DVD Review: Sofia’s Last Ambulance

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Shot primarily using three dashboard mounted cameras, Ilian Metev’s award winning documentary Sofia’s Last Ambulance captures the unaffected focus and inherent compassion of two medics and their driver, as they navigate gruelling shifts providing service to a turbulent society. Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia is the setting for this beguiling film where a population of over one million is served by only thirteen ambulances. Dr Krassi Yordanov, Nurse Mila Mikhailova and driver Plamen Slavkov are each framed head on, creating a portrait of their gaze through the ambulance windshield, where Metev’s camera captures the anxiety and determination of the team in attempting to maintain communication with the base, and patience in traversing the pot-hole riddled roads on the way to their next emergency. Between patients, shots are held long enough to capture moments of interior thought expressed aloud, such as Krassi’s absent-minded assertion of his preference for gardening during his day off. Such an approach gives primacy to the team’s humanity, providing an insight into how Krassi, Mila and Plamen see the world and going some way to explain how they manage to operate under such difficult circumstances.

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Sofia’s Last Ambulance was filmed over three years, which allowed Metev and the small crew a large catalogue of footage from which to edit. It’s testament to the fluidity and coherence of the editing by Metev and Betina Ip that they managed to wrangle hundreds of hours down to a trim 77 minutes.  It’s also apparent in imagining what footage wasn’t used, how in tune with his protagonists Metev is – their frustration at the failing support infrastructure, which appears to leave them adrift from reasonable communication for long periods of time, their anger at the inconsideration of other drivers on the road, and their calm handling of patients that are understandably apprehensive of the broken health care system. Out of a moral instinct to protect the anonymity of the patients the team attend to, Metev keeps them out of frame, focusing instead solely on Plamen, Krassi and Mila, which allows an engagement with their perspective and their reactions, perhaps much deeper than if the patient’s presence was more heavily featured. Which is not to say the patients are absent, rather they are simply heard but not seen, Tom Kirk’s sound work picking up the essential heightened emotions and nuances of muted verbal exchanges to create a highly effective aural atmosphere.

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Metev also forgoes direct interviews with the team, instead allowing their feelings and opinions about their work to be revealed in their actions. Krassi doesn’t hold back his frustration when remonstrating his colleagues at the switchboard for keeping them in the dark for thirty minutes with no information, and in a quieter moment, we learn something of the way Mila perceives herself and others as she is seen watching a woman in the street, imagining another life – a life perhaps very different to her own. This way of observing is strikingly effective, as despite the mounted cameras being presumably hard to miss, the team appear unaware of being filmed – something that Metev has attributed in interview to their work simply demanding all their attention. Amongst scenes of Mila attempting to calm wounded patients in the back of the ambulance, as it drills along pot-holed roads, humour emerges as the common factor both in the way we observe Krassi, Mila and Plamen relate to each other, and eventually in the warmth of feeling Metev creates around them, through the repetition of certain behavioural traits. Almost constant chatter about the next cup of coffee, and the incongruity of seeing three health care professionals chain smoking between calls, presents a vision of three friends supporting each other, bringing a humility to their extraordinary working conditions that is overwhelmingly poignant.fn078389_pic_02

Also included in Second Run DVD’s release of Sofia’s Last Ambulance, is Metev’s 2008 short film, Goleshovo, an incredible portrait of the titular Bulgarian town, whose elderly population totals less than sixty, and each of the inhabitants face a daily struggle for survival. Again, by unobtrusively observing the town’s people, Metev demonstrates an acute sensitivity towards their subtlety of expression, slowly developing a bond with his protagonists that is eventually deeply moving.

DVD Review: Independencia

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A film harking back to the days of early cinema. The black and white flicker of 35mm grain softening expertly lit scenes, in which actors perform in period costume on a sound stage. Independencia (2009) creates both an obvious artificiality, and an authentic nostalgia. Developed through the Résidence du Festival de Cannes in 2008 Raya Martin’s exquisite film positions a history of Philippine autonomy – or lack thereof – alongside a history of cinema, presenting a fable of familial survival as an image as questionable as that of propagandist ethnographic ‘news’.

independencia-foto2-560x372Set at the outset of the invasion by US forces in the Philippines in the early 20th century, a mother (Tetchie Agbayani) and adult son (Sid Lucero) escape to the jungle to begin a new life. Eventually the son discovers a lone, pregnant woman in the jungle too (Alessandra de Rossi), and as time passes, the trio changes from a mother, son and ‘daughter’ of sorts, to a mother and father and young son. Learning to hunt for survival is the first struggle to overcome, and the son’s transformation from a naïve but enthusiastic adventurer to a skilled hunter and father is signalled both by Lucero’s performance, which gradually becomes more assured in his environment, and by a closer physical assimilation with the forest. indendencia_3

