Monthly Archives: November 2011

In Time (US 2011)

Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried 'on the run' – a reminder of 'The Adjustment Bureau' (but without hats!)?

In Time seemed to come out of nowhere. That’s what happens when you don’t watch American films or TV on a regular basis. The plot sounded interesting but when I heard that it was  an Andrew Niccol movie I was determined to see it. Niccol is the closest filmmaker I know to aspects of 1950s/60s science fiction literature. His script for The Truman Show was quasi-Dickian. Gattaca is a favourite film for many reasons – not least its production design and cinematography. (Niccol, a New Zealander, worked in the advertising films business in London and he seems to have good contacts.) S1mone was, if nothing else, an original idea that satirised Hollywood and celebrity (simulacra and celebrity – another Dickian theme). I haven’t seen Lord of War – a satire of a different kind – but it has many supporters. In Time is said to be very similar in its narrative ideas to a Harlan Ellison short story ”Repent Harlequin! said the Ticktock Man’ written in 1965. Ellison appears to have filed a plagiarism suit against 20th Century Fox but there doesn’t seem to be any injunction against the film’s release.

In Time finds Niccol back in potentially Dickian territory. It has elements of Minority Report (a dogged policeman chasing the hero through an alternative future/present landscape), some design ideas that at least remind us of the intelligence of Gattaca, an underclass borrowed from Soylent Green and The Matrix and it ends like Bonnie and Clyde. What’s not to like? Best of all it offers the most sustained critique of a capitalist system (in which time is literally money and is accumulated by the few to oppress the many) that you are likely to see in mainstream cinema. Perhaps this is why the film has been deemed something of a flop in North America, but a hit in the rest of the world. With plenty more openings to come the ‘International Box Office’ is nearly twice North America. According to Box Office Mojo it has taken $13 million in Russia, but only $30 million in North America. In the UK, audiences have made it into a successful release despite only moderately good reviews. In some ways I think that the film is working like The Adjustment Bureau – which it resembles in narrative ideas and overall feel. With senses dulled by a succession of clunky action pictures, I imagine some mainstream audiences have been surprised to find a film that has intelligence, a romance of sorts and some good performances in amongst the obligatory car chases.

Cillian Murphy as the 'Time Keeper' – the display behind him lists 'time as money'.

The basic premise is that this alternative society has evolved to the point where genetics and medicine are able to keep the population alive indefinitely. But to maintain control, the rich have developed a system which decrees that when anyone reaches the age of 25 they must ‘buy’ extra years of life in order to stay alive. The ‘life bank balance’ is displayed on the forearm and paying for anything is like giving up blood or receiving a transfusion of new funds when payments are received. When your time runs out, you die immediately. The elite have thousands of years available but the poor live, like the working classes have always done since the start of the industrial revolution, ‘on the edge’, borrowing time or pawning goods. The ‘inciting incident’ sees the hero, Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) ‘receive’ over a 100 years of time unexpectedly. This young man from the ‘ghetto’, who is used to living with only a day or so ‘in the bank’, determines to visit the rich gated enclave in order to make a statement of some kind. He is driven by personal grief and an overall belief in living on the edge  but also a genuine sense of sharing whatever he has – the nearest Hollywood gets to a socialist hero. (I don’t want to spoil the narrative, suffice to say that there are many interesting inferences about past insurrections, including perhaps actions by Will’s dead father.) Inevitably, Will ends up seducing/abducting Sylvia Weis the daughter of the richest man in town, a genuine ‘time lord’, and being pursued by a determined cop – a ‘timekeeper’ (played wonderfully by Cillian Murphy). The cop, of course, is from the ghetto himself and attempts to keep a ‘professional attitude’ towards his job even if his sympathies might be with the poor rather than the rich. Each day he works with only a limited number of hours on his arm so as not to attract too many time thieves, the piranhas of the poor communities. Alex Pettyfor plays a gangster with a British accent straight out of a Guy Ritchie film leading a group of time thieves known as ‘Minutemen’. This seems like a good bit of satire. As well as the pun on ‘time thieves’, ‘minutemen’ were American militia groups fighting the British in the War of Independence and subsequently the name of the US silo-launched missile defences against the Soviets. The cynical amongst us might see them as agents of the American ruling class – personified by in the film by Sylvia’s father (played by the curiously soft but vampiric Vincent Kartheiser).

