Review: The Kind Words

Shemi Zarhin’s sixth feature is an unfortunately generic one

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With his sixth feature-length film, director Shemi Zarhin doesn’t break new cinematic ground, although there is a certain charm to his storytelling. The Kind Words follows the journey of 3 siblings trying to uncover their mother’s hidden past, and the shocking revelations that come with it.

After it is discovered that Yona (Levana Finkelstein) has a tumour, her whole family comes to the hospital to comfort her. Here her adult children Dorona (Rotem Wissman-Cohen), Netanel (Roy Assaf) and Shai (Assaf Ben-Shimon) make contact with their estranged father whose remarriage to a much younger actress is met with contempt. Whilst Yona undergoes an operation to remove the tumour we see their father unsuccessfully attempt to reach out to the children multiple times, however even through the feelings of disdain the siblings show their inherent kindness with the offering of food as they all wait nervously for the results of the operation. It is not until after the tragic death of her mother does Dorona begrudgingly agree to hear him out and what she learns will change her and her brother’s lives forever.

Initially when her father reveals his infertility Dorona scoffs but seconds later the reality of what has been said begins to slowly sinks in. If he is infertile she can’t be his daughter, nor can Netanel and Shai be his sons. Here starts a voyage of discovery which will take the siblings away from their home, Jerusalem, to Paris and then Marseille in hopes of learning the truth. There are pacing issues though which sometimes cause the intended sense of urgency on their quest for the truth to come off as nothing more than comedic hijinks.

The serious heart of the film is balanced with light-hearted humour to bring the family closer during times of grieving often in the form of bickering and sarcasm. This adds another layer to the characters as we learn more about their lives such as Netanel’s exaggerated religious beliefs to please his wife and the views they share on their homeland. In the latter stages of the film the humour endangers the harsh nature of the plot undoing the complexity preceding it nevertheless the film hits the mark for the most part.

Fertility is a major issue tackled throughout the film by Shemi Zarhin, who also wrote the script, with Dorona becoming isolated from the rest of her family. After a series of miscarriages she has seemingly given up hopes of raising children opting to also stop the adoption process. All around her are reminders of what could be, Natanel with triplets, Shai even has a child before an awakening in sexuality and their mother Yona joked about looking pregnant whilst denying the existence of the tumour. Her only equal is her ‘father’, whose inability to have children offers her slight comfort as she tries to uncover her mother’s secret life.

The climax to The Kind Words is messy yet generic, leaving the audience with more questions than answers. Whether or not the film will strike enough of a cord to make you ponder those questions remains to be seen. Zarhin is a distinguished director deep into his career but you can’t help feeling disappointed by the somewhat bland and worn formula he uses.

Review: Arrival

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a uniquely gentle Sci-Fi experience

One moment is all it takes to change our lives, to define a species. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Enemy, Prisoners) presents this moment with a profound silence uncharacteristic of science fiction. No great battle, no chaos or destruction, just the arrival. Sometimes the most terrifying action is nothing at all.

The film opens to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a distinguished linguist traveling to work as a lecturer at the University of Montana. All around her people scramble to see screens displaying news although Banks continues to her lecture hall unaware. Almost immediately after beginning the lecture a phone goes off, then another. The world has just changed, the scale of the change however, is hidden for a few more seconds.

After tentively switching a news channel on, they learn of a mysterious object in rural Montana, massive in size and visible for miles around floating just metres from the ground. Speculation suggests an experimental military ship until more objects are found across the world, 12 in total. Villeneuve plants the audience into his world, desperate for any sliver of information but before any possible understanding can form an alarm rings around the lecture hall. The whole state is on lockdown while governments across the world scramble to figure out what is going on. As Banks enters the parking lot we see people rushing to get back to family and jets flying overhead, in a deafening array of sound.

The next day by contrast is eerily quiet, Banks travels to work as usual although it soon becomes apparent that she’s the only one. Here she is approached by Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) to join a military task force at the landing site. Working alongside a theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they must not only establish the methods of communication with the unknown visitors, but decipher it and be able to communicate back. Some nations faced with a landing do not have peace as the primary objective on their agenda. China and Russia mobilise their respective armies to defend the populous from an expected invasion and it becomes a race against time to avert war with potentially peaceful extraterrestrials. Chaos is a persistent threat illustrated through widespread rioting and looting by people under the impression that the end of times is upon them.

