Bait: not just fish but one another

BAIT [Dual Format] [Blu-ray]This is the tale of a fateful chain of events in a coastal Cornish community where there are tensions between locals no longer able to make a decent living from the traditional activity of fishing, and wealthy outsiders who can afford to buy picturesque cottages as second homes, but contribute nothing to the local community on their summer visits apart from their spoilt, bored kids patronising the local pub. The focus is on Martin who persists in trying to work as a fisherman, despite his lack of a boat – his laborious stretching of nets along the beach and planting of a single lobster pot yield meagre results . He has fallen out with his pragmatic brother, who has decided to use his boat to provide trips for tourists, and is full of brooding resentment against the couple to whom he has been forced to sell the family home. It is not just a question of fish bait, but of people baiting each other.

 

Hailed as a masterpiece by the critics for its unusual techniques, this is filmed in black-and-white with the sound added afterwards, using a handheld camera to produce often grainy shots in a square frame which tends to create the impression of not being able to see quite enough of an image which has been cropped. Although for the most part slow-paced, so that it feels longer than its duration of 88 minutes, I was not bored because of the need for intense concentration, in order not to miss some vital detail or simply to understand the heavily accented Cornish locals. The directors likes to use the device of almost subliminal shots to foreshadow what is to come, or to emphasise a dramatic past event. Scenes occurring simultaneously in different places are sometimes interwoven. In a Pinterish style, we may be bombarded with conversations occurring in parallel. More filming may be devoted to prising fish from a net than to the aftermath of a major event, such as the shocking climax of the drama.

 

I was left wondering whether the director had tried too hard “to be different”, and whether I would have preferred it to have been shot in shake-free colour to show the beauty of Cornwall, with a faster pace and a little more clarity over certain key events. However, on reflection the film “grew on me”: there is no harm in an unusual take on an interesting situation, nor in making an audience work a bit and deduce what is going on.

The Sisters Brothers – Fool’s gold

The Sisters Brothers

Based on the Man Booker shortlisted novel of the same name, this is a western with a difference, in fact more of a tragicomedy set in the US frontier lands during the 1850s Gold Rush. The central characters are a pair of inaptly named brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, widely feared in their role of successful hired assassins for the sinister Oregon-based “Commodore”. Events take a different turn from usual when the pair are sent not just to dispose of a chemist called Hermann Warm, but somehow to extract from him a formula for obtaining gold.

Charlie is the duo’s “lead man”, claiming to be the brains of the outfit and perhaps quicker on the draw, but he seems half crazy at times, addicted to the liquor which perhaps serves to blot out past acts of violence, one in particular. Eli is a milder and more reflective character, motivated mainly by the need to protect his brother, although repeatedly courting mortal risk seems an odd way of doing it. Like the book, the film creates a sense of unease when one begins to connect with a pair of ruthless killers because of their amusing escapades in the midst of the carnage, affection and support for each other beneath all the bickering, and the fact that their opponents are often if anything more rotten than they are. We learn that the brothers suffered as children at the hands of a viciously brutal father, but is that a sufficient excuse?

The brothers are roughnecks, astonished by the sight of a flushing toilet, while Charlie mocks Eli for his decision to start using tooth powder, but they are surprisingly articulate at times, and literate in their ability to read the flowery letters and journal of Morris, the detective employed by the Commodore to tail Warm. Clearly better educated and on the face of it more decent and honourable men, Morris and Warm provide an interesting contrast to the brothers, yet they too can be forced by circumstance into violent acts. Perhaps the film could have made more of the psychological interplay between these four men.

Well directed with good actors and some beautiful mountain scenery, the well-paced plot is let down by an implausible climax. So far, it has been more popular with critics than the public, perhaps because it “falls between two stools”, being neither simply a high octane action thriller, nor a thought-provoking “art film”.

“The White Crow” – based on true story of ballet icon Rudolph Nureyev’s defection from Soviet Russia

The White Crow [DVD] [2019]

Since it is surprisingly almost six decades since Rudolph Nureyev’s highly publicised defection from the Kirov Ballet on a trip to Paris, this biopic may have the added appeal of novelty for many viewers.

