Film review – Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2017)

If you’ve seen Toni Erdmann, you may be forgiven for leaving the cinema mightily confused. Not because the film was overly complicated, but perhaps because you’d watched a film drastically wide of what you’d been expecting. Marketed primarily as a German-Austrian slapstick comedy (schpalschtick? I’m coining it now), what audience have instead been challenged to watch is an affecting tragic drama that deals with a man’s disjointed relationship with his career-focussed daughter and tries to cultivate some kind of relationship amidst the complicated web of activity she has built around herself.

Toni Erdmann is the alter ego name of Winfried Conradi (played by Peter Simonischek), the father of Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller). She is working as a business consultant in Bucharest, but returns to her hometown following the death of the family dog. When Winfried realises she is unduly stressed and taking a fake phone call in the back garden, he decides to follow her back to Bucharest and spy on her to find out more about her life.

 

One of the main polarising aspects of the film is the relationship between the father and daughter. Depending on how you interpret it, you might see him as a terrible father who is undermining his daughter’s progress in her career. She is trying her hardest to be taken seriously in her role in the midst of some terrible sexism in her workplace, but he is treating her whole life as a joke and she is right to distance herself due to the feeling of resentment over his actions. One cringe-worthy encounter involves an important business meeting with an important contact Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn) at an evening drinks social, whereby she makes a serious suggestion on a business level, but instead is asked by the man to take his wife shopping, whilst Ines’s father – as the ridiculous titular Toni – is invited for more drinks. A frustrating scene that portrays the subtleties of sexism at their absolute worst.

However, if you side with the father and assume that he is a totally devoted father – or at least one regretting not being devoted in the past – then you can read it that he has seen his daughter struggling, depressed and stressed, and wants to help her realise that there is more to life than being stressed at work. When he sees his daughter being pushed around by her workmates and not being treated equally, then he realises he needs to step in and show her what she can’t see – that she’s wasting her time.

 

After contemplating the film for over a week, I’m still not entirely sure where I sit on this, though I’m leaning towards the latter.

There are moments of real comedy in the film, but they are often laced with tragedy serving to undercut any notion that this is a comedy. There is a memorable scene when she organises a birthday brunch, which is only organised because it offers an opportunity for work colleagues to socialise. However, when she gets stuck in her dress whilst getting ready, she decides to simply take the dress off and answer the door with no clothes on. Initially humorous, the ripples of laughter disintegrated as the audience in my screening realised that we were witnessing a woman having a breakdown.

It’s a truly intelligent film that refuses to provide any definitive interpretations on the situation, instead allowing the viewers to make up their own mind. Thought-provoking and well-executed – exactly what a film should be.

Gate of Hell / 地獄門 (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Teinosuke Kinugasa’s film Gate of Hell was a global smash upon its original release, winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1954, plus a couple of Academy Awards. Now re-released sixty years on by Masters of Cinema and Criterion, cinemaphiles are able to enjoy the film all over again, allowing a whole new generation to appreciate a masterful piece of cinema.

Set in 1159 Japan, the plot centres around Morito Endo (played by Kazuo Hasegawa), who is involved with evacuating Sanjō Palace in Kyoto during a revolt. A woman, Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyō) volunteers as decoy for the shogun’s sister, and he is amongst those asked to transport her out of the palace and lure the attackers away from the real princess. The plan is successful, and as a reward for his heroism he is offered a gift of his choosing. Unfortunately, he requests Kesa’s hand in marriage, only to find out that she is already wed. For a proud samurai, this is a disastrous embarrassment, and the film from then on deals with the emotional effect this has on Morito, Kesa and Kesa’s husband Wataru Watanabe (played by Isao Yamagata).

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The film looks and sounds brilliant from the start, with the recently developed Eastmancolor used to bring 12th Century Japan to life. It is an alternative view of the shogun era of Japan, which so often at the time had been detailed in popular films by the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu, but in black and white. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see this film back in 1954 and be blown away by the loud visuals and intricate costumes.

That said, a film wouldn’t endure for sixty years without a fantastic story and excellent acting, and this film has those in abundance. It’s paced perfectly and at 90 minutes there isn’t much in the way of filler. The actors are on top form too, harking back to the recently-diminished silent film era with long periods of silence counteracted with extreme close ups as emotions engulf their faces. It is a clever technique and one that would have helped set it apart when it reached Western audiences.

