London Film Festival (Part 2)

My first week at London Film Festival was full of a cracking variety of international films. The second (and final week) notches up the excitement with Tangerine (2015) director Sean Baker’s high-profile follow-up The Florida Project, as well as some Cantonese and Mandarin fire. Read on to find out more about the cream of this year’s Chinese, American and German crop.

Our Time Will Come (Ann Hui, 2017)

It’s 1940s Hong Kong and the Imperial Japanese occupation is well underway. Luckily, smooth-talking, sharp-shooting, communist-sympathising guerilla leader Blackie Lau (aka Liu Heizai) is out on the streets, ready to evacuate local intellectuals to the countryside. Plus, he’s looking for new recruits to wage anti-colonial urban warfare. Schoolteacher and poetry aficionado Fang Lan quickly becomes involved after escorting some notable writers to safety. Thus begins the story of how a number of remarkable leftist women resisted Japanese occupation during World War 2. Our Time Will Come has it all. Thrillingly realistic street-fighting sequences, nuanced exploration of how guerilla resistance takes its toll on family, friends and love, and a compelling Joe Hisaishi score. Most refreshingly, it places women at the forefront of a movement that they historically led. As far as I’m aware, the Hong Kong resistance movement is largely unknown in the west. This is a spectacular film that doubles as a neat arthouse history lesson.

The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017)

The first thing that strikes you about The Florida Project is how hilarious its troupe of child actors are. Not “oh darn, aren’t they cute?” hilarity, but “oh shit, these kids’ mouths are really fucking colourful”. In fact, the colour of Moonee and pals’ language is only matched by the film’s bright garish palette, expertly painted by cinematographer Alexis Zabe. The plot follows a few single-parent families who have been placed in a Florida motel in the absence of available social housing. Naturally, the home of Disneyworld is the epitome of childhood dreams, the irony of which isn’t lost on these local residents living well below the breadline. There are obvious politics to this film, although Sean Baker does an excellent job at simply presenting situations without didactic judgement. Whether it’s sassy weed-smoking mum Halley or hard-faced motel manager cum compassionate community mediator Bobby, each character gets a fair stab at being their honest, complex self. This is without a doubt the most accomplished film I saw at the festival and probably one of Willem Dafoe’s finest performances.

Wrath of Silence (Xin Yukun, 2017)

Wrath of Silence opens in the deep underground of a Chinese mine. A group of masked men anonymously get down to gritty work in the moody subterranean shaft light. Then, a sudden spontaneous act of violence pierces the screen and abruptly ends the shot. This is as good a way as any to set the scene for this bleak, tension-racketing Western, where social inequity is ubiquitous and vengeance reigns supreme. The film follows Zhang Baomin, a mute miner from the initial scene who returns to his native village when he discovers that his young son Lei has gone missing in the mountains. Baomin finds himself surrounded by the usual vices – alcohol, gluttony and corruption – all of which find themselves personified in local mining kingpin Chang Wannian. Indeed, Wannian is the perfect villain, the kind of man who invites a Buddhist business associate to a meat-filled banquet and warns him with cold restraint that lambs share the same vegetarian diet. Across a thrilling two hours, Baomin determinedly grapples his way to the top in a bid to find out his son’s fate. But silence isn’t only reserved for our mute hero and its wrath might just obscure justice.

Tiger Girl (Jakob Lass, 2017)

Tiger is a badass woman who smashes up lecherous Berlin men for fun. Vanilla is a failed police recruit who is….pretty vanilla. After Tiger rescues Vanilla from an all too real encounter with street harrassment, the two strike up an unlikely friendship. There’s some sort of plot in Tiger Girl. On the surface, Vanilla is training to be a security guard and Tiger is trying to resolve various personal issues in her carefree don’t-give-a-fuck lifestyle. However, the film works best as a series of glorious vignettes in which two inspired women punch, kick and steal their way through the patriarchy, accompanied by Golo Schultz’s bass-heavy original soundtrack. The film lost me a bit with one character’s alleged moral stance. But if you’re up for 90 minutes of stylised violence, where you really feel the thud of a boot in the face of German society, check this one out.

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London Film Festival (Part 1)

When you’ve been living the high life in Poland, a return to dreary consumerism and overpopulated alienation is enough to knock you off your perch. But in spite of its lack of inspiring Polish cinema, London Film Festival isn’t so bad. After many journeys back and forth on the 12 bus, I’m finally ready to share my thoughts on some of the Thai, French, Indian and Spanish delights on offer at this year’s festival.

