Thursday 5 November 2020

Film Review: Fisheye (dir. Szcześniak, 2020)


There's nothing novel about a kidnapping plot as the basis for a thriller. But from such a familiar premise Michał Szcześniak fashions something fresh in Fisheye. The writer-director's first fiction feature follows his acclaimed work in documentary and shorts, and was the winner of two prizes at this year's Młodzi i Film festival: one for Agata Kurzyk's score and the other for Julia Kijowska's lead performance.  While the film's theatrical life now seems uncertain - it was to have opened in Polish cinemas on 13 November but that was before the government's announcement of the latest restrictions - it's worth seeking out this engaging thriller whenever and wherever you can. 

When we first meet Kijowska's Anna she's the epitome of prickly professional competence: a scientist preoccupied at her microscope in a lab, responding to an interloper with a brusque "Not now! I'm busy!" Making a possibly revelatory (and lucrative) discovery, Anna drives home to tell the news to her handsome boyfriend Janek (Wojciech Zieliński), who's up for celebratory sex and eager to make a baby. Shunning that idea, Anna heads out to buy food - only to be grabbed in the doorway of her building (rendered in a wonderfully effective long-shot and abrupt cut), and to awaken in a blue-pannelled, soundproofed room, certain that she's been the victim of a case of mistaken identity. 

And, in a very particular way, she has. Reliant upon several narrative twists, Fisheye is the kind of picture that only a churl would "spoil."  Suffice it to say that what starts out with indications of being a medical / corporate genre thriller exercise, with added echoes of Panic Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane, gradually delves into more psychological territory by using the abduction premise to give Anna a unique, unsettling perspective on her life and identity. 

Much concerned, as its title suggests, with issues of distorted perception, the film has the right kind of claustrophobic ambience but never feels static. Szcześniak and his collaborators  - including DP Paweł Dyllus, editors Magdalena Chowańska and Ireneusz Grzyb, and brilliant sound designer Radosław Ochnio (of Baby Bump and 11 Minutes among many other credits) -  give an exciting visual and aural dissonance to the piece, the better to put us into Anna's headspace as she interacts with her elusive  captor (Piotr Adamczyk, in an effective performance reliant on voice work more than anything else) and finds layers of the repressed past peeled away. 

The invariably striking Kijowska gives a committed, highly physical performance that charts every step on Anna's journey from disbelief to despair to a catharsis that's as tentative as it is hard-won, holding the film together through some uncertain moments. The picture supplies the surprises and suspense you might anticipate, but it's as an exploration of a woman belatedly coming to terms with her past that Fisheye achieves its more lasting, haunting power. 

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Film Review: Mangrove (Sight & Sound: December 2020)


My review of Steve McQueen's Mangrove is in the new December issue of Sight & Sound. You can order the issue here

Blu-ray/DVD Review: Mademoiselle (dir. Richardson, 1966)


My piece on Tony Richardson 's Mademoiselle, which is just out in a new Blu-ray/DVD edition, is up at BFI. You can read it here

Film Review: Eternal Beauty (dir. Roberts, 2019)


My review of Craig Roberts' Eternal Beauty is up at Sight & Sound. You can read it here

Film Review: Summer of '85 (dir. Ozon, 2020)


My piece on Summer of '85 is up at Sight & Sound. You can read it here

Wednesday 9 September 2020

Film Review: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (dir. Kaufman, 2020)


By turns passive and direct, open and opaque, poet, physicist, painter and Pauline Kael (!!!), Jessie Buckley's protean performance provides a fascinating, spiralling human centre to Charlie Kaufman's studiously brainy and beserk latest, I'm Thinking of Ending Things.

Those of us who saw Buckley's not-always-stellar work on the London stage some years ago (she was due to return to it this year in Romeo and Juliet with Josh O'Connor before Covid's intervention) would never have suspected the range of her skill and talent on film. But Beast (though overrated) tipped us off and Wild Rose (absolutely lovely) fully confirmed her potential as a major cinema actress. (Then there was the shrewd, watchful, sensitive quality she brought to her scenes in Judy; a perfectly modulated supporting performance.) As the great Steve Vineberg writes of her in Wild Rose: "Buckley has a fresh, totally unaffected camera presence and the instinct to hold the camera, sometimes for medium-long, pensive reaction takes that transport us directly into the character’s complicated feelings."

Buckley does that and a whole lot more in I'm Thinking of Ending Things, pulling us completely into the dilemma of a woman who is contemplating breaking up with Jake (Jesse Plemons), her boyfriend of six weeks (or is it longer ….?) even as she undertakes a road trip with him to meet his parents at their farmhouse for the first time. 

Adapting Iain Reid's acclaimed 2016 novel, Kaufman - who, as we're well aware, knows a thing or two about the problematics of adaptation - takes the text into areas that mesh with his own thematic concerns, in particular, issues of identity, ageing, and time, which gets fragmented and fractured from the pair's arrival at the farmhouse. Here wild temporal shifts, and Toni Collette and David Thewlis's ripe performances as Jake's parents, suggest Guess Who's Coming to Dinner filtered through the funny-sick existential domestic horror of mother!. 

The nightmarish family dinner party is a stage staple, of course. And in a period in which US cinema has lost (much to its detriment) the strong connections it once had to the stage, Kaufman remains one of the most theatrically-inclined of American writers and filmmakers. Part of the subversive quality of I'm Thinking of Ending Things is its bracing commitment to talk, with two long car journey discussions, superbly performed by Buckley and Plemons, constituting the bulk of the film.

