Jauja

Jodorowsky meets Werner Herzog to share a dream of loss and fatherhood. I loved this film. Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja is the surreal tale of a Danish father and daughter embroiled in a  military coup in Argentina. Viggo Mortensen is Gunner Dinesen, a Captain in the military force that seeks to locate and disarm a cruel, shape shifting deserter they believe to be leading a rebellion in the desert. His young daughter, Ingeborg, runs away with the soldier charged with finding Zuluaga, the deserter, and Mortensen pursues them into the desert where the seams between madness and reality have split, and the landscape itself assumes a character with its own, ineffable intentions. Jauja has the saturated look of a 60s western, filmed using a mix of natural and theatrical lighting, and summons the texture of Jodorowsy’s more melancholic imagery. Beautifully shot, Jauja is essentially about anguish, illusion and the desperation of a father to hold onto the innocence of his daughter whose flight from him drives him into the mouth of madness. It is patiently structured, with the frantic contents of humanity being subsumed by the steady yet morally neutral constancy of the desert.

There are some beautifully lyrical elements to the narrative, which is loose. The passage of a wooden soldier through the oceans of time persistently returns to the hands of father, and daughter, and daughter’s lover, its meaning changing from emblem to trifle, depending on whose hands it falls to is one such thread. The soldier, first seen floating in the otherworldly tidal pools at Argentina’s southern coast, is plucked from the sea and given to Inge by the boy who would become her lover, and later leads her father to a mountain crone whose sense of time has eroded, and who may have some insight into the whereabouts of the girl. Both Ingeborg’s father and her lover are soldiers, and both reduced to playthings: the soldier to the fickle wonder of a young girl who may ultimately lead him into danger or death, and with whom he does not share a common language; her father the instrument of loss and devotion to a spectre who is never to return, both filled and consumed by the monstrous landscape of the desert. The toy continues to return to the hands of the young girl whose commodity is rarer and more desired than wealth, and who absently seals the fates of those who covet her while erasing herself from existence. To Inge the toy soldier is a plaything of childhood, a message to herself at different ages, through history, that briefly delights her. It is an in joke with herself. To her father it is a symbol of that which took her from him and a signpost leading him into certain madness in the desert. To the boy, it is a gift for a pretty girl with whom he cannot speak but wishes only to please.

That the desert eventually consumes all things – including the dreams of men and often the men themselves, as well as the fabric of time they are cloaked in – enables it to be a strange double-entity: it causes both angst and deepest relief. That a man might fall from one flat surface beneath his feet to utter disappearance both troubles the regulations of time and existence, and soothes the living by blurring the boundaries of their occupied territory. In this way it is different from Herzog’s Nature – an indifferent and yet intrinsically oppositional force of defiance and decay where life and death battle constantly for control of every particle – and different from Jodorowsky’s desert of the infinite reflected poetics of men – a landscape that serves only to scupper the traveller by showing him all the things he most wants to see before committing them to dust or some other chaotic version of dissolve. Alonso’s desert is the ever-shifting plane of subliminality: it is the real territory that is neither tethered to life or dream, but that gently guides all who enter it to be subsumed by its patience. Zuluaga, the deserter, seems to be transformed by the desert. Although he is rarely seen up close, and largely exists only as a rumor or a figure in the distance – a mirage of impending doom – he seems to have become an embodied instrument of the desert that desires the unstitching of time from both dream and reality. He moves easily between both worlds, embedding himself in the hearts of men while pulling at the threads that hold them in time and space as living, or dreaming, beings.

 

The Homesman

I will start by saying I have always liked Tommy Lee Jones. I think he may have overreached his talents in this film. Trying to direct and star in your own adapted screenplay is an ambitious task for a first time director, even for an industry veteran like Jones. Unfortunately, the Homesman does not number among his greater accomplishments.

