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

Sunday, 11 August 2019

The Hole in the Ground (Lee Cronin, 2019)

Recently released on DVD, The Hole in the Ground is a promising first feature from director Lee Cronin, and for the most part it's an admirable exercise in low-key horror, one which is only slightly let down by a disappointing final reel - but, let's be honest, that's the sort of - ahem - hole that many a film from the genre has fallen into.  It's a well-crafted work which boasts both excellent cinematography and fine acting, and there's enough here to suggest that a steady career in features awaits its director.  Cronin had made several TV ads and short films before making a splash with the 17-minute Ghost Train, which scooped a prestigious award from the Brussels-based European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation (EFFFF).  The Hole in the Ground is a Belgian co-production, and, like Ghost Train, also received funding from Finland - which presumably explains the surprising, welcome casting of Aki Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen.

Sarah (Seána Kerslake) and her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) have fled to a house in the countryside, presumably to escape Sarah's abusive ex.  Their new home is certainly remote, and it's surrounded by a forest in which there's a huge, strange sinkhole - the hole in the ground of the title.  While this crater makes for a rather unsettling sight, Sarah doesn't have too much time to dwell on the oddity as she sets about establishing the new family abode.  While driving close to home, Sarah nearly runs over an elderly, clearly disturbed woman (Outinen) who is standing in the middle of the road; later on, Sarah sees the woman, whose name is Noreen, and her husband Des (James Cosmo), and Noreen tells Sarah that Chris is not her son.

Soon after this unpleasant incident, Noreen is found murdered with her head buried in the earth, and Sarah attends the funeral, where Des gives a little more information about his wife's troubled existence: Noreen firmly believed that their son, James, had been taken away and replaced by a doppelgänger, and she could tell the difference when the carbon copy stood in front of a mirror.  Even allowing for the upheaval Chris has experienced over the past few months, Sarah feels her son's behaviour is atypical, and she entertains thoughts similar to those which troubled Noreen for many years.  Predictably enough, a medical examination turns up no major problems with Chris.

The film then proceeds to pull off an impressive balancing act, leaving us guessing: is there actually something wrong with Chris, or is it Sarah who's unravelling?  While there's nothing especially new in this basic concept, the treatment of it is sufficiently skilful to make The Hole in the Ground an enjoyably spooky experience, and Cronin demonstrates a good eye for folk horror as he fully taps into the creepiness of the isolated, bucolic surroundings.  It is only when we reach the film's aforementioned latter stages that the director loses his grip - and his nerve - as measured psychological horror gives way to gloopy FX.  Cronin does manage to right the ship somewhat with a satisfying coda, but it's a pity that one of the more intriguing horror films of recent times loses its way so close to its conclusion.  Still, this is a generally solid film with some interesting flourishes, and it will be interesting to see how Lee Cronin builds on this most assured debut.

Darren Arnold

Image: WildCard Distribution

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Rutger Hauer (1944–2019)

Rutger Hauer (2018)
Image: DWDD [CC BY 3.0]
Dutch actor Rutger Hauer will probably be best remembered - at least by Anglophone audiences - for his performances in 80s classics Blade Runner and The Hitcher.  But long before these Hollywood adventures, the Breukelen-born Hauer had featured in a slew of Dutch-language films, including four for Paul Verhoeven: Katie Tippel, Turkish Delight, Spetters and Soldier of Orange; prior to these features, Verhoeven had directed Hauer in 60s TV series Floris.  The pair would also collaborate in the mid-80s on the English-language historical drama Flesh+Blood, which failed to replicate the duo's earlier successes.  Despite this misstep, the 1980s proved to be Hauer's most successful period, and it was during this decade that he began to star in a series of hugely popular TV ads for Guinness.

From the 1990s on, Hauer's profile was significantly lower as he opted for a number of roles in low-budget films; that said, he still appeared in the occasional lavish production, such as Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins.  His final film (of those released in his lifetime) was Jacques Audiard's outstanding The Sisters Brothers, which we reviewed back in April.  In addition to guest starring in HBO's vampire show True Blood, he also played Van Helsing in legendary horror director Dario Argento's Dracula 3D, a role which sat in direct contrast to his turn as vampire king Lothos in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  He died on July 19 at his home in Friesland, after a short illness.

Darren Arnold

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Henri Storck, Part 3: De patroon is dood (1938)

