Footnote (Hearat Shulayim)

Having won the best screenplay award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and also receiving one of the nine nominations for the 2012 best foreign language film Oscar this movie has a lot to live up to, and it does.

I saw this film on the same day as I saw Yellow Sea (see below) and on the face of it they are two very different films; one fast moving and the other sedate, one violent and the other academic but behind it all they both deal with a man searching for something that eludes him and dealing with the loss he faces.  There’s also a certain parallel with Margin Call (see below also) but I’ll discuss that later.

The background to the film is one of personal and professional rivalries. Written and directed by Joseph Cedar (Beaufort 2007) the story unfolds within the academic world of the Hebrew University’s Talmud department. Professor Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is a published and respected philologist who 20 years ago was pipped to the post on the publication of a ground breaking piece of research by a rival who is now the chair of a prestigious national awards committee.  The rivalry means that over the years Eliezer has been passed over for many awards and promotions. So much so that he has become an outspoken critic of the primary awards and those who have won them in recent years. To complicate matters his son is also a respected Talmud scholar and as of the opening of the film, a member of the Israeli Academy of Sciences, another one of those honours denied his father.

Eliezer has a permanent grudge which everybody including his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) must live with. It looks like all of the old wrongs are about to be undone when Eliezer is phoned by the Ministry of Education and told he has been awarded the Israel Prize for his work. Or has he? His son is called in to the Ministry to meet with some officials and a number of professors from the selection committee only to be told that he is to be awarded the Prize and not his father, there was a mistake which lead to his father been called. After much heated discussion Uriel agrees to a scheme which allows his father to receive the prize at his cost. This act of generousity is complicated by his father giving a very blunt interview to a newspaper which essentially rubbishes his son’s field of work. What follows is a comedy of errors which is further stepped up a notch when his father the philologist notices the wording in some documents is characteristic of his son’s writing and begins to put the pieces together.

I mentioned Margin Call earlier, both films are built around the personal, human interactions  and relationships in a world which many of us would not readily identify with or have an affinity for. Like Margin Call this potentially off-putting background is overcome by an excellent script and some quite excellent delivery. Dreams denied, father/son tensions and professional jealousies are all nothing new to cinema but the subject matter is well packaged and delivered to the audience.

Rating 8/10, well worth seeing for its understated humour.

Amador

After watching this 2010 work from Fernando León de Aranoa my biggest question is; is this a drama or black comedy. The Movie is based around a young South American immigrant called Marcella (Magaly Solier) who is struggling to stay on top of all of her troubles. The movie opens with Marcela writing a note to her boyfriend telling him she is leaving to go back home, however she does not get far as she faints at the bus stop and subsequently finds out she is pregnant so she turns around and goes back to her apartment in order to ensure the child has a father.  Marcela keeps her issues to herself and when the father of the child notices she has put on weight she just agrees with him.

Events continue to go downhill from there. Her boyfriend sells flowers which he and others pilfer from the skips of a flower processing establishment. He sorts stores and bunches the flowers at their apartment. The home fridge is used to store them and when this fails they have to buy a new fridge, something they cannot afford. In order to pay for the fridge, Marcela takes a job looking after an elderly bed-bound gentleman, Amador, played by Celso Bugallo (The Sea Inside 2004). The working relationship looks like it might be strained at first but they get find each other’s  level and get on. He may be confined to bed but Amador is not beyond enjoying life as the weekly visits by a prostitute, Puri,  who is almost as elderly as him, played by Fanny de Castro ( Volver 2006), demonstrate to all.

Just as it looks like this job might be the answer to her prayers and that things might start to work out events both with Amador and at home soon almost become unbearable. Through faith, fate and a little help from her new friend Puri however, there might be a way out, but it can only be for a short while as she looks to an overall solution to her problem.

Overall the production holds up fairly well, we can empathise with Marcela’s character. If there is a weakness it is that for a while the plot seems to float a little aimlessly but it soon recovers and we again find we are able to follow how the movie is progressing and where the plot and story line are bringing us.

A steadily moving production with overall good performances which mostly hold your attention. The supporting roles are well played and add to the piece.