While Kaufman's excellent Synecdoche, New York focused on a play going on for its creator's entire existence (and God knows, some can feel like they do), the new film might be viewed as riffing on general aspects of US theatre history, beginning as a vaguely Annie Baker-ish piece and circling back to climax with an elaborate Oklahoma! homage. (Did anyone really want to watch a - yikes - "dream ballet" when Oklahoma! came out? Does anyone really want to watch one in 2020? Well, Charlie's gonna make you.)  

Allusive to a fault, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is, in Roland Barthes's terms, "a tissue of quotations," incorporating citations from or nods to Eva H.D's poem "Bonedog," Guy Debord, Pauline Kael's great review of A Woman Under the Influence, Forget Paris (!), a (fake) Robert Zemeckis film, and much more. At its best the film achieves the kind of disorientation that Leos Carax did when dialogue from The Portrait of a Lady was suddenly woven into Holy Motors. At other times, - a too on-the-nose discussion of the sexual politics of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," for one - Kaufman appears to be grasping at anything to hand. (As one cynical wag nicely puts it: "I think we’ve reached peak Kaufman self-parody when characters who are the fantasy of a janitor argue about critical theory.")

Still, as a film that's very much about how the absorption of books, essays, films and musicals impacts upon one's perceptions, expectations and fantasies - about how layers of pop culture filter into the psyche - most of the inclusions can be justified. Where the film comes unstuck, for me, is in its incremental revelation of just whose fantasy we're in. Trevor Johnston remarks that it’s "refreshing to hear a female narrator" in Kaufman's work rather than the usual "guys [who] should just get over themselves and spare us the self-indulgence." Yet such a statement seems decidedly ironic when said female narrator's interior life and relationship doubts turn out to be merely the projected fears of a male character.

While the reveal doesn't negate the strength of Buckley's performance, it certainly proves detrimental to the emotional involvement created, yanking us into the consciousness of a figure in whom we're much less invested and turning the film into another extended act of male fantasising. 

The final 20 minutes are as ambitious in concept as they are disastrous in execution; with Buckley now relegated to the periphery, the spell is gone and involvement violated, with an animated talking piggy, an Oklahoma! interlude and an A Beautiful Mind homage the best that we are offered. From Łukasz Zal's excellent cinematography - so different from his studiedly artistic work for Pawlikowski -  to Buckley's great performance, to many memorable moments of unease, I'm Thinking of Ending Things has marvellous elements. It ranks, without a doubt, as one of the most distinctive American films of the year. Its impact is hampered by a frustrating conclusion that, at least as Kaufman has at once over-scaled and under-cooked it, ends up feeling a lot like a betrayal. Still, having just embarked on Antkind (I'm on page 11 and already laughed out loud three times) the movie clearly leaves me with the appetite for a further foray into Kaufman-land.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things is in cinemas and on Netflix now. 

Monday 31 August 2020

Body / Memory/ History - A Report on Retroperspektywy Festival 2020, Łódź

The organisation of a theatre festival - particularly one as audience-inclusive and interactive as Teatr CHOREA's Retroperspektywy was when I attended it for the first time last year - seems a challenging, not to say a foolhardy, endeavour in the current climate. 

Festival Opening (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

"Social distance" is the antithesis of the ethos of most live events. And it's certainly so at this festival, where performers make close contact with audience members not just during the intense, highly physical shows, but also at Q&A discussion panels, and other events held at the converted factory buildings that make up the great Fabryka Sztuki complex in Łódź.

Festival Opening (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

But this most creative of companies pulled off the daunting challenge of this year's Festival in a grand manner, with a rich and diverse programme made up of a mixture of online events, recorded shows, film screenings, VR spectacles and live performances. Audience contact details were taken before each event; masks were mandatory; hand sanitiser provided; and if social distancing was not strictly adhered to at every moment, the Festival still provided a solid model for how to go about the creation and execution of such an event in the disturbing, disruptive times of Coronavirus. 

Schulz: Skrawki (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

The title of this year's edition - Body, Memory, History - set the tone. The body is always central to the work of the Grotowski-influenced CHOREA, which mobilises the physicality of the performers on stage in totally distinctive, dynamic ways. Teamwork is key to the group's process and output, which seeks to draw on the power of collective expression while never sacrificing each performer's individuality. 

Schulz: Skrawki (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

The premiere of the company's Schulz: Skrawki (Schulz: Scraps) proved a superb opener. The writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) is probably best known outside of Poland for Street of Crocodiles (itself adapted for the stage to much acclaim by Complicite and the NT in 1992), and a selection of his stories provide the inspiration for this new work. A combination of installation and physical theatre, the piece presents its six performers - Janusz Adam Biedrzycki, Joanna Chmielecka, Michał Jóźwik, Majka Justyna, Małgorzata Lipczyńska, and Tomasz Rodowicz - occupying separate spaces (including a bath, a chair, and a table) as the audience enters a silent, darkened auditorium. In stillness to start, the six gradually stir into movement, each engaged in a separate task or overlapping action, as director Konrad Dworakowski intones Schulz's prose live. 

Schulz: Skrawki (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

A thematic concern with the transgression of matter and the human body emerged, and was vividly evoked thanks to Dworakowski's background in puppet theatre, with strings, wires and sticks integrated into the performers' movements. Enhanced by a perfectly tailored score composed by Paweł Odorowicz, the effect was thrilling and hypnotic: all the more so for being the first encounter with live performance for many months for most audience members.  

In a generous gesture, Schulz: Skrawki was filmed by Hollybaba / Rami Shaya and made available on YouTube for some days after the live premiere. The same was true for all the other shows, including Warsaw STUDIO Teatrgaleria's Więcej niż jedno zwierzę (More than One Animal), a hilarious parody of the anthropomorphising tendencies of certain nature documentaries. 

