“Freedom of speech is always under threat, every day, worldwide.”
Something you might once have found Dick Cheney saying, perhaps, as he lowered his visor and prepared to blast his way through ranks of dangerously insurgent women and children obscuring his view of the oil fields, but in this instance uttered on camera by a Swedish conservative politician and ringing with the gravitas of a series of ridiculous – but very serious – events that have preceded it.
Historically, truth has resided with power. In our modern society money is the real power – therefore ‘truth’ as it will be remembered is usually pretty easily bought. If this assertion scares the crap out of you, you’ll want to watch Big Boys Gone Bananas!*.
A documentary about a documentary – or more accurately the staggering response to a documentary on the part of one of its subjects – this brilliant film details the aftermath of the LA Film Festival in 2009, where Fredrik Gertten’s attempts to show Bananas, his movie about the legal struggles of Nicaraguan workers against the multi-national fruit corporation Dole, led to the threat of a lawsuit being filed by Dole against his tiny production company for defamation. All this despite a) the CEO of the company having basically admitted its guilt in court, and b) no one at Dole having yet seen the film.
That was only the tip of the shitberg. Dole then set about waging a dirty campaign in an American media only too willing to propound their side of the story without any apparent investigation (suggesting the mainstream American media is now chock full of Scott Templetons, and hardly any Gus Haynes’).
Some of what is in this film is petrifying, some of it incredibly hopeful, but it’s always compulsive viewing. Highlighting the insane amounts of influence that multi-nationals wield, it is at times a terrifying glimpse into the way life could be if we, as a collection of oft-disinterested or apathetic individuals, don’t start being more proactive in making ourselves heard. In the decade when American corporations were granted the right to make political donations under the First Amendment (yes, the Amendments reserved for people) this film is not just relevant, but should be compulsory watching for anyone with a passing interest in our future.
Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is available on DVD now, and is released by Dogwoof. You can buy it here. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.
You may have never seen ballroom dancing in person, but you’ve probably seen Strictly Come Dancing (or Dancing with the Stars, if you’re in the US) and noticed that it’s actually really difficult. In addition to remembering all the steps, you’ve got to be fit, you’ve got to make it look meaningful, and you’ve got to trust your dancing partner. Ballroom Dancer is a documentary about a professional duo, Slavik Kryklyvyy (go on, say it) and Anna Melnikova, struggling with all the aforementioned things, under enormous pressure – they’ve just gotten romantically involved with each other, and this is Slavik’s last chance at a comeback after ten years out of contention.
Slavik reminds me of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish footballer – yes, they’re both of Eastern European descent and happen to wear their long dark hair slicked back into a knot, but they both have an intense, virtuosic charisma about them, possibly informed by their martial arts training. Slavik lives and breathes dance, an exacting perfectionist about his craft; but at 34, he’s intent on proving that he’s not past his prime. Anna is younger and certainly in her prime, as the current amateur Latin champion; she’s formidable yet vulnerable, and struggles to cope with Slavik’s anxieties and dominance of their relationship.
Their romantic and professional partnership is the centre of the film, slanted towards the perspective of Slavik. We often see the two in their hotel room hanging out in addition to seeing them during rehearsals and competitions, so we can observe their chemistry and communication candidly, on and off the dance floor. We come to know their individual personalities through observing their separate physical and mental preparations for competitions; Slavik pushes himself to breaking point, while Anna seems to be more circumspect. Their egos clash constantly, and we see them striving to negotiate between their individual needs and the needs of their partnership. Anna exasperatingly comments during one argument that if you don’t want to deal with partners or emotion, ballet rather than Latin would be a better fit.
The film is an intimate portrait of the couple, going far beyond the usual fly-on-the-wall perspective of documentaries to construct a character-driven narrative. We’ve got Big Brother-like access to their lives, augmented by the candid reflections shared with their coaches and trainers (so there’s no need for anyone to speak directly to camera). The Danish directors, Andreas Koefoed and Christian Bonke, say the film was ‘shot as cinema verite but [was] edited like fiction’ and indeed, while watching Ballroom Dancer, it’s almost surreal to think that there was no script, that these are real people and this actually happened between them. It doesn’t hurt that they’re both attractive and emotive, like hired actors, but it’s the authenticity of their story that’s so compelling – this isn’t light, Dirty Dancing-like fare. Ballroom Dancer’s brutally honest depiction of a couple’s struggles is refreshing to see onscreen, whether you like ballroom dancing or not.