Based on a biography, I know not how accurately, this focuses on the dancer’s early life up to the age of twenty-three. Beginning with his dramatic birth on a crowded train, his sisters looking on, the story switches continually between his childhood, life as a frustrated dancer in Moscow from the late fifties, and transport to the heady excitement of Paris on a five week trip for the troupe in 1961. This “flitting” technique creates a somewhat disjointed effect at times.

The poverty of his early life is filmed in a black and white world of it would seem perpetual snow, with his kindly peasant mother (with remarkably good teeth) struggling to hold the family together until the sudden appearance of a stranger, his soldier father returned from a long unexplained absence. Nureyev tells the sophisticated young Parisienne with whom he has struck up a friendship how his mother’s chance win of a lottery ticket to the ballet introduced him to a magical world he was determined to make his own. We do not learn until the final scenes how this meant separation at an early age from his family to begin his training, several years late, which put him under pressure to catch up. We are left to conclude how these experiences led to his fierce independence, thirst for knowledge, determination to succeed to the point of utter selfishness, confidence to the point of arrogance and outbursts of ill-tempered rudeness, even against friends, if he felt himself slighted, or simply wanted to demonstrate the power his talent gave him. Alongside this litany of unappealing traits, the young dancer turned actor who plays him manages also to convey Nureyev’s charm, which combined with his sheer ability caused sorely tried friends to forgive him and help him when it came to defecting.

Despite his at times obnoxious behaviour, it is hard not to sympathise with Nureyev when he is reduced to a mental wreck at the prospect of being sent back early to Moscow to dance for Krushchev, a euphemism for the punishment provoked by his refusal to obey the instruction against fraternising with foreigners. Instead, he has led his principal minder a merry dance, going out to bars, even strip clubs, with his decadent western friends, only returning around 5 a.m. The film is powerful in conveying his sense of oppression, the insidious menace of the continual monitoring of his activities. His exuberant pleasure over discovering western culture in its broadest sense, one of his first observations being the word “liberté” carved on a column, contrasts with the grey narrowness of the communist régime which we know with the wisdom of hindsight is doomed to fail. Ironically, a French dancer remarks that, although they may lack technical accuracy, Soviet dancers like Nureyev perform with a kind of raw energy which the “liberated” performers of the west lack.

Even though it necessitated sub-titles, I liked the authenticity provided by the extensive use of Russian in the dialogues, with even actor/director Ralph Fiennes mastering the language for his role of the self-effacing yet gifted ballet instructor. Also, not all Soviet life is bleak, as indicated by the scene in which Nureyev takes part in a social gathering in a well-furnished room where friends laugh, drink, discuss and sing traditional songs behind the plain door of a Russian apartment.

Lacking the spark to make it a great film, this is very watchable and thought-provoking.

“Everybody knows”: Can anybody tell?

Everybody Knows (DVD) [2019]

Laura returns from Argentina with her lively, in fact somewhat out-of-hand, teenage daughter Irene and cute little son to attend her sister’s wedding in their picturesquely run-down home town set among Spanish vineyards. The gifted Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi captures the atmosphere of a big, traditional Spanish wedding. Guests sit in mute respect with a few wry grins when the priest takes an unexpected peal of the church bells as a cue to request more money for repairs, on the lines of gifts of money received from Laura’s supposedly wealthy husband Alejandro, who has stayed behind in Argentina, apparently for his work. Later, as the bride steps out in a stylish flamenco, they all dance and carouse into the small hours, until the discovery of Irene’s abduction from her bed during a clearly planned power cut.

Despite speculation that Irene may have engineered her own disappearance, a more sinister explanation seems likely as her bed is strewn with warning cuttings about an unsolved kidnapping in the past which led to the death of a local girl, because her family ignored instructions and went to the police. Distraught with grief and fear, it is not surprising that Laura also refuses to report her daughter’s disappearance.

Tension remains high in this psychological drama, as Laura’s friend and former lover Paco, a successful local vineyard owner, plays a major part in both searching for the girl and obtaining the ransom money, if only to string the kidnappers along when Alejandro appears, trusting only to God to save his daughter since he is in fact bankrupt. As the plot develops, long-held resentments and possible motives for both kidnap and ransom are gradually revealed in this inward-looking community with its tight gossip grapevine in which “everyone knows” each other’s past secrets, or thinks that this is the case.