Every few hours Banks and Donnelly travel to the bottom of the spaceship from a makeshift base nearby. Cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year) achieves an almost tangible level of anticipation as the sheer scale of the pebble shaped ship is slowly revealed to us. This feeling is very shortly dwarfed in the sequence following as the team make their way inside. For all the advanced technology of both alien and human design depicted, there was a certain irony in using a scissor lift to bridge the gap between the 2 civilisations. When the aliens are eventually revealed, dubbed heptopods for their 7 legs, Banks is unable to make sense of their whale like cries. With the relations of world nations seeming to crumble around them, failure is not an option and upon seeing words and sentences in a visual form and not noise, a deeply complex and beautiful written language is revealed. The further she plunges into this language, the more her reality begins to shift and in doing so changes the fate of her world.

The climax of Arrival is both staggering and satisfying as several confusing elements from early on suddenly become crystal clear. With fabulous cinematography accompanied by a soul-stirring score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, this is truly a first contact film like no other. Villeneuve delivers a poignant message underlining the utter necessity of communication that transcends the screen and resonates beyond.

Review: I, Daniel Blake

A powerful exposé of a broken system

With a career spanning over 5 decades, Ken Loach is widely known for his ability to tackle social issues with unapologetic candidness; his latest feature ‘I, Daniel Blake’, a stark and at times harrowing depiction of one man’s attempt to battle through a punitive and broken welfare system is no different.

From the outset this Palme d’Or winning film firmly establishes the helplessness of our protagonist Daniel Blake, played by stand-up comedian Dave Johns. In the wake of a near fatal heart attack Blake is ordered to indefinitely cease working to prevent further injury and advised to sign on for social welfare years of graft as a skilled carpenter there is understandably a sense of reluctance, however the necessity of money eventually makes his trip to the dole office an unavoidable one.

The script was penned by Paul Laverty, having previously worked with Loach on his first Palme d’Or winning film ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ depicting the Irish War of Independence. Laverty possesses a remarkable ability to find humour in otherwise distressing situations. A catch-22 situation presents itself as Daniel Blake learns he is ineligible for social welfare and, against quantitative evidence from medical professionals, deemed fit to work. Appeal against the decision and receive no benefits at all, or spend his days looking for work he cannot take in order to receive Jobseeker’s Allowance. After spending decades paying into a supposed safety net system it’s farcical to discover that he does not qualify for benefits. The ludicrous nature of the circumstances is only exacerbated by the emotionless government officials who seem more interested in saving money than granting it to those entitled.

The issue of humanity, or lack thereof, is prominent throughout the film. This is illustrated by the distinct contrast between the almost robotic job centre employees, and Blake’s fellow victims of this red tape merry-go-round. His life becomes entangled with one such victim, Katie (Hayley Squires), after she is relocated almost 300 miles to Newcastle due to an alleged lack of social housing in her previous home, London. Their encounter is an unforgettable one as Katie learns she will be denied her benefits as a result of arriving late to the appointment. She is then further punished after explaining she accidentally took the wrong bus in an alien city by being heartlessly removed by security, and Blake, pointing out the lunacy of unfolding events, meets the same fate. The silver lining to this otherwise disheartening scene is the almost father-daughter relationship that forms.

As the pair continue to jump through their respective administrative hoops they find solace in the company of one another. Blake, in using his carpentry skills to improve the condition of Katie’s new home and Katie in helping Blake navigate a ‘digital by default’ paperless system. Additionally, her two children receive support from a long awaited father figure as their mother plunges deeper into distress over monetary troubles without the support network of her friends and family. The crescendo of emotions reaches breaking point as she is forced to turn to a food bank in order to survive. A heart wrenching scene of pure desperation follows as the starving Katie cowers in the corner of the room devouring a tin of cold baked beans. ‘Look at the state of me’ she says to Blake, this is what she has been driven to.

I, Daniel Blake takes many dramatic twists and turns before its inevitable climax. Loach, not one for subtlety, puts the audience through an array of emotion in what could be described as an exposé into a broken system supposed to offer aid, not frustration and suffering. Driven out of assumed retirement to create perhaps his magnum opus, this insightful representation of real struggles is one not to be missed.

Review: Little Men

Ira Sachs explores the impact of gentrification in the domestic home

Ira Sachs’ Little Men starts off as a gentle story of two families living on the same block in Brooklyn. Not unlike his previous film Love Is Strange, the story of a couple in their late sixties—in which Alfred Molina stars in alongside John Lithgow—this follow up is equally set against the unforgiving real estate market of New York. The Jardine family move from Manhattan to Brooklyn, into a brownstone inherited from the deceased father of Brian (Greg Kinnear). The ground floor is rented out by Leonor Calvelli (Paulina Garcia) as a clothes shop, there for decades. The deceased father had developed a strong friendship with Leonor, and kept her rent affordable as the neighbourhood around them was gentrifying. Brian’s sister thinks the shop is old-fashioned and non-profitable, and therefore strongly suggests to evict Leonor for new tenants, who are willing and able to pay the expected amount. Brian doesn’t want it to come to that, approaching Leonor with a new deal. This does not go well.