Maison du Cygne 01
The Brussels café where the BWP was founded. Image: EmDee [CC BY-SA 3.0]
The final film we'll look at in our overview of Henri Storck's "social films" is an appropriately solemn documentary of the funeral of Belgische Werkliedenpartij leader Emile Vandervelde.  De patroon is dood was one of five films made by its director in 1938, and it closes out the Cinematek "social films" set in a manner which underlines Storck's greatness.  It may lack the immediacy of Borinage or De huizen van ellende, but De patroon is dood shows another side of Storck as he records a sober state occasion in an inventive yet unfussy manner.
Camille Huysmans. Image: Eric Koch (ANEFO) [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Emile Vandervelde was a leading figure in both Belgian and international socialism, and earned the nickname "The Boss" long before it was hijacked by a certain singer-songwriter from New Jersey.  He held several ministerial posts, with his final cabinet role being Minister of Public Health in Paul van Zeeland's government.  Critical of King Leopold II's creation (and direct rule) of the Congo Free State and eager to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, Vandervelde was a strong proponent of internationalism, but he would nevertheless come under pressure from younger members of his party as his career (and life) headed towards its conclusion.  His strong socialist ideals very much lined up with those of Henri Storck, so the existence of this film isn't too surprising, and it serves a dual function as both tribute and public record.
Émile Vandervelde 1919
Emile Vandervelde. Image: Harris & Ewing [Public domain]
Storck's deftly edited short film - it's less than half an hour long - captures both the scale and spectacle of the obsèque as huge crowds take to the streets of Brussels.  The funeral was held on the penultimate day of 1938, and it was a cold, grey and wet Friday, but this didn't deter those who wished to pay their final respects to a man who'd served his people right up to the end.  Storck expertly records the mourning, the flags, the flowers and, most poignantly, the torches which are held aloft as the brief December daylight fades.  We also hear from two future Prime Ministers in the form of Léon Blum - who by that stage had already held office twice in France - and Camille Huysmans; their presence here serves to further underline the great importance of Emile Vandervelde to Belgian politics, and De patroon is dood does much to secure the legacies of both its director and his subject.

Darren Arnold

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Henri Storck, Part 2: De huizen van ellende (1937)

Jorge Ruiz - John Grierson 1955
John Grierson (right). Image: Link [Public domain]
The booklet which accompanies the Cinematek Blu-ray/DVD set which includes De huizen van ellende refers to the film as a "fictional documentary".  While this may sound like an oxymoron, it's actually a pretty fair description of a film in which non-professionals play out scenarios closely matching real events they were directly involved in.  As such, De huizen van ellende isn't far removed from the work of Jean Rouch, that master of the ethnographic film, who correctly observed that subjects will always be affected by their awareness of the camera.  Four years on from Borinage and minus Joris Ivens (who at that time was in Spain with Ernest Hemingway), Henri Storck had overhauled his technique and now included dialogue in a film which took an unblinking look at Belgian slum housing and all its attendant problems.  In many ways this is a companion piece to Borinage, as the subject of the earlier film - the 1932 miners' strike - chiefly served to highlight the truly terrible living conditions of the workers and their families.  There's a further link in that the French titles of these two films share a highly apt word: misère.

De huizen van ellende, in both content and message, bears similarities to the 1935 John Grierson production Housing Problems, which documented how the same issue was presenting itself on the other side of the English Channel, where the Greenwood Act - which encouraged councils to demolish slum housing and build new homes - had been passed in 1930.  These two films charted the same, very real problem, and both stood as pieces of propaganda in which the filmmakers' feelings could hardly have been more obvious.  Despite the awful living conditions witnessed in both works, there is a shared optimism as these films look to the future and the promise of the new, planned housing estates which would significantly raise the living standards of those who had endured (and survived) life in the slums.  As De huizen van ellende comes to a close, we are shown the demolition of slum dwellings, and the viewer can share in the joy of the onlooking crowds, who are delighted to witness the razing of these miserable, unsanitary buildings.

Before this most welcome release, however, Storck presents us with a suffocating, claustrophobic litany of deprivation: overcrowding, pitiless landlords, tuberculosis, maternal mortality, evictions, lack of schooling, loan sharks... surviving another day amidst such squalor and disease was about as good as it got for the slums' forlorn inhabitants.  And although this impressive slice of docufiction does end on a relatively uplifting note, we are all too conscious of the sad fact that the outbreak of WW2 would soon see Belgium facing far bigger problems than slum accommodation; the UK of Grierson's film, which during wartime would host many exiled Belgians as well as the Belgische regering in Londen, would endure an even greater housing crisis as the Luftwaffe bombs rained down.

Darren Arnold

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Henri Storck, Part 1: Borinage (w/ Joris Ivens, 1933)