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Sourced from the 1954 New York Times review of Gate Of Hell, the comments from Jun Tsuchiya, Consul General of Japan, add context to the success of the film and the impact it had on the wider reputation of Japan globally. Speaking at the premiere, he said “The successful entree of Japanese films in the world market, may well have not only cultural, but also, I venture to suggest, economic consequences for both our countries. To me, it is entirely conceivable that the export of superior films will greatly help my country in its present unremitting struggle to become self-sufficient, to rely on trade, not aid.”

It is interesting to think of those comments in terms of the global view of Japan today. Buoyed by the hyper-acceleration of popularity of new technology and most global brands from Japan being technology-based (Sony and Nintendo spring to mind), it is ironic that they pulled themselves out of financial struggles to launch themselves forwards by looking so far into their past, especially when in this case the film’s initial popularity seems to be in part down to the use of cutting-edge film colouring technology.

Gate of Hell is out now on Masters of Cinema and Criterion Blu-ray and DVD.

Wakolda (Lucia Puenzo, 2014)

Lucia Puenzo’s controversial new film is a thriller of sorts that really failed to thrill me in any way. Based partly on fact, it centres around a family living in Patagonia in the 1960s who are unexpectedly befriended by a German doctor. This doctor, it turns out, is actually Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele in hiding. He takes an unhealthy interest in their daughter Lilith and in the father’s hobby of making steampunk dolls with creepy beating hearts.

I’m not up on my post-second-world-war Nazi manhunt history, so I can’t comment on the factual accuracy of it all, but what I can say is that the finer details seemed a little far-fetched. The fact he was in Latin America in this period has been proved in many historical documents. However, I can’t relate in any way to a family that would allow their youngest daughter to be experimented on by a complete stranger who is quite obviously in hiding, especially when that man is German and it is known that Nazi war criminals are in hiding in South America. And you’re in South America. And he’s a creep that wants to experiment with drugs on your daughter.

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The acting also left a lot to be desired. The normally animated Brendemuhl (Mengele) pitches his character as too wooden and fails to elicit the correct level of hatred that is required. Indeed, for large periods of the film it feels like we are being encouraged to feel empathy for him, which in my eyes is quite divisive. Perhaps the director should be praised for being brave and allowing the actor to portray him as something other than a cinema-standard psychopath. For me, the result is just a little bit directionless.

Wakolda has won awards at festivals all around the world and perhaps the global appeal is down to the fact it is a story that involves the history of so many people’s countries. On the pure level of looking at it as a convincing and effective story in its own right, I think it falls short. It certainly wasn’t a roller-coaster ride and I didn’t really feel much for the characters, so when the story reached its climax I just didn’t feel overly engaged.

Wakolda is out now in selected cinemas across the UK.

Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2014)

The latest film from the Dardenne brothers, Two Days, One Night, stars Marion Cotillard in what on the face of it seems quite an unlikely situation: a woman is voted out of her job by her colleagues as a result of a vote between her colleagues who choose between keeping her in employment or receiving their annual bonus. Whilst it felt far-fetched when I read the synopsis, the way it is delivered makes it not just believable but heart-breaking.

Whilst the whole story centres around Sandra’s struggles as she reacts to the news of the decision, we are treated to an expert display of serial short story writing. Sandra (Cotillard) has from 5pm on Friday night until 9am on Monday morning to visit, in person, each of her 16 work colleagues and convince them to vote in her favour when the ballot is repeated on Monday morning. Given the minimal screen time they have to offer their reasoning (the whole film is just 95 minutes in length) each character is wonderfully deep. This ensures that this one-woman tour-de-force doesn’t begin and end with the main star.

The shooting technique adds to the realism. Most scenes are completed in a single shot, which gives the effect of feeling like you’re a bystander allowed to eavesdrop on the most personal and revealing of conversations. We see extreme stubbornness, tears of guilt and logical reasoning as each character paints the picture of how they came to their decision and – more importantly – whether or not they will change it.

It is a film that sets itself up to spark debate amongst the viewer. It’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser. It is too heavily laden with working-class socio-realism for that. But does it achieve what it sets out to do? Probably, yes.

Two Days, One Night is out now at selected cinemas.