Martin’s overall aesthetic is one of a highly sensitive attention to detail, as, though it is obvious from the start that the environments are fabricated, the painted backdrops are but one element of the cinematic world Independencia consists of. Ronald de Asis’ and Arnel Labayo’s sound design evokes the claustrophobic heat of a dense, rural habitat, whilst Digo Ricio’s production brings the natural world to life through authentic sets that include the presence of birds and smaller animals. Lutgardo Labad’s pastoral score provides an underlying romantic melancholy, which, combined with Jeanne Lapoirie’s charcoal toned cinematography, results in a film that seems to encase its characters in the image that it presents; they move from one lush forest scene to another, as though within an unending, unambiguously cinematic loop. Though they have come to the jungle to for freedom, their boundaries are just as limited as those who remained in the town, and are defined by the film’s own construction. independencia_1

Martin therefore addresses an undoubtedly emotive imagining of history, entrenched with a pessimism represented by the futile ambition of his characters whose ostensible escape from white oppression is inevitably threatened. This is pre-colonialism presented from the perspective of the post-colonial individual, who, in his own words ‘portrays an alternative resistance of the times, one that moves away from a history of armed struggle and delves deeper into the opposition of forces, a survival of human existence and a liberation of the true Filipino identity.’

Alongside the new, beautiful digital transfer of the film that Second Run have released is a new short film, Track Projections by Raya Martin, which flips the image of a digitally shot, rolling landscape from a train window on its side, thereby making the image akin to the cinematic reel, abstracting the reflection in what might be considered a reference to Stan Brakhage, who the director has previously cited as an influence. This new short again demonstrates the director’s concern with the meaning of cinema – made most explicitly in his recent collaboration with Mark Peranson, La última pelicula (2013) – and the particularity of the filmic image in the digital age.

Highlights of Edinburgh Film Festival 2014

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Journey to the West

Journey to the West

It’s been a while since I updated this blog, and if you peruse my index page you’ll see why – my recent film writing has been in the form of contributions to other outlets, mainly Sight & Sound online and award winning site, CineVue.

Under the Heath Lamp an Opening by Zachary Epcar

Under the Heath Lamp an Opening by Zachary Epcar

For both I reported from Edinburgh International Film Festival, writing daily reviews (CineVue) and a look at the Black Box experimental programme (Sight & Sound), which was consistently excellent, and, along with Tsai Ming Liang’s Journey to the West, and Stray Dogs, Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer, Ebrahim Golestan’s 1965 masterpiece, The Brick and the Mirror, and the shorts programmes I caught, my highlight of the festival.

Club Sandwich

Club Sandwich by Fernando Eimbcke

I’m hopeful that EIFF’s commitment to experimental film will only grow, as this year more than ever I embraced the unique and concentrated experience of screenings of daring and creative work, within an enthusiastic and welcoming audience environment. My full report can be read here

Of the films I reviewed for CineVue, my favourites were To Kill a Man and Club Sandwich, both subtle and carefully paced character studies, one a thriller, the other a tender mother-son coming of age tale.
Coming soon on the blog, I’ll review the latest DVD release from Second Run, and perhaps indulge my long gestating investigation into Anna Faris.

My week in film: Frank, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Scarface and more…

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Frank-Sidebottom-film-still-770This week Frank by director Lenny Abrahamson surprised me in its sincere depiction of troubled band Soronprfbs and their enigmatic front man, played by Michael Fassbender. Co-written by Jon Ronson and adapted from his own book about his experiences as the keyboard player for Frank Sidebottom’s band in the 1980s, Frank sees Jon (Domhall Gleeson) spontaneously enlisted to join Soronprfbs, and live with them in Ireland for almost a year in the attempt to record a new album. Enamoured by Frank’s curiosity and seemingly limitless ability to find music in everyday objects and activities (not to mention the giant fake head he never takes off) but treated with suspicion by Theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Jon begins documenting the creative process via social media, blogging, tweeting and sharing videos until viewers and followers exceed 20,000 and the band are offered a gig a SXSW.

