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.

“Peterloo” film by Mike Leigh” – “By the law or the sword”

Review – 

Apart from 2019 being the two hundredth anniversary of the Peterloo massacre  when 60,000-80,000 people marched to St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, director Mike Leigh may have seen parallels with Brexit: two examples of British society sharply polarised to breaking-point and possible violence.

The director’s clear aim is to demonstrate injustice through a systematic, step-by-step reconstruction of the detailed events building up to the debacle. He wants us to be in no doubt that high grain prices after the Napoleonic Wars and  continued restrictions on imports owing to the infamous Corn Laws led to intolerable hardship amongst the working poor. This made them receptive to the call for “one man one vote”  (women supporters seeming to accept without question that they were not to be included in this) and the creation of a new constituency  in the burgeoning city of  Manchester to rectify the out-dated situation in which the whole of Lancashire only had two MPs.

Mike Leigh is of course famous for his minutely observed dramas involving the interplay between ordinary people, developed through painstaking improvisation. It is unclear to what extent the actors were encouraged to shape the dialogue in this case. I rather formed the impression that Mike Leigh has drawn heavily on the speech patterns  and existing political writings of activists of the day. Certainly, some of the soldiers’ reported instructions are included verbatim: “Good God, Sir, don’t you see they are attacking the Yeomanry; disperse the meeting!” and “For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forbear, forbear! The people cannot get away!”

The director is right in thinking that Peterloo has become a forgotten blot on our history, neglected in schools, but I agree with the critics who find his approach  too didactic rather than dramatic. There are simply too many lengthy rabble-rousing speeches, all tending to  bludgeon us with the same points. Yet it was interesting to see the divide between those making the simple case for the vote, and the more radical young hotheads who wanted to march on London with a petition, and  depose the Prince Regent and his mad father George III with violence in the event of a refusal to meet their demands. The orator Henry Hunt invited to address the crowd  brought another angle to events with  his flamboyant style and egotistical self-regard, yet more worldly-wise, shrewder assessment and awareness of the dangers of risks involved.   In the main, the other characters tended to be stereotypes in the case of the poor, and caricatures as regards the uncaring mill-owners, brutal magistrates, and Blackadderish, pantomime figure of the effete, hopelessly out-of-touch Prince Regent.

When it eventually comes, the massacre is convincingly staged in its progression from a joyous break from the daily grind drifting into apprehensiveness,  disappointment that Hunt is inaudible for the majority in a world without microphones, then disintegrating into the bloody confusion of fear, outrage, and grief. Journalists  of the day hit on the name “Peterloo” to draw a bitter contrast with the recent victory of Waterloo, but the film fails to leave us with a footnote  about  the ensuing crackdown on reform – few of the surviving demonstrators would live to see anything approaching votes for all.

I admire Mile Leigh’s integrity and refusal to bow to commercial pressures,  but this potentially excellent film suffers from an excess of speechifying,  is probably at least thirty minutes too long, and, in the dramatic build- up as the crowd gathers, the switching between different groups and locations appeared quite disjointed and clunky.  The director’s skill  in marshalling details, examining ethical issues and exploring emotions seems shown to better effect in films with the focus on a small tightly knit group of people rather than a largescale thud and blunder epic.

 

 

“Graduation” – Romanian film directed by Cristian Mungiu


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

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.