Joris Ivens
Joris Ivens. Image: NOS [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl]
It is hard to overstate the importance of Henri Storck's contribution to documentary film.  The Oostende native was one of the founders of the Royal Belgian Film Archive and appeared in two classics of 20th century cinema: Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct and Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.  These achievements alone would make for a formidable CV before you even begin to consider Storck's 50+ years as a director.  Storck died 20 years ago, but we can still see much of his pioneering work thanks to the archive he helped establish; Cinematek (as the KBF is now known) have released an excellent series of Blu-ray/DVD sets featuring some of the director's best documentaries.  Over the next few posts, we'll take a look at one of these sets, a dual-format release containing three titles known as "the social films".  Although rather expensive, this release (and Cinematek's work in general) is definitely worthy of your time and money.  The discs are region-free, and Dutch, English and French options are included, as is a nice booklet with notes in all three languages; it's clear that Cinematek are really pushing for Storck's work to reach as wide an audience as possible.
Bardouxha Mont 1893-mw-c
The Borains. Image: "Le petit journal" (Paris), May 1893 [Public domain]
The first film in the set, Borinage, is arguably Storck's finest (half) hour.  It is a collaboration between Storck and Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, and it documents the effects of the miners' strike of 1932 in the area of the title.  Ivens and Storck initially set out to make a balanced, objective documentary on a subject most of Belgium was indifferent towards, but upon arriving in the Borinage and witnessing the abject poverty and appalling living conditions firsthand, the pair soon changed tack.  The unsympathetic nature of both mine owners and police is plain to see, and Storck and Ivens formed a good relationship with the striking miners and their families.  While the filmmakers were able to capture genuine footage, they also collaborated with the workers in order to film reconstructed scenes (a practice Storck would return to in future films), with the impoverished miners accepting nothing more than bread as payment for their efforts.
Jean Vigo
Jean Vigo. Image: unknown/неизвестно [Public domain]
The scale of the poverty on display here really has to be seen to be believed, and it is incredible to think that this is 20th century western Europe on film.  The inhabitants of the overcrowded hovels are shown resorting to increasingly desperate measures, ranging from using their own floorboards as firewood to drinking from a flooded cellar in the absence of potable water.  It's the sort of thing you might read about in Zola (whose Germinal, filmed by Claude Berri in 1993, unfolded against the backdrop of a miners' strike), but seeing real footage of starving, unwashed, uneducated children facing yet another interminably bleak day is a most upsetting experience.
Chantal Akerman - video still (cropped)
Chantal Akerman. Image: Mario De Munck [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Borinage was originally a silent film which played with Dutch and French intertitles, although in the 1960s these were replaced by a voiceover by Cinematek co-founder André Thirifays; this later version is the one included on the Cinematek DVD.  The absence of dialogue somehow lends a greater authenticity to the work, although Storck would change his approach when it came to the next entry in the "social films" set (De huizen van ellende), which we'll discuss in an upcoming post.  Henri Storck didn't stay wholly rooted in the documentary format, and even directed a fictional feature film (1952's The Smugglers' Banquet); his working methods were a clear influence on many, including his compatriot Agnès Varda.  Please give half an hour of your time to Borinage if you've never seen it - it's a remarkable documentary, and its preservation alone is a major cause for celebration.

Darren Arnold

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition (26/4/19–15/9/19)

Danny Torrance's jumper from The Shining
Seven years ago Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition could be experienced at Amsterdam's EYE Filmmuseum and has since wound its way (via cities including Toronto, Frankfurt and Barcelona) to London's Design Museum, where it runs until the 15th of September.  This terrific exhibition features countless props, costumes, annotated scripts, lenses, posters, and so on, and you should make every effort to see if it ever turns up anywhere near you.  It even gives you the opportunity to see the sole Oscar won by Kubrick, which was awarded to the director for his groundbreaking FX work on 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Kubrick may have made just 13 feature films in 46 years, but he's as good a shout as any for the label of 🐐.

Axes used in The Shining's most famous scene
The exhibition's impressive entrance area sets the mood nicely, with the initial fanfare from Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra providing its usual frisson.  You swiftly emerge into a room which is slightly overwhelming, and it's difficult to work out where to start when faced with four walls of artefacts and a couple of central islands featuring yet more exhibits.  The staff do point out that this part is non-chronological (as, it soon transpires, is the rest of the exhibition), so there's no real problem in dotting around and finding less busy spots.  This first room presents assorted Kubrickiana from various stages of the director's life and career, and it's in here that we find an interesting Dutch connection in the form of a mention of a film called Aryan Papers.  You may not have heard of this film as it was one of Kubrick's discarded projects, and it's never received anything like the amount of discussion and scrutiny afforded to his abandoned epic Napoleon.   

Oscar-winning costumes from Barry Lyndon
For Aryan Papers, which was to be a film about the holocaust, Kubrick had lined up Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege for the leading role.  At that point (the early 1990s) ter Steege was best known for her award-winning performance in George Sluizer's Spoorloos, and she travelled to England to meet with Kubrick, who was greatly impressed by the actress.  Once the role was confirmed as hers, ter Steege waited for the call to start work on the production, and she would receive frequent, reassuring updates from Kubrick's producer (and brother-in-law) Jan Harlan, who told the actress not to worry about any postponements or delays.  During this extended period of downtime ter Steege turned down other roles, but eventually she received the dreaded news that Kubrick had decided to abandon the film.  This decision was at least partly influenced by the fact that his previous film, Full Metal Jacket, had appeared shortly after another Vietnam War movie, Oliver Stone's Platoon, and Kubrick felt that this close proximity had not been especially helpful.  So when he learned that Steven Spielberg's thematically similar Schindler's List was due to be released before Aryan Papers, he decided to call time on the project.  Kubrick would complete one more film - Eyes Wide Shut - before dying, aged 70, in 1999.