The above is a fairly standard narrative for a film about a band – we see the band through the eyes of a new member, they rehearse and prepare for their first big gig. Except in the case of Frank, the real narrative is that of the an outsider – Jon – failing to perceive that not chasing fame is the default mode for a band who are outsiders themselves and care more about the mental wellbeing of their members than the glory of increased Twitter followers. So what starts as an inherently comedic approach to getting to know Frank and his idiosyncratic songs, becomes a very moving look at mental illness, as Jon realises he’s completely out of his depth once he alienates the rest of the band and effectively becomes Frank’s sole carer.

The transitions from comedy to tragedy are deftly handled by Abrahamson, who never allows Frank to be the subject of ridicule – rather its Jon who, by failing time and again to ‘get it’ – is the fool, deliriously, obliviously guiding Frank down the path to ultimate humiliation. Fassbender is typically excellent, conveying Frank’s seductive mystery from under his giant fake head, whilst Gyllenhaal, though given some of the best comic moments, is somewhat limited by her underwritten role.

Joan-of-arc21Also this week I finally made the time to watch the ninth Greatest Film of All Time (according to Sight & Sound’s once a decade poll in 2012), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Consisting almost exclusively of close-up shots, Dreyer’s masterpiece is miraculously affecting, conveying Joan of Arc’s torment during her trial in the lead up to her execution. I viewed the film from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema release (2012) at 20fps, silent, as Dreyer reportedly preferred the film to be viewed. This DVD release also includes the film at 24fps and with two optional scores, as well as a 100 page book with writing on the film by the likes of André Bazin and Chris Marker. Watching the film without a score was an unusual experience, allowing me to imagine sounds; the murmur of Jeanne’s jury, the uproar of the crowd, Jeanne’s exhausted sighs. I’m certain it’s a film I’ll return to again and again.

kinopoisk.ruAlso considered to be a ‘classic’ but of a very different kind and not one that made it to the Sight & Sound top ten, viewing Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983) proved to be an exercise in list ticking, with seemingly no other discernable reason to view it appearing throughout the film’s runtime. Unlike Paul Muni in Hawks’ original 1932 Scarface, Pacino’s Tony Montana is utterly devoid of charm, which left me baffled as to how the character could have risen to status of cultural icon – I spent most of the film imagining I was watching James Franco’s brilliant gangsta parody in Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012) performing his inspired ‘look at all my shit’ scene, in which he boasts having Scarface on constant repeat whilst standing in front of a portrait of Tony Montana (see video)

 

Also viewed: Now You See Me (Louis Letterier, 2013) was entertaining to a point – that being the moment the filmmakers appeared to have no clue how to end the film.

My week in film: Blue Ruin, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spiderman 2 and more…

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THORInspired by the effervescent Avengers Assemble, I sought out Thor (2011) for another watch to compare the tone of Branagh’s earlier effort with Whedon’s spot-on get-the-gang-together adventure. As with Avenger’s Assemble, one of the main pleasures of Thor is Tom Hiddleston’s demi-God Loki, brother to our titular hero. Hiddleston is deft at combining the pathos of Loki’s identity crisis, with the camp of a truly despicable villain, and in Thor his origin story is well worth revisiting, even if the more spectacular action set pieces are confined to realms other than earth, leaving Thor and his comrades battle with Loki’s metal man henchman seem a little underwhelming.

David Cronenberg is a director I’ve shied away from mainly due to my irritation with eXistenZ (1999), which seemed to belabor its point somewhat, however having finally seen The Fly (1986) and caught up with come more recent work, A History of Violence (2005), and Eastern Promises (2007), my irritation has lifted and I’m certainly trying to see more. With that in mind I watched A Dangerous Method (2011), which looks at the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), aA-Dangerous-Method-9nd the battle for morality and ethics in the birth of psychoanalysis, as represented by Jung’s torment at this relationship with a patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly).

The key Cronenberg concerns are all present – sex, the death drive, the mind/body divide, an emphasis on the corporeal – making this perhaps the perfect subject for the director, and none more perfectly expressed than in Knightley’s committed performance, her body contorting in a pure expression of mental anguish.blue ruin

In Blue Ruin, a man seeks vengeance for the murder of his parents on the day their killer is released from prison, leading to a bloody series of retaliations, a form of justice kept ‘in house’ and away from the police. The immediate aftermath of Dwight’s (Macon Blair) somewhat calamitous yet shocking first kill sees him come face to face with the innocent quotient of his enemy’s clan, in a moment of pathos-filled humour, in which Dwight is required to release a passenger from his unplanned escape vehicle, and is given the first hint that his side of this story is not the only great tragedy at stake. Director/writer/cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier establishes a suitably sticky atmosphere, as the heat of the Virginia forests seems to emanate from the image of each blood-soaked character. Blue Ruin won the FIPRESCI International Critics prize in Cannes 2013 and it’s easy to see why – Saulnier here achieves a pure clarity of character, plot and form that draws strength from being both terrifyingly simple and artfully realized.