Więcej niż jedno zwierzę (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

At times coming off as a wryly avant garde take on Cats, the show presented the antics and behaviour patterns of its indeterminate creatures with the aid of a deadpan voiceover delievered by Agnieszka Podsiadlik (the tricky matriarch of Kuba Czekaj's Baby Bump) and wonderful physical work by the cast: Sonia Roszczuk, Vira Hres, Błażej Stencel, and Agata Tragarz. 

Więcej niż jedno zwierzę (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

A ludic, absurdist tone - accentuated by some brilliantly funny songs delivered by the duo of Robert Wasiewicz and Marcin Miętus - was sustained. But the show also makes serious and subversive points on issues from community to climate change, while a poetic visual flourish at the mid-point was a beautiful surprise.

iGeneration? (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Also exploring the issue of community, but within the context of young people's engagement with online culture, was iGeneration?, directed by Janusz Adam Biedrzycki, which was presented in a filmed version. The influence of Mariusz Grzegorzek's unforgettable student-developed extravaganza Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki (Fever) was felt here, with dance, direct address, phantasmagoric sci fi elements, and songs by the band Mojo Pin incorporated into the show. 

iGeneration? discussion (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Like the Biedrzycki-directed recent piece Rój. Sekretne życie społeczne ("The Hive: Secret Social Life")iGeneration? doesn't fear didacticism in its explicit critique of over-consumption and technology's detrimental effects on human connection. But the messages are conveyed via theatrical means that are exciting and surprising, such as the presentation of the web as a seething mass of bodies and masks called "the Great Tangle." In defiance of the numbing and dehumanising effects of the Internet, the show ends with a vivid and invigorating defence of emotion delivered by its excellent young cast. 

W zawieszeniu (Fot Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Mortality was a theme in several shows, including Ukrainian company Golden Gate Theatre's Did You Love Me, Dad?, which was presented in a video performance, and the dynamic dance piece Salto Mortale by Majka Justyna and Joanna Jaworska-Maciaszek. Another powerful solo female production on the topic was Monika Wachowicz and Arti Grabowski's W zawieszeniu (Suspended), in which Wachowicz gave an astonishing, exposing emotional and physical performance as a cancer sufferer coming to terms (or not) with her prognosis. The apparent effortlessness with which Wachowicz moved from heightened emotional states - one minute crawling across the stage, gurning and grimacing - to casual, relaxed audience address was prodigious.

W zawieszeniu (Fot Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Based on the words and real life experience of theatre practitioner Marta Paradecka, who died of cancer in 2018, age just 39, and also taking inspiration from Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and the philosophy of Karl Jaspers, the show was an unsettlingly intimate experience, with some haunting sequences. One such made use of Full Metal Jacket's version of the "Mickey Mouse March" on repeat, as the protagonist, caught in shafts of light, used a baton as a series of weapons, first to combat the illness and then to turn against herself. Yet, for all its demanding intensity, the piece was not, finally, a depressing experience. Ending with a toast, and with an angelic apparition scored to the sounds of David Bowie's "Blackstar," this show that looks dying squarely in the face proved a genuinely cathartic experience.

William's Things (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Two outdoor concerts also stood out in the Festival's diverse programme. On the first night, the trio William's Things, comprising Sean Palmer on vocals, Michał Górczyński on contrabass clarinet and Tomasz Wiracki on piano, transformed poetry by William Blake and Henry David Thoreau into a set of stunning jazz punk jams that captivated and confounded in equal measure in their creative approach to the original texts.

Combining folk troubadour sensitivity with theatrical, jazzman attitude and, at times, a Tom Waits-ish growl, charismatic vocalist Palmer also unleashed the most spectacular array of animal noises since Percy Edwards while still keeping every single word he sang crystal clear. From the moment he leapt up to initiate an audience singalong during the band's take on Blake's "The Blossom," the show sustained a great, cleansing energy.


Meanwhile, on the penultimate evening of the Festival, the band NeoKlez - Stanisław Leszczyński (violin)Damian Szymczak (clarinet), Piotr Tomala (accordion / guitar), Kacper Bardzki (bass guitar / double bass), and Kamil Wróblewski (drums, percussion) - delivered a similarly exhilarating set combining Klezmer tradition with rock, funk and techno modernity. A moving moment came when Leszczyński and Szymczak spontaneously wrapped their arms around each other as they paused briefly to watch their colleagues play, transported by the magic of the music. For the audience, the entire Festival felt like just such an embrace, and a vibrant reminder of the power of performance to transform, unite, challenge and enlighten.

Body / Memory / History - Retroperspektywy Festival 2020 took place at Fabryka Sztuki, Łódź, between 21-30 August. Full details of the Festival programme can be found here

Wednesday 26 August 2020

Film Review: Tenet (dir. Nolan, 2020)

There may not be a great deal of competition for the title in this oddest, most disturbing of years, but the status of Christopher Nolan's Tenet as the most anticipated film of 2020 is pretty much assured. If ever there was a film that already had an inflated sense of its own significance it's this one, and, as the first major studio release to emerge, with much delay, in this period, Tenet seems particularly transparent - flagrant, even - in its intention to dazzle the viewer and make a visit to a multiplex a must. Can Nolan be the saviour of cinema-going? (If you view "saving cinema" as being contingent upon Hollywood continuing to produce $200 million blockbusters involving massive amounts of waste, that is.) Well, we'll see.

Like Inception (2010), Tenet - from its palindromic moniker onwards - means to dazzle not only with expensive, high-tech thrills, but also with ideas. Nolan, whose second film Memento (2000) already explored issues of time and memory (in a decidedly more modest mode), has now latched onto the concept of temporal inversion. John David Washington's Protagonist (yeah) is an agent assigned to prevent World War III, no less, as he comes into conflict with Kenneth Branagh's Andrei Sator, a powerful Russian arms dealer out to destroy the world through manipulations of temporality. 