Rating = 6/10

The Yellow Sea (Whanghae)

This movie was one of the Dublin International Film Festival offerings. Written and directed by Hong-Jin Na, Yellow Sea is his second movie, the first being the critically well received The Chaser (2009). When something works the first time, don’t change it and this is the rule he followed. The leading cast members are the same as his previous outing. The film opens in Yanji City, part of an autonomous provence located between China, North Korea and Russia. We are told at the outset that 50% of the population lives off crime.

Our “hero” (Jung-woo Ha) and I use the word lightly, is a down on his luck taxi driver who owes the local mob a large sum of money which was used to buy a visa for his wife who is not working in South Korea.  His gambling losses at the Mah-jong bring him to the attention of one of the local crime lords who hires him for a hit in South Korea. The fee will pay his visa debt.  He agrees to do the hit, for the money and the chance to find his wife, who everybody is convinced is cheating on him and tells him so.

After a harrowing trip to South Korea or friend finds his target’s home and begins to stake out the house.  One the night he intends to do the hit, everything goes wrong. The film moves to an ever descending cycle of violence with some of the most intense chase scenes of recent years.  The movie deliberately does not have the polished look of many South Korean movies such as Untold Scandal (Lee Je Yong 2003) but more the chaotic tension feel of The Good, The Bad and The Weird (Jee-woon Kim (2008). This is a movie of many twists and extremely graphic violence. The weapons of choice are assorted knives and hatchets, the only people to use guns are the police and they end up shooting one of their own in the process. The violence aside, it is full-on and visual but somehow stays this side of becoming a slasher movie; Oldboy (Chan-wook Park, 2003) springs to mind.

The film is actually quite engaging and carries the plot most of the way, but I can’t but get the feeling that the plot started to take second place to the screen images (the killings) in the later chapters of the movie and the tracking of the person responsible for the whole mess culminates in what feels a little like a Deus ex machina convenience. If is was a little shorter it would possibly have been a very different film, focusing more on his quest for answers rather that the bloody battles being fought.  That said, it is well worth watching as long as you are not too squeamish. It was a hit at the Korean box office when released and I suspect once it is finished the festival circuit it will likely find a distributer to replicate the Korean launch. At the very least I expect to see a lot more of Jung-woo Ha and not only in Korean role.

Watch to the very end, there’s a twist at the credits….

Rating 7/10 but not for those who don’t like blood. It is a good gangster movie.

Ca$h

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Frank Oz 1998) with attitude and guns and just as entertaining. Directed by Eric Basnard (writer Babylon AD, 2008) this is the story of a small group (possibly family) of con-artists who are working to avenge the death of our eponymous hero’s brother who was shot by hired killer on the orders of a villain the team was in the process of coning.

Jean Dujardin (The Artist 2012) is the lead character who goes about building up the links and scams to keep his team afloat. “François” the oldest member of the team – “papa” is played nicely by François Berléand (best known in English language cinema for his recurring role in the Transporter franchise as Inspector Tarconi). Together with the help of “Maxime” a shadowy underworld bank robber named Dubreuil (Jean Reno) and a very unorthodox police Lieutenant they pull together a gang to execute a daring diamond hoist from a South African who is funding his activities with conflict diamonds and at the same time get revenge for the death of Cash’s brother.

As Cash goes about trying to survive with a group of mercenaries hunting him, the police on his back and trying not to be too badly conned by other cons events quickly escalate to a life threatening pace, complicated by Europol looking for Maxime and thinking he, Cash, might be there man. Internal wrangling at Europol  add to Cash’s seemingly add to Cash’s difficulties.  Captain Barnes eventually puts the clues together and tightens in on his suspects.

There are more twists and turns in this movie than an Irish country road, but they just add to it.  I have one piece of advice for anyone watching this movie: do anything you have to do before the movie starts, turn off your phone and put a “gone fishing” sign on your front door. A lot happens in this movie as it progresses and in order to keep up to speed with what is happening you need to pay attention. This is possibly a weakness as perhaps at certain times there is too much happening and you can struggle to put the pieces together.  There are one or two areas which are a leap of faith but overall the production does not suffer too badly for these. Comedy is seen as a respected art form in France and as such an accepted aspect of French cinema.  What we have in Ca$h is a fine ensemble cast all able to play straight roles but in a manner which gives an overall well delivered performance. There is perhaps a little too much put into the movie in places and a little too much expected of the watcher at times, but when the final curtain falls you do sense the good guys won… but who are the good guys, and for that matter who were the bad guys? J

Rating 6/10 a good way to enjoy a couple of hours with out interruption.