2001: A Space Odyssey's Space Station V
Following the first room, there are ten separate displays, each devoted to a single film.  Kubrick's first three movies aren't included here, but everything from 1957's Paths of Glory on gets a substantial space in which props (and other items from the relevant production) are often augmented by a clip from the given film.  Quite naturally, chances are you'll spend longer in the rooms which focus on your own particular favourites, but the final area, devoted to 2001, is probably the pick of the bunch, with The Shining's patch coming a close second.  The Full Metal Jacket display has some interesting photographs of Beckton Gas Works, which stood in for ruined Vietnamese buildings, but I didn't spot any pictures of Cliffe, the village where some of the open country scenes were filmed.  I used to live not too far from Cliffe, so I've included a snap of my own of the area which, over three decades ago, temporarily became Vietnamese countryside.

Cliffe, one of the locations for Full Metal Jacket
There is a great deal to see at the exhibition, and perhaps the biggest recommendation that can be given is that, like many of Kubrick's films, it genuinely feels as if it has real replay value.  It would take many hours to read and study everything on display, so a second visit is sure to reveal details which weren't noticed first time around.  We are fortunate that Kubrick lived and worked in an age when practical effects still dominated - just think how much would be missing from this show if his work was driven by CGI.  Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition will almost certainly leave you with the desire to jump back into the films, so make sure you have a decent selection of Kubrick movies lined up for the days following your visit to this justifiably popular attraction.

Words/images: Darren Arnold

Thursday, 20 June 2019

The Hummingbird Project (Kim Nguyen, 2018)

Director Kim Nguyen's eclectic filmography includes the likes of the DR Congo-set War Witch (which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) and the excellent, snow-drenched Two Lovers and a Bear, and it's the offbeat spirit of the latter which inhabits The Hummingbird Project.  The film's Belgian funding is reflected in the casting of Flemish actor Johan Heldenbergh in a fine supporting role, but the film's two main stars are Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård, who play cousins attempting to install a long-distance fibre optic cable.  While the premise doesn't sound terribly exciting, The Hummingbird Project manages to be a consistently engaging movie, helped no end by the winning performances of two eminently watchable actors.

Vincent (Eisenberg) and Anton (Skarsgård) are employees of a stock trading company headed by the ruthless Eva (a scenery-chewing Salma Hayek).  The cousins have an idea of how they might make millions, if not billions, of their own, which involves running a cable, one that can transfer data at speeds greater than those of the existing network, all the way between Kansas and New York.  In order to achieve such a speed, the cable itself must carry virtually lossless data at breakneck pace and, more importantly, run in a straight line, which involves much drilling, not to mention negotiations with not-always-amenable landowners.  As the pair resign from Eva's company to pursue this secret project, their ex-boss is bent on discovering and disrupting their plans.  Vincent and Anton rope in the affable Mark (Michael Mando, so good as villain Vaas in Far Cry 3) to oversee the complicated drilling work, and the project receives considerable funding from the less affable - but extremely wealthy - Bryan Taylor (Frank Schorpion). 

Not too far into the film, there's a development involving Vincent which instils a fresh urgency to the cousins' project; Eisenberg brings real pathos to his role, and while his fast-talking, perma-smoking, jittery frontman may fool those around him, the viewer is privy to the pain which lies behind those haunted eyes.  In contrast, Skarsgård's Anton is an introverted, socially awkward type who dreams of the country life, yet he seems quietly fulfilled by his family in a way which highlights the hole in Vincent's existence; a touching scene sees Vincent ask if it would be OK if he took Anton's kids out for ice cream once the mammoth project is completed.  Anton's affirmative response may appear casual, even throwaway, but there's a real sense that he knows just how much this simple act of belonging would mean to his cousin.

For all its poignancy, The Hummingbird Project isn't scared to mix things up a bit by throwing in  some well-judged humour, with a comic highlight being the spontaneous victory dance performed by the normally buttoned-down Anton.  The way in which this moderately serious tale is punctuated with moments of levity draws parallels with the work of Nguyen's compatriot Denys Arcand, whose The Decline of the American Empire is explicity recalled in a scene in which Eisenberg's character visits the bathroom.  You suspect that the great Arcand, whose latest film The Fall of the American Empire continues his examination of the degrading effect of money on civilisation, would approve of Nguyen's own idiosyncratic take on the race to the bottom.

Darren Arnold


Monday, 17 June 2019

Intimate Audrey (1/5/19–25/8/19)

Intimate Audrey is a ‘bespoke’ exhibition on the life of Audrey Hepburn created by her son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, to celebrate her 90th birthday anniversary in her birth town of Brussels, Belgium. All of its profits will go to EURORDIS-Rare Diseases Europe and the Brugmann and Bordet hospitals in Brussels.

Intimate Audrey is een unique tentoonstelling over het leven van Audrey Hepburn, opgericht door haar zoon, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, ter gelegenheid van haar 90ste verjaardag in haar geboortestad Brussel. Alle winst zal worden gedoneerd aan EURORDIS-Rare Diseases Europe en aan ziekenhuizen Brugmann en Bordet gelegen in Brussel. 

Composed in large part of unpublished photographs, it focuses entirely on the woman - not the icon. It is the woman behind the legend who is ‘coming home’.