I know we're meant to be grateful that Tenet isn't a franchise film. But beneath its pretentious veneer it's still as derivative as hell, offering swanky James Bond globe-trotting thrills filtered through the lens of a first-year physics student sci fi fan (minor: philosophy), with bits of Terminator, Minority Report and John Le Carré thrown into the mix. Here we're in a "temporal Cold War" with characters charged with "saving the world from what might be." 

The concept of entropic reversion leads to some exciting sequences, as bullets fly back into guns and blown up buildings reassemble themselves, while Ludwig Göransson's unforgiving score twitches and pounds. But the ideas and much of the plot are a tangled jumble, and, when not succumbing to incomprehensibility, are delivered in a flat, expository manner. Again, Nolan corners the market in being both obvious and evasive. "Don't try to understand it; just feel it," is the dumbly meta advice delivered by a character at one point. 

The filmmaker's decreasing finesse with actors is evident in Washington's lack of spark here, in all the scenes with Dimple Kapadia as an arms dealer spelling out various plot points in Mumbai, and in a stilted cameo for Nolan fave Michael Caine, playing  a character called... Sir Michael. (Caine has been quoted as saying that he had no idea what the film was about while making it; from the awkwardness of his delivery, that much is clear.) 

Branagh is effective enough as a Soviet-era boy turned power-crazy oligarch, as brutal on the geopolitical front as he is on the domestic, and such a narcissistic meglomaniac that, diagnosed with terminal cancer, he's determined to take the rest of the world out with him (!). But the characterisation seems such a sop to paranoid anti-Russian American sensibilities. Honestly, could there be a safer villian? Slyly, Nolan also gives this bad boy a nugget of a lecture on climate change.

As his oppressed, abused spouse, Elizabeth Debicki - you might think of her in the adaptation of Le Carré's The Night Manager (2016) as you watch - stalks through the action with her godessy height, her captivating physique holding your attention more than her acting, perhaps. (A rare witty moment finds her stretching out her legs to open a car door with her feet during a backwards chase.) If there are too many Damsel in Distress tropes to the characterisation, Debicki gets her due at the end and manages to use her character's concern about her son (undeveloped as this relationship is) to give the picture a smidgeon of human feeling. 

Indeed, Tenet didn't really start clicking in any significant way for me until its finale, in which a spectacular city attack is intercut with a marital confrontation on a boat. And the coda that Nolan has cooked up is both punchy and poignant. Passing the viewer through initial intrigue, then boredom, then frustration, the film offers these belated rewards - not deep ones, to be sure, but just enough, perhaps, to lure me back - or forwards? - into a second viewing of the picture. 

Tenet is released in European cinemas now.

Monday 24 August 2020

Sight & Sound September 2020 Issue

The September 2020 issue of Sight & Sound is out now. I wrote a tribute to Earl Cameron and a review of Shannon Murphy's film Babyteeth for this issue. You can buy a copy here

Thursday 13 August 2020

Film Review: Summerland (dir. Swale, 2020)

Two Nell Gwynns for the price of one...? It's such a lovely touch that, making her film debut as writer director, the playwright Jessica Swale has brought together both of the actresses who played "pretty witty Nellie" in her 2015 play: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who originated the role in the play at the Globe) and Gemma Arterton, who took over the part in the following year's West End transfer of the production.

In Summerland, which was to have been the Closing Night film of this year's BFI Flare, Mbatha-Raw and Arterton are cast as lovers: Vera and Alice, who meet at a classical concert in 1920s London and start a secret affair. Their love story is told in fragmentary broadstrokes flashbacks - Charlestoning, driving, snuggling, tearful separation - from Alice's perspective. These colourful scenes contrast with the character's situation 20 years later. Here, during wartime, the previously open, emotional and curious Alice has morphed into an abrupt, self-sufficient solitary who's holed up in a Kent cottage beavering away at a thesis on the subject of pagan myths.

Nursing hurt feelings, and with no time or inclination to suffer fools, the uningratiating Alice is variously viewed by the community (Tom Courtenay's headmaster and Sian Phillips' Grandma are among its representatives) as a curiosity, a witch or a spy. A cig between her lips and bashing away at her typewriter, Arterton sketches taciturn, tunnel-visioned writerly obsession broadly but amusingly in these brisk early scenes. But she gets more notes to play when Alice is reluctantly charged with the caretaking of an evacuee from London, 11 year old Frank, whose amenable demeanour and questions about Alice's past gradually prize open her tough exterior.

Summerland is at best functional in terms of technique (and at times shaky both literally and figuratively); it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine it as a BBC TV drama circa 1987. That's not meant as a knock, though, and I found myself rooting for the film, even when its contrivances and melodramatic swerves started piling up.

Maybe part of that response was simply the joy of being back in a cinema for the first time in five months, but it also has to do with the intimate ambience that Swale creates - especially in the film's first half. Arterton and Lucas Bond, who is absolutely lovely as Frank, strike up a compelling rapport, leading to a deeply moving scene in which Alice's confession of her past love is not met with the expected response from the boy.

With its title suggesting a nod to another lesbian love story, Catherine Corsini's superb Summertime, Summerland also wins bonus points from me for evoking one of my all-time favourite films, Mary Agnes Donoghue's Paradise (1991), in its presentation of the effects of a sensitive child's presence on adults haunted by loss. (In addition Frank's friendship with the tough-talking tomboy Edie (Dixie Egerickx) also suggests the Willard (Elijah Wood) / Billie (Thora Birch) dynamic in Donoghue's film.) Summerland can't be said to sustain itself in the same way; the film starts sharp and ends soppy, and Mbatha-Raw's role is not as satisfyingly developed as Arterton's. But if the happy ending that Swale has contrived feels more than a bit like wish fulfilment, it also encapsulates the film's generous focus on the opening up of a shut-down, cynical character to the possibility of magic.

