My week in film: Iberodocs, Green Room and a Captain America movie

After a hiatus shaped like Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival (which I produced), my viewing journal returns with a typical mix of artistic expression and popcorn nonsense. On Wednesday night the third edition of Iberodocs – Scotland’s only dedicated documentary festival and a celebration of Ibero-American cinema – opened at Filmhouse in Edinburgh to a packed audience. Begun as a way to showcase the work of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin-American filmmakers, Iberodocs has quickly developed a dedicated audience, supportive sponsors and a robust and carefully selected programme of films. A lively and welcoming reception at Traverse bar preceded the opening film, Gabo: The Creation of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, a sincere and affectionate biography of the Nobel prize-winning author of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Directed by Justin Webster, the film brings together interviews with Márquez’s friends (Gerald Martin, his biographer; Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, writer and Bill Clinton no less), peers, family and inspired writers (Juan Gabriel Vásquez), to reflect on the extraordinary life and politics of one the world’s most celebrated literary talents.

A young Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Relying mostly on talking heads interviews, archive and television footage, Gabo chronicles the writer’s early life, student days, journalistic career, romances, his great friendship with Fidel Castro, which seemed to run counter to his anti-communist politics, and is most engaging in the use of interviews with the man himself, which demonstrate his sharp wit and idiosyncratic perspective on life. On receiving the Nobel prize for literature, a journalist asks him, “is this the greatest moment of your life?” to which Márquez replies, “No, that was the day I was born.” Such moments go some way to answer the film’s central question; how did a boy who was born into poverty grow up to be a writer ‘who won the hearts of millions?’ Márquez’s charisma, dedication, and importantly, self-belief emerge as the defining characteristics that allowed the author to have such an impact.

Iberodocs runs until Sunday 8 May and includes the remarkable and very moving, All of Me (Friday 6 May), by Arturo González Villaseñor about the Patronas, women in Mexico who prepare and distribute food to the migrants who pass by on the freight train to the US. The short film programme Looking From Afar (Sunday 8 May) also looks to be an exciting collection of highly personal works from such sharp artistic talents as Salomé Lamas and Ana Vaz.

Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawcat in Green Room

Elsewhere in my viewing, Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature as writer/director, Green Room surpassed my expectations, which were based on some buzz around Patrick Stewart portraying a skin head Nazi in backwoods America. Stewart certainly is suitably chilling in the role of Darcy, but what’s most interesting about Saulnier’s work, as with Blue Ruin, is how, unlike many a director of dark and violent films, he appears not to celebrate violence, but rather, violence occurs due to ingrained social expectations and justifications of power, and is horrific and visceral in a very authentic, non-stylised way. Green Room cinematographer Sean Porter creates a dank, dark atmosphere using very little light, whilst editor Julia Bloch uses neat and clever cuts to keep the pace fraught and the horror efficient.

l-r: Anthony Mackie as Falcon, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Chris Evans as Captain America, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch and Sebastian Stan as Winter Soldier in Captain America: Civil War

Finally, this week I saw Captain America: Civil War, which gleefully allows members of the Avengers A and B team (and some other ‘enhanced’) to shine, within excellently choreographed and edited action set-pieces. The film somehow doesn’t convey the ethical complexity of the Civil War comic books, despite the presence of a menacing Daniel Bruhl. It’s also still deeply frustrating to see only three female characters with speaking roles in these films (where’s Cobie Smulder’s Agent Hill?!) and only two women a line-up of super dudes. I’d love to see a Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) origin story, but the possibility of that seems nil.

Also watched:
What Happened Miss Simone?
Liz Garbus, excellent documentary
Season 7 of Parks and Recreation (again)



My week in film: Berlinale and a ‘hateful’ Tarantino

You might have missed this weekly viewing journal of late – this writer has been engaged elsewhere, covering the Berlin Film Festival competition (and some other films) for other outlets. For CineVue, I reviewed André Téchiné’s rewarding French drama Being 17 (****); Alone in Berlin (**) starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson; the dense and deftly handled Death in Sarajevo (****), which won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize; the desperately frustrating Genius (*) which starred a manic Jude Law and a tired Colin Firth; and finally Gianfranco Rosi’s Golden Bear winning documentary, Fire at Sea (****). Meanwhile for Sight & Sound, I reviewed Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest feature, Things to Come, which deservedly won the Silver Bear for Best Director. Starring the endlessly watchable Isabelle Huppert, it’s a deeply thoughtful, mature work.

Isabelle Huppert in Things to Come
On my return from chilly Berlin, I checked out the new Quentin Tarantino film, The Hateful Eight screening from the 70mm roadshow print at Filmhouse. The 70mm differs from the digital version in that it has 20 minutes of additional footage, an overture and an intermission. I must say that the experience of viewing the film this way, with the prestige of the red curtains pulling back following the overture, the sheer beauty of the print itself, which really enhances Tarantino’s skills as a filmmaker, and the anticipation that the intermission created, was a great pleasure.

Having made that clear, it remains that The Hateful Eight is a very unpleasant film. Even considering that the film’s title makes clear the scorn of its characters, the negativity of the film permeates everything, from the characters, to the dialogue and the message, making it hard to understand what exactly Tarantino thought the audience would find fun about the film. Oh, wait – violence is really fun, isn’t it?