Alex Pettyfor as Fortis, leader of the 'Minutemen'.

Amanda Seyfried as Sylvia, playing the Patty Hearst role. This image is so fetishised (the gun, the dress, the shoes) that it refers to Faye Dunaway in 'Bonnie and Clyde' as well as 'Nikita'.

The film looks great photographed by Roger Deakins in various shades of blue and sepia-gold. Production designer Alex McDowell worked on Minority Report and Costume Designer Colleen Atwood has a very long list of credits including Gattaca and most of Tim Burton’s films. However, I guess she was partly resonsible for my one niggle with the film. The rich girl hero is played by Amanda Seyfried who spends most of her time in the action sequences running and climbing/jumping in various short skirts and vertiginous heels, both stiletto and more substantial but all designed to ruin her feet. I wondered if this was some kind of hommage to the Anne Parillaud character in Luc Besson’s Nikita. (Ms Seyfried also sports an Anna Karina bob.) The first time we meet her, the little black dress and heels are appropriate for the setting but after that I was almost wishing for some product placement that would allow her to don skinny jeans and trainers. The rich girl with the poor boy is a genre staple of course but in this case a reference to heiress Patty Hearst, abducted by the ‘Symbionese Liberation Army’ in 1974, seems appropriate. There have been many sniffy reviews about Timberlake and Seyfried and their acting abilities but I thought that they were both fine in their roles and exactly what this kind of material required.

The main sensible criticism of the film focuses on the difference between the ideas heavy first half and the action-packed second half. The first half certainly has a very clever script – possibly with too many ideas. I’ve seen some reviews that suggest that the writer has not thought about the ideas at all. Perhaps this isn’t surprising as the promotion of the film has followed the same misguided route as that for The Adjustment Bureau. The trailers we sat through before the film were all for violent action films.  I’m not an action fan but the sequences in In Time seemed OK to me. There are some interesting twists in the closing stages and the final shot is terrific. Take this as a genre film which makes satirical points about greed and inequalities in capitalist society (while simultaneously fetishising youth and the promise of sexual excitement – not actually shown) and you have an entertaining night out. The more I think about the film, the more the ideas come. The central premise means that no-one looks over 25 and the actress playing Justin Timberlake’s mum (Olivia Wilde) is actually younger than he is. This is a neat comment on Hollywood and roles for older women – cf Cary Grant and Jessie Royce Landis, the actress playing his mother in North by Northwest who was actually a few months his junior.

Das letzte Schweigen (The Silence, Germany 2010)

Victims in the police station: Ruth (Karoline Eichhorn), the mother of the missing girl, watched by Timo's bewildered wife Julia (Claudia Michelsen)

Several reviewers have noted that Das letzte Schweigen bears similarities to the first series of the Danish TV drama The Killing. The formats are different but the central story about the impact of a police investigation of the murder of a young girl is similar and importantly the story is as much about the effects of the investigation on the girl’s parents and the internal wranglings of the police team as it is about the ‘solving’ of a crime.

The Nordic crime connection is not surprising since crime fiction is as popular in Germany as it is elsewhere in Northern Europe. The novel by Jan Costin Wagner, which has been adapted by Swiss writer-director Baran bo Odar, won the German ‘crime prize’ in 2008. Wagner, though writing in his native German, sets his novels in Finland where he lives for much of the time with his Finnish wife. For the adaptation, a Swiss-Finnish perspective is then realised in a South German summer landscape of cornfields, forests and lakes and an oddly sterile collection of new-build houses, municipal flats and nondescript public buildings. This, I’m guessing, replaces the snowy wastes of a Finnish winter.

The film’s German title translates as the ‘final silence’, but I’m not sure why it was necessary to change the novel’s original ‘The Silence’. The title could be a reference to several things but the most likely is to the silence of Timo, who we first see in 1986 when he is witness to, and passive collaborator in, the seemingly random rape and murder of a pre-teen girl, whose bicycle is thrown into a cornfield. Timo immediately splits from the murderer and we see him again 23 years later as a successful architect with a beautiful house, wife and two young children. But then another girl on a bicycle goes missing on the anniversary of the earlier unsolved murder with her bicycle discovered in exactly the same spot. After a police retirement party, the news of the missing girl is taken badly by the retiring officer who failed to crack the earlier case and he sets out to investigate the new one. He’s aided by a younger detective returning to work in a dishevelled state after the death (from cancer) of his wife. The new case stirs the memories of the mother of the girl killed in 1986 and we witness the bewilderment of the parents of the girl who is now missing. Timo is immediately traumatised by the news, having kept his silence for 23 years. Is the missing girl a victim of the same man who was his friend – or is it just a terrible coincidence?

The presentation of this relatively uncomplicated story is stylish with good use of a CinemaScope frame and the dramatic landscape properties of cornfields/forests/lakes seen in occasional overhead aerial shots. I was particularly impressed by the use of music and sound. I found the Sight and Sound review of the film by Matthew Taylor (December 2011) to be rather snotty about the film’s presentation, using words like “portentous”, “over-emphatic, almost pompous” and “lugubriously self-importance”. I think that there is a fear in some parts about genre films that attempt to use the full range of cinematic techniques. Well, it worked for me. I accept that this isn’t a realist film in the sense that the police are a motley crew and nobody who opens the door to them seems to think it would be a good idea to ask for an ID – even though the dishevelled character looks very unlike a responsible copper. But then, invesigators in crime fiction often have behavoural tics and an odd dress sense. The heavily pregnant detective is a nice touch I think and well used in a couple of scenes.

The cornfield brings to mind one of the best crime films of recent years, Memories of Murder (S. Korea 2003). Bong Joon-ho’s film managed to combine the antics (comic, but also brutal) of a similarly bizarre crew of local investigators with a subtle commentary on Korean society and politics in the 1980s. I’m struggling to find the same sense of political purpose in The Silence. However, the film’s ending and certain aspects of the police procedure do leave a lingering sense of ‘disturbance’ –just as the stylistic aspects of the film allow a sense of dread to build throughout the narrative.

The lasting impression is a well-made and highly ‘cinematic’ film which seems to have played mainly on German TV and the joint German-French channel Arte. It wasn’t just the presence of Karoline Eichhorn that made me think of similar Thomas Arslan films (and possibly also Christian Petzold’s Yella). I’m glad that Soda picked it up for UK cinema distribution and I was pleased to see it on a big screen. (This press release seems to indicate that the film received state support in getting distribution in the UK, Denmark and Hungary.)

The trailer gives a good idea about the look and ‘feel’ of the film:

Mademoiselle Chambon (France 2009)

Jean (Vincent Lindon) and Véronique (Sandrine Kiberlain)

The import of French films into the UK still remains a mystery to me. Mademoiselle Chambon was a sizeable hit in France in 2009 (over 500,000 admissions) but it took two years before the small specialised cinema distributor Axiom released it in the UK in September 2011. The initial release was on just 6 screens and, despite some very good reviews, subsequent bookings seem to have been limited. A little research reveals that director Stéphane Brizé’s previous film, Not Here to be Loved (2005) also took two years to reach the UK via Artificial Eye, who released just 3 prints in June 2007. I missed that release altogether but I’m tempted now to seek out the DVD.

My first reaction to Mademoiselle Chambon was that it was what British arthouse audiences think of as a ‘typical French film’ – beautifully mounted with excellent cinematography and wonderful performances by two familiar stars, Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain. Of course, there are many kinds of French Cinema but this film appeals directly to a specific demographic of older British audiences. There is nothing specifically ‘arty’ about the film, but it falls out of the mainstream because it offers a romance which is subtle and gentle but still powerful. The film is based on a novel by Eric Holder, but director Brizé changed the story significantly.

Jean is a self-employed builder in a small town in the South of France. He is happily married to the beautiful Anne Marie (well played by the striking Aure Atika, best-known to UK audiences for The Beat That My Heart Skipped). The couple have a small son and when Anne Marie injures her back at work in a local print factory, Jean has to pick up his son from school. Here he meets his son’s teacher Véronique. A few days later she asks him to talk to the class about his job as a builder. Hesitant, he accepts and is well received by the children but then Véronique asks him to look at a damaged window in her apartment and he is persuaded to replace it for her.  This encounter will eventually lead to a recognition that there is an attraction between them. What follows is certainly a romance but one in which very little happens by the standards of entertainment cinema. Instead we get beautifully composed CinemaScope framings that enable us to feel the emotional pull. There is a minimalist score and this is directly linked, as non-diegetic music, with the diegetic music which Veronique plays on her violin – playing which then becomes an important focus for Jean’s feelings about her. It’s the way that music is used that distinguishes this film from the expressive qualities of a melodrama. This is one of those seemingly ‘anti-melodramas’ in which music, colour, cinematography and mise en scène signify meanings in a subdued rather than expressionistic way.