Summerland is in cinemas and available on Curzon Home Cinema.

Thursday 16 July 2020

A Human Wound: An Interview with Itay Tal About God of the Piano

Premiered at Rotterdam, Itay Tal's God of the Piano is a supremely confident feature debut by the writer-director and another fine addition to the thriving new Israeli cinema. A drama with a thriller's grip, Tal's Tel Aviv-set film focuses on a concert pianist, Anat (the compelling Naama Preis), undertaking some dubious decisions as, having failed to fully live up to her father's exacting musical standards, she strives to make her son a piano prodigy. Lean and stylish, God of the Piano is notable for its intelligent, subversive perspective on the place of talent in family dynamics and a woman's role within a male-dominated household - not to mention a patriarchal classical music world. Following the success of Sara Colangelo's superb US take on The Kindergarten Teacher, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine an American remake of God of the Piano in the future. I talked to Tal last year in Łódź.

Alex Ramon: How did God of the Piano come about? 

Itay Tal: It actually started as my graduation film and was meant to be a short. There were about 26 pages of script so I imagined it would be 30 minutes or so. But after 8 or 9 days, with only 60% of the film shot, I edited it and found that it was already about 36 minutes long. I wasn't going to give up anything in the script - all the scenes were necessary - so I thought I'm not going to shrink it but expand it to a feature instead.

AR: I understand you had some gaps in the shooting.

IT: Yes, the main reason for that was budget. We didn't get any funding from my initial application. It wasn't easy but to be honest this long process also had a few advantages in that I had more time to think things over due to the delays, and the script improved. I was also editing as we went along. For example, the big scene of the dinner at the father's house changed a lot, and I think it was for the better. So the lengthy process had its good sides, too. 

AR: Music is central to the film and the film feels like music in terms of the rhythmic way in which scenes are structured and edited. The opening, for example, is very brisk as we follow the boy, Idam, growing up. 

IT: That was always the intention. From the script stage, I understood that we'd move quickly through those opening scenes. The first ten or fifteen minutes of the film are very extreme - in some ways the most extreme section of the film - and for me the main story starts afterwards. So I wanted to get there fast.

AR: And how was the process of finding and working with the composers on the score?

IT: I got really lucky there. There are two great composers who worked on the film, Roie Shpigler and Hillel Teplitzky, along with a very talented composer/pianist, Eran Zvirin, who did all the playing for the film. Eran had already worked with me on my previous short, so we trusted each other. He recommended Hillel who we initially brought in to help the actors "fake" the piano playing; as, apart from Andy Levi as Idam, none of the actors were players. While that was going on he let me hear some of his compositions and I was really impressed. Later when Roie sent me the first draft of the score I listened to it about 50 times in a row! They really nailed it, and their work gave me more inspiration for some scenes.

AR: The film deals in part with the position of a woman in a family that doesn't value her. Could you say more about that theme? 

IT: Yes, it was an idea that came to me intuitively during the writing of the script. I've frequently been asked if Anat's position represents the woman's role in Israel generally. I don't feel that at all. Rather, this is the woman's role in this specific family. I tried to use every trick in the book to convey Anat's sense of separation and isolation in a very difficult situation, right from the opening scene where she's performing, and then, later, when she's giving birth alone. It was a way of pushing her to the extreme and making her confront the most difficult circumstances in solitude. 

That's why the scenes with the woman from the institute were important - a contrast to the very male older classical music world. Suddenly Anat makes this connection with another woman character. 

AR: Yes, I loved those scenes and that role is important in another way that's difficult to discuss without "spoilers"... But the important thing is that your view of Anat is sympathetic and feminist. Given some of her actions, how have audiences responded to her as a character?

IT: It's hard for some people to like her and I understand why. It's OK, of course, I mean, I also disagree with pretty much every decision that the character makes! But I understand and sympathise with her. The important thing is that even people who don't "like" her tend to stay and want to follow her journey. That investment is significant for me since I always worried that people wouldn't "survive" the first 10 minutes of the film. But they do. I think what hooks audiences is the horrible act she does at the beginning and the questions it throws up. Who is she? What led her to this?

AR: That's part of why the film is so suspenseful and feels like a thriller to me. In that way it also reminded me of Nadav Lapid's The Kindergarten Teacher. Here again you have a female protagonist and her dynamic with a talented child whom she's pushing in a certain direction. Was that film an inspiration in any way? 

IT: It was, and in fact all of Nadav Lapid's work is an inspiration for me. I really love it. I saw The Kindergarten Teacher a few months before starting to shoot God of the Piano. And another connection is that Nadav Lapid and Naama Preis are a couple in real life. 

AR: And how was the casting process? How did you find Naama Preis and Andy Levi?

IT: The casting took some time. But when Naama came to the audition it was kind of obvious that she was the one. She was so good. I asked her afterwards how she got into the character so fast and she told me that she felt a strong connection to Anat. And I think she does an amazing job, really carrying the film on her shoulders. 

When it came to the casting the role of Idam, I knew I couldn't get away with someone who doesn't know piano. So we looked for a player. We went to the conservatory in Tel Aviv, where we eventually shot as well. They helped me a lot. The teachers told me about a concert that was coming up and that I should attend it. I saw a lot of children perform and invited some for auditions. Eventually it wasn't hard picking Andy Levi; other than the fact of his obvious talent as a player, he's very intelligent. He was 13 or 14 when we started shooting and he really nailed the role. 