This is an honest, imperfect film, about the fragility of individuals, relationships and issues related to social class. Sachs’ shots are delightfully unpolished, giving it a realistic dimension that is easy to watch. The actors deliver a raw, open performance that Sachs takes care to capture unrehearsed. 90 per cent of this film is scripted, the other 10 per cent is improvisation. The ‘Little Men’ in question, 13 year olds Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), develop an unlikely friendship. Both striving to be artists, Jake—Brian’s son—is something out of a Bresson movie, whereas Tony (Leonor’s son) is pure Scorsese. The bond these two boys develop comes across so naturally on screen, they seem to have forgotten a camera is there. Sachs explains this through his philosophy of avoiding rehearsals, making the kids spend time together off screen. A decent amount of their scenes are silent ones, specifically the recurring shots of them shooting around Brooklyn on rollerblades and a scooter. They do not need to speak for us to pick up on their mutual ease around each other. This goes to show how children have the ability to forge deep, meaningful relations in a short amount of time.

Greg Kinnear fits superbly into the role of the distraught father, struggling with mixed emotions about his son’s artistic aspirations, his rational sister pushing him to make a move on the eviction of Leonor, the passing away of his somewhat estranged father. His wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) brings home the one reliable source of income, supporting the family as he pursues an unsuccessful career in acting. He is ashamed of this but cannot bring himself to admit it, dealing with his grief in private. In many ways, Brian is still growing up, and has yet to become the man he wants to be, or at least the one his wife and son need him to be. The scene of him crying into the late hours of the night, alone under the staircase reaches right out to the viewer. Anguish of loss is a recurrent theme in Little Men, each character having lost or losing someone or something. Leonor, played by the very talented Paulina Garcia, is one of the best performances of 2016 so far. She is fierce, holding her ground for as long as she can. Brian and Kathy see her through their angle of the prism, shocked at her refusal to cooperate with them. In return, she despises this man, the absent son of her dear friend Max, who is the deceased father of Brian. Max cared about her, “Can you believe that?” she asks Brian during their final confrontation.

The script, co-written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, cleverly never deals out too many good cards to one person, shifting our empathy from one character to another throughout the movie. As Jean Renoir’s Octave from The Rules of the Game says, “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.” Leonor is a refined character, who is not afraid to stand her ground, resisting their demands, simply to survive. Yet she too breaks when pushed too far, reading her eviction papers. This is not a story of aristocracy against the poor, but of the people in the middle trying to find a balance between themselves and their surroundings. The title of this film was greatly inspired by the classic novel and film adaptation Little Women for its sentimental, domestic context. Sachs uses the form of melodrama to expose some of the biggest social and economic struggles that people are facing worldwide, in every city. Gentrification is no light topic, and losing one’s home can be life or death in many cases.

Tension between the boys’ parents puts a strain on their friendship, making nonchalant things such as sleeping over at one another’s impossible. They are completely caught in the middle, and their reaction to this is to respectively give their parents “the silent treatment”, a name that was considered as a potential title for the film. The parents try to keep the children outside of the mess, but they can’t protect them forever. Tony in particular appreciates honesty, which is underlined in the kid’s party scene, when the girl he asks on a date tells him she’s “into older guys”. To this he replies “Thank you for being honest”, another initial title idea. When the truth does come out, Jake’s desperate, naive attempt at fixing things is heart wrenching. If only things were as simple and uncomplicated as his solution. No class lines, no prejudices.

During his Q&A at HOME Mcr cinema, Sachs explained how this was probably the most rehearsed scene in the film, insofar as Theo delivers an emotionally charged monologue built up in several stages: outrage, denial, proposing a solution, realising that his father isn’t going to consider this, that he is too late. He erroneously uses the word “evacuating”, softly corrected by his mother that the word to use is “evicting”. This is one of the rare reminders that in spite of their precociousness they are only 13.

Reality hits hard when Jake skates past the now empty shop, it is literally “in his face” as Sachs puts it. In the final scene, time has passed, as a slightly older Jake notices Tony at an art gallery. Watching him talk to classmates from afar, his decision to not approach him speaks volumes. He is realising their friendship just won’t work. Theo Taplitz explained to Sachs that in this scene, it dawned on him that it was the end of the shooting, the story, the film. This touched Sachs, as Theo was experiencing the notion of “past” on a deeper level for the first time. “I’m interested to see what will become of those kids” pondered Sachs. The lack of conventional closure to the story is as bittersweet as it is refreshing, as you leave the screening wondering how these characters’ lives will unfold. Little Men truly confirms that Sachs is one of the quintessential filmmakers in contemporary American cinema.