Ilo Ilo / 爸妈不在家 (Anthony Chen, 2014)

Back in October 2013, I saw the first ten minutes or so of Ilo Ilo in the most unfortunate of circumstances. Managing to get down to the London Film Festival (LFF) for a couple of days, I had to carefully select my programme of films based on stuff I really was desperate to see and then fill it with pictures I found interesting that I knew little about. This film was the latter, but my viewing pleasure was doomed from the start.

In a packed auditorium in Leicester Square, director Anthony Chen looked in in horror as his debut feature – on its UK premiere and being screened in competition – began playing with a terrible synchronisation problem that left the sound about two seconds ahead of the action. In the first instance I was disgruntled, having wasted an opportunity to so many other delightful films on offer by picking one that failed to even get started. Over the next few days, though, I began to be more frustrated by the fact I wasn’t going to get to see the rest of the film for an unspecified period of time.

Indeed, I did get to see the film last Tuesday, a whole nine months since my first attempt. As the feature started the familiar sound of Jiale feigning injury brought back memories of the LFF, and the dread overtook me that maybe I wouldn’t get past the first ten minutes again. At last, though, success. Everything was as it should be. Was it worth the wait? In every way.

The story focuses on a young boy called Jiale, who is causing issues at home and at school that are too much of a burden for heavily pregnant mother Hwee Leng and struggling father Teck. To ease the strain, they employ a housemaid Teresa (or Terry), a Filipina in search of better job opportunities. We join them on a journey as the family learns to adapt to the extra presence in the house and Terry becomes part of the family.

If you’re even considering seeing a Singaporean independent film at the cinema, then I’m going to assume it’s your kind of thing. I chose to see Ilo Ilo over the likes of Maleficent, Transformers: Age of Extinction and other summer blockbusters. I did this not to be purposefully obtuse and avoid populist opinion, but because I enjoy the wide variety of storytelling methods that I find when watching films from other cultures and continents. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Singaporean film before. Every director is influenced by his surroundings and experiences, and this is inferred in the way they tell their stories.

The film has no car chases, no romantic sub-plots, no heated affairs. It avoids a clichéd happy ending, even when there was an opportunity to play out a really obvious conclusion. To do so would have betrayed the previous 70 minutes of subtle and realistic character development. The point of the story isn’t to resolve everyone’s financial and emotional issues, but rather to show the massive effect the housemaid Terry has on Jiale’s life, as we join him on a journey from being a misbehaving child to something a little easier for his parents to cope with through the bond he forms with Terry.

Ilo Ilo. Not a film for every cinema goer, but if you’ve come as far as searching out this blog to look for an opinion on it then I have an inkling that it’s something you’ll enjoy. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

Ilo Ilo is showing at selected independent cinemas in the UK now.

The Wind Rises / 風立ちぬ (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)

“I am talking about doing something with animation that can’t be done with manga magazines, children’s literature, or even live-action films.”

It’s that last line that really bothers me. That was Hayao Miyazaki talking, in 1978, about what animation means to him. It wasn’t a hard quote to locate. I only started reading his autobiography (of sorts), Starting Point, five minutes ago. It was right there in the third paragraph of the first page.

I don’t think there’s any denying that, when looking back at the career of one of the greatest and most imaginative directors of all time (and I’m not limiting that to animation either), he has created a body of work that surpassed that which would have been capable in any other medium. If you look at Nausicaä, Princess Mononoke, even his work on Sherlock Hound The Detective, it’s difficult to see how any other medium mentioned above could have portrayed his story any better than in 2D animation.

So when I was sat there at the cinema watching The Wind Rises, even before I read that opening quote, I couldn’t help but wish for the magic to ooze back into play. I was with a fellow anime fan and another friend who was unaware of any of his output, and we all agreed that the film could have been better served as a live-action film. There wasn’t really any call for the animation. Yes, it looked visually stunning as usual, but it didn’t add anything to the story.

It’s sad that Miyazaki has chosen to finish his body of work with this film. Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely not a terrible film and it won’t tarnish his reputation. The story is solid, the characters well-realised, the backdrops deep in detail. It’s just a bit of an anticlimax after a series of such amazing films.

One for the completists and die-hard fans, but if you’re new to Miyazaki, you’d be better to start with Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away.

The Wind Rises is out in cinemas in the UK now. Reviewed was the Japanese version with English subtitles.