What some have described as a rather weak ending struck me as very effective. The viewer is left free to decide what happens next. The most interesting question left unanswered is whether information which belatedly becomes available about the crime will be widely shared and acted upon, or suppressed like other secrets, for ulterior motives.

The film is visually striking and well-acted, particularly by Javier Bardem in the role of Paco, and Barbara Lennie as his wife Bea. Apart from one or two flaws in the plot which, as ever, one does not notice at the time, this is an entertaining yarn which can be appreciated at a deeper level.

“Burning” – Korean film based on story by Murakami

Burning [Blu-ray] [2019]

Based on a short story by Murakami and set in South Korea under the skilful direction of Lee Chang-dong, this slow-paced psychological drama, atmospheric and at times surreal, builds up to an unpredictable dramatic climax. Even without this, it repays watching for its insights into life in South Korea, with the bizarre contrast between the high rise development and brash consumerism of a western-style city and the enduring, unmaterialistic, traditional life in the countryside, given a bizarre twist by proximity to the border with North Korea, its watchtowers blaring out propaganda are within earshot.

Jong-su is a young graduate with a dead-end job, whose expressionless, somewhat pudgy features belie his internal drive to be a writer, like his western idols including William Faulkner. On an errand in the city, he is accosted by an acquaintance from his schooldays on the family smallholding, the flirtatious Hae-mi who seems possibly a little unbalanced. They begin a sexual relationship, but when Hae-mi returns from a brief holiday with a suave, rich young man called Ben in tow, Jong-su does not react much, yet perhaps still waters run deeper than one imagines.

Meanwhile, his father’s imprisonment for a violent incident triggered by ongoing anger management problems, again an indication that Jong-su himself may not be as calm as he seems, obliges him to return to the village to look after his father’s property. On an unexpected visit, Ben talks of his obsession with setting fire to greenhouses, of which there are quite a few in the area. Then Hae-mi disappears and the once passive Jong-su becomes intent on finding her, together with keeping an eye on the local greenhouses.

An intriguing and memorable film about obsession and jealousy.

“Graduation” – Romanian film directed by Cristian Mungiu


This is my review of the Romanian film “The Graduation”. Graduation [DVD]

Hospital doctor Romeo may have become estranged from his chain-smoking librarian wife through their mutual disillusion with life in post-Communist Romania, which has not live up to their expectations. Their hopes are pinned on their bright daughter Eliza who is set to win a scholarship to study in England. As a result of an ill-timed mugging, her hand is too injured for her to write in the final exams. Determined to act out of character and pull strings to ensure his daughter obtains the necessary grades, Romeo finds himself in conflict with both his wife and the daughter they have taught to be honest. Eliza’s infatuation with her biker boyfriend, who ironically has no compunction over having cheated in his own exams, may be an additional factor in her desire to stay in the dead-end community from which her parents are so keen to save her.

This novel is a fascinating study of ethics and morality in a society which has slipped into bribery through custom and practice. How can one live with integrity in such a world. To what extent may the ends justify the means?

In addition to the convincing character studies and well-developed plot, there is a strong sense of place. My only criticism is that the meaning of certain scenes, apparently peripheral to the main plot, remained unclear to me. I also found the ending somewhat downbeat. Yet as a naturalistic, authentic piece of drama this is very powerful. The title is a little misleading, since “graduation” is normally applied to leaving university rather than school.

“Land of Mine” – more than a mere tale of thud and blunder.

This is my review of “Land of Mine”.

In the aftermath of World War 2, the Danes thought it just punishment for prisoners of war to be deployed defusing the thousands of mines buried in the coastal sand dunes by Germans to ward off any Allied invasion.

Initially, the embittered army Sergeant Rasmussen charged with supervising the POWs takes a sadistic pleasure in subjecting them to his capricious brutality. There is poignancy in the fact that the POWs are teenagers, virtually children drafted in at the end of the war to boost German numbers. These are clearly scapegoats: barely understanding what they have been fighting for, they can in no way be held responsible for the sins of the Third Reich.

