Thursday Till Sunday aka De Jueves a Domingo

Santi Ahumada plays Lucía in Thursday till Sunday




London Film Festival, 2012-10-22 

Dominga Sotomayor’s remarkable debut feature is a sotto voce drama about a family on a road trip. Proceeding by suggestion rather than assertion, it is in some respects similar to Pablo Trapero’s early, soapy drama Familia Rodante. There are faint hints of the work of Carlos Reygadas in there too, as well as more than a touch of Claire Denis. This is not bad company to be mixing in.

If the long opening locked-camera shot through a bedroom window into a courtyard, where a family is loading a car with baggage and sleeping children, recalls Reygadas’s amazing up-comes-the-dawn opening to Silent Light, then the Claire Denis element is supplied by what follows, as we strain to work out just what sort of film we’re watching.

Mum and dad sit up front, the two kids sit in the back of the car clearly packed for the long haul. Bored car games like I Spy are played, the kids ask for stuff; the parents say no. It’s all very familiar.

But what sort of film is it? A road movie, it seems, with the family coming to some sort of new awareness of something or other by the end of the trip, perhaps. Then the camera gives us a nudge towards young Lucía in the back, long of leg and budding of breast. A girl just on the cusp of young womanhood. We look again at the parents in the front. He’s still handsome; she’s as pretty as she looked before – but on this second glance, having been nudged, we notice the her lips are pursed, and the husband isn’t quite looking at his wife. Something Is Up.

And then Sotomayor pulls right back and throws us back again into the interminable car journey. The sun is out, the roads are long, this is long-distance travel South American style, on big new roads that didn’t exist a generation before.

As the family travels from Santiago to the north the viewer is now with them but on a different journey, scavenging for clues. Suddenly everything looks like a metaphor – when the husband from out of nowhere makes the statement that the “sea belongs to everybody” is that something to do with his marriage being in trouble? What of the two pretty female hitch-hikers he unilaterally decides to pick up? And when young Lucía hits the hand-dryer in the restroom of a roadside pull-in and it delivers only a second of hot air. Another push, another second, and so on. Is that a metaphor too?

It probably isn’t. We’re being teased, in a film that has infected us with an idea upfront, and then left it to replicate. And here’s the thing, now it’s almost as if we’re generating the drama in this superficially featureless film, rather than Sotomayor or her actors. So when a VW Camper enters the scene and there’s a man on board whom the wife seems happy to see but the husband less so, we’re leaning forwards hungrily. Not much has actually happened but in dramatic terms the arrival of this old hippie wagon seems equivalent to the warm-up to the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

No, there are no CGI armies in this odd, small, in many ways very slight film. Big statements are nowhere to be seen. There are no acting gongs to be handed out either. Though they’re all faultless (particularly the kids, Emiliano Freifeld and Santi Ahumada) this is not an actors’ film – it’s almost Noh theatre in the functionality of its characters. Nor does the cinematography reflect inner mood, like it might if Wong Kar Wei were in charge – it’s sunny out the window when the film starts and that’s the way it stays, pretty much.

Indeed, the vast Chilean landscapes are apt – there’s really not much out there apart from sand and scrub. There’s also really not much going on in the car. Or on the face of Lucia the daughter, who is taking everything in nonetheless. Or at the campsites where they pitch their tents. Or in the river where they bathe.

Except there is. Claire Denis, mistress of deep emotional undertow, has a disciple.

© Steve Morrissey 2012


Thursday till Sunday – at Amazon




In the House



London Film Festival, 2012-10-22


If you’ve seen 5X2, you’ll already know that François Ozon makes immensely clever yet highly entertaining films, and that there’s a point to the cleverness; he’s not just showing off. In the House, aka Dans La Maison, is Ozon to the bone, another very clever piece of work. This time, however, the point he’s making is far less immediately apparent.