Godzilla (Ishirō Honda 本多 猪四郎,1954)

Spectacular special effects, a metaphor for nuclear weapons, the start of a still-popular franchise. There are many things that have been repeatedly said about the 1954 original of the Godzilla story by Ishirō Honda. But how does it stand up to viewing sixty years down the line?

I imagine a lot of people will seek the film out ahead of the release of the Gareth Edwards modernisation next month, a task made all-the-more easier by the fact it is out of copyright and there are plenty of copies available for free around the net.

For those not used to watching foreign or classic cinema, it might come as a shock. There are a few things you need to buy into if you’re going to enjoy it.

The use of miniatures at the time probably took most cinema-goer’s breath away, but nowadays you can spot them a mile away. What we are seeing looks very little like the complete destruction of Tokyo, but more like the complete destruction of a very little Tokyo. They’ve not even got the speed of the slowed-down film correct.

It’s also difficult to watch the film without seeing Godzilla as a man in a rubber suit. Haruo Nakajima is clearly putting a lot of effort into his portrayal but it’s hardly convincing by today’s standards. Remember, this is over two decades after King Kong had terrorised the big screen and there must have been some advances in technology in the intervening years.

I have seen this film before, probably around seven years ago. The flimsy conclusion to the film really had slipped my mind. Having annihilated several towns and cities in his reign of terror, we are quickly asked to buy into the concept that putting Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer under water will do the trick. Wait… Hasn’t he spent most of the film breathing fire on people above water? I know he’s sleeping underwater, so I guess he’s amphibious? We already know he can survive for hours above water so why does he die immediately? And why are there no dead floating fish at the surface? If the oxygen has been completely removed then why do the humans live on? I know, I know… He’s a giant fire-breathing dinosaur… Everything else is water under the bridge.

Overall I see this film as entertaining but flawed, historically significant but unbelievable. I enjoyed my time watching it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone looking to get into classic Japanese cinema.

And at least it wasn’t directed by Roland Emmerich.

Oscars 2014 – What missed out

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With the Oscars taking place later tonight, I look at the films that have been overlooked by the Academy.

Monsters University
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Okay, it wasn’t the best picture Pixar has come up with over the years. It wasn’t even the best Monsters film they’ve produced. That said, they did find space for The Croods in the nomination pool, which was fine but could you really say it was better than MU? If Pixar had released The Croods, there would have been mass derision. Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises is a hot tip to take the prize this year, but I can’t comment until it gets a UK release.

Rush
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I feel like this film has suffered because it wasn’t released in the typical awards season. It didn’t play by the book. It came out back in September 2013 and performed well at the box office without an Academy recommendation. Bruhl and Hemsley were both outstanding, not just as eerily accurate take-offs but as flawless acting performances in their own right. The recreation of the classic races was spot on from Howard and the story was as exhilarating as the action. In my eyes, it could have easily come in as the 10th film on the best film list. To not even get an appreciative nod for best makeup (Bruhl’s scarring was critical and spot on) or visual effects (though admittedly this was a strong category this year) is surprising.

Inside Llewyn Davis
It’s the Coen brothers latest release and they usually get nominated, right? Not this year. Whilst it’s a strong year for nominations in the Best Picture category, it should have received a nod for best song. In fact, whole soundtrack could have been considered. It received one for best sound mixing, which is a bit of a throwaway category overall. At least it was appreciated on some level.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
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Okay, I don’t agree that this film should have been nominated for best film or best acting or anything else. However, the song “Atlas” by Coldplay is easily one of the best original songs in what was admittedly a poor year for soundtracks. It’s a shame they had a song on the list that was later disqualified, especially one as awful as “Alone, Yet Not Alone” by Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel. There was also space for the bland “Ordinary Love” by U2. Neither of these should have made it and they would have made room for “Atlas” and, well, anything from Inside Llewyn Davis or Her.

Saving Mr Banks
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One of the biggest and most talked about shocks was the lack of a nomination for Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks. It’s frustrating to see Meryl Streep nominated for the 18th time for a role that she will never win the top prize for when Thompson could have been a front runner for.

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I would have loved it if the Academy could have found it in themselves to nominate Uma Thurman’s fantastic supporting performance in Lars Von Trier’s latest film. It blew me away and really stood out in what was otherwise a pretty bland film. That said, it may not have qualified this year so we may have to wait another year before we see if this – and indeed Christian Slater’s excellent performance – was overlooked.