Ballroom Dancer is out in selected cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.
Director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson specialise in shooting non-verbal epics – Baraka (1992 – now being re-released in cinemas) and its successor Samsara (2012) are ambitiously global, visually lush 65mm documentaries that utilise film language only. There’s no spoken dialogue, no titles or subtitles; just moving images with minimal diegetic sound edited with an ambient instrumental score. It’s an uniquely immersive cinematic experience; you just sit back and let the vast hi-res images and surround sound wash over you to transport you all over the world.
Their films grant you extraordinary access to things you’d be lucky to see at some point in your lifetime, if at all, in just an hour and half. It’s like experiencing science and anthropology in situ instead of in museums or surrounded by other tourists – there are no placards or guides to explain what or why (or even where), and you’re left to serenely mull it over on your own.
‘Baraka’ is an ancient Sufi word that means blessing or the essence of life. (Yes, this is the origin of Obama’s first name.) While Samsara (Sankrit for ‘continuous flow’) places more of an accent on urban society’s connectedness, Baraka focuses more on Earth’s origins and spirituality. We start the journey by visiting our evolutionary ancestors, monkeys, bathing in a hot spring. From them, we move on to a wide range of peoples’ ancient ritual practices, from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim Quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City to indigenous peoples such as the aborigines and the Masai.
The camera gives us unfettered access to these people and places, and in that way watching this is nothing like the experience of a tourist. There’s no arduous journey, no panic about feeling foreign and being unable to communicate, no struggle to take things in without being bothered by other tourists or locals hawking wares. On top of that other-worldliness, we get gorgeous time-lapse sequences that enable us to see beyond our limitations. In this way, the film presents a God’s eye view of the world, transcending time and space. We flit around the world, guided by themes instead of regions; this intentional juxtaposition of diverse peoples and places through editing and sound bridges draws attention to their similarities rather than differences.
In addition to allowing us access to remote locations, Baraka also gives us awe-inspiring glimpses of natural phenomena, taking us to the mouth of a live volcano, showing us a sea of clouds cascading over mountains like ethereal water. You may not know where the film has taken you, but that’s part of Fricke’s and Magidson’s design; names and geography are secondary to something’s substance. The film’s not all pretty and peaceful though – the dark underbelly of civilisation is prominently displayed as well. We see the effects of globalisation and over-population: poverty, sweatshop factory working conditions, burning oil fields, ghostly remnants at mass-killing sites. In the end, you do feel like you’ve gone through a guided mediation on the essence of life.
Throughout the film, you’re overwhelmed by the immensity and richness of the images. Fricke and Magidson took 30 thoughtful, pain-staking months to shoot this, including 14 months on location, and invested in 65mm film stock and their own specially-developed rigging, fully committed to their vision. The duo has only done these two feature-length films, and you can’t tell that two decades passed between their releases. They take the long view, which film rarely does; the images they have captured have a timeless quality, resonant regardless of whatever contemporary issues we’re facing.
Baraka so bold in its vision, blazing a path for gems like the BBC’s Planet Earth series, ahead of its time when you think that it was made before Google or YouTube existed. When it was first released, free-association narratives were much more rare; but now, we regularly watch a succession of short, tangentially related videos online. In 1992, you’d have to check encyclopaedias or libraries to know more about what’s in the film, but now, we can just take out our smartphones once leaving the cinema to do research. While it’s tempting to get quick answers and plug back into our information-overloaded existences after watching the film, I’d advise you to wait a while. When you leave the theatre, you ought to feel an afterglow from floating around the world without language barriers… so just take some time to enjoy it.
Baraka is on limited release now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.
Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, is billed as an offbeat romantic-comedy – but its vision is much richer than that, giving us a humane glimpse into struggles with mental health.
