished with a soul, which their masters obtain via a bargain with the devil (Satan is personified here, and always meets those looking to animate a kratt at, quite appropriately, a deserted crossroads).  Some try to dupe the devil by signing his book in berry juice instead of their blood, but it's a trick he soon becomes wise to.  If all this wasn't enough, the villagers also have to contend with werewolves (which Liina may know a little something about) and the plague which, amusingly, takes the form of a goat.  

All Souls' Day, which occurs during the month of the film's title, features in the story in a rather novel way: rather than the dead simply being remembered, here they actually come back for the day, and return to their families and homes; the eerie nocturnal sequence in which the villagers collect the departed from the graveyard is both highly effective and rather moving.  The treatment of All Souls' Day is a good marker of how the villagers view, and deal with, Christianity (communion wafers are coughed up to be used as bullets for hunting - the logic being that Jesus can fell any animal).  Christ's teachings exist as just one of the belief systems in place, with paganism also playing a prominent role here; it's as if these venal villagers take a pick 'n' mix approach to religion, borrowing bits of different philosophies in order to attain their selfish goals.

While much of the film takes on a very serious tone, there a number of laugh-out-loud moments, the bulk of which come courtesy of the kratt, which stand as the most bizarre entities glimpsed on a screen since the manifestation of the Man from Another Place in Twin Peaks: The Return.  Watching a kratt move (and talk) is as funny as it is disconcerting, and the quiver of a misery whip which tops a pile of newly-disassembled kratt parts is a comic highlight.  The kratt are also capable of eliciting other emotions, too: the film's menacing opening sequence sees one of the creatures stealing a very worried cow, while there's a real melancholy to the scenes between the lovelorn Hans and his snowman kratt (by far the least utilitarian of the creatures featured here, but you'll miss him when he's gone).

It would be wrong to review November and not mention what is undoubtedly the film's strongest suit: the cinematography.  Mart Taniel's lensing really is a joy to behold, and the stark, icy monochrome images are little short of incredible. Taniel contributes so much to the film's rich atmosphere, and his work means that the film is never dull, even if the story can be best described as fitfully engaging.  While the film could use a bit of tightening up in places, it throws around enough in the way of interesting ideas to ensure that viewer concentration never wanders; a lively and fitting score also does much to help move things along.  

Darren Arnold

Images: Eureka Video