AR: Family dynamics, and the place of talent within that, are such a key theme of the film, aren't they?

IT: Yes, and I feel that this film is about something more than the musical context. For me, it's talking about a human wound: that of a child trying to win love from their parents by talent or with a tool - it could be through music, but also sports, or maths or something else, whatever the standards are in a particular household. Of course what human beings need is unconditional love. And the film shows the most conditional love there is. I think it's a wound that happens in a lot of families, something universal.

Perhaps the "cure," or the therapeutic process, for this is awareness most of all: knowing that it's happening. As I see it, the characters in this film know not what they do. They have no idea what's really going on. The only point where there is a realisation or awareness is in the last scene: when Anat "sees" something. It doesn't mean that it's going to be easy for her, far from it. But it's like a new era opening in her mind. 

AR: You premiered the film at Rotterdam. Do you enjoy the festival experience? 

IT: I really enjoy presenting the film. It's different every time and the audiences often surprise me. I'm thrilled that audiences received the film well. It exceeded my expectations that people seem to really connect with the film. They want to talk after, and they tell me it makes them think or that it stays with them. That's the biggest present I could get. 

AR: Can you say anything about your next project? 

IT: All I can say at this point is that it's another female-centred story. It's even going to be a bit more "extreme" than this one, in some ways, though perhaps less dark overall. It's still in early stages of development, but we're getting there.  

God of the Piano has just been released in cinemas in New Zealand. 

Wednesday 15 July 2020

Found Together: An Interview with Sean Cisterna About From the Vine

Based on Kenneth Canio Cancellara's novel Finding Marco, Sean Cisterna's From the Vine casts the venerable Joe Pantoliano as Marco Gentile, a Toronto business exec who departs the corporate world in order to revive his grandfather's vineyard in Acerenza, Southern Italy, much to the consternation of his wife Marina (Wendy Crewson). Leaning heavily on Pantoliano's charisma and DP Scott McClellan's lensing of some luscious Italian landscapes, Cisterna's likeable film harks back to such feel-good fare as Under the Tuscan Sun, and is now available for viewing on digital platforms. I spoke to Cisterna at the Cinergia festival in Łódź last year. 

Alex Ramon: When did your interest in filmmaking start?

Sean Cisterna: Very young. I remember going to see E.T. as a kid, and being overwhelmed, coming out crying, and just being really aware of the power of movies to transform us. I started making films with a video camera and then went on to study film in Toronto. 

You've taken From the Vine to various festivals. What has the reaction to the film been like?

We've shown the film around the world and the response has pretty much been the same. People say it's like a warm hug from an Italian grandmother! And wine always helps to bring us together! 

How does the film differ from the novel?

The book is more introspective. We made the film more plot-centred, while keeping the focus on Marco's journey and his reconnection with his roots in Italy.

Your films up to this point have focused on younger characters. What were the challenges of working with more experienced performers this time around?

Yes, I made a film for Netflix called Full Out and another called Kiss and Cry. So in a way working with older, more established actors meant coming out of my comfort zone. It was daunting to an extent, and Joe [Pantoliano] and I would both admit that we had some struggles along the way. Of course Joe's a very established actor who's acted more than I've directed so there was a bit of "head butting" at times. But gradually the charm of Italy won us all over and we developed a good working relationship. 

The dynamic between Joe's character and Wendy Crewson as his wife is one of the most delightful aspects of the film. And Marco Leonardi also puts in a good performance. 

Wendy was like the guardian angel on set. She was this warm being we could all go to and have a friendly discussion with. She also added to the script to make her character stronger which was a big benefit to the film. It was also great to have Marco Leonardi in the cast. Actually, he was one of the first actors to come on board after we contacted him when he was a special guest at the Italian-Canadian Film Festival in Toronto.  We were so happy that he loved the script and wanted to be part of it, bringing with him his history from films like Cinema Paradiso. 

It seems like the the village where you shot really opened up to you all. 

Yes, they were great with us. It was the first time that a film had been made there and the locals really wanted to participate. At one point there was a WhatsApp group with 700 people in it! Of course as a co-production we had to have a certain amount of Canadian and Italian crew and collaborators. It came together well, a great reminder of how cool it can be when people from different countries come together to create somethimg. We had some fun with that in various ways in the film, including with the score where we feature an Italian version of Blue Rodeo's "Lost Together," an iconic Canadian song, alongside Italian pop music.

From the Vine is available to watch on digital platforms now. 

Thursday 25 June 2020

Interview: Thomas Clay on Fanny Lye Deliver'd

I interviewed writer-director-composer Thomas Clay about his fantastic "Puritan Western" Fanny Lye Deliver'd, starring Maxine Peake, Charles Dance and Freddie Fox, which is available online from today. You can read the interview at Film International here

Sunday 14 June 2020

Song Preview: "Dancing in the Dark", Barb Jungr & Simon Wallace (Kristalyn Records, 2020)

The first song I ever heard Barb Jungr sing was by Bruce Springsteen: a version of "The River" that had so much intimacy, feeling and understated dramatic power that I was immediately captivated. This was February 2015 and a few days later, on Valentine's Day, I reviewed Jungr in concert for the first time. In the Southbank Centre's Purcell Room, accompanied by Simon Wallace on piano and Davide Mantovani on bass, Jungr delivered a supreme set of love-themed songs that ranged from the Isley Brothers' "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)" through Dylan's "I Want You" to Tom Rush's "No Regrets." It was a transcendent evening, and a perfect introduction to the artistry of one of the greatest, most dynamic and original performers that we have. 