De tentoonstelling zal voornamelijk bestaan uit nooit eerder vertoond fotomateriaal, documenten en objecten die tot haar behoorden, de tentoonstelling zal zich uitsluitend richten op de vrouw die ze was en niet het icoon. Het is de vrouw achter deze legende die terugkomt naar de stad waar ze het licht heeft gezien.

The exhibition, laid out over 800 square meters over the first 2 floors of the Gallerie Vanderborght in Brussels, includes several hundred original and re-printed photographs, a limited amount of memorabilia, dresses and accessories, as well as her never before seen fashion drawings and humanitarian writings.

De tentoonstelling, die zich uitstrekt over 800 vierkante meter op de twee eerste verdiepingen van de Vanderborght galerijen in Brussel, omvat honderden originele en herdrukte foto's, een gelimiteerd aantal souvenirs, jurken en accessoires. Maar evenwel haar ongepubliceerde werken zoals haar mode ontwerpen en humanitaire geschriften.

Words/images: Intimate Audrey

Monday, 3 June 2019

The Devils (Devil's Advocates)

Time for a shameless plug here: the book I've been working on for the past couple of years or so is finally available!  It's part of the Devil's Advocates series of books, each volume of which contains an analysis of a notable horror film.  My own particular entry looks at Ken Russell's 1971 shocker The Devils—a film which has never ceased to impress me since I first encountered it a full three decades ago.  The book is published by those fine folks at Auteur, and is available both in brick-and-mortar bookshops and online from, among other places, the following Amazon stores:

UK   –   France      Canada

US      Germany      Spain

Italy      Australia      UAE

Japan      India      Mexico

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Kursk (Thomas Vinterberg, 2018)

It's hard to believe that next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Kursk submarine disaster, which saw 118 men lose their lives during Russia's first significant naval exercise since the fall of the USSR.  Although only on a training mission, the Kursk was carrying a full complement of live weapons, and these were the source of an accidental explosion which saw the stricken vessel sink to the bottom of the Barents Sea.  Shortly after settling, a second, much larger explosion - which registered 4.2 on the Richter scale - was recorded.  It was hours before anyone realised that the submarine was missing - its rescue buoy, reportedly welded in place, had failed to deploy - and many days before a rescue team was able to get inside the vessel; by that stage, as we all know, it was far too late.  The Russian government came under much criticism for its handling of the incident - after locating the submarine yet failing to attach a diving bell to it, the government rebuffed a number of offers of help from other nations including France, Germany and Israel, with President Putin - who at that point had been in his role for just a few months - eventually accepting help from the UK and Norway.  The British-Norwegian teams of divers worked to help access the submarine and facilitate the recovering of the bodies.

The real horror at the heart of the Kursk story lies not with the deaths of those who perished as a result of the initial explosions and subsequent flooding - although that is horrific enough - but in the submarine's ninth compartment, where 23 men managed to hole up in the dark and cold.  In this area, the men had an air pocket that would have sustained them for a while, but nothing like the time it took for help to arrive.  The released parts of a letter written by a Captain-Lieutenant, who fumbled his way around the page in the dark while using his illuminated wristwatch to note down the time, are the only real personal glimpses we have of what it was like for these men who, as it turned out, were hideously unlucky to have survived the explosions and their immediate aftermath.  The Captain-Lieutenant is played by Matthias Schoenaerts, an appealing and dependable actor who captures the essence of someone who was both liked and respected by his men, and who did his best to keep everyone's spirits up in the face of a clock which was always going to run out.

Kursk, a production from Luc Besson's EuropaCorp, sees Schoenearts reteam with Thomas Vinterberg, with the two having previously collaborated on 2015 literary adaptation Far from the Madding Crowd.  Vinterberg's roaring success of a debut feature, Festen, was released before the Kursk even sank, and in the intervening years he's largely struggled to live up to his first film, although his Oscar-nominated Jagten was terrific.  He is, however,  a consistently interesting filmmaker, and one who has always worked fairly steadily, although a fairly orthodox film like Kursk provides him with few opportunities to apply the kind of off-kilter flourishes we might expect from this director.  The pan-European cast also features Léa Seydoux, Colin Firth and Max von Sydow; if nothing else, the production, which may well be dismissed by some as a Euro-pudding, stands as a display of international co-operation that's in sharp contrast to both the belligerence at the core of the Kursk story and the current global political climate.

That the sinking of the Kursk (which, like the Titanic, was widely considered unsinkable) comes early in the film and not at the climax tells us much about the scale of the terror here; in many movies, the critical explosions would come after a long buildup.  Kursk proves to be a tough watch - as a film based on terrible real-life events, its preordained outcome hovers over the entire running time; matters are made much worse through watching the near-miss of the diving bell as it fails to lock onto the sub.  Some of these men came so close to being saved, but the tragic tale sticks to its awful path, as it must; it's like Open Water on a much larger scale.  Kursk is a competent if rather workmanlike film, yet one which grows more disturbing once you've seen it; it's only in the hours and days after seeing the film that the sorry fate of these men will really haunt you.  EuropaCorp's films - outside of Besson's own directorial efforts - tend to be fairly generic, and the starry Kursk is no exception.  But regardless of its merits, Kursk's very existence serves as a reminder of a disaster many of us won't have thought about for some time.