A period drama set in the Old West, a 31 year old spinster (Hilary Swank) is tasked with the delivery of three women who have gone mad – privately, there was no epidemic of madness – to a church that would arrange for their travel back east from Nebraska, as their husbands could no longer care for them. This is a flawed premise from the outset, but, at least in part due to a seasoned cinematographic look, I gave the film the benefit of the doubt. For the first half hour, it looks and feels like a Clint Eastwood film, with some Coen brothers’ quirkiness, except that everyone in the film looks too clean to be living in the desert. When the storyline takes a dark turn, revealing the descent of the three women into madness (a combined ordeal that lasted less than five minutes on the beat sheet, and can be traced to failures or crises of motherhood of one form or another), Jones reveals himself as a drunkard, a criminal and a condemned man, as well the man who would save the four women from traversing the Nebraska to Iowa landscape alone. From this point, the film focuses primarily on the failures of all of the women in the film – a trio of mute madwomen tethered to the inside of a wooden trailer pulled by two mules who are incapable even of using the toilet on their own – and flattens their respective predicaments into opaque “female issues” to do with dead and unborn children, absent mothers and distant or abusive husbands. The women occasionally participate in the narrative progression, but only as interceptors or reflectors of Jones’ self-directed activity. Swank’s character, who is initially presented as a strong, independently wealthy woman from New York is ultimately only focused on her lack of a husband, and anything more interesting about her is relegated to absent-minded musings about trees, or feeding water to a doll with a thimble as a means of reaching out to the youngest of her charges, a 19 year old girl who lost her daughters to disease. Again, the glimpsed stories behind each of the characters betray a series of missed opportunities for conveying the depth, darkness and even depravity of desert life on the Frontier.

As I am not really keen on panning the first feature film of a man whose work I respect, I will keep this review short, and say only that I was surprised by the casual racism against natives, who were also mute, except when whooping like monkeys, and appeared onscreen only to have their dead desecrated, or to be slaughtered in anecdotes about the US “Dragoons”. I was also surprised by the unapologetic flattening of all of the female characters in service of enriching the overall life experience of the central male lead, and disappointed that, despite the careful pacing and stunning cinematography, the film feels like an homage to some of the directors Jones has done his best work with, rather than reflecting his own distinctive voice. While I am not keen on panning the film, I make no apologies for the sexism or racism in it. I believe, however, that it doesn’t come so much from a place of intent (or Jones would be rapidly dispatched from the “people whose work I respect” list), so much as from a lack of attention to detail. Had Jones given more of the film over to character study – in the style of the two directors he already seems to have borrowed so heavily from – or elected to simplify the storyline sufficiently that helpless women and a voiceless minority enemy weren’t necessary to better “dress” the leading man, the Homesman would not have suffered from the ailments brought on by their clumsy handling.

Having said all of this, I hope he continues to direct, but I think he might be better to leave the writing and the lead role to other people, so that he can focus on realizing his next story in his own way.

Red Army

I remember growing up with the USSR described as being “behind the Iron Curtain”. My child’s mind imagined a whole section of Europe, cordoned off with iron mesh like the curtain in front of the fireplace at my grandfather’s house. One side was East, one side was West. What came out from behind the curtain was a mix of fact and fantasy, packaged in such a way as to reaffirm the New World’s faith in democracy and free-market capitalism, while glorifying their enemies just enough to perpetuate the threat. Soviets were communists, they were freakishly strong and smart and ruthless and relentless, but they were also, always, two steps behind the West as far as we knew on our side of the Curtain. I grew up with this polarity, though the Soviet Union was already on a downward trajectory politically, and remember the images of the USSR under Gorbachev, and the string of leaders before him whose pronouncements of leadership were followed abruptly by their obituaries. I also grew up in Canada, and Canadians take hockey very seriously, so the Soviets were widely regarded with a mix of ire and awe as the team to beat. As much as I was aware of all of these things, the extent of the impact that the profound difference in ideology between East and West was having on the residents on both sides of the Iron Curtain was only really brought sharply into focus by this film, and, of course, only in the limited arena of hockey.

Interestingly though, if unsurprising, there was little distinction between the realms of sports and politics in Soviet Russia, and the Red Army hockey team, established by Stalin, were seen as national heroes, all of them also serving as officers in the Army. Stalin and his predecessors saw hockey as a way of bringing people together, socially and politically, in a way that was advantageous to the State.

For director Gabe Polsky, the American son of Russian immigrant parents, Red Army is an expression of his curiosity about his roots, and his angle is both gentle and informative. Coming from a sympathetic place as a filmmaker, and young enough to not be affected by the rhetorical Cold War hangover, Red Army is a look through the Iron Curtain with fresh eyes. While the heroes’ darker sides are never really closely examined, the insights into the nature of the Soviet regime and its permeating ideology whose depth and breadth of influence rivaled that of the West in every way are enlightening. Soviet collectivism was being cultivated with the same enthusiasm as American exceptionalism, and the Red Army hockey team lead by Slawa Fetisov were among the first to pull back the Curtain and penetrate both worlds.