I've seen Jungr in concert many times since then, with programmes dedicated to Nina Simone, Dylan and Cohen, The Beatles, and Sting, among others. The last time was at the premiere of her superb Brel/Dylan/self-penned collection Bob, Brel & Mewhich featured a spectacular appearance by The Fourth Choir on "If We Only Had Love." Jungr recently re-teamed with the Choir for a new release, the beautiful "In My Troubled Days," which you can listen to here

Now, reuniting with Simon Wallace, Jungr returns to Springsteen's work to deliver a recording of "Dancing in the Dark" that was developed and recorded in lockdown. For Jungr, the song itself now speaks to that experience and to the uncertainty of the future: "For all of us in music and live performing arts, the news is grim. It made me think about how we are all waiting to see what might happen, and how we are all, wherever we are, Dancing in the Dark." 

As with "The River," Wallace's delicate piano, bass and cello arrangement provides an intimate musical context, and Jungr's caressing, crystal-clear vocal turns an upbeat rock song into a contemplative ballad: a private expression that connects deeply with the listener. Intimations of stasis, frustration, absurdity and alienation emerge freshly illuminated, and so does their possible redemption. Jungr's voice dances over the title lyrics at the end, repeating the words, an expression of uncertainty turned into a poignant, shared affirmation.

Like "In My Troubled Days," Jungr and Wallace's "Dancing in the Dark" is exquisite: a balm that we need right now. It also prompts a hopeful anticipation of that future moment - whenever it may be - when we can join together again to hear the song in live performance, in that very special communion that a Jungr show provides. 

"Dancing in the Dark" is available from 26 June. Pre-order here.

Further reading:

What the Song Asks For: An Interview with Barb Jungr

Life of a Song: Dancing in the Dark

Saturday 23 May 2020

A Desire to Bring Colour into Life: An Interview with Darya Zhuk

Unfolding in mid-1990s Belarus, Darya Zhuk's debut feature Crystal Swan (Khrustal) focuses on Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a DJ who intends to escape her homeland for a new life in the US. A mistake on her forged visa application throws a spanner in the works, though, forcing Velya to decamp to a village that's the location of the crystal-making factory of which she's pretended to be the manager. There Velya finds herself embroiled in a troublesome family's wedding plans, as she awaits a phone call that will determine her fate. Visually vibrant, consistently surprising, wryly funny, and more than a little melancholy, Zhuk's distinctive debut - which I reviewed for Sight & Sound - revels in '90s materiality as it examines the ambitions of its heroine, and her hopes of a life beyond Belarus. 

I enjoyed speaking to Zhuk following Crystal Swan's premiere at the London Film Festival, where we discussed her background and inspirations for the film, the importance of challenging stereotypes, the use of music, and the Belorussian "desire to bring colour into life." Crystal Swan is streaming now at Mubi.

AR: When did your interest in filmmaking begin?

DZ: I found film in a roundabout way, and it was actually through music. I was studying Economics, but not enjoying it, and I wanted to meet creative people. I took an electronic music composition class, and immediately had a feeling of "Oh my God, this is my tribe!" I find it hard to articulate how that desire to direct came about. It's just something that haunts you. I would go to see films, and sit in the dark and cry. I couldn't explain it. It was just a strong feeling of "I want to be part of this."

And this was in the US, right?

Yes, I went from Belarus to the States for school and I went to film school there too. I call going to film school "the most expensive vacation." All of my other schooling was on scholarship as a Belorussian student. But I felt that I had to go to film school, even if it meant being in debt for the rest of my life.

Darya Zhuk (Photo: KVIFF)

What films did you grow up watching in Belarus and what are some of your influences?

My Grandma would drop me off at the cinema on a Sunday morning. I saw a lot of Soviet children's films, and some Czech films, all stuff from that area. I didn't really watch American films then, but when we did see them they all looked like horrible B movies to us because they were always terrible copies! We assumed they were bad cinema. It wasn't until I came to the US that I realised that we really knew nothing about good cinema. I had to rewatch a lot and really educate myself.

When you're at film school there's this "film school language" that you get exposed to, you know, Tarkovsky, Bergman. They're great but at a certain point you realise it's not you, and that you have to find your own inspirations and voice. I realised I loved Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki, and that irony and humour are very important to me. In terms of female filmmakers, I love Kira Muratova and Larisa Shepitko. It feels like gender wasn't a barrier in the Soviet system, and there were many amazing women.

To what extent was Crystal Swan inspired by your own experience of trying to get to the States?

Somewhat, but not the actual story. I've been thinking about this film, really, for the past 10 years. I had a version of the script in 2011, but then it kept getting re-written and "massaged" by Helga Landauer. She's a Russian screenwriter and poet who lives in New York, and we collaborated. One short I made in 2015, called The Real America, is a bit of a precursor; it's more autobiographical, but it has a similar kind of wild character who refuses to be victimised.

Crystal Swan was definitely inspired by some real women I knew. I had girlfriends like Velya; they fascinated me. I loved them, but I was always afraid that something would happen to them. They were so wild. And of course I loved the subculture...the music always smelled like freedom to me: the fascination with the West, a breath of fresh air. So I can relate to the character's desire to take on the world. To self-actualise. That feeling of wanting something more: some abstract America that we don't know the realities of.

That's one of the themes, in fact: the tension between the fantasy of a place you want to escape to, and the reality: that nagging sense of doubt.

Yes. These are issues that come up for anyone who doesn't live in the country they were born in. Did I do the right thing? Am I to blame for things that go wrong? There are seldom easy answers to these questions.

How did you find Alina Nasibullina to play Velya? She's a theatre actress, right?