The story centres around Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man who spent eight months in a mental institution after catching his wife with a lover and nearly beating him to death. He’s bipolar, undiagnosed until the incident, and we meet him while he’s struggling to rebuild his life. He moves back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) in a suburb of Philadelphia, fixated on reuniting with his wife Nikki (this is the ‘silver lining’ of the title); but that’s made difficult by her restraining order against him. Pat strikes up an unconventional friendship with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), his friend’s sister-in-law, who is struggling with the untimely death of her husband.
Pat and Tiffany are both outcasts whose brains process their pain in antisocial ways; Pat’s manifests in intense aggression, while Tiffany’s comes out in angry promiscuity. They are unable to mask their suffering while under scrutiny, their past errors are still raw in everyone’s memories. We’re drawn into the narrative, curious about how these two might regain their dignity, earn back the trust of their families, and adjust to their lives after their personal traumas; the romance angle, in truth, is totally secondary to that.
The film is genuinely absorbing because it crafts a credible world for these characters to inhabit. The local details are just right, from the Eagles fandom (the Philly NFL team, not the band) to the neighbourhood diner. Pat’s parents’ house looks lived-in and unglamourous, and you get a real sense of the community Pat belongs to as he jogs through it. The film captures how Pat and Tiffany don’t struggle in isolation; their pain affects their families, friends and neighbours. This is supported by the unintrusive camerawork, stylised just enough to expressionistically reflect the mental states of Pat and Tiffany when required.
But don’t worry – watching Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t feel heavy going. It focuses on the humanity of the characters, not the issues they inevitably represent. It’s enjoyable because it has a keen sense of humour and moves at a fast pace, propelled by the candour of its central duo. While Pat doesn’t have a filter and Tiffany has a penchant for provoking people, luckily, both Cooper and Lawrence manage to keep their outbursts rooted in their characters’ pain, exuding pathos. Many may know Cooper best as the morally corrupt friend in The Hangover or the intense suitor of Rachel McAdams in TheWedding Crashers – he’s fortunate that his manic energy and fratboy appeal finally find a sympathetic home in the character of Pat. It probably doesn’t hurt that Cooper himself grew up in a suburb of Philly. And Lawrence certainly matches his intensity, acting with impressive maturity and gravitas well beyond her 22 years.
The human frailty of Pat and Tiffany is bolstered by Russell’s ensemble cast, who ensure that we put the meanings of ‘crazy’ and ‘normal’ into context. John Ortiz is endearingly amusing as Pat’s friend Ronnie who’s struggling under the pressures of family life. And Chris Tucker, who I last saw in Rush Hour, is surprisingly sweet and quirky as Pat’s friend Danny from the institution. De Niro – in his first role in ages that requires him to be more than a caricature – is a welcome scene-stealer as Pat’s dad who is obsessed with the Eagles and their ‘juju’.
The film doesn’t demonise mental illness or lionise those who endure it – it’s made clear that everyone, on medication or not, has issues and their own preferred form of therapy to deal with them, be it running, dancing, working out, or watching football. The most gratifying thing about Silver Linings Playbook is that it thoughtfully engages with the grey areas of life’s difficulties and trusts the audience to make its own judgements. It’s actually a very appropriate film to see this holiday season, because it ought to pique your empathy levels… provided you’re not a Scrooge.
Silver Linings Playbook is in cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.
When it was announced that director Ben Wheatley would follow his chilling sophomore feature Kill List with a comedy, it would have been entirely reasonable to breathe a sigh of relief. The savage, explicitly violent Kill List was as disturbing as they come; an unsettlingly realistic film with an interest in the occult that recalled the great British horrors of the 1970s (think Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man).
Yet anyone familiar with Wheatley’s blackly comic debut Down Terracewould be unsurprised to discover that Sightseers is hardly Love Actually. Instead, it shares misanthropic DNA with Kill List, a dark human story this time filtered through Wheatley’s unique comic sensibility. His Britain is one where a quaint caravanning holiday can become a Badlands–style massacre. In Sightseersit does just that and it is a glorious cause for laughter.