Darren Arnold

Images: EuropaCorp

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Sick, Sick, Sick (Alice Furtado, 2019)

Now that May is upon us, the Cannes Film Festival is just around the corner - and for this year's edition they have, quite appropriately, paid tribute to Agnès Varda via the terrific official poster.  By my reckoning, there are only three Dutch titles on offer at the festival, with Sick, Sick, Sick being one of them.  Below you can find a bit more information on this intriguing film, which I hope to see once it begins its international rollout. (DA)

Please note: all the following words and pictures are copyright © 2019 THE PR FACTORY.

The Brazilian-French-Dutch coproduction Sick, Sick, Sick by Brazilian director Alice Furtado will have its World Premiere at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Directors' Fortnight) in Cannes. It is her feature debut as director. 

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1987, Alice Furtado graduated in cinema at Universidade Federal Fluminense (Brazil), and post graduated at Le Fresnoy (France). She directed the short films Duelo Antes Da Noite (2010) and La Grenouille et Dieu (2013). As an editor, she worked in Eduardo Williams' first feature El Auge del Humano, and Os Sonâmbulos, by Thiago Mata Machado. 

Sick, Sick, Sick (Sem Seu Sangue) is a film about love and its destabilizing potential. Love that puts the mechanic, productive functioning of routine to test. It is also a film about desire, this strong and passionate feeling that can motivate people to be better than they ever thought they could be, but that can also lead to doom. These two feelings, love and desire, walk hand in hand as a double edge sword. They enhance each other but can also be a very destructive (and yet, powerful) combination. - Alice Furtado

Synopsis: Silvia is an introspective young girl who is not interested in the daily routine between family and school. Everything abruptly changes when Artur arrives unexpectedly in her class, after being banned from several other schools. Silvia is amazed by the vitality of the boy, who actually suffers from a serious illness - hemophilia. The two immerse themselves in an intense and brief coexistence, interrupted by an accident in which Artur bleeds to death. Silvia gets sick and sees her life turn into a strange nightmare. The mourning gradually becomes an obsession, and obsession becomes a goal - Silvia will do anything to bring him back to life.

Friday, 12 April 2019

The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard, 2018)

It can often be rather worrying when an established director makes a film in a foreign language for the first time, but the stakes seem especially high when the filmmaker in question is arguably the greatest director working today.  It's fair to say that Jacques Audiard's stunning run from Read My Lips through Dheepan has cemented his place as one of the true greats - a director who rarely seems to put a foot out of place.  Audiard had much to risk by stepping out of his comfort zone to make a film in English; his prior work was always highly nuanced, and filmmakers working in another tongue can often pass over the subtleties of that language.  Happily - and possibly surprisingly - Audiard comes up trumps with The Sisters Brothers, a terrific western  that can proudly sit alongside his other works such as Rust and Bone and A Prophet.  The film's quality is evident from the off, and any doubts we may have had are quickly extinguished.

Set in the unforgiving Oregon of the 1850s, the film follows hitmen brothers Charlie and Eli (Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly) as they carry out the bidding of a wealthy Commodore (Rutger Hauer).  As gunfighters, the brothers prove to be as good as anyone around, and even when the pair are outnumbered, they're never outgunned.  Eli is the more sensitive of the two, while Charlie regularly drowns his own demons in alcohol, which often leaves him in no condition to ride - although it seems that little can blunt his fighting skills.  The Commodore sends the two to hunt down Warm (Riz Ahmed), a timid and sickly-looking gent on his way to California with the Gold Rush.  Taking no chances, the Commodore has also hired Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a private detective who locates and befriends Warm; Morris grows uneasy at the thought of the grisly end which awaits Warm when the Sisters catch up him, and he and the would-be prospector set out for California together.  With this complication in place, the Sisters find themselves on the trail of both Warm and Morris.

When the two parties eventually come face to face, Audiard brilliantly wrong-foots us and the story takes an unexpected turn.  To detail it here would be to say a little too much, but suffice to say that Warm has been working on a formula for locating gold, and this becomes central to the fates of all four men.  This development comes as part of a whole which feels at once fresh and familiar; Audiard and his trusted co-writer Thomas Bidegain, not for the first time, have created a world in which there's a perfect balance of light and shade.  It is fair to say that the way you view each of the four main characters will change - probably more than once - over the course of the film's running time.  All of this is captured magnificently by the great Belgian cinematographer Benoit Debîe, who recently lensed Gaspar Noé's Climax; Debie makes a major contribution when it comes to putting us in the thick of lawless, dusty 19th century America (although the film was actually shot in Spain).  There are few cinematographers whose work is worth viewing regardless of the director they're teamed with, but Debie's sterling efforts are always worth seeking out; all the better when he links up with the likes of Noé and Audiard.