Pop Aye (Kirsten Tan, 2017)

Architect Thana’s cold marriage is in tatters and he’s slowly being supplanted by younger colleagues at his Bangkok firm. In the UK, this sort of mid-life crisis might spiral into substance misuse, infidelity or ridiculously lavish spending on boys’ toys. Over in Thailand, our beleaguered protagonist spies an old friend, links up with him and thus begins a soul-searching road trip to their childhood village. Small twist: it just so happens that this old friend is in fact an elephant. On the surface, Pop Aye might seem a little clichéd. Yes, it’s about the journey, not the destination. And yes, there’ll be some elephant-related capers along the way. Yet Singaporean director Kirsten Tan proves a masterly hand at weaving Thai social issues – homelessness, sex work, kathoeys – into this slow-burning and utterly compelling narrative. It’s a remarkable first-time accomplishment and feels distinctly Thai, from its lush jungle landscapes to the elephant star of the show.

L’Amant Double (François Ozon, 2017)

I’m sat at Curzon Chelsea among a crowd of 40-somethings waiting to watch a French film as the pungent scent of red wine drenches the theatre. It doesn’t get any more middle-class than this. And indeed, there’s something quite middle-class about L’Amant Double itself, a film that starts with an unemployed young woman Chloé somehow funding her way through a fair few weeks of Parisian therapy and then falling in love with her psychoanalyst, Paul. It quickly escaltes into a cat-and-mouse tale once Chloé discovers that Paul has a secret twin Louis and starts visiting him for a series of unconventional therapy ‘sessions’. There’s some nice ideas about the dangerous excitement of engaging dreams and fantasies. Yet the plot quickly becomes onerous and I found myself not really caring about the who what what what where. All of that said, Ozon still manages to deliver his playful best at times. The opening gynaecological sequence has a mildly disturbing – but pretty amusing – ocular visual gag that’ll stick with you long after you’ve finished your charcuterie.

The Hungry (Bornila Chatterjee, 2017)

Titus Andronicus is the first Shakespeare play I saw and its thrilling story of brutal infanticidal revenge has stuck with me ever since. Naturally, I was excited to discover this Hindi adaptation of the play, set among the cocaine- and whiskey-fuelled upper echelons of contemporary Indian society. Unfortunately, the opening third of The Hungry is a narrative mess. We’re at a wedding party, there’s high-level officials. Oh! A suicide! Or is it a murder? But nothing is really clear and Antonio Aakeel’s solid timber delivery is an incredible distraction. The latter parts of the film pick up the pace and momentum for the banquet finale that everyone’s waiting for. However, they rely heavily on flashback reveals to make sense of what went on at the beginning. Which raises the question, why not just edit the earlier scenes in a coherent way? Nonetheless, the eery winter morning mist shots of rural Delhi are a beauty to behold. And Naseeruddin Shah absolutely dominates as the weary-eyed, banchod-cursing, Titus-equivalent patriarch.

Abracadabra (Pablo Berger, 2017)

Abracadabra is a wildly fun genre-blending ride that takes you on endless twists and turns, from kitsch hypnotism to viral crane climbling via unintentional swinging. The film starts off by setting up a gritty social drama, accompanied primarily by overgrown Real Madrid-supporting misogynist lad Carlos, his patience-of-a-saint wife Carmen and their rebellious teenage daughter Toñi. Soon enough it turns into a body swap/possession comedy, before switching to a mystery amateur detective thriller and culminating in an open yet liberating ending. The soundtrack on this one is straight killer, incorporating the titular 80s banger alongside neat cues such as Tubular Bells. The film is crazily adventurous and deserves a lot of love.

Gdynia Polish Film Festival (Final Day)

It’s the final day of Gdynia Film Festival and – I hate to disappoint you – this time all subtitles are guaranteed. It’s been a great festival and I’ll be delivering a final verdict after I’ve had a few days to reflect.