A third of the film was dedicated to the training rituals of the Red Army hockey team, the same training regimen that was shrouded in secrecy was even more elaborate, intensive and bizarre than even the rumours suggested. Coach Anatoly Tarasov trained his players from childhood, living with them eleven months of the year, and training four times a day for hours at a stretch. A committed student of the sport, as well as a gifted teacher, Tarasov’s diligence was matched only by his curiosity and enthusiam. After studying the dancers’ training regimen at the Bolshoi, Tarasov would return with an all-new sequence of skating manouevres designed to condition the athletes’ agility, control and precision. He studied the behaviour of bears, and would have players perform freestyle breakfalls on ice for hours at a time. Unlike his successor, Viktor Tikhonov, who was widely criticized by the players for being too brutal, Tarasov was widely viewed as a father figure who recognized the talents in each boy from childhood and invested his time, skill and patience in cultivating a team dynamic that made the best use of each player. The style he encultured was one where his players were intimately familiar with each other, and spent so much time on the ice together, their movements were a languid latticework of passes and a progressive, persistent and adaptable offense. It was this natural teamwork and ability to move smoothly between defensive and offensive manoeuvres that stymied the US and Canadian players, whose individualistic style of play lacked the latent cohesion of their Russian counterparts.

Tarasov’s books on hockey, of which he wrote many, were on the bedside tables of every boy who aspired to play for Russia. Due to a political restructuring in 1977, Tarasov was replaced with former hockey player, Latvian coach and KGB agent Viktor Tikhonov. The Red Army players never connected with the brutal Tikhonov, and, although he lead the Soviet team through its most dominant series of victories, they were more deeply connected to Tarasov and credit him with much of their success. One of the players is quoted in the film as saying “If I ever need a heart transplant I want Tikhonov’s. He’s never used his.” The relationship between Tikhonov and the team that ultimately lead the Soviets to their greatest success is central to the film, and the bonds that formed between the central players – Slawa Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Kutrov, Alexei Kasatanov, and legendary goalie Vladislav Tretiak – were made stronger by the common enemy who lead them to victory.

Slawa Fetisov, the Red Army team captain through the 80s, is the central character, and his charisma is tempered with the uncomfortable awareness that he now sits as Putin’s Minister of Sport and oversaw the Sochi Olympics. The ties between politics, sport and patriotism remain steadfast. The latter part of the film is dedicated to the Glasnost years, and the early days of the first Russian players to play for the NHL. Although anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s will remember the controversies around defecting players and stringent Soviet control of players traded to American teams, what Polsky’s Red Army shows of the period are a small number of seasoned hockey veterans who are as close as brothers negotiating for the best possible scenarios for themselves and their families in the lead-up to Soviet collapse, and whose sporting language did not translate any better than their native Russian in the West. Unpopular for political reasons, and feeling the weight of the years of rivalry from their new American teammates (none of whom had faced them in the Olympics, as professional players had not yet been allowed to compete), one of the most poignant images in the film is the face of a 31 year old Slawa Fetisov, in his first season playing for the New Jersey Devils as he is interviewed by an American sports journalist. “Don’t you think American style hockey is just more fun?” Fetisov’s long silence, coupled with the unmaskable sadness on his face spoke volumes about the alienation faced by the Russian players as they left their homes, pedestals and constant praise and victory for unfamiliar tactics, the disdain of hockey fans and isolation from their teammates. The promise of the American dream was very different on delivery.

It is worth mentioning that Fetisov, who graced us with his presence at Cannes, and gave us a brief introduction to the film, as well as a brief history of his early life – asserting that the Soviet dream shared a parallel with the American, and that his rise to fame and glory from the slums of impoverished Moscow was a testament to the opportunites offered by the Soviet system as well as the warmth of its embrace – is now, in addition to his illustrious political career and his reinstatement as an officer in the military, playing hockey again. Why? Because even at 51, Fetisov can still skate better backwards than anyone else can skate forwards.

Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales)

Damian Szifron’s collection of black-comedic vignettes drew cheers from the crowd at Cannes. This can be a dubious honour, as the audience is fickle and as much as walking out of a film in an indignant huff is a “thing”, cheering wildly for mediocre movies is equally, if confusingly, prevalent. In this particular case, however, the crowd’s enthusiasm was well deserved. Not only was it a solid film in its own right, but for a late-ish séance it was great fun to watch on the big screen. There is something very special about watching two thousand people, dressed to the nines and giggling like they are at a sleepover.

Relatos Salvajes‘ recalls the short-film compendium format from the 80s and early 90s: Really Weird Tales, Tales from the Crypt, Cat’s Eye, Creepshow. The stories are unrelated except for their shared eccentricity – a road-rage induced showdown leaves two strangers locked forever in a lovers’ embrace, a city planner whose life is undone one piece at a time by parking infractions, a friendly chat between passengers on an airline reveals a twisted revenge plot involving everyone on the plane, a wedding from hell between two people bent on proving they deserve each other – and a dark brand of comedy that revels in the macabre and seals its central characters’ fates in vomit, blood and rat poison. Higher production value than a grindhouse film, and a little more high-brow, Relatos Salvajes is the best date movie of the festival so far. If it’s playing late on a Friday, take your girl or your guy to the drive-in.

White God

White God is a Hungarian film about men and dogs, and the chasm that exists between them, bridged, as ever, by a pre-adolescent girl. This movie is a lesson in missed opportunities.

I should mention at the outset that the blurb in the Cannes catalogue suggested a sort of “revolution against mankind” by mongrel dogs who have been exiled due to new legislation that favours pedigree dogs and heavily taxes their crossbreed cousins. I went into the cinema bracing for tragedy, but optimistic for some weighty political allegory, or at least some radical vegan anti-humanism.

What we got instead was a schitzoid mix of “the Incredible Journey“, “les Misèrables”, and the most recent remix of “the Planet of the Apes”. It was a tragic case of wasted resources and missed opportunities that opted for a Disney storyline with too much blood and swearing for kids, with an indecisive mission for the film’s hero, and a morally conservative punchline.

The missed opportunities I am referring to are threefold. The first was onscreen assets. This is going to get a little sappy for a moment, but please, bear with me. The film’s hero, Hagen, is a charismatic crossbreed (I’m guessing Labrador, Sharpei and Pitbull) who is both eminently watchable and exceptionally well trained. This is something you almost never see in movies. The dog was born an actor. But it doesn’t stop there: the film’s opening scene depicts Hagen’s owner, the laconic tween, Lili, riding a bicycle in slow mo and being chased by literally hundreds of dogs. It was a cinematic exception, echoed in dozens of similar surreally beautiful shots throughout the film: a river of dogs streaming through holes in fences, over barricades, through tunnels of moving cars. The animal wranglers on this project deserve a prize. They managed to organize a pack of over a hundred dogs of all shapes and sizes to move in unison for long tracking shots through city streets, to sit and stand and vary in speed on command, and to behave alternately menacingly or docilely with incredible control. Having had a considerable amount of experience with dogs, I respect that this is no mean feat and could have been used in the narrative to much greater effect.

The second missed opportunity was the disparity between the revolutionary blurb and the distinctly non-revolutionary content of the film. It promised a scenario that conscripted tricky themes of eugenics, class warfare, and the possibly congruity of human and canine intelligence. At the very least, I expected an allegorical commentary on the dangers of assuming “otherness,” Charlton Heston style, or the overbearance of the State on the private lives of its citizens. Sadly, this was not an ideological revolt but a shambolic coup, and did nothing in terms of a broader narrative to expand the dialogue between humans and canines, nor did it offer insight into the connective tissue between the two parallel societies (men and dogs) in the film. The dogs, however, had their day. A third of the film was a near comedic invasion of Budapest by an absolutely enormous pack of visibly friendly, healthy, well trained mongrel dogs.

The third missed opportunity, and here comes a spoiler, is that the film sold out its heroes. This is a brave move. After spending two hours bonding with a hero, a harder sell if that hero is not a human being (and a deeper bond if successful), the audience is invested in his fate. If you are going to sell out your heroes, it must be to a good cause – the message relayed in their failure must be greater than the value of their survival. If this truly had been a war film as touted, the Butch and Sundance ending for the massive pack of dogs who surrendered to the gentle touch of a human girlchild would have stood as a sacrifice for the greater good, or bridged a gap towards a common goal between species. Instead, the overarching lesson seemed to be ..the beguiling gift of music? Lili’s soothing trumpet playing was the ultimate antidote to the dogs’ brief and vengeful rein of terror, and their bloody doom, though postponed past the roll of the credits, was inevitable.