At the beginning of Sightseers we meet Tina (Alice Lowe), in her thirties and still living at home with her mother. Tina is invited on a caravanning holiday with her new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram), a Brummie in possession of a luxuriant ginger beard. Tina’s mother is unimpressed by Chris, but the offer of a trip to Crich Tram Museum cements Tina’s defiant decision to fly the nest.
Initially Chris comes across only as odd as you’d expect for a caravanning enthusiast, that is until he displays an unhealthy loathing for litterbugs. After a hostile encounter with a serial litterer at the Tram Museum, things take a turn for the worse, and Tina’s holiday becomes something more than a jolly jaunt around the north of England.
Lowe and Oram’s script is as witty as it is cruel; rude jokes, sight gags, and moments of sheer maliciousness all demand laughs. As the writers and lead performers of Sightseers it is hard to separate the actors from their creations, so rarely does the humour fall flat. As director, Wheatley handles jokes with great effect, proving his dexterousness in the shift from horror to comedy.
As well as laughs, there is a subversive streak to be found in the construction of Sightseers. During one key murder scene Wheatley includes the words to ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, by William Blake, in voice over. Today these words are prominently known as the Lyrics to the hymn Jerusalem, an anthem associated with a sense of British patriotism.
The satire to be found in Sightseers also brings to mind a bygone generation of British directors like Lindsay Anderson, helmer of the extraordinary If…. and O Lucky Man!. In the darker moments Wheatley’s work also brings to mind the films of Nicholas Roeg and Robin Hardy. While Wheatley treats patriotism with irony, he is certainly concerned with the Britishness of his film.
Wheatley contrasts mundane interior locations with extraordinary landscapes to expose much more of England than we are used to in British cinema. The landscape shots in Sightseers, lensed by cinematographer Laurie Rose, are utterly stunning. Wheatley’s choice of locations evokes the mystery of Britain’s prehistoric and pre-Christian past with a Herzogian curiosity; this is particularly evident when, as with the boat in Fitzcarraldo, the pair drag the caravan up a mountain.
At times the overall construction of Sightseers feels a little jumpy, with undesirable cuts to black to break up the scenes. The large amount of improvisation involved in creating Sightseers is probably to blame for the occasional clunks, but this is of little consequence as the overall story arc comes together in a maliciously funny fashion.
Finally, Wheatley’s choice of music deserves praise. The anthems for the odd couple are 80’s staples ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell and ‘The Power of Love’ by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Psychedelic 60’s rock like ‘Season of the Witch’ by Vanilla Fudge pronounces Wheatley’s love of the weird, while German masters Popul Vuh help to further transport us to that elusive Herzogian place.
Ultimately the film, like the soundtrack, is as emotionally rousing as it is amusing. Sightseers is the anorak-clad version of True Romance that you’ve always wished for. It is Bonnie and Clyde for the British Isles. It is Badlands with more rain. Cinema just doesn’t get much better than that.
Sightseers is in cinemas from Friday. Contributor Tom Cottey can be followed on Twitter @tcottey.
Cinema’s power often lies in a very direct form of emotiveness, with the immediacy of the image being the perfect foil for a good story. But the simplicity with which this directness operates requires a fine balance. It’s all too easy to mishandle the power at one’s disposal, to bludgeon an audience’s goodwill into pained submission under a hail of grandstanding sentiment. This is especially true in the ‘Life Story’ genre. Documentaries and acted biopics which bear this scary moniker often come generously ladled with words and phrases like ‘inspiring’ and ‘heart-warming’ as directors amp up every aspect of tragedy and triumph in human life, screaming ‘FEEL!’ at the audience as though we were already cold in our seats, vacant and resigned at this still-early stage in the emotional evolution of the human beast. In most cases, ‘vomit-inducing’ would be more of an accurate description of these films.
Great credit, then, to Jesse Vile, director of Jason Becker: Not Dead Yetwho has made a film which impacts in a meaningful way whilst keeping any potential melodrama or sensationalism firmly outside of the frame. Jason Becker isn’t manipulative, it isn’t preachy, and most importantly it isn’t patronising. Jason Becker isn’t dead yet, and he doesn’t want your sympathy.