A very useful review in Cineaste by Megan Ratner offers a detailed reading of the film which I urge you to read and I’ll attempt to expand it. The slow pace of the film and the minimal amount of plotting allows the audience to really think deeply about the two central characters and how they are feeling. As Ratner suggests both characters are seeking something that they need and the classic ‘opposites attract’ observation seems fitting in that Véronique is rootless, moving to a new school in a new town each year, whereas Jean is perhaps too rooted in family and community. But the potential couple also share something – their skill and knowledge represented by intelligence and craft knowledge and expressed through music and building. It’s important that we see Anne Marie at work where she is engaged in routine tasks (though of course she is also a mother and housekeeper). Jean’s father is a key character in this respect. We see Jean tenderly washing his father’s feet and taking him to a funeral home to plan his eventual departure and he becomes an important conduit for the feelings between Jean and Véronique when Jean persuades her to play her violin at his father’s 80th birthday party.

However, I think that there are other ways to think about the narrative. I was struck by a scene towards the end of the film when Véronique speaks to her mother on the phone. We get the sense that in her family she is a ‘failure’ of some kind, certainly in comparison with her sister. Véronique is middle-class by background and though she never makes anything of this, it is her cultural status that partly attracts Jean – her apartment with its sparse but attractive decoration, her knowledge of music and her skill with the violin. Does she seduce Jean consciously or unconsciously via her invitations to the school and then to her apartment? I won’t spoil the pleasure of seeing how the romance runs its course, but I do agree with Megan Ratner that when it comes, the first subtle sign of intimacy between the couple is highly erotic and comparable to the moment in The Age of Innocence when Daniel Day-Lewis eases the buttons of Michelle Pfeiffer’s kid glove. Do we want the physical love between the two to go much further? You’ll have to see the film to make up your own mind. (I wasn’t aware when I watched the film that Kiberlain and Lindon had previously been in a relationship – but perhaps this helped them produce such moving scenes.)

So, if you get the chance to watch this film, I recommend it highly – but do get yourself in the mood for something slow and gentle. Lindon and Kiberlain are wonderful actors who look more like the rest of us than glamorous stars, but under direction of this high standard their performances are mesmerising.

Press Pack downloadable from this US distributor.

US trailer:

Mitsuko Delivers (Hara Ga Kore Nande, Japan 2011)

Japanese poster with Naka Riisa as Mitsuko and Nakamura Aoi as Yuichi

The Leeds Film Festival Programme tells us that writer-director Ishii Yuya is a ‘Leeds favourite’. I assume that this is a reference to the young man’s (he’s still only 27/28) previous film Sawako Decides that seems to have been very successful on the international festival circuit. In fact he has produced some eight features in six years since graduating from film school in Osaka. Mitsuko Delivers has so far been seen at Vancouver, Busan, London and Tokyo – picking up high praise from Tony Rayns and slightly bemused and fairly negative reactions from Variety and Hollywood Reporter.

I enjoyed the film very much and the fairly healthy audience at the Hyde Park seemed to be laughing along with it. I’m struggling to pin down a classification but it’s possibly a ‘comedy melodrama’? Mitsuko is coming to the end of her pregnancy. She seems unconcerned about the birth, even though her gynaecologist tells her that her pregnancy has never ‘stabilised’. In fact she isn’t phased by anything, including the fact that the father of her baby, an American GI, took her to California and then dumped her. (All she can remember about him is that he’s ” kinda big and black”. Now she is back in Tokyo, penniless and accepting eviction from her flat. Her philosophy is to find her cloud in the sky and follow it as the wind moves it. In this case it takes her back to a poor street in a forgotten area of Tokyo where she lived as a child for a period 15 years ago. A sepia-toned flashback then reveals how things were and who the significant people in her life were. The melodrama plot now brings them all back into play in the same street in the present so that Mitsuko can ‘solve’ their problems in the few days before the baby is due.