Tarantino loves creating puzzles for the audience to solve, and creating no-win situations for his characters, his passion for narrative and story-telling is clear. It’s just that in The Hateful Eight there’s no reason to be invested in the outcome. hateful-eight-jennifer-jason-leighA note on the other big problem with the film. Of the female characters that get more than one scene, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, pictured above) is repeatedly beaten, constrained, abused and made powerless – we’re told she’s a dangerous murderer – yet we do not see the evidence of this. By the film’s end, the male characters have done despicable things to each other, and yet, Daisy’s punishment is to be gleefully hung and laughed at, dwelling on her pain as though a relief from the horror of the past hours. The Hateful Eight dispatches violent men quickly and explosively, but a non-compliant woman must be made an enduring example of. It’s exhausting. For a more in depth review, see Matt Zoller-Seitz’s piece for – his assessment is spot on.

With that, ‘My week in film’ will be a little less active for a couple of months while this writer switches from reviewing festivals to programming a festival, to produce the Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival . Aniston of the week however, will continue!

My week in film: Beyond the Lights, Brooklyn and Joy

Viewed this week, three films about female lives that in different ways present the difficulties of balancing a personal and professional life.

Gina Prince-Blythewood’s Beyond the Lights went without a cinema release in the UK last year, despite its excellent cast (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover) and pertinent plot – it concerns a young R&B singer struggling with fame and self-perception – and critics felt that this might be due to an expectation of the audience’s racial bias, among other reasons (The best films you won’t see in cinemas, Telegraph). Now on Netflix, the film is well worth seeking out. Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, coached by her mother (Driver) from a young age to succeed at all costs in the tough music business, who is on the brink of releasing an album that will ‘change everything.’ Clearly unhappy with the enormous pressure, after an awards show, Noni attempts suicide but is talked down from her hotel balcony by the police officer (Nate Parker) assigned to her. What follows is Noni’s uncertain navigation of her future – everything has changed for her, but her mother/manager ignores her internal struggle.

Minnie Driver and Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Beyond the Lights isn’t without cliché, its bodyguard/singer central pairing is very familiar, but what’s refreshing is the way Prince-Blythewood creates a world for her authentic characters that feels utterly convincing and deeply sympathetic to Noni’s journey towards emancipation. Taught at a pivotal, early stage in life that only winning is of value, regardless of what is costs, Noni must learn to value herself first, instead. Mbatha-Raw’s performance is immensely affecting, as she balances Noni’s public and private personas with skill.

Another enjoyable performance is at the heart of Brooklyn, now nominated for three Oscars (Best Film, Best lead actress*, Best adapted screenplay) and six BAFTA’s (Best film, lead actress, supporting actress, best screenplay, best costume design and best make-up). Adapted by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Tóibín, the 1950’s set Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), who moves to New York from Ireland to work, leaving behind her sister, Rose and mother. Eilis, at first homesick, eventually settles into her life working at a department store, taking night classes in accounting and living at Mrs Keogh’s (Julie Walters) boarding house, all arranged by Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). Eilis even falls in love, with Tony (Emory Cohen), and their tender romance is the final element that will bond her to her new home.

Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan

Again, it’s the expectations of others that Eilis must rebel against. When drawn home, it appears to Eilis that the life she never thought she’d have in Ireland might be possible after all, and director John Crowley makes much of her homeland’s charms, just as her friends and relatives appear desperate for her to stay. As in Beyond the Lights, it’s the search for freedom that is essential to the character. Though both films have romantic elements, neither Noni or Eilis are motivated entirely by their relationships with men, rather it’s their desire to discover a life that will be true to their own ideals and values that drives each narrative.

In David O. Russell’s Joy, with Jennifer Lawrence in the title role, the struggle for financial success plays a greater part in the story, where Lawrence’s divorced mother of two pursues her dream as the inventor of a self-wringing mop. Living with her permanently bed-located mother and her ex-husband and father in the basement, whilst maintaining a job as a travel agent with an unreliable car, much is made of Joy’s chaotic life. Like David Lynch before him (but with half as much style), Russell uses the camp of soap operas as an analogue for Joy’s messy life, where the stakes are high and a large cast of characters are all invested in the outcome of her invention.

l-r Edgar Ramirez, Elizabeth Rohm, Dascha Polanco, Isabella Rossellini, Robert De Niro Jennifer Lawrence, Diane Ladd

There’s lots to enjoy here- Virginia Madsen’s affectionate performance as Joy’s mother Terry, the lolloping pace, which seems to progress the film’s plot in spirals, and of course, just the presence of Isabella Rossellini. There’s something a little bit bonkers about Joy, too though, and not in a way that feels purposeful, as was the case with the delightful and thoughtful I Heart Huckabees. It’s an American Dream tale after all, and the many set-backs Joy faces feel somehow artificial, (but maybe that’s the point) as though she must overcome an ever increasing number of hurdles in order to truly appreciate being able to have power hair and wear a power suit and be the entrepreneur her granny always knew she would be. Where Joy fails and Brooklyn and Beyond the Lights succeed, is in giving a sense of who their central characters are, rather than just being an accumulation of personal struggles.

Also watched: Slow West (John Maclean), which was somewhat unconvincing.