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Review

Review: Blancanieves (Dir. Pablo Berger, 2012)

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The tale of Snow White was published by Grimm brothers Jacob and Wilhelm in their Hausmärchen collection and has seen many a filmmaker make attempts to adapt the classic fairy tale to the big screen including Walt Disney, Michael Cohn and most recently Tarsem Singh and Rupert Sanders. Both directors released, respectively, very different versions, however, since literary publication in 1812 it has taken some 200 years for a truly original retelling to be produced and Blancanieves (2012, dir. Pablo Berger) not only pays tribute to silent cinema but also serves as a love letter to Hispanic culture and historiography.

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In 1910 Andalucia, Antonio Villata (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is at the height of his profession as a matador. His beautiful wife, and one time recording artist/flamenco dancer, Carmen (Inma Cuesta) watches from the crowd cradling their unborn child in her bulging belly. Tragedy strikes during the estocada and Antonio is gored by his opponent; the shock of which induces labour and baby Carmencita is born into the world motherless with a disinterested and bereaved father who, unable to fend for himself, soon remarries Nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdú). The woman’s disdain of the infant is apparent and her intentions clear from the moment she flutters her heavy kohled lashes at the fallen toreros and thus Carmencita (played in childhood by Sofia Oria) is raised by her grandmother Dõna Concha (Ángela Molina). When her grandmother passes away on the child’s Holy Communion day Carmencita is returned to her father and they can, albeit in secret, renew their relationship. A decade passes and Encarna’s villainy drives the adult Carmen (Macarena Garcia) out of the family home world and into the collective bosom of six bull-fighting dwarves, one of whom doubles, wonderfully, as Prince Charming.

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This production was reportedly in development for several years before director-screenwriter Pablo Berger started shooting and nothing is left to chance. Verdú (Y tu Mamá También; Pan’s Labyrinth) who was Berger’s first choice to play Encarna clearly revels in the role; an evil stepmother she was born to play even sans magic mirror (here an artist’s interpretation of the wicked woman on canvas, in a multitude of costume changes, replaces the reflection motif). While this film takes the majority of its cues and sway from the Snow White tale – Blancanieves’ literal translation is SnoWhite – there are also intertextual signifiers to other Grimm tales along the way including Little Red Cap, Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty via Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). The mise-en-scène, as a whole, is an eclectic homage to the silent era of European cinema and the drama of the bullfight which includes the over-elaborate traje de luces (suit of lights) and black montera (hat), however, it is Alfonso De Vilallonga’s lush score, heavy on the flamenco beats, which is the real joy and builds emotion, tension and crescendo with each hand-clap of the non-diegetic sound.

In spite of the evidentiary early-20s influence Berger delivers a fresh spin on a female protagonist – often celebrated for her passivity and reliance upon a prince – which gives Carmen/Snow the edge needed for a 21st century heroine and reinforces this masterpiece’s declaration: that Blancanieves is, in fact, the fairest of them all.

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My Favourites of 2012

The films I enjoyed most this year:

#12

The Kid with a Bike (2011, dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne)

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#11

Wild Bill (2011, dir. Dexter Fletcher)

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#10

Moonrise Kingdom (2012, dir. Wes Anderson)

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#9

Rust and Bone (2012, dir. Jacques Audiard)

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#8

Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011, dir. Takashi Miike)

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#7

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, dir. Sean Durkin)

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#6

Michael (2011, dir. Markus Schleinzer)

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#5

Sightseers (2012, dir. Ben Wheatley)

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#4

The Hunt (2012, dir. Thomas Vinterberg)

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#3

Excision (2012, dir. Richard Bates Jr)

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#2

Shame (2011, dir. Steve McQueen)

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#1

Amour (2012, dir. Michael Haneke)

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Some other special mentions…not necessarily released in 2012.

  • Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011, dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
  • Ossessione (1943, dir. Luchino Vischonti)
  • Killer Joe (2012, dir. William Friedkin)
  • Berberian Sound Studio (2012, dir. Peter Strickland)
  • A Swedish Love Story (1970, dir. Roy Andersson)
  • Argo (2012, dir. Ben Affleck)
  • Murk (2005, dir. Jannik Johansen)
  • The Dark Knight Rises (2012, dir. Christopher Nolan)
  • Untouchable (2011, dir. Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano)
  • King of Devil’s Island (2012, dir. Marius Holst)
  • Django (1966, dir. Sergio Corbucci)
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012, dir. Benh Zeitlin)
  • Tony Manero (2008, dir. Pablo Larraín)
  • The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005, dir. Jacques Audiard)
  • Ex-Drummer (2007, dir. Koen Mortier)
  • The House of the Devil (2005, dir. Ti West)
  • Pontypool (2008, dir. Bruce McDonald)
  • Lust, Caution, (2007, dir. Ang Lee)
  • Cabin in the Woods (2012, dir. Drew Goddard)
  • Turkish Delight (1973, dir. Paul Verhoeven)
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Film Festival Review

Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

LFF 2012

“Once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub…”

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is six years old and the narrator throughout this fabled, fantasy drama. She lives, albeit in a separate abode, with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a marginalised area far beyond the levee walls in the Louisiana bayou. She is a ferocious little girl who spends her time yearning to be reunited with her absentee mother and listening to the heartbeats of the creatures around her. The Bathtub is a society largely separated by the necessities for consumerism and while the small close-knit community has little in the way of possessions or stable housing, they are happy living apart from the rest of the world; scavenging, socialising and surviving. Hushpuppy is schooled in lessons of self-sufficiency and encouraged to believe that everything and everyone is connected in the universe. Through the eyes of this feisty little character the viewer sees the effects of global warming as indicative of the resurfacing of a large mythical creature called an auroch and Hushpuppy’s adolescent reconciliation with what will try and, essentially, destroy her delta home.

Beast of the Southern Wild, based upon the play by Lucy Alibar, is a wonderfully made low-budget feature which highlights and embraces the metaphysical imagination of a child amid the harsh realities of a world before and in the wake of a connoted Hurricane Katrina. Hushpuppy, played by non-professional Wallis is unruly and yet balances moments of naiveté beautifully, her father’s tough love approach is, at times, cruel but his motives are clear – he needs his “boss lady” to survive and thrive beyond his lifetime; he wants her to face the world with fierce stoicism and strength and not need to rely upon anybody. Her gritty gumption is both heartbreaking and life affirming in equal measure. While some cynics will read this film as shot through an ideological lens it is an unpretentious rendering of magical realism and serves as modern fairy tale weighted in pathos. It delivers a sensory impact to the audience, boasting gritty and picturesque images via Ben Richardson’s cinematography and a majestic score courtesy of director Zeitlin and composer Dan Romer.

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Film Festival Review

Review: The Hunt (Dir. Thomas Vinterberg, 2012)

LFF 2012

“Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength” (Psalm 8:2). Never has a re-contextualised proverb so inadvertently and succinctly condensed a film’s subject matter than this one. The Hunt opens with a male bonding session, big, burly men drinking, removing their clothes and throwing themselves into a freezing cold stream in the middle of Danish winter for the purposes of a bet. Doing what “men” purportedly do. The one who has to rescue his pal when he develops cramp is somewhat different to the rest of the hunting party; slight and bespectacled, he jumps in, sensibly, fully clothed – his physicality reminiscent of Hoffman’s David in Straw Dogs (1971, dir. Sam Peckinpah).

