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)



Aniston of the Week: Cake

2015 saw the release of a film that showcased what might be thought of as Jennifer Aniston’s most revealing and dramatic role. Ignoring the middling reviews allows an engagement with an understated and powerful performance and a chance for Aniston to take centre stage.

Aniston as Claire

FILM: Cake
Daniel Barnz
Claire Bennett, former lawyer
Claire is recovering from an accident that killed her young son and left her with chronic back pain, after having pins in her legs for a year. Divorced from her husband Jason (Chris Messina), she attends a support group, which she finds unhelpful, and relies largely on her carer Silvana (Adrianna Barraza) for companionship and support. Claire becomes fascinated by the suicide of another chronic pain sufferer, Nina (Anna Kendrick) and is haunted by visions of her.

Aniston with Chris Messina as Jason

CHARACTER TRAITS: Resentful, pragmatic, insensitive, loyal, honest.
Aniston here demonstrates astonishing control and command of her emotional range and physicality, portraying with a sense of hidden charisma, a person just holding on to the world. Cake presents a person affected by great tragedy, without labouring what it is Claire has lost, or the details of the person she was before it happened, and in her performance Aniston delves fully into the misery of all this, without giving the audience the respite of what a ‘nice’ person she might have been before.

With Adrianna Barraza as Silvana

NOTES ON FILM: Cake should be celebrated for showcasing what Aniston is capable of when she’s given the chance to carry a film. Despite a preconception of such a grim subject as being awards-bait, the film is refreshing in that it allows Aniston to underplay, and is far from providing the kind of revelatory third act that most dramatic, bereavement related films might use. It would be very easy to critique Cake for what’s its not, instead of praising where it gets things right, for which Aniston’s performance is a factor that cannot be overstated enough. Barraza is also excellent, making Silvana a rounded character with her own motivations and life away from her role as carer. Cake is a hard sell, but when considered alongside the likes of Still Alice, or Clouds of Sils Maria, it’s demonstrable as one of 2015’s most accomplished pieces about a woman in middle-age, and a central performance that’s worth viewing alone.
: Finally, it’s all about Aniston.

My week in film: Carol, Sunset Song and more…

As the red curtains are soon to close on 2015, the impetus to catch up on films I’ve missed has set in. It’s also the time for ‘Best of’ lists and for my part I’ve already contributed to one – in early November I was asked to select my ‘preferred five films’ of 2015 for Sight & Sound magazine’s annual poll. Since then I’ve seen more that I would have included, but luckily the CineVue top ten will be revealed later this month, so those missed in S&S will get their chance. Of those in Sight & Sound’s top ten, I’ve seen eight (though only if you count joint eleventh position) but not their number one film, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin and only one is in my top five, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. You can read my full list and rationale behind my selection here.

Rooney Mara as Therese and Cate Blanchett as Carol

At the cinema meanwhile, there’s also been plenty to see. Todd Hayne’s Carol, starring Cate Blanchett in the eponymous role and Rooney Mara as shop clerk Therese, who fall in love in 1950’s New York, is perhaps one of the most accomplished and affecting works of cinema I’ve ever seen. Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from the 1953 novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith and shot on Super 16mm, Haynes has created a film so utterly glorious it’s hard to know where to begin praising it. Instead I’ll attempt to recall those moments that moved me so acutely. Both performances by Mara and Blanchett are fantastic. Blanchett demonstrates that Carol is first of all a mother, dedicated to her daughter Rindy (Sadie and Kk Heim) and possessed of a will strong enough to know that abandoning her identity would be more damaging than partial custody of Rindy. At the same time, her chemistry with Mara is palpable, showing their instant attraction and developing tenderness for one another.

Rooney Mara

Mara as Therese reveals the agony – frequently internalised – of having no name for what she’s feeling, but becoming aware that her lack of investment in her heteronormative life might have an explanation that she can share with someone else. Carol shifts its narrative focus between Therese and Carol, demonstrating how they both experience a questioning of their identity, struggling with, by turns, the reconciliation of being a mother, but not a wife, or where one’s allies and friends might really lie. As with Far From Heaven (2002) Haynes recreates the 1950s’ period with a cinematic nostalgia that nods to the work of Douglas Sirk and the paintings of Edward Hopper and has even been open about stealing the opening scene’s set up from David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), where a hand on a shoulder is the only expression of affection permissible in public. The film’s identity theme is also expressed in the use of reflections, as the characters gaze into mirrors, or are seen through rain-soaked glass, or a camera’s lens. Here, love is about how one identifies not only with one’s lover, but with the image of oneself.

Agyness Deyn as Chris in Sunset Song

Also at the cinema, I rushed to see Terence Davies long-gestating adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel, Sunset Song. Set in the years just before WWI, the film tells the story of Chris (Agyness Deyn), a young woman who lives with her family on their farm in rural Aberdeenshire. Throughout Sunset Song, Chris’s coming to terms with her own autonomy, her own desires and the responsibilities of motherhood allow Deyn the opportunity for a spirited and sensitive performance. Chris’s changes as a woman are compared to the mutability of the seasons, and cinematographer Michael McDonough’s choice of 65mm for the exterior scenes celebrate the drama and beauty of the landscape. Much like Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), an overbearing father is again a central element, yet the revelatory use of nature, opens up Sunset Song to a make it more than a set of explored themes for the director.

Elizabeth Moss as Ashley in Listen Up Philip

Other films viewed in an effort to ‘catch up’ include Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, in which a luminous Juliette Binoche plays an actor facing up to aging, role reversal and the ‘truths’ of performance alongside a fantastic Kristen Stewart. A Pigeon Sat on a Bench Reflecting on Existence was the latest from Roy Andersson this year, which again follows Songs From the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007), in depicting the inherent tragi-comedy of modern life. I also checked out Listen Up Philip by Alex Ross Perry, a comedy about a total bastard novelist ‘struggling’ with success. The film says very little of any originality about the torment of creativity, but it does take an interesting route by spending almost as much time with Philip’s (Jason Schwartzman) ex, Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), and her development into a single person again contains some very thoughtful moments, not to mention a stunning performance by Moss