The Sisters Brothers is adapted from a novel by Canadian author Patrick deWitt, who wrote the screenplay for Terri, which coincidentally also starred John C. Reilly - who's on double duty for The Sisters Brothers, with the actor also taking on the role of producer (alongside Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, no less).  You can see the appeal of the story to Audiard: criminals feature prominently in all of his films (bar A Self-Made Hero), and the same concerns are prevalent here - even if the milieu marks new territory for the director.  A recurrent theme in Audiard's work - of the man who tries to turn away from a life of crime - is also present in The Sisters Brothers.  So, the essence of the film actually isn't so different from what we have come to expect from Jacques Audiard, even if the packaging is unfamiliar.  What is noticeably different this time around is that Audiard pushes more characters to the forefront; usually, his films focus almost exclusively on one or two people, but here he manages to spread the load among the four main characters and, remarkably, they are all equally fascinating.  As such, it's something of an ensemble piece, one which features a quartet of actors on top form.  Whether Audiard ventures into English-language filmmaking again remains to be seen, but what isn't in any doubt is that The Sisters Brothers is a must-see film of tremendous quality.

Darren Arnold

Images: UniFrance

Monday, 1 April 2019

Agnès Varda (1928–2019)

Less than a week ago I wrote a few words about the death of Scott Walker, and since then we've learned that another cultural heavyweight has left us.  Agnès Varda, the Belgian filmmaker who contributed so much to the French New Wave and beyond, died of cancer on Friday.  Varda was a prolific director who busied herself to the very end - her latest film Varda by Agnès premiered less than two months ago, and her 2017 documentary Faces Places was nominated for an Oscar and can now be viewed on Netflix.

Varda was a maker of both narrative films and documentaries, but actually never seemed happier than when she was occupying that opaque space between the two - see Jacquot and Jane B. by Agnès V. for prime examples.  She was married to the legendary French director Jacques Demy, whose frequent cinematic forays into fantasy worlds stood in sharp contrast to the pragmatic non-fictional cinema Varda was so fond of.  It is now nearly 30 years since Demy died, and the widowed Varda worked hard to maintain her late husband's legacy, overseeing restorations and re-releases of the likes of Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

A full decade ago, I reviewed Varda's then-current The Beaches of Agnès for the print version of Holland Focus.  You can view a washed-out scan of that article here; now, as then, I'd recommend that you give this excellent film a look.  Like Demy, Agnès Varda was a true giant of cinema, and our screens will be much poorer without her.

Darren Arnold

Image: Le Pacte

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Scott Walker (1943–2019)

By Unknown photographer - Dutch TV programme Fenklup 
Beeld en Geluid Wiki, CC BY-SA 3.0 nlLink

Yesterday brought the sad news of the death of singer Scott Walker.  Walker was a virtually peerless artist whose discography ran the gamut from sixties chart-toppers to avant-garde experimenta.  Blessed with the perfect pop voice, the man born Noel Scott Engel proved hugely influential; indeed, he was one of very few musical artists whose output would motivate and invigorate David Bowie.  To my ears, Walker's masterpiece was always The Electrician, which appeared on The Walker Brothers' final album Nite Flights, and this track really got under Bowie's skin.  Bowie's stab at capturing the mood created by The Electrician took the form of his fine 1995 track The Motel, and you can read an excellent in-depth article about Bowie's relationship with The Electrician here.

Vox Lux. Image:

But what does any of this have to do with film/and or the Netherlands?  Well, Walker composed the music for several films, most recently Vox Lux, which I saw (and wrote a capsule review of) at last year's London Film Festival.  Walker's few film scores were outstanding, and you got the sense that it was work which suited him down to the ground; such backseat endeavours meant there was no need for that most reluctant of stars to employ the golden voice which had endeared him to more than one generation.  Outside of Walker's bespoke work for cinema, The Electrician was used, most memorably, in Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson.

Besides the top photograph, taken in the 1960s when Walker appeared on popular Dutch TV show Fenklup, is there a Netherlands connection of any kind?  Well, Nite Flights did feature a track named Den Haague, and Walker, like (but before) Bowie, did record a great cover version of Jacques Brel's Amsterdam.  That track is included in the terrific compilation album Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel - a collection of Walker's late 60s recordings of songs penned by the legendary Belgian singer-songwriter.  Now might be a good time to (re)acquaint yourself with it?

Darren Arnold

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Beautiful Boy (Felix van Groeningen, 2018)

Acht jaar geleden bevond ik mezelf in een hopeloze situatie. Met de rug tegen de muur. Wanhopig zoekend naar een uitweg. Wetende dat ik drastisch mijn levenswijze moest veranderen of ik zou al snel de wortels van groen gras voor eeuwig kunnen bewonderen. De wil om te veranderen was er. De moed ook. Alleen kon ik niet. En nu na al die jaren ben ik blij dat ik toen de juiste knoop heb doorgehakt. Voor mij was Beautiful Boy dan ook een bittere pil om te slikken. Ik had niet gedacht dat ik het er zo moeilijk mee zou hebben. Het was dan wel geen crystal meth of iets gelijkaardigs waar ik problemen mee had, maar er zijn in deze indrukwekkende film zoveel herkeningspunten dat het wel leek alsof het een beetje mijn verhaal was. Een lawine aan gevoelens passeren de revue hier. Trots, vertrouwen, wantrouwen, wanhoop, ontreddering, hoop, geluk, verdriet en moedeloosheid. Een uitzichtloze strijd die van beide kampen onmenselijke krachten eist en een niet te vermijden afloop kent. Ofwel slaagt de persoon erin ofwel moeten diegenen die hem omringen lijdzaam toezien hoe hij zichzelf de vernieling in drinkt, spuit, snuift of slikt. Ik had het er moeilijk mee.