With 5X2 we saw a love story played out in reverse chronology, the point being that, “forearmed” as we were with the knowledge that the relationship would crumble, we saw the couple in question’s first stirrings of love, courtship, marriage, honeymoon and so on through entirely different eyes.
Here Ozon plays a similar trick, taking a Cuckoo in the Nest plot and wrapping it in a disquisition on fiction and truth.
Fabrice Luchini plays a jaded teacher of French who is wading through the marking of “what I did at the weekend” essays one night when he comes across something submitted by one of his pupils. It’s a startling story of the relationship of Claude, one of his teenage charges, and how he courted Rapha, a fellow pupil, so he could gain access to the boy’s house, where he seems to have been leering after the kid’s mother (played by Emmanuelle Seigner). Unsettled, the teacher shows his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). She is as intrigued as he, but also appalled. Next day the teacher upbraids the boy for his stalking, who instead of backing down hands him the next instalment of the story, which ends, like the first one, with “A suivre…” (to be continued).
The teacher is, against his better judgment, completely hooked, and becomes not just an avid follower of the boy’s increasingly lurid exploits (is he going to seduce the mother? the son? surely not the father?), not just his literary mentor, but also, bit by bit, an agent provocateur. Ozon symbolises this brilliantly, by having Luchini suddenly pop up inside the boy’s retelling of his story to offer pointers.
We’ve got a double articulation here. On the one hand a Damien tale of a monster inside a humdrum middle class family’s life. On the other we have the teacher’s reactions to that story, and how his reactions influence the development of the boy’s story, and how the boy’s story starts to take over the teacher’s own life. Fact and fiction become hopelessly intertwined, with the only seeming certainty being that, as is said several times, “the world needs stories”.
There is a student essay in here for someone, probably someone with an interest in structuralism or deconstruction (both of which more or less take the view that nothing is certain or natural and that everything is made up – it’s all a big story).
For those of a more pragmatic, empirical nature, this is also a highly entertaining bit of farce, with Luchini perfectly cast – all hangdog one second, raised eyebrow the next – as the teacher in beyond the elbow. Ernst Umhauer plays the teenager, cleverer by far than his teacher, an inspired bit of casting – creepy, smooth skinned, attractive, with a hint of a smile that could be amusement or malice. Bisexual? Maybe. Unsettling is the intention of Ozon, I suspect, and Umhauer delivers it.
Everyone else, including Scott Thomas and Emmanuelle Seigner, is a footnote. Apart, that is, from the father of the dolt, also called Rapha, played as a man so charged up with manly testosterone by Denis Ménochet, as so “natural” in his actions and reactions (Pizza? Yay! Football? Yowzer!) that he stands in complete contradiction to all this fey “everything is fictional” posturing that everyone else is indulging in, or being dragged into. And that, surely, is the point of Ozon’s film – there is fiction, there is fact and if we lose the distinction, we’re lost. French philosophers of the post 1968 tradition take note.

© Steve Morrissey 2012


In the House – at Amazon




A Hijacking

Pilou Asbaek as Mikkel the ship's cook in A Hijacking



London Film Festival, 2012-10-22


Stories of Somali pirates hijacking ships and holding people hostage for months regularly make the news bulletins but rarely seem to make it to the big screen. Which is odd considering that foreigners waving guns about in front of frightened innocents’ faces is a staple of cinema.

Enter A Hijacking, a Danish offering that welds a cast familiar to viewers of Danish TV sensation Borgen to a twin-track plot – one half takes place on the high seas, the other back at base where negotiations for the hostages’ release are taking place. The result is a drama so involving that, having dragged myself to the cinema with a heavy cold, for just over 100 minutes I didn’t care a bit.

The writer/director, Tobias Lindholm, also has Borgen previous, and he’s working to his strengths. A Hijacking is a strongly procedural drama in which human interaction and the divination of character is the driver. It’s probably best to say right now that there’s no Steven Seagal Under Siege business, just in case you were hoping for some knock-off Die Hard with eyebrow-raised “I also cook” payoff dialogue.