Elsewhere
Tom Hanks missed out twice for Saving Mr Banks and Captain Phillips, the latter being the biggest shock as it is probably his best performance for over a decade. Whoever thought the cinematography in 12 Years A Slave wasn’t worth noting must have been on drugs. Nothing for Robert Redford’s performance in All Is Lost was also a big surprise, though I’m not convinced Redford lost any sleep over it. The Butler was a massive omission but maybe a little too much like a typical Oscar nominee.

The Book Thief (Brian Percival, 2014)

I’m a massive fan of foreign films. If a small film from an unknown director or studio outside of the US or UK has reached cinemas in the UK then it’s a pretty good indicator that it’s a film has something special about it. I managed to get hold of some preview tickets for this film and felt pretty excited at the start when the subtitles started and I thought “Thankfully, they’ve got it right”.

Then Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush started talking and that’s where it all fell apart.

Why oh why would you pull in two hugely successful English actors and have them put on hammy German accents whilst speaking English, when Germany is full of excellent actors who would surely have been desperate for a big role in such a widely released film. I’m sure Christopher Waltz, Diane Kruger and Daniel Bruhl aren’t the only ones available. I have never ever understood why studios refrain from subtitles in this situation. Most people watching aren’t so stupid they can’t follow it. Heck, we English-speakers might even learn a language or two in the process. Please please please stop ruining films with this approach. If you want to see how to get it right then just watch the first ten minutes of Inglourious Basterds.

That said, the story is told well and there’s a fantastic performance from both the leads: 13-year-old Sophie Nelisse starring as book-obsessed Liesel, and her friend Rudy played by Nico Liersch (hurray a German!). I enjoyed it once I got past the annoying language distraction. It’s visually pretty if a little dull and soft. The John Williams score is beautifully emotive (as you’d expect from one of the greatest film composers of all time).

I’m sad that it didn’t quite hit the mark for me and I wonder whether I would have enjoyed it more if they had gone with a more realistic approach to the dialogue.

The Book Thief is released in UK cinemas on 26th February 2014.

Casse-tête Chinois [Chinese Puzzle] (Cedric Klapisch, 2014)

I have to confess that I saw Casse-tête Chinois (Chinese Puzzle) at the 2013 London Film Festival and knew nothing about it. It was picked on a whim when I had a gap to fill in my schedule and I wasn’t able to put any research into it beforehand. During the post-film Q&A with director Klapisch, I learned that it is in fact the third installment of what is known as the Spanish Apartment trilogy, following L’Auberge Espagnole (2002) and Les Poupées russes (2005).

It stars Romain Duris as Xavier, a novelist whose ex-wife and children have moved to New York. The story concentrates on the complicated web of relationships that surround him as he tries to find an apartment, a job and some kind of life. Included in this web are his ex-wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly, now with her new husband), his ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) and her children, his best friend Isabelle (Cecile de France) and her partner Ju (Sandrine Holt) who are trying to have children of their own (with Xavier’s help), and many more bit players, all full of character. It’s a great ensemble cast and it’s clear they had a fantastic time filming together.

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The film is a joy to watch, with laugh-out-loud moments littered throughout. It’s unusual and quirky. It did not matter one bit that I didn’t know any of the background; the characters are well defined and it works very well as a standalone film. The hilarious business meeting where Martine has to speak Chinese, the sham marriage Spanish Xavier goes through with a Chinese girl to become American, and the crescendo where they all come together in one edge-of-the-seat hilarious finale – the balance is spot on. There are some more serious moments too, not least Isabelle’s affair with her au pair, but these tend to (eventually) be dealt with in a light-hearted manner.

It’s probably not going to make massive waves outside France, which is a shame because there are some lovely romantic comedies being made in that country at the moment and they deserve a little more attention. It may well also be the last installment in the series, with the director alluding to the fact it was difficult to convince some of them – especially Tautou – to come back for the third chapter.

I’d recommend it if you fancy a humorous and whimsical journey through someone else’s very complicated problems and need an emotional lift. It certainly won’t disappoint you.

Casse-tête chinois is released later in 2014 in the UK.

Watch the trailer here.

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