Based on a true story, which suggests that it could have made a gripping documentary, the film is distinctive in creating an at times unbearable sense of tension, despite and in fact probably increased by the slow pace and agonising detail as we watch, time after time, the painstaking process of loosening and removing a large screw in the middle of the flat cylinder of the crude yet lethal object that is a mine. It is hard to imagine that this could explode at any moment with a shocking suddenness, and easy to see how, performing the same monotonous activity for hours on end, a young boy could lose concentration for a moment, his hand might shake, he might fail to hear a warning, with fatal consequences. Some people will find this film unwatchable, and I felt voyeuristic at times watching it and wondering who was about to be blown to smithereens.

It seemed to me that personal dramas (a twin who can no longer bear to live after his brother has been blown up, the crisis when a little girl who lives oddly close to the minefield strays onto it with her doll) had been inserted to “pad the film out” and create a framework for the tension that is at the heart of this, but these may have been based on research.

My only criticism of a visually striking and well-acted drama, is that I found it hard to distinguish the boys from each other at the outset, and understand some of the relationships between them which would have helped me to engage with them more fully.

Although we should not need to watch such films to sense the horror of war, “Land of Mine” made me aware of a piece of Danish history I had not appreciated, and of a moral dilemma in the aftermath of war which I had not considered. Perhaps more effort should have been made to identify leading Nazi prisoners to make reparations by defusing these mines.

“The Wife” – Behind every great man…..


This is my review of  “The Wife”    starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Price

When Joe Castleman receives the early morning call to confirm his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, his supportive wife Joan seems as delighted as he is. It is soon apparent that he is something of a monster: vain, selfish, inconsiderate and unable to resist the flattering admiration of attractive younger women. Yet, such is her admiration for his talent, Joan seems prepared to tolerate all his shortcomings and devote herself to meeting his needs, even when her loyalties are strained by Joe’s conspicuous of interest in their son David’s efforts as a writer. Could it be that Joe would feel threatened if his son’s talents in the same field were recognised?

When Joe’s aptly named would-be biographer Nathaniel Bone comes searching for cracks in the great man’s perfect marriage, even daring to suggest that perhaps it is not so idyllic, given that Joan long ago sacrificed her own writing ambitions, despite being considered very promising, she sends him packing, adamant that she is fulfilled in her role. Nathaniel is astute in his sense that Joan’s self-effacing dedication is over-intense, and he is doggedly persistent in getting at the truth to feed his own ruthless ambition as a writer.

In a series of flashbacks, which sometimes seem too fragmented, we see the early stages of Joan and Joe’s relationship, as the film gradually works up to the climax in which the truth is revealed. In this well-acted film, which provides a presumably accurate portrayal of the rather grandiose annual ceremony in a wintry Stockholm, I was caught up in the plot and it was not until afterwards that I began to question its plausibility. Overall, this is a poignant study of marital relationships formed a generation ago, of self-delusion and the price of ambition.

Apostasy: blood ties

This is my review of the film Apostasy.

Written and directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, a former Jehovah’s witness brought up in what can only be described as a cult following his mother’s conversion, this film has a chilling authenticity, although I am unable to judge the extent to which it may present a distorted picture. Single mother Ivanna devotes her life to keeping her daughters Luisa and Alex “on the straight and narrow” and spreading the word to the wider community. I think there is a hint at one point that her husband has gone away after falling short as a Witness.

Earnest and thoughtful, if somewhat immature for her eighteen years, Alex feels guilt and shame that her acute anaemia required her to have a blood transfusion at birth. Believing that blood contains the human soul and therefore cannot be contaminated by that of another person, she tries to muster the courage, having technically reached adulthood, to reject a transfusion in the future should it be become a matter of life and death. By contrast, the more out-going and questioning Luisa has a boyfriend from outside the Jehovah Witness community, with tragic consequences.

“Apostasy” is likely to resonate strongly with lapsed Jehovah’s Witnesses, but even an atheist can become engaged and outraged by the heavy-handed paternalism of the Elders, with the reframing of ideas and twisting of arguments to justify their beliefs and explain away predictions which fail to come to pass, like the end of the world in a particular year. Most shocking is the crude system of social control : the “disfellowship” and “shunning” of those who refuse to conform, the bullying and lack of compassion for those judged in need of meetings to guide them back into the fold.