The Fastest (Łukasz Palkowski, 2017)

This is the story of a one-time Polish heroin addict who beat the odds and became Double Ironman World Champion with the help of four montages. Jerzy Górski’s athletic achievements are indeed remarkable, but Polish art has long found strength in subtlety and symbolism. By the fourth time you see Jerzy get knocked down and then get up again, you realise that this film is a Hollywood-esque mess. Perhaps it aspires to be. It’s bookended by Steppenwolf and The Doors. This is surprising, as there’s plenty of Polish 70s rock and roll that speaks directly of the listlessness that led Jerzy’s generation to seek solace in substance dependency. Throw in the most obvious romantic interest and some shallow character development and you’ve got yourself some box-office fun. Actually, why not rearrange the facts, so that Jerzy’s achievements seem impossibly miraculous? Ultimately, The Fastest achieves little more than being a boring crowd-pleaser. There’s only one Man of Iron in Polish cinema. This isn’t it.

Spoor (Agnieszka Holland, 2017)

At the crossroads of Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic, in a place where ancient forests sit and an abundance of wild beasts roam, mystery is always in the air. Setting is everything in Olga Tokarczuk’s novels and the realisation of that very specific Silesian atmosphere runs wonderfully throughout this adaptation. Ostensibly, this is a film about a series of murders. Peek under the surface and it becomes a character study of what it means to be an outsider and what the consequences of challenging authority are. Indeed, the film is somewhat politically lit given recent environmental law changes in Poland. The ending comes a bit too sharp for me and I don’t quite buy how it unfolds. Nonetheless, Spoor makes a worthy Oscar entry for best foreign picture.

Gdynia Polish Film Festival (Day 5)

What’s this? A day that starts with a fully subtitled film? Remarkable! Except somewhere around film six – and in the finest Polish cinematic fashion – it seems my fate is fixed to view at least one incomprehensible film per day. Beyond Words is aesthetically pleasing with its black and white lens and Berlin location. I can’t offer much more than that, although I suspect it’s either an outstanding meditation on identity or melodramatic nonsense.

Be Prepared (Robert Gliński, 2017)

It’s time for scout camp and this year a group of boys from social care have been invited along. The thing is, camp leader Jacek can’t quite get beyond his class-based prejudices in this thriller/dark coming-of-age piece. The first half of Be Prepared does a good job of fleshing out issues of social exclusion, with Piotrek and Norbert giving nicely nuanced performances. It’s also enjoyable to watch narcissistic pious would-be saviour Jacek’s descent into the abyss. Unfortunately, the second half is riddled with plot holes and a predictably silly ending. Plus, we have the age old issue of women being sex objects, prostitutes or dead. Worth a watch, but don’t expect too much.

The Reconciliation (Maciej Sobieszczański, 2017)

Upper Silesia, 1945. To have a body is to be brutally beaten. To have a body is to contract incurable diseases. To have a body is to be raped to the point of suicide. To have a body is to be blackened by forced labour in the coal mines. To have a body is to commit unspeakable violence against your family, comrades and friends. To have a body is to dig your own grave. It doesn’t matter if you’re Polish or German, a man or a woman, a sinner or a saint. To have a body is to suffer. An eery score constantly permeates The Reconciliation. It lingers in the ears long after viewing, much like the memory of recent war crimes. The film is a spectacular achievement.

The Art of Loving (Maria Sadowska, 2017)

Ever heard of Michalena Wisłocka? She’s the Polish gynaecologist and sexologist whose 1978 book The Art of Loving taught women how to love their bodies and have more satisfying relationships as a result. The book became a bestseller across the Eastern Bloc, but not without a struggle against the (largely male) institution and moral censorship of the Catholic Church and Communist Party. The film is a solid biopic that faithfully depicts Wisłocka’s story from the 1940s right up to 1978. 1970s Warsaw was a hotbed of fashion, full of floral dresses and funky saxophones. The film is a wonderful period piece in this respect, with Jimek’s score a particular delight. At times, the non-linear year-hopping can confuse, but it all comes together at the end. An inspiring film about an inspirational woman.

Strange Case (Zbigniew Czapla, 2017)

Strange Case is an animation short that takes the viewer on a brief existential trip. The narration is somewhat onerous and pretentious, lacking any clear point or reflection. Meanwhile, vivid watercolours flicker and dance across the screen, which is satisfying enough, although perhaps not worth the ride.

The Ugliest Car (Grzegorz Szczepaniak, 2017)

Bogdan’s taking a road trip from Poland to Germany. With his 94 year old mum. In an East German Wartburg 100 that hasn’t seen a lick of paint since it rolled off the Soviet production line. It’s an appealing premise for The Ugliest Car and this short documentary doesn’t disappoint. Bogdan is a truly unique son and his interactions in Polish with unsuspecting Germans are pure gold. The real beauty of the film happens between Bogdan and mum. We observe a loving relationship, full of unconditional dedication and the sort of childlike fun that comes from the closest of bonds. As outright hilarious as it is moving.