Het mooie aan de film vond ik het feit dat men zich niet enkel en alleen toespitste op de verslaafde Nic (Timothée Chalamet), maar ook op de mensen die hem omringen (vader David Sheff door Steve Carell en stiefmoeder Karen door Maura Tierney). Als verslaafde heb je in je hoogdagen geen enkel besef wat leed je deze mensen aandoet. Alles draait rond het naar binnen krijgen van datgene wat je lichaam nodig heeft. Het is dus niet zoals in Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo en Animals waar je getuige bent van de geleidelijke aftakeling van de verslaafde zelf. Zowel op fysiek als psychisch vlak. Niet dat Nic er spic en span blijft uitzien de gehele film. Naar het einde toe zie je de vreselijke gevolgen van het dagelijkse gebruik van methamfetamine. Die wazige blik en grauwig, onverzorgd uiterlijk. Maar voornamelijk zijn wisselende gemoedstoestanden en agressief gedrag tegenover anderen is vreselijk om aan te zien. Zijn smeekbedes en beloftes zijn niets meer dan een excuus om weeral te bedelen voor extra cash om het spul waar zijn lichaam naar hunkert, terug aan te schaffen.

Het enige wat ik tegen mijn vrouw zei achteraf was: “Ik hoop dit nooit mee te maken met één van onze twee kids want dit is een echte nachtmerrie”. Als ouder van twee opgroeiende kinderen breekt me het angstzweet uit bij de gedachte dat dit me zou kunnen overkomen. Hoe erg je ook je best doet om ze te beschermen tegen de boze buitenwereld en je ze overlaadt met liefde en aandacht, het moment dat ze zwichten voor de middelen die hun levensbestaan rooskleuriger maakt, weet je dat je een ongelijke strijd gaat voeren. Een gevecht waarbij je, tegen al je oudergevoelens in, op een bepaald moment misschien wel de handdoek in de ring moet werpen en aan jezelf moet bekennen dat je de strijd verloren hebt. Een kind afgeven is vreselijk. Maar de band met je kind verbreken, pretenderen dat ze niet meer existeren en hopen dat ze zonder kleerscheuren uit die periode geraken, is volgens mij tientallen keren erger.

Niet alleen qua thema is Beautiful Boy indrukwekkend te noemen. Ook het acteren van Steve Carell en Timothée Chalamet is weergaloos schitterend. Je voelt gewoonweg de wanhoop bij Steve Carell die zijn zoon tracht te helpen en telkens beseft dat dit niet lukt. Een vader die zich op de problematiek stort en als een onderzoeksjournalist tracht te begrijpen wat de beruchte drugs bij zijn zoon Nic aanricht. Als komiek heeft Steve Carell mij nooit weten te overtuigen. Met deze rol is mijn respect voor de acteur echter alleen maar toegenomen. Timothée Chalamet’s performance is zeker Oscar-waardig te noemen. Geen moment krijg je het gevoel dat hij maar een rijzende ster aan het Hollywood firmament is die acteert. Het voelt authentiek, oprecht en ongeforceerd aan. Deze twee hoofdrolspelers mogen hun tuxedo al klaarleggen voor de Academy Awards.

En ook regisseur Felix van Groeningen (Belgian and proud) mag met beide heren rustig aanschuiven op de rode loper. Thematisch leent de film zich uitstekend om er een overdreven Hollywood spektakel van te maken. Maar hij slaagt erin om het sereen en realistisch te houden. Artistieke beelden worden verwerkt in een eigenzinnige montage waarbij er lustig heen en weer wordt gesprongen in de tijd. Flashbacks volgen elkaar op waarbij de herinneringen van zowel Nic en Davis in elkaar overvloeien. Ik wist dan ook soms niet waar het verhaal zich op de tijdslijn situeerde. Maar dat is dan ook het enige minpunt dat ik kan bedenken bij deze voor de rest indrukmakende film. En dit alles voorzien van een smaakmakende soundtrack. Ik had nooit verwacht Territorial Pissings van Nirvana te horen in een film.

Voor de meeste filmliefhebbers zal dit niet meer zijn dan een gewoon familiedrama over verslaving. Misschien vinden ze het ook wel eentonig vanwege de oneindige cyclus van herleven en hervallen. Op mij maakte het echter een verpletterende indruk die heel wat emoties loswrikte. Ik hoop dat iedere persoon die in de val loopt van welk verdovend middel dan ook, dat ze ook kunnen terugvallen op een liefhebbende, ondersteunende familie vol begrip, om er uiteindelijk ergens in hun leven vanaf te geraken.

Peter Pluymers 

Words: copyright © 2019