The Woman In Black

If this movie had a school report it would say “doing well, but could do better”. There is nothing wrong with this movie, per se, other than it just does not fully live up to its potential. The director, James Watkins (Eden Lake, 2008, personally a disappointing film) works well to create a sense of atmosphere and overall the movie works visually.

The opening credits show Hammer’s involvement and all of us above a certain age will remember the almost kitsch productions, which, despite the advances of time still stand as cult classics. Was TWIB a victim of this expectation? I don’t think so.  There was much to the sense of expectation and by-and-large the movie meets the requirement in that it does manage suspense, even if it is well sign-posted by Beltrami’s score. The greatest weakness might have been Jane Goldman’s actual screenplay based on Susan Hill’s original novel.

Our young hero is a grieving young lawyer who is still missing his wife (and mother of his four year old son) and is struggling to keep his job and life together. He is sent by his employer to this out of the way location to work om substantial paper-work from the deceased’s estate to redeem his status and keep his job. Watching this I could not but remember a certain other story by a Mr B. Stoker (think fangs and mirrors) with his hero being a young lawyer sent to dark corners of Europe.

Our hero soon learns of what has been happening to the children of the village and the part his dead client’s family have played in this.  His time alone in the house allows him to piece together the history and to try to bring closure to the suffering.

All of the central characters and clichés expected in a thriller/horror/ghost story are all present. The scenery is dark, damp and gloomy  with the aptly eerie home of the deceased widow out on its own away from the local village. Rather than being up the side of a cliff in a dark valley, it is on its own island on the coast where it is only accessible during the low tides. We see the locals banding together against the new blow-in (queue the “Mob”) only for the local squire (Ciarán hinds)  to have to stand up to them. The scenery is reminiscent of something you would expect in Hounds of the Baskervilles. Ms Shelly would have liked the Gothic sense there is to the film.

Originality aside, the movie progresses well and the cast do their best with what is on offer.  To Mr Radcliffe’s credit he has moved out of his Harry Potter persona. The screenplay works to hold back the movie from losing control of itself.  If you liked Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009) then you should like this. If you like the old fashioned ghost story which makes you jump with fright rather than recoil in horror (at the piles of body parts), then you should enjoy it.

Rating a steady 5/10  unlike some others it did not send me to sleep and it kept its sense of perspective but some additional sense of drama and originality would have helped raise this film to a greater level.

Carnage

What happens when you get four people, all genetically pre-dispositioned to arguments and put them in a room to discuss the juvenile pugilism of their 11 year old kids? The answers; carnage!

Reworking a play can be difficult especially a production set essentially in one room for the duration of the piece. 8 Women (François Ozon 2002) or 44 Inch Chest  (Malcolm Venville 2009) do this to varying degrees of success. One of the first things Polanski did correctly was engage with Yasmina Reza, the French playwright responsible for the original stage version “God of Carnage”. The French influence is evident, not least of all in the visiting Cowans. One can almost detect a hint of Luis Buñuel.

The casting works well most of the time. On one side we have the Longstreets, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John Reilly) the forcibly liberal (because it is the right thing to do) who are hosting Nancy and Alan Cowan  to discuss their sons’ behaviour. Penelope is currently writing a book on Darfur, she works in a bookstore as he sells domestic hardware. The book is being driven her sense of collective responsibility. Michael is more easy going and we suspect the victim of his wife’s borderline OCD (shown through the issues of the cobbler being in the fridge and the Coke not), her political correctness and passive-aggressive tendencies. Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet) is the high-flying investment broker who, with her husband, Alan (Christoph Waltz) are looking to go through the motions as painlessly as possible.  Alan has not doubts about his son’s guilt and is will to accept it, get him to apologise and move on, Penelope questions how willing to apologise his son is and if there is value in the apology, the simple act is totally blown out of proportion by Nancy’s over analysis of the situation.