Chain Reaction (Jakub Pączek, 2017)

All is not well among the yuppies of Warsaw. Money clearly can’t buy you happiness and – as the Polish joke goes – everyone knows that a degree is worthless. Chain Reaction is a tight thriller that darts from infidelity to assault to a shocking crime, all the while neatly highlighting its characters’ destructive pursuit of selfishness. The concept of a ‘chain reaction’ and its relevance to Chornobyl is somewhat contrived and doesn’t really have any significant pay-off. Nonetheless, the film is smart enough and driven especially well by filmmaker Paweł’s character.

Gdynia Polish Film Festival (Day 4)

Another day, another film without subtitles. On Day 4, I learnt my lesson and checked language specifics with three festival volunteers. Yet this wasn’t enough to stop me sitting through an hour of 70s Polish black and white genius. I say genius, obviously I didn’t understand it. But Through & Through has dizzyingly perfect cinematography, an expressive cast and a solid plot of desperate intellectuals committing murder.

Silent Night (Piotr Domalewski, 2017)

It’s Christmas Eve in Poland, which can mean only one thing – a night of vodka-fuelled family revelations and dramatic falling-outs. The action revolves around Adam, who has been working in The Netherlands to save money for his girlfriend and incoming baby. He pays a surprise visit to his family home in Poland, where we’re treated to a developed dissection of each family member’s past history, current predicaments and future motives. Ultimately, these all combine to depict the necessary complexities of familial bonds. In a neat touch, the film also explores issues of Polish migrant worker identity. If you’ve had a few too many this Christmas, Silent Night will sober you right up, in the best of ways.

Satan Said Dance (Katarzyna Rosłaniec, 2016)

She’s a young woman who’s recently found fame with a book about young people enjoying sex and drugs. She’s writing a new story, which also seems to be about sex and drugs. And she’s recently moved to Berlin, where she’s having lots of sex and snorting lots of drugs. Sound familiar? Satan Said Dance feels like the novel you pull off of Bret Easton Ellis’s bookshelf when you’re 17 so that everybody knows you’re the shit. The protagonist is self-destructive, manipulated and makes up for her lack of self-esteem through becoming part of a vacuous scene. This sort of idea is fine and entertaining enough, but the film seriously lacks any meaningful substance. There are moments when it looks like the director might address institutional sexism and everyday racism. Regrettably, she favours edgy vanity over social critique.

The Invisibles (Paweł Sala, 2017)

Somewhere in Warsaw there’s a basement with three seamstresses and a cutter. They’re not entirely enslaved, but their boss doesn’t really pay them. The seamstresses talk. A lot. From fantasies of a criminal boyfriend on day release to everyday qualms about the bad boys on the estate stairwell, the chat is live among these three. The Invisibles has a potentially interesting set-up, but it never really comes to fruition. This is compounded by the final act, where the tone shift is so drastic that it seems to belong to another film altogether. Mild, bewildering fun.

The Man With The Magic Box (Bodo Kox, 2017)

It’s 2030 and we’re in Warsaw again. This time, we know we’re in Warsaw because the Palace of Culture and Science is relentlessly thrust at us. Unfortunately, this is a minor criticism in the grander scheme of this film. What could have been a Black Mirror-esque exploration of near-future societal control instead becomes an unoriginal love story. With a sprinkling of Hollywood destiny powder, the two protagonists quickly become intimate, in spite of Adam essentially sexually assaulting Goria to win her over. In fact, Goria’s character seems bizarrely built around hard nipples and a proclivity for banging. Yawn. The plot here is also muddled and it’s never really clear what happened in Adam’s past that makes him a target for future security services. The insular authoritarian Visegrad dystopia is nice world-building. Otherwise, The Man With The Magic Box is a major disappointment.

Gdynia Polish Film Festival (Day 3)

I’m really on festival fire this week. Yesterday, I sat through an un-subtitled Polish archive film. And Day 3 begins with Animals, an Austrian-Polish co-production with no English language. Luckily, my dormant German and basic Polish means I understand about 70% of the film. It’s not quite enough, but Animals has a talking cat, lots of sheep and premonitionary consciousness-swapping. It’s a bit like Murakami in the Swiss Alps, but I need to watch it again with English subtitles for a better grasp.