Yes, mostly in Russia you get a theatre training, and then you go on to do both theatre and film. But this is her first leading role. It was a long process; I'd cast the whole film but I hadn't found the lead. You want to fall in love with someone, you know? I'd worked with the casting director before on a TV show in Moscow: an ensemble comedy that was very hard to cast. She knew people that I didn't know and could track them down. So that's how, at the 11th hour, she sent me Alina and said: "You must see her."

My whole crew kind of gathered around to watch the piece Alina sent in and were like: "Who is this?!" She was funny and quirky - she might have been slightly drunk when she did the piece! - and obviously amazing but we wondered if she was the kind of person who'd show up for work... Of course it turned out that she'd had this amazing education and was so skilled and professional. So I said: "I must see her now! I'm in Minsk and shooting in two weeks and I have no one to shoot!"

Another filmmaker I love is Susan Seidelman, in particular Desperately Seeking Susan. And when Alina showed up I was like "Oh my God, you look like Madonna!" But she has so much presence of her own that it wasn't about her doing a Madonna "thing." She just oozes charisma and she changes so much. I love seeing all the new Alinas.

I think that with another actress the film would have been more of a drama, but Alina naturally has this comic quality, an ironic sensibility.

I wanted to ask you about genre. Given some of the darker elements in the film, how did you feel about LFF putting the film in the "Laugh" strand?

I always intended it to be a drama with comedic elements: ironic, tragicomic. When it was put into the "Laugh" gala in London I said I would also take the "Cry" section! I guess it's easier to sell a comedy, but the mix of tones is important to me. It's an Eastern European thing in some ways.

How was the response at the LFF premiere? Did the Brits laugh?

I ducked out, but I heard there was a lot of laughter. There were many Eastern Europeans in who speak the language and get the nuances. But Belorussians are the hardest audience for me. Because it's home and they're like: "This will be sent around the world, and it represents us. Why don't you love your homeland?!"

How is the film industry in Belarus right now?

The Government-funded films are about the war and other historical subjects; they're building up a national identity narrative and they're pretty depressing. But there are some independent filmmakers, doing low budget stuff that's interesting, some of it with a mumblecore vibe.

And what was your funding process like for Crystal Swan?

Excruciating, actually. We got some from the States, some from Germany, some private equity money... It allowed me to retain creative freedom, which is the most important thing, but getting everything together was a lot of work.

How did you choose the music for the film? You use it pretty sparingly throughout.

I wanted to include music that she could realistically listen to: that would be of the time and already released by the period that the film is set. But it turned out that a lot of it had aged badly. I was like: "Wow, we used to listen to this?!" A lot of it is just unbearable! And it's house music, 4/4 repetitive, so when you put it in a scene it doesn't have development, it doesn't escalate. So it kind of ruins your dramatic structure. I eventually found only a couple of tracks that could work. The important thing is that it's a storytelling device. It reminds you of her dreams, and it symbolises freedom. When her Walkman breaks it's like she's on the moon.

LFF has been extremely (some might say excessively) proud of the fact that this year 38% of the featured films are by female directors. How does that compare to the situation in Belarus? 

I don't know the statistics of our film festival, Listopad, in Belarus, but I feel that we do have a lot of female filmmakers, not necessarily those being picked for international festivals, but in terms of the national programme, there's a decent parity. That's also true in neighbouring countries like Georgia.

On Crystal Swan, I worked hard to make sure we had a female DP and I'm very proud of my collaboration with Carolina [Costa]. I also have a female producer and AD, and that was a fantastic collaboration. The screenwriter is a woman. So I feel that it's a feminist film, not only in terms of what's up there on the screen.

It was important to tackle stereotypes in the film, too. I tried to reverse the dynamic a bit. You see a lot of women working, and men not being present or being silent. And Eastern European women do that. They do a couple of jobs and that's considered the norm.

Tell me about your collaboration with Carolina, and the look of the film, which has great vibrancy - plus a distinctive ratio.

I just realized that I love colours. I was finding references and realised that the ones I was pulling on had a lot of colour. Belarus is very clean. It's always been like that. In the downtown, everything is painted. It's beautiful. There's a government building right near my house in Minsk. It has some architectural elements that resemble a vase. The building is blue and the vase is pink. I think that really says something about us as a society. There's such a desire to bring colour into life. I go back there and find myself  observing and appreciating all those details. It's not this grey reality that some people still like to think of as defining Eastern Europe. That's such a stereotype.

The apartment that we filmed in belongs to an elderly lady and, honestly, we changed so little. The kitchen really is red and crazy, and the living room, the carpets... we just literally put in one throw! I pulled a few elements a little tighter within the frame. But really it was all there. And it became the language of the film.

As for the ratio, it's something that Carolina and I discussed, and we felt that it helped to convey the character's sense of claustrophobia. It evokes the 90s a bit, too. I felt like: Well, I have few elements. We don't have much shooting time. Every decision I make needs to serve the story.

Which recent films have you liked?

I loved Michał Marczak's All These Sleepless Nights. Happy as Lazzaro by Alice Rohrwacher was also wonderful. And Roma... Oh my God, it's a masterpiece. That elegant simplicity. It looks like he's doing do little and really he's doing so much. And it's such a feminist film. I was amazed.

And how about your own next project ?

I have some ideas. A couple of things about love in certain contexts... But then when I saw Cold War, I felt like it had all been done.

Oh, I really don't think Cold War does it all...

Maybe you're right. I thought the film was great, but perhaps he over-cut it. It needed more love story, more emotion, to get it to that end. But yes, love and geopolitics is definitely what I'm interested in exploring. It's a fascinating mix.

You can stream Crystal Swan on Mubi here.

Further reading: