Rams (Hrútar)

Grímur Hákonarson

Three winter weeks, two films with men in peril and snow on their beards. Rams, set in contemporary Iceland and dealing with the mostly humdrum life of shepherds is a world away from The Revenant’s big-scale, highly charged melodrama, but in the end they’re both about humans in landscapes and family dynamics. Here we have brothers Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) who live right up next to each other in a small sheep-farming community but have not spoken for 40 years.

Gummi is quiet and sociable and respected in the community, but Kiddi is morose and fond of the bottle. Both live solitary lives where their sheep, and particularly their prize rams, the result of years of breeding, are the central points of their emotional as well as working lives, lovingly prepared and cossetted for the small annual sheep show. It’s here that their enmity reaches its climax. The brothers could be pugnacious rams themselves, pig-headedly hanging on to an old quarrel. The peculiarly strong relationship of farmers with their animals, also to be seen recently in Magali Pettier’s admired documentary Addicted to Sheep, set in Teesdale, is something most of us cannot really comprehend, but the strange combination of homeliness and epic struggle is illustrated by the poem recited at the show with its rolling vowels and harsh consonants sounding like an ancient saga but actually a sweet little ditty about how much the sheep mean to them. So when the deadly sheep disease Scrapie is discovered in the valley a tragic crisis is unleashed for the whole community.

There is humour in the film, and it’s a portrait of a close community, but a doomed one, as the few young people who remain are on the point of leaving, and the sheep-rearing in which such pride is taken is so vulnerable. The human pleasures and tragedies and woes are small-scale, but no less for that, while the landscape, reminiscent of the North Pennines, forms a grand and forbidding background to a story of wasted lives, where redemption, such as it is, is a bleak one.

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A Bigger Splash

 

Luca Guadagnino

Like his previous film I Am Love, Guadagnino’s latest runs you through with sensual pleasure. However grey and soggy the weather outside, whatever emotional torpor sits on your soul, however much your ageing bones creak and complain and your old eyes water in the wind, you step out from the cinema with a new delight in life and a grin almost as big and shiny as Ralph Fiennes’ ear-wide gleaming choppers. At least I do. Not that it’s an uncomplicated, sunny film, not at all. I Am Love was just that, a portrait of love so powerful that you were immersed in it, experiencing rather than observing. Here there are more complicated emotions and serious issues at work.

On the Italian island of Pantelleria, world famous rock star, rather Bowie-like Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is ensconced with her younger lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Marianne is recuperating from serious voice damage and is practically mute, signalling her conversations in public with elegant gestures and in private with a tiny close-up (and rather erotic) whispering. Along, uninvited, and not very welcome, come her former manager and ex, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), with his new-found teenage daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) to stay for a while. Harry’s arrival must be one of the most explosive, alarming and funniest on film for quite some time. He’s all teeth and smiles, bounding with energy, vainglorious, oozing egocentric enthusiasm. Poolside tales of the old days and his input into the Stones’ albums at first intensely annoy – us as well – then begin to wind in the females, as he breaks into song, strips off and splashes around in the pool like an unstoppable, oversized puppy. Paul is not impressed.

Over the next few days sexual dynamics kick in in the way you expect, and it is clear that Harry is after reclaiming Marianne, whom he claims he ‘gave’ to Paul 6 years ago when he introduced them. The languid heat is palpable, the luxury of their lives sickly but alluring, as the three wealthy folk do little but look beautiful, bicker, make love, put on and take off expensive and elegant clothes, and eat. Meanwhile Penelope looks on, amused, self-contained, observant. The camera zooms dizzily, lingers and probes and lingers on faces and body parts, ranging over gorgeous but arid landscapes, enhanced by a stunning soundtrack ranging from the Rolling Stones to Verdi. Complementing Fiennes’s bounding energy, Tilda Swinton is marvellous. Gawky and elegant, likeable and natural and other-worldly all at once, she’s definitely one of those ‘the camera loves’ – you might even say makes love to. Cinematographer Yorick le Saux was also responsible for I Am Love, the gorgeous Only Lovers Left Alive, and Julia, so is a bit of a Tilda specialist.

The film is a remake of Jacques Deray’s 1969 La Piscine, a more straightforward darkening sexual drama, with Alain Delon as a brooding and excitable Paul and Romy Schneider as Marianne, but this film has both more humour and more troubling dimensions. Pantelleria may ring a bell for you. It’s one of the Italian islands where migrants from North Africa land, and as the film progresses there are more and more sideways glances into this alternative world. One of Harry’s more egregious remarks, having been told the outline they can see across the sea is Tunisia, is ‘Ah! You can almost smell the jasmine!’. Ironic, when what you are more likely to smell is washed up rotting corpses and sweaty fear. Paul and Penelope, out for a walk which neither of them is sure of the possibly erotic purpose of, encounter a group of migrants shiftily gathered round an old building, and on a subsequent trip to town three of them pass close by a small pen on the main street in which a large group of immigrants are confined, trying to have a kick-about. The sweaty heat and grimy setting are not so sensual here. Ironically it’s this presence of the other world, like a nasty smell, which brings our heroes effete lives into raw relief but which also lets them off the hook when tragedy happens

Steve Jobs

Danny Boyle

You might well think of the work of Danny Boyle, ‘the nicest man in films’, as sprawling, anarchic, full of some kind of joie de vivre, whether it’s the bouncing pantomime of the Olympics ceremony, the Slumdog world of India or Trainspotters’  ‘Lust for Life’. But here the icy precision that must lie below the presentation of all that teeming life is right up front. We all remember those louche TV performances of Jobs, wooing his public like he was a better, smarter one of them, with his new magic machines designed to fulfil their every digital need. Here, in the form of a 3-act play, set over 14 years, we look behind the scenes, literally, in the corridors and back rooms of the studios where the three key launches are about to take place, and witness the confrontations with family and previous colleagues. It’s wordy, demanding, sometimes exasperating and, against expectations, utterly thrilling.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who already showed in The Social Network his great suspicion and fascination with high-performing geeks and the dehumanising aspects of digital world in general, makes a fascinating monster of Jobs (Michael Fassbender). While the eager audiences gather to wonder at each new product ( the Apple Mac, the NeXT and the iMac), a colourful and noisy lot whom we glimpse infrequently and hear in the distance, Jobs prowls the dim backstage corridors, his huge ego bound by a tightly wound spring, chivvied by his right-hand woman Joanne Hoffman (a brilliant Kate Winslet). The curtain’s almost always about to go up, but time is stretched for confrontations with real life.

The organisation of the material is as formalised as an old-fashioned play. In each of the 3 scenarios he faces three females – Hoffman, his ex-partner Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) and his daughter (played at ages 5, 9 and 19 by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney Jardine) – and three men – former colleagues Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and John Sculley (a splendidly knowing and unflappable Jeff Daniels). In the case of the males, each very instrumental in Apple’s successes, we watch the increasing deterioration of the relationships, as in his head, where the future is all that counts, he rewrites history and discounts graft. Watching the lean and icy Fassbender ripping into genial, clever teddy bear Seth Rogan brings the kind of righteous indignation that’s one of those slightly guilty cinematic pleasures.

While his male relationships deteriorate in the course of the film, when it comes to the women in his life, Jobs is shown developing an uneasy warmth towards his daughter, but he is only interested at all after he has seen her 5-year-old self respond and interact with his creation. Previously he denied paternity. Hard to believe that this was a man who spent years in a hippy commune and road-tripping in India. Hard to take, too, is the rather soapy ending, where his icy shell is finally sprung open by paternal love. I didn’t buy it.

Perhaps one of the pleasing things about the film, intentional or not, and I suspect not, is that it totally fails to explain or find a real reason for Jobs’s emotional isolation. Sculley’s suggestion that it’s his rejection as a baby (Jobs was adopted) seems a bit formulaic and doesn’t really have much conviction. Jobs as a phenomenon is what animates the film, and I found myself wanting him to be inhuman, it was so perversely enjoyable. Like Lear, I suppose, he’s softened and redeemed in the end by love of his daughter. Perhaps it’s my fatal flaw that I would have preferred him to go down still his flawed self, like Macbeth.

Requiem for a festival

A statue of JB Priestley, author and champion of the North, stands on a slope above the centre of Bradford, looking out over his city, coat tails flapping in the brisk Yorkshire wind.  At his back is the still impressive purpose-built National Media Museum. Well, purpose-built as the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, which was its original designation. Mission creep turned those words and concepts into ‘Media’ in 2006, and chances are that it will now eventually become the National Museum of Science, North. Priestley’s statue, conventionally-clad though it is, oozes the purposeful oomph and creativity that made Bradford, like other northern towns, full of that energy and enquiry that fired development and innovation in the past. If the great man looked behind him now, he’d be more than sad.

It was announced and widely reported earlier this year that the Royal Photographic Collection, a priceless archive, was to be moved to the V & A in London, just one more factor in what now amounts to a cultural asset-stripping of the regions. Less reported was the fact that the Bradford International Film Festival, held there for 20 years, is to be ditched. Following its 20th edition in 2014, last year it was left in limbo while ominously ‘under review’, and the announcement was hardly unexpected. On the cards, then, but still a shock that this highlight of cultural life in Northern England can vanish so easily.  It’s hard to believe that in 2009 Bradford was designated the first European UNESCO City of Film, beating Venice and Cannes to the title. The existence of the Museum and its activities, as well as early film making in the city and its use as a location for filming played their part in this, and one of its avowed commitments was  to ’enlarge Bradford’s film festivals’.

I have to declare an interest here. For several years on a voluntary basis I scouted a few films for it in Eastern Europe and wrote reviews of the films I saw there, but essentially I was a member of the public who looked forward each year to pleasure and challenge in those few days in early spring. Pleasure, because it was a great place for a festival – if you had the stamina you could manage 12-hour end-to-end viewing over its 3 screens, all in the one venue, as well as pop into TV Heaven (now defunct) where you could pick up the best of the television of the past, as I more than once did to re-view one of my favourite films, Ken Russell‘s made-for-BBC  ‘Elgar’ – or drop into a  photography exhibition. The front of house staff were lovely too.

It was cinema for everyone, casual cinemagoers and cineastes, with plenty of British input from stars making personal appearances, the likes of Ray Winstone, Malcolm McDowell, Jenny Agutter, John Hurt and Claire Bloom, and retrospectives of home-grown directors such as Ken Loach, Patrick Keiller, Joanna Hogg, Lindsay Anderson and Terence Davies. But as its name says it was a truly international festival, bringing in, for example, Olivier Assayas, Christian Petzold, Pawel Pawlikowski and Fernando Meirelles. Foreign cinema ranged over World and European features and documentaries, often the only chance in the UK to see gems from the countries increasingly overlooked nowadays by the centrally organised arts cinema programming machines. There have been Japanese directors most non-experts had never heard of before; Canadian; Congolese; Polish; Slovenian. One of the things I’m most grateful to Bradford for is my introduction to the magnificent Andrey Balabanov, surely a deserving third director to form a trilogy of Russian maestros of contemporary cinema along with Alexander Sokurov and Andrey Zvyagintsev. His savage and and witty howls of rage against Russian society are the stuff of nightmares and demand to be seen by anyone interested in contemporary cinema or Russian society, but have only been shown in any number at Bradford. His death in 2013 soon after his latest and possibly greatest masterpiece Me Too went almost unnoticed in the arts world over here.  Not so for those lucky enough to have seen his work at Bradford.

Similarly the 7-year-long strand of ‘Uncharted States of America’ which brought little-known true independent cinema to the UK was (mostly!) a joy.  Almost all of them UK or European premieres, documentaries and feature films, they ranged from poetic, bizarre, transgressive, aggressive, funny, by directors young and upcoming like Mike Ott, and veteran, such as Betzy Bromberg , and included a European premiere for 70-year-old John Rad’s totally bonkers Dangerous Men, much  taken up by critics when finally released last November (‘The most profoundly insane personal piece of film-making ever produced’), already shown in Bradford 9 years ago. It was there that I, and so many others, were introduced to the work of revered American documentarist James Benning, where I first learned to sit still and let ideas and images flow over and penetrate my mind without nagging for immediate meaning. Sometimes hard work with little success, sometimes an intense pleasure.

And that’s what film festivals are about, encountering new ways of looking and ways of thinking, even if we don’t always ‘get’ it. The success of a film festival is counted not only by bells and whistles, red carpets (though they were there too), huge, full screenings, but by small half-empty ones where people leave excited and maybe even changed by what they’ve seen. They provide the chance for those with curiosity to browse among film experiences they cannot find elsewhere. Well, that’s not going to happen for lots of people in the north any more. The museum is turning towards “the science and culture of light and sound” and dumping what are seen as “unsustainable” aspects of entertainment, like film festivals and the art of photography. Sounds like that famous Yorkshireman Gradgrind to me:

What I want is facts, Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, root out everything else. Nothing else will ever be of service.

So much for respect for film as an art form. So much for the shiny new Northern powerhouse.