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is an amiable divorced father of one, trying to gain custody of his teenage son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm); working in the local kindergarten after the closure of the secondary school in which he was previously employed. There are hints from some that believe in the unsuitability of a man working in a nursery, especially given his minority as the only male employee, but his naturalness with the children soon dismisses these archaic views. Lucas has friends, this is evident from the film’s commencement, close friendships made in childhood but most of these men have wives and children present and Lucas tends to cut a lonely figure in comparison. His best friend Theo (Vinterberg alum, Thomas Bo Larsen) has two children, one of whom is Klara (lucidly played by Annika Wedderkopp) an eccentric child with a vivid imagination who often wanders the streets alone because her parents fail to notice her missing or she is so deeply focussed on avoiding the cracks in the pavement. After her father’s friend shows her a little attention, she develops a crush and when Lucas understandably and gently rejects her, after she kisses him on the mouth, he pays a hefty price. Klara’s blatant accusation, after all “Children do not lie. At least not about things like this”, causes a devastating fall out and the once close-knit community splinters into shards of hysteria, amid recriminations and reproach, with the teacher becoming the victim of a persecutory witch-hunt.

Mikkelsen (A Royal Affair; Valhalla Rising) is outstanding – whether playing maniacal villains, silent assassins, derisive lovers or sensitive every-men – he is consistently exceptional. Here, he delivers a Cannes-award winning performance as mild-mannered educator Lucas acted with real sensitivity, precision and humanity. There is a dignity and hushed calculation to the way in which, as the character, he handles the damaging aspersions. However, when the events do threaten to break the exterior, specifically in the supermarket sequence and later during Midnight Mass his actions devastate further. The deftly worked script co-written by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm is weighted in realism, for the most part, until taking a symbolic swerve at the dénouement and all without a hint of emotional manipulation or overt sentimentality often associated with this type of story. That said, this is not a comfortable watch and whilst gripping, powerful and thought-provoking The Hunt is unsettling and gut-wrenching; a cinematic sledgehammer of a realisation as to just how injurious and distressing an untruth, however small, can truly be.

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Film Festival Review

Review: Everybody Has a Plan (Dir. Ana Piterbarg, 2012)

LFF 2012

While the last post detailed the more memorable roles of Mr Mortensen’s career, this review looks to the most recent, Everybody Has a Plan (2012, dir. Ana Piterbarg) a film he not only produced but also took, along with its director, to the recent 56th BFI London Film Festival. As previously stated he has starred in Spanish-speaking films before, more recently, playing the titular character of Captain Alatriste (2006, dir. Agustín Díaz Yanes) a historical epic which further showcased Mortensen’s skills with a blade, acting prowess in another language and an impressive ability to grow a moustache of heroic proportion. Everybody Has a Plan is, in comparison, a radically different film.

Set in the present, in Argentina, identical twin brothers Agustín and Pedro Souto (Mortensen) are siblings who have taken two very different paths in life. Agustín is a married Paediatric doctor in Buenos Aires while Pedro lives on the Tigre Delta alternating between a life of crime and breeding bees for the purpose of making honey. When one of Pedro’s crime outings takes a sinister turn, he turns up, terminally ill, on his brother’s doorstep. His presence thereby allows unfulfilled Agustín the opportunity to make some changes and seek refuge in the home town he escaped decades earlier. He inhabits his brother’s persona, leaving his wife and existing responsibilities behind.

This surprising noir is the first for screenwriter-director Piterbarg and she approached her first choice actor Mortensen at a San Lorenzo football match. Mortensen’s early childhood in South America meant that he, not only, has an affiliation with the country but also the linguistic foundation to speak the Argentine-Spanish which is prevalent in the movie. At no point does this film read as a directorial debut and Piterbarg should be commended for the taut screenplay and, at times, gently gripping crime drama she has created. It is traditional in its narrative approach and does not rely upon action sequences but turgid twists and tender turns amid its character driven plot and recurring thematic of duality. This motif is linked quite obviously through the inclusion of twins, however, it is made more apparent when considering the locations used, especially the light/dark dichotomy captured so beautifully through Lucio Bonelli’s cinematography. The Tigre Delta is shot as a dangerous, foreboding and enigmatic place (not unlike the twin who inhabits the island) and it is not an image of Argentina that is ordinarily known or as been seen before.