In 1989, small-town teenager Becker, a ridiculously talented guitarist, was about to make the step up from barely-known prodigy to big time player. David Lee Roth, whose band had launched the careers of first Eddie Van Halen and then Steve Vai – the established Best Guitarists in the World in the ‘shredder’ mould – had heard Becker playing and wanted him to feature on a new album and a tour. This was literally ‘it’ – and nothing more than a culmination of years of obsessive practice combined with a natural talent in a nurturing family environment, although these are the kind of dreams we hardly dare hope for even in our wildest moments. The album was recorded and the band were hitting the studio in preparation for the next stage. Around this time what had begun as a twinge in Jason’s leg was causing him serious discomfort. On the advice of his parents he went to the doctor, who diagnosed him with ALS – a wasting disease – an extremely rare condition for someone of his age, and totally incurable.
As a reviewer you try to be as neutral as possible during screenings, but sometimes you get caught up, and from there it’s almost impossible to imagine blankly critiquing things like form and narrative. In this sense the film must, therefore, be a success – removing this reviewer from the relative ease and safety of his objectiveness. So far as this is a piece of cinema, it has some cute directorial touches, but Vile is both wise and modest enough to keep his presence to a minimum. If there’s a message, it’s one that comes naturally from the material, not from some superficial slants, artificial crescendos of emotion or sensationalism. Becker’s story changed, it deviated from what might have been expected – and many times – but it’s clear from the film that all changes are navigable with good people behind you.
Having made a point of the film’s emotional neutrality, I haven’t tried so hard not to cry in a film since watching Bambi as a child, unsure as I was at the time whether it was allowed in the cinema or not. As with then, the effort gave me a massive headache. But it wasn’t that what I was watching made me sad. The film’s emotional impact sits in that quiet hinterland between sadness and joy – the one where you’re experiencing the sense of being. It’s neither a happy experience nor an unhappy one, but it’s more than both – an experience of fullness and potential. A man who created his opus while paralysed? A great achievement – but here’s the thing – it’s also not. It’s entirely normal when viewed in the context of Becker’s life. What this film highlights –the incredible thing – is that all of life is within anyone’s grasp if they just have the confidence to take it in hand – to commit to it. Life can’t be this simple, so we think. And truly, you don’t know what myriad complexities have been simplified, what disparate threads have been unified for the purposes of effective cinema. But what this film suggests is that there aren’t any, and if there are they’re unimportant. While it’s common practice now to view life ‘realistically’ as a series of inherently meaningless events swinging, by our selfish imposition of our worth upon them, between the twin states of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, one can also approach it from a far simpler outlook: we’re alive right now, and that’s what really matters. Is there not incredible hope in that?
Please don’t be put off if you think this is just going to be a film about a metal guitarist. This is a universal film, an important film, meriting a wider audience than it will probably receive. In his steadfast refusal to patronise his subject, Vile has made the film his subject richly deserves.
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is in cinemas from Friday, and released by Dogwoof. It’s released on DVD on December 3.
When a bunch of teenagers board the bus or train you’re on, what do you feel? Dread? Disgust? I usually try to reassure myself that when I have kids, they won’t be so un-self-aware. But the thing is, when people are in groups – teenagers or not – we tend to have a certain blindness of others outside our group. And when we were teenagers, it was even worse; remember being painfully aware of your peers while egocentrically preoccupied by your own drama-filled thoughts? (I hope that wasn’t just me.) Michel Gondry’s The We and the I brilliantly captures our struggle against groupthink to be individuals in a condensed form by limiting the camera’s gaze to a bus ride home on the last day of school. It’s refreshing and fun to catch a glimpse of Gondry’s view of the world – realistically flawed, humorous and vulnerable moments combined with a bit of visual whimsy.
The film begins by contrasting the relative quiet of the South Bronx neighbourhood with the frenetic chaos that the end of the school day unleashes. Students pile onto the public bus and compete for seats; it quickly becomes clear who is confident and who is not. As a high school teacher myself, parents sometimes ask me for advice about teenagers; one of my first questions to them is where their kid sits on the bus. The kids who think they’re cool, often bullies, sit way in the back. The independent-minded ones don’t mind taking the seats in front. Most end up in between, but still leaning towards one side or the other. The We and the I gets this just right, presenting a good mix of teenage archetypes without it seeming too forced: up front, some snooty clever kids; some couples, both straight and gay; some sensitive musician boys; an artist; an awkward outcast; an aloof outsider who stoically keeps his headphones in; and of course, the cocky bullies in the back. Thinking back, a bit of you probably belonged in each group… but you had to choose an affiliation, unless you were one of the rare ‘floaters’.
The cramped setting of The We and the I mirrors the sometimes suffocating social world of teenagers; it’s a real technical achievement that Gondry manages to be a fly-on-the-wall in such small spaces. The camera seamlessly flits around the bus, dipping in and out of each hormone-fuelled micro-drama while still capturing the dynamics between groups. The kids’ cell phone use is included to admirable effect, from my teacher’s point of view – most teens today feel compelled to be plugged in at all times, which also leaves them more vulnerable to social missteps. As the bus gradually empties, the We does become the I; the teens have to choose their own individual paths.
Having taught just outside NYC, the kids in The We and the I are much more familiar to me than the casts of past teen films – much more recognisable than the characters in Dazed and Confused, which just represents a very different part of America. There’s no guitar rock on this soundtrack – it’s mostly Young MC and old-school hip hop. It’s also such a relief to see teenagers onscreen actually talking like teenagers – swearing left and right, voices emphatic, vocabulary normal (not what an adult wishes they’d say). It’s heartening to see teens represented so honestly by these non-professional actors. When the credits roll, you see that all the character names are the kids’ actual names – Gondry workshopped the film with these kids at The Point, a community youth centre. The result of their collaboration is a uniquely candid document of the lives of urban youth that makes me very glad that someone like Gondry keeps making films.
The promising debut film of independent filmmaker Jonathan Cenzual Burley, El Alma de Las Moscas (The Soul of Flies), is a low-key magical realist meditation in buddy-film form. The two protagonists, Nero (Andrea Calabrese) and Miguel (Javier Sáez), are brothers meeting for the first time after decades, summoned to their absent father’s funeral by posthumous letters. They meet at a train station that happens to be abandoned – presumably by their deceased dad’s design – and are forced to come to terms with each other as they meander through the grain fields in Salamanca (western Spain) towards the funeral. If you appreciate Beckett’s Waiting for Godot but wish it were a bit more accessible and less tragic, this would be right up your alley.
Crucially for the film’s dramatic trajectory, Nero and Miguel provide effective foil for one another; Nero is an ebullient optimist while Miguel is a brooding cynic. Their dynamic drives the film forward and gives the film a sense of purpose. Because there are few close-ups on either – the film is dominated by medium and long shots of the pair against the landscape – their clothing choices are key for convincingly defining their characters. It’s fitting that Nero looks comfortable in the countryside, wearing earth-tones and a humble flat cap, while Miguel looks incongruous in a slick black-and-white suit.
The film has a third protagonist: the countryside. Given voice by a rustic, rhythmic soundtrack, it’s a strong character of the film as well. The expanses of dry grain fields are described by the narrator as containing a “labyrinth of memories”, a silent witness of the life their father lived. The countryside looks great on film; Burley’s minimalist aesthetic utilises striking, saturated colours and naturalistic light so it looks painterly and timeless.
The writer/director said in a recent interview that he shot this film in three weeks with a tiny cast and crew and a very limited budget, so it’s really intended as a calling card. Burley’s message is: ‘This is what I can do with no money; now give me some.’ And the results are encouraging. While El Alma de las Moscas is understated and minimalist, it has a clear vision and thoughtfully uses film language. For example, when the two brothers are wandering around, their journey moves right to left across the screen, enhancing that their journey is not about forward movement. When they finally start traveling the right way towards the funeral, their path is tracked left to right so a conclusion feels inevitable.
El Alma de las Moscas seems to be billed as a comedy, but that’s a bit misleading, as it doesn’t quite fit into that box. Two strangers wander around the countryside, meeting some quirky characters along the way, and ruminate about the nature of family, loneliness, fate and mortality. This film isn’t often laugh-out-loud funny, but it does deal with deep subject matter in a light-hearted way. So if you’re in the mood for that, check it out.
The Soul of Flies is out now on DVD, released by Matchbox Films (RRP. £15.99) | Buy the film at amazon.co.uk.
Choosing which films to see out of the hundreds at the BFI London Film Festival is never an easy task, but one key bit of information definitely helps me prioritise – whether the film’s already got a UK distributor or not. I always pick at least one foreign film or documentary that I may never get another chance to see, usually from Asia, often from Japan. They’re safe bets to me, considering the country’s rich cinematic history, and they provide refreshing breaks from Eurocentric perspectives. My personal opinion is that many modern Japanese cultural products, from anime to music to cinema, thoughtfully mix Western influences and Eastern values so that the experience is both enticingly unique and broadly accessible.
This year I chose director-screenwriter Kenji Uchida’s entertaining tragicomedy Key of Life, a Japanese-style riff on Trading Places in which Sakurai (Masato Sakai), a down-and-out actor, opportunistically steals an amnesaic’s identity. Sakurai’s life is in shambles – he owes everyone money and the ex-girlfriend he still loves is engaged. Likably pathetic, he even fails at committing suicide. When Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa) slips and hits his head in a bathhouse, a shortcut for restarting Sakurai’s life literally falls at his feet. It’s extra-lucky that Kondo happens to be quite wealthy. Kondo-as-Sakurai chances upon a bit of luck too in befriending Kanae, a nerdy magazine editor, at the hospital. She is on an endearing-yet-vaguely-pitiable mission to get married before her ill father dies, and discovers that it’s convenient to get to know someone while he is trying to rediscover himself. It’s all fun and games until the real Sakurai stumbles across the source of Kondo’s wealth – it turns out that he’s an assassin for the mob, and his last job wasn’t quite finished… thus the fates of these three previously isolated figures are suddenly tied together, and they’re left testing when their collective luck will finally run out.
The world the film portrays is wacky, yet recognisably modern and cynical; apart from the main trio, everyone makes selfish decisions that destroy relationships and are largely driven by pride and materialism. That backdrop is vital, as it facilitates us rooting for these naive principal characters while they earnestly fumble through these unusual circumstances. We trust them enough to go along for the ride, happy to be surprised at the twists and turns.
But most importantly, there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud moments as the two men play with their new identities. Most of the credit goes to Kagawa’s bravura performance as Kondo, deftly switching between the cold, professional assassin to the vulnerable amnesic; Sakai seems outclassed, too much of a ham, but in fairness, his character is supposed to be a failed actor. Key of Life orchestrates its many tonal shifts skilfully, evoking an enjoyable range of emotions. Uchida’s well-crafted, well-executed comedy is well-worth a watch. And next time you’re perusing a film festival programme, keep an eye out for good foreign films without distribution deals.
Twee – excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental.
At its best ‘the twee angle’ (for wont of a better phrase) can present a charmingly naïve view of the world that in turn leads us to look at our surroundings with refreshed, childlike eyes (see Wes Anderson). At its worst twee is simply a denial – a refusal to look at things head on, a frustrating, dishonest and manipulative trait employed for and by ruthlessly egotistical or emotionally weak individuals who’d rather take life as a prescribed dose of cutesy vignettes than face a proper engagement with the world and all of its wonderful difficulties.
Ruby Sparks, for better or worse, has a little of both aspects. It’s like an obviously clever child who’s a bit too good at giving the doe eyes, and for all it’s apparent warmth you can’t help but feel there’s something really very cold, very clinical, happening underneath. It’s an incredibly twee film that sometimes charms, more often manipulates, and never quite escapes the plot bind it fixes itself in. It’s populist schmaltz cleverly disguised as subverted schmaltz, with a plot that could have been a novel route to exploring some interesting themes – such as the role of fantasy in our lives – finally content to roam the colourless wastelands of the middle ground.
Ruby Sparks should be seen as a missed opportunity. The film flirts with the idea of really challenging the audience, but instead sucker punches them in the strangest way – by giving them exactly what they want – and leaves with their wallets. It’s part set on the West coast, but that cackling you can hear isn’t the gulls, and that swishing isn’t the waves – it’s studio accountants crowing with delight as they read the numbers off the ticker tape. It might just be the most cynical film of this year (and this year included We Bought A Zoo!).