As both couples strive to find an acceptable solution it quickly becomes obvious that Penelope is striving for what she believes the solution should be in her politically correct world where she has obviously read 10 or 20 self-help books too many. Nancy Cowan does not want to be there, but feels she has to be to do the right thing. Her husband Alan was essentially forced along and to the annoyance of everybody continuously works on his Blackberry trying to stave off a class action law suit for a drug which, as it happens, Michael’s mother is also using, this little sub-plot ads to the overall entertainment.

Both husbands are there out of a sense of duty. Michael Longstreet is a warts-and-all kind of guy, proud of his business selling household hardware and comfortable with his middle-class life style and quite happily extols the virtues of toilet flushing mechanisms and the different designs available.

The peace negotiations descend in to near farce a couple of times as both parties “fight” (often between the respective couples) to keep things civilised, with mixed success. As the movie progresses the women become more assertive/aggressive and occasionally unite in the cause of their gender, leaving the men to rely on each other for mutual support. This is best demonstrated in the battles over the 18 year old Scotch and Michael’s cigars.  The tulips and Blackberry also fall victim to the negotiations and provide suitable comic relief, as well as tummy upset (possibly caused by the cobbler). The collection of coffee-table art books  (treated almost as if they were the original artworks themselves) show themselves to be a great prop for a number of gag lines around the education of the children, the study of art and indeed the protection/recovery of the books themselves after a particular incident (which you will have to view for yourselves).

I’m trying not to give too much away. The script is sharp and well suited to the tight setting. The timing and aim of the dialogue is flawless. The direction mostly works while the hall-way scenes work to varying degrees.

There are supposed to be two children living there also (9 and 11 if memory works) and apart form an educational game and the piano in the living room there is no other clue to their existence. This could be a result of the OCD or simply oversight by the props department.

Polanski will obviously not get any recognition for this, but his cast should not be punished for the sins-of-the-father. The ensemble works well together and deserves the recognition that comes to any one of them.

Rating: 7/10, it is relatively short and moves quickly, worth watching.

Rare Exports

What happens when the truth turns out to be far removed from the legend? Jalmari Helander directs a seasonal comedy which turns the idea of cuddly Christmas Santa’s completely on its head. Co-written primarily with Jurso Helander, what we have here is a hugely imaginative and different view of Christmas and what goes with it.

Life in a small hamlet in the north of Finland sitting on the border with Russia is simple and straight forward, with one of the main events of the year being the annual reindeer cull in the lead up to Christmas which gives the small community the financial stability they need for the year ahead, but something has gone wrong, all of the dear have been killed by something, it was thought wolves or bears which got through the border fence and came from Russia.

Does the archaeological dig taking place on the top of a mound/hill just inside the Russian border have anything to do it? Accepted always by the locals as a normal run-of-the-mill hill it is described by those on the mound as a burial mound, a great prison as it were.

As the locals gear up for the annual deer cull they quickly realise that the surrounding country side is far more quiet than it should be.  After a quick search they find the deer dead by the fence to the mound.  Young Pietari (played brilliantly by Onni Tommila) begins to think he might be responsible and using what he has heard he quickly sets about learning more and soon realises that a possible cause and it is not nice. When local children also start to go missing and then personal belongings, like all of the heaters in the local homes, the pressure begins to mount and he struggles to get the adults to believe him. Pietari’s dreamy character is well placed against his pragmatic and grounded father.

As the movie unwinds, what presents itself is a small community taking events in to its own hands and discovering some quite shocking truths. The Characterisation is excellent, the script sparse but used to good effect in a landscape which is well tailored to the story. As the movie progresses the fantasy element takes over but the work never looses the run of itself.

I will stick my neck out here and predict that this movie will become a seasonal cult classic to be repeated annually. It is worth mentioning that the team behind RE have also created a virtual world to add to the experience of the movie and continues in the same humorous manner.

There is no point in walking through the plot, that would only ruin it, suffice it to say, it all works well, with some great scripting and a story-line that just moves you along with it.

8.5/10