At his recent Screen Talk, Mortensen likened the stark contrast between locations and characters as “two streams of merging water, running together to the open river with the same force and flow” and quoted a 1946 film noir in an attempt to encapsulate the romantic element in the narrative. He referred to The Night Editor (Henry Levin) in which one protagonist says to the other “You’re like me. There is an illness deep inside you that has to hurt or be hurt. We’re made for each other”. This aptly sums up the inevitability of kismet which hangs over Agustín who shares the screen with an excellent supporting cast that fleshes out the slow pacing including Rosa (Sofia Gala), Rubén (Javier Godino) and Adrían (Daniel Fanego). Fanego practically slithers on screen he is so reptilian. This is, nevertheless, Mortensen’s film.

Copyright: H. Harding-Jones

It should seem somewhat moot to describe a man, who has had a film career run nearly three decades, as innovative but his last four films have made audiences aware just how multi-faceted he can be. Here, although they do not share the screen together for very long, he actually manages to suggest a real sense of individualism between Pedro and Agustín and, throughout, a manner of acting that relies upon physicality rather than the spoken word; few actors can emote so strongly and evidently. That said, this movie is not without its flaws; it is, at times a little too slow paced and the latter third does drag amid its solemnity and quiet but it is a thoughtful deliberation about a man who inadequately exists and attempts to find peace while having no absolute design on thriving. He does, however, as it turns out have a plan after all…

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DVD Review

DVD Review: Chernobyl Diaries (Dir. Brad Parker, 2012)

The Chernobyl disaster of April 1986 is considered to be the worst nuclear power plant accident in history and its alienation zone in Pripyat is the setting for Brad Parker’s, distasteful, Chernobyl Diaries.

Following a tour of Europe, friends Chris (Jesse McCartney), Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and Amanda (Devin Kelley) travel to Kiev to visit Chris’ older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). After sampling the nightlife and encountering some contrived Russian male stereotypes, Paul persuades his kid brother to sample “extreme tourism” and along with Michael (Nathan Phillips), Zoë (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and their tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), they try their luck through the guard-patrolled Pripyat exclusion zone.

When they are refused entry, the tourists choose an alternative route and soon find themselves stranded, trapped in a van, surrounded by the vast, desolate waste ground. Predictably, they are not alone, the only sound breaking the silence – aside from their occasional yells – is a Geiger-counter that crackles within the diegesis reminding them, and the audience, that they are inhaling radioactive fumes. This narrative may have had the potential to be a rational premise if, in fact, the “othered” being (in addition to the invisible, ionizing radiation) that is tracking them is actually revealed at a reasonable moment. Alas, it is not and we have to wait until the last five minutes and by this time any interest has completely waned. The premise of a horror film usually is for it to actually scare, or at the very least, make a viewer’s heart-rate pulsate – again, something which is severely lacking here.

It is increasingly difficult to summon enthusiasm for films such as this one especially since the runaway success of [Rec] (2007, dir(s). Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza), which was excellent and clearly the inspiration for this, with its handheld cinematography, low-key lighting and similar plotline. Unfortunately, an aspect within the mise-en-scène is where the similarity ends. This film is just 84 minutes which should give some indication as to how woefully under-developed the screenplay is (co-written by Paranormal Activity’s writer / director Oren Peli; Carey and Shane Van Dyke – grandsons of Dick). Perhaps, had the audience been made to care for these characters then greater empathy would have been experienced when they are picked off one-by-one. Or perhaps not, as the case may be.

There is nothing new here just more clichéd drivel which Hollywood insists on recycling – specifically using found footage as a plot reveal (a mobile phone fills in the gaps when two characters disappear) if this mode of representation is to be utilised then at least make it somewhat credible and not as a further display of writing limitations. At one point a main protagonist actually narrates so, it would appear, to avoid confusion.

This film is dull, tedious and despite its generic label of horror it is anything but scary. All moments which are included to make the audience react are cued so minutely that predictability and mediocre acting prevent any viewer participation or interaction.

Chernobyl Diaries is about as authentic as the Van Dyke Snr’s Cockney accent in Mary Poppins (1964, dir. Robert Stevenson).