The plot is simple. Out on the Indian Ocean a ship is preparing to head back home when it’s boarded by a gang of gun-happy pirates. With them they’ve brought a negotiator who can speak English. Back in Copenhagen company boss Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) – a ball-breaking businessman with take-no-prisoners negotiating skills – is suddenly presented with a situation he has no experience of. Except, in his estimation, he has. He’s a deal-maker, after all. So, ignoring the advice of a specialist to get in a go-between who does this sort of thing for a living, Peter decides to go it alone and get his men out alive, but at a price that won’t hurt the company.

As I said, the film has a double focus – out on the high seas, where the ship’s cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek), an affable bear, is our increasingly faltering surrogate, and back at base, where Peter is trying to screw down the price without screwing up entirely.

The double-focus procedural is a tricky act to pull off – Apollo 13 does it memorably, but most films that try it fail doubly. A Hijacking succeeds because it decides early on which of its two loci is key – and it’s the boardroom. This puts all concerned in familiar Borgen territory, of close personal drama, procedure and millimetre-precise acting, rather than running, gunplay and “move, move, move!” dialogue.

That’s a wise decision. In the film’s favour, thanks to the wildly different locales, is the fact that as viewers we’ve no problem at all working out where we are, hairy Norwegian sailors in vests being instantly distinguishable from suited-and-booted steel-haired chaps in wire-frame spectacles. The natural colour palette – tweaked by cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s unshowy filtration – makes things doubly obvious. All is cool and Nordic back in Denmark, bright and warm out in the Indian Ocean.

One odd bit of casting turns out to be in the film’s favour too. Gary Porter playing Connor, Peter’s advisor in Copenhagen is, it turns out, not an actor at all but a real-life negotiator in “hostage situations”. I’m not sure he intended this to be the case but he’s killingly believable early on in meetings when he’s asking for information, intel which he then translates back to Peter and his team in management-speak, having, in the process, added no value whatsoever.

There’s a parallel advisor/negotiator, out on the ship, a shifty Somali (possibly) named Omar who is all wide-eyed claims that he’s as much a hostage as the crew, that he’s a man brought in by the pirates to do a job. Whether he is or isn’t is one of the real masterstrokes of the film, and the acting of Abdihakin Asgar as Omar is also one of the film’s real joys – what a plausible silver-tongued piece of work he is.

This film works because it avoids the Seagal-style stuff entirely, opting instead for realism which would verge on the boring – men lying on bunks, sleeping and so on – if it hadn’t set up its tense throughline so well.

You could take issue with the passing of time in A Hijacking. Some people on the way out of the screening I was at certainly were. We’re at three days into the hijacking, then a couple of weeks, then three months, then six months and so on, without any real sense of time passing. The men’s beards don’t seem to grow much, for instance.

It didn’t bother me. I was too tightly held by the film’s basic coin-flip premise – will Peter, by playing hardball with his insanely low offers of ransom money, get his men killed? Or will the Somalis take a much much lower price than they’re asking for – they want $19 million, Peter’s offering $250,000?

On this question of the price of men’s lives the whole film turns. And what a tense, realistic turn it is.

A Hijacking (imdb is currently calling it The Hijacking) is released in the UK on Friday 10 May 2013-05-10


© Steve Morrissey 2012




29 October 2012-10-29

Willem Dafoe in The Hunter

Out in the UK This Week



The Hunter (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

There’s a totally immersive sense of place in this engrossing thriller starring Willem Dafoe as the titular hunter in kill-or-be-killed Australia. He’s some sort of badass eco-transgressor working for a rapacious global megacorp and he’s after the mythical and possibly mystical Tasmanian Tiger. Or is that a metaphor? Or is he actually not the hunter at all but the hunted? No spoilers. I will just say it’s a thriller and it’s structured like Apocalypse Now – one man, a quest, lots of delicious jeopardy. 