Contrary to the aftermath, the experience of watching Ruby Sparks is on the whole a placidly pleasant affair – if a little close to watching the slew of ukulele-backed mobile phone adverts from the last five years rolled into one. Like you’ve dropped a few anti-depressants – sit back and watch what were formerly your brain cells pop like mellow fireworks in the distance.
The currently ubiquitous Paul Dano plays Calvin, a self-absorbed writer in a perma-sunny LA (where else?) whose first novel has rendered him a literary phenomenon at a tender age, but who currently finds himself rather lacking in the ideas department. As publishers’ demands to see some new work increase, Calvin can’t seem to get past his block. He’s lonely, but has no friends apart from his dog and his brother, and certainly no chance of finding a girlfriend, which is what he really wants. One night, he has a dream about his perfect girl. Waking up with the fire of inspiration burning hot in his belly he stays up for days on end tippy-tapping away on his beautiful vintage typewriter. Then things go weird. The girl he’s written about suddenly appears. Those vintage typewriters, man.
The film potters along in what is essentially a romcom vein, probably exactly as you’re imagining, and though there are some genuinely funny moments in amongst the achingly cute set-ups you’re always waiting for some kind of conflict.
And then Ruby Sparks dares to do what a romcom would never do – it gives you a taste of real conflict. This is where this film could have become really interesting, and ultimately, where it truly fails, backing away from the difficult questions it starts asking and giving in to a happy ending which isn’t just stupid but actually insulting – to everyone who’s gone to see the film, but especially to women. Without giving too much away, there’s a puzzling plot dilemma Ruby Sparks doesn’t even really try to address, breezing on past like a politician happily answering a totally unrelated question.
The film’s unremitting support of Calvin and his egocentricity is grating, and there’s a faintly misogynistic subtext in the action which makes me surprised this film was written by a woman. It’s called Ruby Sparks but really it’s about Calvin. Ruby herself (Zoe Kazan) has been written as an ironic comment on the two-dimensionality of female characters in film, literature and the male psyche but is ultimately a plainly two-dimensional character. What kind of a message is that for girls?
Zoe Kazan is very watchable, by far the best actor in this film, which is convenient as she wrote it. Paul Dano, so reliable when playing twitchy borderline psychopaths, looks a little lost having to rein it in. The material doesn’t suit him, and he lends Calvin an utter charmlessness that undermines the film’s desire to see something good happen to him. Antonio Banderas and Anette Benning pop up as Calvin’s mother and stepfather in a sickeningly lovely (more fantastic than Ruby herself) pseudo-bohemian life together – which brings me to my other gripe: if you lump this into the same broad category as Little Miss Sunshine, The Kids Are Alright (or as my mother had it The Children Are Going to Be OK) and The Descendants – decent, respectable, well made Hollywood films that confront ‘problems’ in a realistic even-handed way – you notice that these problems seem to solely be the domain of middle-class white people with large disposable incomes in a sun-drenched Californian (or Hawaiian) paradisiac alter-world.
This sun-drowned existence is, in the wake of so many films with such a similar aesthetic, so unappealing that it unconsciously starts to look like a kind of weird aspirational purgatory where these annoyingly well-rounded-but-still-lost people enact their problems without ever learning anything, imprisoned forever by a particular kind of dreamy living (what we might call the faux pastoral fantasy of the non-materialist middle classes) – their Organic Farmers markets, their Apple products (how it pains me to be at the point of saturation I feel more or less comfortable writing that line) and their non-committalfucking principles oh god shoot me now for any colour other than beige.
The irony about Ruby Sparks is that, whilst the character of Ruby is supposed to be an avenue to a realistic exploration of the falsehood of an unrealistic idealisation, the ‘realistic’ world the film is set in is itself a massively unrealistic idealisation. As the quirk drips out of every frame you can’t help but start to wonder if this has really been written, not by a person, but some kind of advanced marketing machine that’s spent the last three or four years amalgamating the popular life-desires among artistic, sensitive types. Let’s sell some vintage typewriters boys!