Review: I See You

The xx’s most instrumentally varied and emotionally intimate album to date

I See You is the third album from the London based indie band The xx. Surging into stardom in the late 2000’s, The xx is known for minimalistic production and sedated beats. However, this latest effort is their most musically complex to date.

With each subsequent release, it becomes obvious that Jamie XX is incorporating more and more electronic elements into the band’s tracks. Their self titled debut album was noted for using very few artificial components, employing a laid back acoustic style. The follow up, Coexist, a more atmospheric work, is a perfect middle ground between the two.

A key difference between this album and those before it is the use of samples. In order to easily transition from studio to concert, Jamie and co previously restricted the variety of their arrangements, however this is not the case for I See You. Using samples has allowed them to create a sound which is not only catchy but also familiar, and as a result we see some surprisingly lively tracks such as lead single ‘On Hold’. Released at the tail end of 2016, ‘On Hold’ wonderfully samples Hall and Oates’ 1981 hit ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’, becoming by far the poppiest track in The xx’s discography.

Another new aspect is the use of additional accompaniment. The ballad ‘Performance’ beautifully uses strings to add to its emotional nature, discussing the illusion of pretending to be fine when in reality everything is falling apart. Furthermore, ‘Lips’ has a wonderful choral backing which is unlike anything we’ve seen from them before. Featuring a sample of David Lang’s ‘Just’, guitarist/vocalist Romy Madley Croft explained how the lyrics were written around the beat, which presented them with new challenges.

Unfortunately, there are a few minor issues in the album, most notably the sudden endings to a few of the songs such as ‘A Violent Noise’ and ‘Say Something Loving’. It comes off as lazy songwriting and is immensely disappointing given the excellent build-ups present. Additionally the vocal chemistry between Romy and Oliver seems nonexistent at times, especially in ‘Say Something Loving’. This leads to the emotive and often hard-hitting lyrics not having as much of an impact as intended.

Shortcomings aside, I See You is the xx’s best album to date. They seem to be taking more risks by increasing the number of layers used and it pays off, creating a more mature and compositionally richer sound. The finale, ‘Test Me’, is a testament to the band’s previous struggles and a signal that they are far from finished.

Review: Silence

A leap of faith that doesn’t pay off

Seldom has a movie relied on the individual perspective of its audience more than Martin Scorsese’s latest release, Silence. This is a punishing film, both mentally (in the depictions of will-breaking torture) and physically — with an exhaustive 161 minute runtime. Perhaps my lack of faith prevents an emotional connection or perhaps it was intended as an extension of the on-screen trials, testing the limits of the most diehard Scorsese fans. What can be certain is that the film is a leap of faith, and one that very few will make. Silence is the third in a series of religious features made by Scorsese following The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. Set initially and briefly in 1630’s Portugal, it tells the story of two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) and their journey to locate their mentor (Liam Neeson) after his alleged apostasy. They decide to travel to Japan, a country where Christianity is outlawed, armed with nothing more than religious talismans and the clothes on their backs. A test of faith? Or an example of the naivety of youth? The movie’s imperfections are wholly distracting from potential immersion in the story. For example the three lead actors, of Canadian, American and Irish descent, find huge difficulty in replicating Latin accents. As a result, the most powerful scenes are those without words or without involving them at all. There is also an overly exaggerated sense of purity in the mission of the priests. The word of God must be spread throughout Japan, no matter how many must be tortured or killed in their name. That being said, there are plenty of positives to be drawn. Scorsese teamed up with fantastic cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, having worked previously on The Wolf of Wall Street, and the result is a visually stunning experience. There are plenty of scenes with great camera positioning and the use of overhead camerawork facilitates urgency as the Jesuit priests decide to, and then travel to Japan. Issey Ogata and Tadanobu Asano are both perfectly cast as the Inquisitor and the Interpreter respectively, showing wisdom and charisma far beyond that of their compatriots. The beautiful locations used evoke wonder as they travel throughout Japan. Except it isn’t Japan, it is Taiwan. In a fictional work set in Japan, location of filming isn’t an important factor, however this is a non-fiction historical drama. Regardless of Ang Lee’s recommendations for setting, more respect should be paid to the source material in order to keep it as historically accurate as possible. One cannot deny Scorsese’s deep catalogue of great movies. Sadly though this does not rank among them. He purposefully gives little away throughout the film, leaving you to your emotions but forgetting to evoke any. Silence is certainly not an experience for the masses, instead tailored probably for those who attend mass. Maybe the 25 year gestation period was too long for anything of real substance to survive.