Short Films V

Short Films V comprises a specially curated selection of shorts. The ‘V’ simply refers to the fact that it’s the fifth group of its kind at the festival. However, it could easily be named Short Films: Depression.

We start off with My Name Is Julita, an impressively-acted encounter between a daughter and mother, set in the prison where the mother is serving a prison sentence. This one is heavy on emotion, but essentially presents a standard mother-daughter relationship.

There’s another mother-daughter coupling in Pola, which depicts a child’s (mis)understanding of her mother’s actions, again with dark consequences.

Badylok makes excellent use of the Upper Silesian coal landscape and dialect to expose a prophetic narrator dripping with magical realism. The feel of a watery wasteland is captured beautifully here by the cinematographer and is a joy to watch.

My favourite short Liberation is up next. It deals with the rural rape of a child and her mother’s consequent struggle to find a doctor who will perform an abortion. Clearly this is difficult stuff, but it really resonates with the current political environment in Poland.

The final film Wasteland is a bit of a drag to get through. It brings an outsider priest to a snowy wasteland where something pagan lurks. A good curation overall, although the emotional drain on the audience is palpable. 

Gdynia Polish Film Festival (Day 2)

Day 2 is set to start with a screening of a rare 1999 Andrzej Wajda television adaptation. I’m not so fussed by Wajda, but the prospect of my man Janusz Gajos strutting his stuff on screen has me salivating. Turns out there were no subtitles, so help yourself to Amok, Photon and Panic Attack instead.

Amok (Kasia Adamik, 2017)

Oscillating synthesisers roll their gently omnipresent threat across a dark and depraved Wrocław landscape in this excellent real-life crime thriller. Troubled maverick detective Jacek has been assigned a four years old murder case. He enlists the help of the unsettling author Kristian, whose debut book is attracting controversy for its trashy pseudo-intellectual smut. Yet in spite of the apparent clichés, Amok manages to do something new, incorporating Kristian’s postmodern writing style into the script and plot itself. A smart and stylish feature, if slightly unsatisfying in places.

Photon (Norman Leto, 2017)

Photon is a rare bird of a film. Using the prism of a (fictional) television interview with a molecular biologist, it seeks to chart existence from the first particle through hundreds of millions of years to a future where automation replaces humanity. It also largely succeeds in doing this. Abstract grey animations are strung together by a humorous voiceover that also dips into live action examples. It’s interesting as a piece of experimental art, but regrettably is somewhat didactic and dangerously soporific.

Panic Attack (Paweł Maślona, 2017)

What do you do when an overweight Austrian geezer sits next to you on a plane and won’t shutup? Or when a friend’s toddler is creeping closer and closer to your secret stash of sex toys? Panic Attack weaves together the interrelated stories of six protagonists all experiencing a sudden onset of some sort of anxiety. On the surface, it’s dark as fuck. But through a combination of astutely observed situational comedy and layer after layer of agonising awkwardness, this film had the whole audience in hysterics. My film of the festival so far.

Gdynia Polish Film Festival (Day 1)

After a day on the road from Upper Silesia to Kashubia, I’ve finally arrived at the 42nd Gdynia Film Festival. Gdynia is a rainy mess and thanks to some sloppy restaurant service, I missed my first film of the day. I squeezed in two though and am here until Saturday.

Tower. A Bright Day (Jagoda Szelc, 2017)

A swift shot of acid is administered every 10 minutes or so, for good measure. The trees burst into green smoke and threaten you. What’s that noise? The most familiar of activities, a car journey or a dog digging a hole, suddenly become uncanny beyond recognition. Welcome to Tower. A Bright Day, where the boundaries between reality and hallucination, common-sense and paranoia, Catholicism and pagan mysticism are all blurred to the keenest point of confusion. Kaja has returned after a 6 year absence and older sister Mula isn’t too happy to see her. A family gathering for daughter Nina’s communion provides an innocuous enough setting for reconciliation. But something isn’t quite right. We never really understand what Kaja has brought with her, but the terror is real and the ride is fun enough.

Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, 2017)

Imagine a provincial French village that thinks it’s Twin Peaks. Add a click-and-point murder detective vibe, a canvas of nuanced characters and a Clint Mansell score. The whole thing is animated, in oils and graphite, by Vincent van Gogh. And the story itself is about Vincent’s final days. Loving Vincent is a beautiful Anglo-Polish tribute to the big man himself. I have very little personal affinity with Van Gogh and his work. Just like our yellow-jacketed protagonist though, my intrigue and appreciation of the Dutchman grew throughout the film, right up until the slightly melodramatic ending. Catch this one at London Film Festival, it’s worth the unique animation alone.

Cinema 2016: An octopus, puppet-sex and naked Germans in Bucharest

2016 has been largely disappointing in Hollywood terms. Two Oscar frontrunners – Arrival and Manchester by the Sea – go down as two of the poorest films I’ve seen in a while. Thank fuck then for those independently-funded films, free from the leprous touch of studio execs with corporate agendas to push and money-making A-listers to cast. Here’s my top five of the year.

The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden is a glorious erotic tale of conniving duplicity set during the Japanese colonial era in Korea. Every fucker (and fucking there is) in the film is dressed to the nines in their waviest early 20th century garms, as cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung bathes sensual washroom escapades in stunningly milky steam, or permits uncle’s brutal beastly basement the dankness it deserves. After 2013’s mildly disappointing Stoker, Park-chan Wook jumps right back in with his old bedmate ‘revenge’ to deliver the most peverted bit of high-brow stylishness you’ll see all year. This film is twisted – in more ways than one – and is well-worth a watch on general release in the UK this spring.

Anomalisa

Let’s travel back to the heady pre-Brexit/Trump days of early spring 2016 for this stop-motion creation from Charlie Kaufman that desconstructs human bonds and relationships with unflinchingly depressing honesty. Heady days indeed! Anomalisa utilises its puppets to brilliant effect by creating a rain-ridden Cincinnati in which British customer-service expert Michael perceives everyone – including his wife and son – as an identically looking and sounding white American man. All except for one anomalous individual. This perception-error can be viewed as a metaphor for depression, or, if you’re feeling really positive, a metaphor for the overwhelming sameness of our mundane existences. Regardless of how you feel about this upbeat symbolism, Anomalisa has the most realistic sex scene you’ll see, ever. Check it out on Netflix now for that alone.

Paterson

There’s two ways to view Jim Jarmusch’s latest slice of quirk, Paterson. One of them entails reflecting on the ease with which marginal satisfaction can stumble slowly into the abyss. But you’ve just read about Anomalisa and are about to read about United States of Love, so we’ll stick with the other interpretation. At its core, Paterson is about Adam Driver’s superbly-nuanced poet Paterson, who drives a bus in the New Jersey town Paterson. It’s a gentle slow-burner of a film in which we observe seven continuous days of Paterson’s life. He drives the same bus route every day, listens to the same kookily unrealistic dreams of his girlfriend when he returns and takes her dog for the same walk with a handy bar-stop every evening. As patterns repeat, the audience settles in and joins Paterson in a neat meditation on the beauty of the routine and the everyday.

United States of Love

Do you like greyness? If so, you’ve come to the right place with Tomasz Wasilewski’s latest and most accomplished offering, United States of Love. His earlier works, In A Bedroom (2012) and Floating Skyscrapers (2013) are both laden with listlessly empty relationships. In this achingly soul-destroying masterpiece, Wasilewski develops his driving theme further to deliver a bleak dissection of four women’s corrupted relationships with themselves and society. The film is set in 1990, shortly after Poland’s independence from communism, and can be understood as a critique of an emergent predatory capitalism that disconnects state from society and individuals from each other. However, the mute howls of piercing despondency that intersperse each character’s story have a universal existential truth to them. To top it all off, Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu expertly brushes every scene with a sparse palette of washed-out bluish monochrome. It’s 50 shades of grey, but not as you know it.

Toni Erdmann

If you thought you knew how to organise a teambuilding brunch reception, think again. Toni Erdmann is a rare Bulgarian evil-spirit cleansing costume of a film, a tragi-comedy that dons a full suit of absurdity and then slowly strips it off to reveal a remarkably naked pathos. The film revolves around father Winfried’s unexpected visit to his daughter Ines at her workplace and residence in Bucharest. Winfried leaves after a few awkward days, but his titular ‘friend’ remains. A sequence of unfathomable cringe unfolds across the rest of the trip, in which Toni pushes Ines beyond all appropriate boundaries with the hope that she might swap her unwavering seriousness for a more life-affirming happiness. In a spectacularly unique move, director Maren Ade also manages that precious feat of writing a German comedy that is genuinely hilarious. The joke’s on us now – catch this one on the big screen and take your dad with you too.

Manchester by the Sea: Boring, brooding masculinity saves the day (again)

We’re deep into awards season and Manchester by the Sea is picking up a lot of attention. In particular, Casey Affleck’s performance as protagonist Lee Chandler seems to be garnering career-defining acclaim. Unfortunately, the film is a two hour snoozefest in which a particular kind of masculinity – the troubled, brooding kind – is presented again and again and again as deeply heroic and moving. This sort of representation of masculinity doesn’t have to be problematic. Regrettably, in Manchester by the Sea, it is accompanied by a one-dimensional depiction of women in fifty shades of negativity, which ultimately makes for a film full of tired and sexist cliches.

The tortured lone wolf of Hollywood cool

Lee’s characterisation runs throughout the film with incredible clarity. First and foremost, he’s a man. This is evidenced initially by a slick sequence of shots that show us his life as a janitor. Lee gets down and dirty with a toilet plunger, carries lots of furniture on his broad shoulders and, naturally, is the object of sexual attention from his female clients. The thing is, Lee’s more than just a man – he’s a man with a tortured past. You can tell this by the manner in which he looks into the vague distance, gets himself into unprovoked bar fights and avoids women’s sexual overtures. What bugs me about this sort of masculinity is that it’s so fucking boring. We’ve seen lone wolves like this countless times. From Harry Callahan through Snake Plissken to John McClane, Hollywood loves a man with dead/estranged family who goes solo.

Admittedly, the characters that I’ve just cited appear in action flicks, rather than Sundance-debuting dramas. Nonetheless, Lee is still the same masculine archetype, walking alone into the sunset, hero-status traced across his forehead. Clearly, there is a market for this kind of character and that’s fine. Equally, I’m sure that there are white working-class men, in Boston and beyond, who will relate to Lee’s masculinity. I don’t seek to delegitimise that. My big issue with Manchester by the Sea is that it perpetuates gender stereotypes with no recourse to critique. You see, regardless of whether Lee is successful or not in his relationship with his dead brother’s son Patrick, he’s no hero. In fact, his intoxicated negligence caused the death of his three infant children, in a way that is never satisfactorily resolved.

Alcoholic, hysterical, sexual playthings

In the final third of the film, there’s a scene between Lee and his ex-wife Randi that provides him with the opportunity to take responsibility for his fiery past actions. Unbelievably, the scene turns into an abhorrent man-as-victim monologue where Randi repeatedly apologises for saying harmful things to Lee. Let’s step back for a moment. Lee got drunk, smoked a spliff, did some nosebag and burned down his family home. But he’s the one who was wronged here? Cool.

Indeed, Lee constantly bitches about Randi elsewhere as a miserable, annoying ex-wife. The other women in the film don’t fare much better. There’s Elise, Lee’s brother’s ex-wife, who is an alcoholic turned emotional wreck. There’s Lee’s aunt, a hysterical woman who has to walk out of a hospital appointment. There’s Silvie, one of Patrick’s girlfriends, who is bossy and imposing. There’s also Sandy, Patrick’s second girlfriend, who exists primarily as a potential sexual conquest. Of course, it’s entirely possible and real that women do live and act in these ways. However, none of these characters are given any space to develop beyond their assigned sexist cliches. And the only women that are given any sort of positive treatment – Dr. Bethany and Jill (Sandy’s mum) – probably only have around a minute’s screen time between them.

A film for our times?

All of this leaves a sour taste. By all means, represent men in an unimaginative way. But at least give women an equitable representation that does justice to their equally multidimensional personalities. I mean, perhaps I’m on the wrong side of history here. We live in an age where obnoxious white supremacists masquerading as ‘the alt-right’ run boycott campaigns against Star Wars films because they’ve cast women and people of colour in leading roles. I don’t know, maybe it’s in the Anglo-American zeitgest to praise a film that treats women so reductively? Obviously, this is bullshit. If you want a real film about grief and masculinity that credibly represents its female characters, check out Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

A final thought. One of the scenes in Manchester by the Sea involves Lee giving a statement to police where he discloses cannabis and cocaine use, to no moral or criminal consequence. While watching this, I couldn’t help thinking about the incarceration disparity for drug offences in the US, where African-Americans are ten times more likely to be sent to prison for such offences.

Did you hear about the historic rape allegations that were brought against Nate Parker, the black director of race period drama The Birth of a Nation? Probably. Did you hear about the historic sexual harrassment allegations that were brought against star of Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck? Probably not.

This truly is a film for our times.