 The Hunter – at Amazon


Your Sister’s Sister (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Grown-up mumblecore, a briskly paced love-triangle drama set out in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, where indie darling Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and the stratospherically excellent Rosemarie DeWitt indulge in some high-octane improv. The pace is brisk, it doesn’t wallow in the moments of emotionality where it could and it has the kind of folksy/indie soundtrack you’d kind of expect. Quietly excellent.

Your Sister’s Sister – at Amazon


London: The Modern Babylon (BFI, cert 15, DVD)

Michael Gambon narrates – and that’s reason enough to pick up this DVD – Julien Temple’s collage of archive newsreel, voiceover, feature film footage and interview going back to the dawn of cinematography. It’s part of a current fashion for mythologising London and it sits comfortably in what you’d call the modern orthodox view – London as melting pot, London as a welcome port for “the world and his wife” as one Cockney geezer puts it. Though a lot of the footage is familiar, Temple’s editing skills are formidable, and he has an ear for a song, old music hall favourites like “A Bit of What You Fancy Does You Good” sitting snugly alongside Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Hong Kong Garden”.

London: The Modern Babylon – at Amazon


Cockneys Vs Zombies (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Much more than just a title in search of a film, this British zom-com is an admirable addition to the genre and a right old laugh. It’s not going to rival Shaun of the Dead but there are a couple of good jokes (rival zombie football supporters choosing to have a go at each other rather than the available humans). And you get to hear Honor Blackman – now in her 80s but still able to stir a memory of Pussy Galore – use the F word. And there’s Richard Briers using an Uzi 9mm. And the gore is pretty funny too – as long as you don’t plan on eating a kebab anytime soon.

Cockneys Vs Zombies – at Amazon


Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (StudioCanal, cert PG, DVD)

“I rode a lot with Buffalo Bill. He was very sweet.” It’s lines like that, uttered by Diana Vreeland, that have you immediately hooked into this documentary about her life. Who? The hard act that every fashion editor since has had to follow, Vreeland edited Harper’s Bazaar from 1937-62, then Vogue 1962-71. This access-most-areas documentary captures her glamour, pizzazz and quixotic progressive spirit. The name, incidentally, is pronounced “Dee-ahna”. Of course it is. And if you arrive at this homage clueless and faintly sniffy about fashion people, you might well leave better informed and extremely impressed, as I did.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel – at Amazon


A Royal Affair (Metrodome, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Mads Mikkelsen plays the doctor introducing Enlightenment ideas into the court of the 18th century Danish king, and himself into the queen, in this well cast, sumptuously appointed period drama with a tendency to replay history from the point of view of the winner, presenting the baddie as a silly old silly, the goodie (the winner, our man, ie us) as the repository of all wisdom. “You could be an amazing king,” says Mikkelsen’s earnest, noble, do-gooding doctor to the fey, possibly gay king who doesn’t know what to do with his queen and her fancy progressive ideas. On the one hand magic and monarchy, on the other democracy and rationalism. We’re in no doubt which is superior. Plus points include all of the cast, Mikkelsen especially, who are so much better than the script, also the cinematography, which is a thing of beauty, and Nikolaj Arcel’s direction, which, particularly towards the end of the film turns some of the exchanges into a tragic partita.

A Royal Affair – at Amazon


The Five Year Engagement (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A Judd Apatow production that makes you wonder if he’s losing enthusiasm for comedy. Ostensibly a romcom, it stars Emily Blunt and Jason Segel as  a couple who for one reason or another just can’t seem to make it to the altar. The stars mug gamely in what looks at first like an experimental rehash of When Harry Met Sally but on closer inspection is more like Forgetting Sarah Marshall but minus Russell Brand. And no, that’s not a good thing.

The Five Year Engagement – at Amazon


© Steve Morrissey 2012