Tony Rayns suggests that the film could be “a lacerating satire of the pickled nostalgia and homey working-class stereotypes of Shochiku’s old Tora-san series, but Ishii gives it a brio and originality which transcend satire”. I haven’t seen any of the mammoth series of Tor-san films, but I did recognise all the types from comedies and social dramas over many years of Japanese Cinema, coming right up to date with the unemployed salary-man who can’t tell his wife that he’s lost his job (e.g. in Tokyo Sonata). The film works for me because of the confident handling of both the younger and older actors whose different performance styles are blended her and then further stylised. The exaggerating playing then gets a couple of boosts in the film’s climax with some absurdist touches. I’m not sure what Rayns means by his “transcends satire” comment. I think that the narrative does make you think about a nostalgia for the kind of humanist dramas we used to see and how much better the world would be with a bit more sense of looking after each other. As the agent for all of this, Mitsuko is an interesting character – both annoying and endearing at the same time. As her childhood sweetheart Yoichi says following her re-appearance in his life and her attempts to revive his moribund local restaurant, “We have lots more customers now – but the profits haven’t gone up”. Mitsuko cajoles customers in and then offers them food “on the house”.

He makes you think and he makes you laugh – as long as you approach his film in the right frame of mind. Ishii Yuya looks like a real talent to watch.

O'Horten (Norway 2007)

Odd Horten in his cab en route for Bergen – single track on an express route, rail buffs!

Bent Hamer is a well-known Norwegian writer-director whose earlier film Kitchen Stories (2003) was reviewed by Keith last year. I didn’t read Keith’s review at the time and in some ways I’m glad that I came to O’Horten in relative ignorance of Hamer’s approach. After the first ten minutes of the film I thought “this is going to be delightful”. The wonderfully named Odd Horten (impressively played by Bård Owe)  is a 67 year-old train driver on his penultimate trip to Bergen and back from Oslo. When he returns his colleagues give him a dinner at which there are quizzes about railway sounds and he is presented with a ‘silver locomotive’ on a plinth. But when Odd is persuaded (against his usual instincts) to move on to a colleague’s apartment to continue the party, things start to wrong – so wrong in fact that he misses taking out his last train the following morning. What follows is a kind of journey of discovery.

O’Horten is described in most reviews as a comedy and I guess it is a comedy of sorts. Philip French suggests that it refers to the US genre of ‘retirement comedies’, best represented for him by About Schmidt. I think that the film certainly makes use of generic comedy elements, but I also found it quite disturbing at times – in the sense that I wasn’t quite sure where it was going (which is a good thing). I do think that there is a tendency for reviewers to take a 67 year-old bachelor who moves slowly and thinks carefully before acting as obviously quaint or ‘whimsical’. But there are several scenes which deny this. What is clear is that a snowy and deserted Oslo is as much a character in the film as Odd himself. It is a city with rather austere buildings, rain and snow on the streets and trams clanging round the corner. For a stretch in the film we appear to enter the world of Swedish auteur Roy Andersson. We see Odd in a bar (called ‘Valkyries’!) which is a dead ringer for an Andersson bar, except with less clientele but with a wonderfully morose waiter in a white coat that took me back 40 years to the pubs of my youth. There is a considered ‘old-fashionedness’ to much of the mise en scène, including Odd’s attachment to his pipe. A man at the urinal stall warns Odd that freezing rain is forecast very soon and we cut to Odd outside, clinging to a lamp-post as pedestrians and a motorcyclist slide down the hill on the ice. This blog refers to Hamer/Andersson’s approach as ‘European absurd realism’ which is quite neat.

The Andersson reference raises the question I hesitate to enunciate: is this what the international art film market (i.e. in North America) thinks a ‘Nordic/Scandinavian’ film must be like? I have to confess that it does conform to a kind of serio-comedy model and it includes, besides the fascination with trains, a central role for ski-jumping. My concern of course is that typing films in this way may get in the way of a broader understanding of Norwegian genre films like The Troll Hunter. Nevertheless, I enjoyed O’Horten and kudos for Channel 4 in screening it even if it was on at 01.45 am!