A gripping experience, this film leaves one feeling a little depressed, but more understanding of those who have found it impossible to “walk away” from the social pressure to continue to belong to a group, and their inability to break away from what looks to the external observer like conditioning, even brainwashing,. One may feel anger at Ivanna’s stubborn intransigence as she encourages Alex to turn the pages of a mawkish book featuring children who have died for their faith by refusing treatment. At the same time, there are occasional twinges of pity for Ivanna when she reveals the pain of having to suppress the innate maternal instinct to preserve one child’s life at any cost, or to forgive the boundary-breaking and mistakes of adolescence.

Some may criticise the film for painting such a joyless picture of a life centred on the unlovely Kingdom Hall next to what looks like a stark ring road. I was surprised by the incongruous visits to a nail bar which supplied a rare bit of colour, and how did Luisa afford to run her car?

It is interesting, although annoying for Daniel Kokotajlo, that this film came out about the same time as Ian McEwan’s “The Children Act” on a similar theme, although the two complement each other in their different approaches, and I think that “Apostasy” is more focused, realistic and ultimately moving.

On Chesil Beach – The road not taken

This is a review of “On Chesil Beach” by Ian McEwan

I watched this film without having read the book on which it is based, although the fact it was adapted for the screen by the author suggests that the film is true to what he aimed to convey in the novella.
It starts and ends on the stony Dorset spit of Chesil Beach, where Tom and Florence choose to spend their honeymoon in 1962. On the evening after the wedding, the tensions between them are obvious, in marked contrast to the intense friendship, easy exchange of ideas and affection they display in the many flashbacks which show the course of their relationship from their first meeting when Tom gatecrashes a CND meeting, desperate to share with someone the fact he has just graduated with a First. The differences between them are also obvious from the outset. Tom is impulsive, scruffy, has trouble controlling his feelings, yet is clearly thoughtful and compassionate. His childhood has been blighted by the terrible accident suffered by his artist mother, which has left her unable to care for herself, let alone her children, and prone to erratic, uninhibited behaviour. Florence comes from a privileged middle-class background. Whereas Tom’s father is head of a rural primary school, hers runs a successful engineering business, while her dominating and insensitive, snobbish mother is a colleague of Iris Murdoch. Yet there are hints of possible concealed abuse. Always beautifully dressed and fastidious, despite her apparently sheltered life, Florence shows a steely determination in her ambition for the string quintet to which she belongs to perform at the Wigmore Hall to widespread acclaim.
Although these differences might be expected to prove the cause of a painful realisation of their incompatibility, in fact the problem lies elsewhere. The year was 1962, before the explosion of the “Swinging Sixties” and ready availability of the pill, when a bright, highly educated girl with no brothers could remain painfully ignorant of sex, while her male partner, although not so uptight, might well prove completely unable to handle the situation. This is a very poignant scenario for demonstrating how a failure to act at a critical moment, or an ill-judged reaction may change the course of one’s life for ever, and even close friends or relatives may feel unable to intervene.
Since the original novella was criticised by some as being too short to justify consideration for the Booker Prize, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ian McEwan felt compelled to add two scenes at the end. I agree with those who felt that these seem a clumsy and superfluous over-explanation of what might have motivated the two main characters, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for problem of conveying on screen the thoughts and impressions more subtly revealed in the written word. Although the film has been very well received, I found some of the scenes too abrupt and disconnected, many of the dialogues quite stilted, and was unconvinced by the sudden dramatic change in the relationship between Tom and Florence when it came to their wedding night.
The film has some beautiful photography, the two main characters are well-acted, there are moments of humour amid the anguish, like the ghastly hotel dinner served to the newly weds in their room by suggestively obsequious waiters, but watching “On Chesil Beach” fully engaged me. On reflection, my sense of disappointment at the end lifted somewhat, and I began to see interesting angles to the film, like the visual metaphor of the long spit on which one half of the couple could walk away to follow a different path in life, while the other stood rooted fatefully to the spot.