Between Lili’s father who was confusingly both cruel and loving and who ejected Hagen from the car at the side of highway during an argument with his daughter at the beginning of the film, and a staggeringly numerous team of inept dog catchers, and a ring of dogfighters with an outright bizarre training mandate (cue Rocky training montage featuring meat nailed to various surfaces, a home made treadmill and meals of cream and creatine powder), who lend an absurdly comic tone to a film, the ultimate success of the values of the peripheral human roles reveal some deep rooted problems with the authority that we as men exercise over dogs with impunity.

The Captive

A lot can be forgiven of a film that offers itself as a philosophical proposition rather than a morality play. While there is a particular trend in popular media since the 90s to use paedophilia as a central theme to sell itself, it is ultimately kind of a cop out. Everyone can unite against a rhetorical device that is just fundamentally evil, without any blurred boundaries. Even those films from the last 20 years that take a “sympathy for the devil” stance, like the Woodsman are underwritten by a series of assertions that are constantly reaffirmed about the total lack of moral ambiguity attached to the sexualization of children. I will cite both Kubrick‘s Lolita and Malle‘s Pretty Baby as notable exemptions; despite the controversy they created, their cinematic value as well as their artful ambiguity afford them a coveted space under the protective umbrella of ‘artworks’ that preclude them from adhering too rigorously to social conventions, not to mention that they were both made in periods where arthouse film was not yet relegated to the margins of cinema culture. Morally speaking, the territory of paedophilia is an immovable object against which any interrogation is both vulgar and futile.

So, as a director, to take on the challenge of addressing the issue ultimately leads to a limited number of outcomes: a protracted witchhunt inevitably resulting either in the victorious persecution of the paedo (Michael, Happiness, Hard Candy); the unjust persecution of an innocent man (Jagten); or the anti-cathartic failure of the hero to confront or disarm him (the Pledge), the latter two often resulting in the ultimate psychological collapse of the witchhunter.

Atom Egoyan‘s new film, the Captive, takes a unique angle on the subject. For all of its flaws – the Captive suffers from awkward writing, a lack of chemistry between characters and a convoluted back-and-forth narrative trajectory that bounces irratically through time in an effort to connect a series of disappearances – the philosophocal position it puts forward is intriguing, and alludes to a lingering evil even darker than paedophilia. The central consideration for the villain, a man of both the financial and technological means to propose the experiment, seems to be “why focus my industry on the flesh of the child alone, which has a short shelf-life when compared to the anguish of the parents he or she was taken from?” The villain, Mika, a reptilian performance by Kevin Durand, using a network of cameras and victims who had outgrown their sexual purpose, documents the lives of the suffering parents who were wrecked by the uncertainty of the fates of their children. Should the anguish abate, he would bait them with signs of their children, who would narrate the videos with sentimental stories about the objects or scenes their parents were presented with, outlining exactly the depth of their suffering for the paying customer. The missing children become prudent instruments in their parents’ ordeal, and complicit in the expansion of the program that enslaves more parents and children to the secret machine fueled by suffering.

For the abstract and unspeakable darkness of the film’s central theme, the overall presentation is dry and often dogged by implausibility in its portrayal of the police. Mireille Enos is suitably unhinged as the mother of the missing Cass, working as a chambermaid in a hotel in Niagara Falls who frequently finds ‘gifts’ in the rooms of the hotel belonging to her daughter. Ryan Reynolds plays Cass’ father, and is pitted in a ridiculous conflict with the investigating detective who is convinced of his guilt, and Rosario Dawson is a dedicated detective whose obsession with the guardianship of young children does not mesh with the scattered fragments of her life we are exposed to.

The film’s greatest strength, however, is as a delivery device for the philosophical prospect of a new and abject realm of criminality that teeters closer to early Cronenberg than to any generic themes surrounding paedophilia: the wholesale trade of human suffering as a commodity that can radiate infinitely outward from a single act of violence.