With Jane Campion’s Golden Globe winning Top of the Lake (2013), murder or the threat thereof is also the driving force of a plot that has Elizabeth Moss’s Detective Robin Griffin return to her home town, ostensibly to visit her dying mother, yet pulled into a rape investigation when a pregnant 12 year old attempts suicide in the titular Lake Top. Issues of gendered power plays are at the heart of this stellar mini series, as Robin’s status as a lone female sees her subject to forms of male protection both welcome and unwelcome, an inappropriate marriage proposal, threatening displays of violence, psychological manipulation and name calling, whilst other women seem to have varied experiences of the same enforced passivity at the hands of local land-owning alpha male, Matt (Peter Mullan).img_topofthelake1

Whilst Robin searches for Matt’s runaway daughter Tui (Jacqueline Joe), a camp sets up at Paradise, the lakeside land sold from under him by business partner Bob Platt, and a group of women move into storage containers, under the guidance of GJ (Holly Hunter). Although GJ professes not to teach or impart wisdom – only the ‘the body knows what to do’ all the characters of Top of the Lake are drawn to her at some point, whether seeking help, shelter or a chance to offload anger and fear – represented by one male onlooker that directly questions the specificity of her gender.

Showcasing the New Zealand landscape as a site of astonishing beauty and acute danger, Campion creates an atmosphere that never allows the viewer to assume the worst is over, as Robin’s investigation reveals inextricable links between her own past and present self.

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-teaser-trailer-black-widow1Finally, my viewing this week ended on lighter notes, with a double bill of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2014) and The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Mark Webb, 2014). I thought Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) a terrible bore of a film – due mainly to the unimaginative direction (but then what was I expecting from the director of Jurassic Park 3?) so helpfully my expectations were low, and this new, post Avengers, Phase 2‘ iteration of the Steve Rogers story proved engaging, delightfully silly and earnest only when it mattered most. Action scenes involving Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow maintained the excellent standard of choreography for this character that began with Iron Man 2 (John Favreau, 2010) with the kind of fighting style that believably demonstrates how a woman of Romanoff’s strength and size can immobilize swathes of henchmen.

amazoing spiderman 2Emma Stone was also given ample space to show strength and characteristic intelligence as Gwen Stacy – saving Spidey’s (and the rest of New York’s) life in The Amazing Spiderman 2, which puts the romance between Peter and Gwen at the centre of the film. Though Andrew Garfield as Peter was once again the perfect, sinewy, athletic Spidey, I was left with a sense that his world is less tangible than that of the Avenger’s and its respective solo ventures in the series – despite also being a Marvel title. Perhaps it’s due to every villain so far having originated in that comic book cliché of accidental merge with toxic animal/goo/experiment gone wrong in the Osborn lab, or maybe Amazing Spiderman 2 failed to exploit the potential of any one of its villains, instead settling for broadly painted caricatures doing little justice to the caliber of the actors playing them. Nevertheless, Stone and Garfield are a sheer joy to watch, being that rare example of sizzling on-screen chemistry.

Coming next on My week in film… In cinemas I’ll review Frank, and at home – an as yet unknown plethora of film from around the world.

Review: Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble

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Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble (Człowek z marmuru, 1976) bursts with iconic images, costumes and gestures, from the poster-sized portrait of ‘worker’s hero’ Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), to the blue denim worn by film student Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda), to the nervous, purposeful way she has of chain smoking cigarettes. That such images become so insistently memorable, is due partly to the way Wajda frames his characters and partly to the timeline of the film, in which Agnieszka – film crew in tow – charges around Poland in pursuit of the truth of the rise and fall of socialist hero Birkut, barely resting in the attempt to finish her diploma film despite the objections of her supervisor at the TV station. A filmmaker on a mission, Agnieszka is perpetually in blue, moving constantly forward, rarely seen without a cigarette throughout the film’s pacey runtime.manmarble2

The origin of the film was a newspaper article seen by Wajda in the 1960’s, which described the plight of a working man unable to find employment, despite his previous status as a symbol of socialist labour, elevated to a standard of heroism by the State. Wajda asked Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski to write a script based on the article, but in the 1960’s the socialist project was seen as too risky a subject to tackle by the authorities and so work on developing the film came to a halt. It wasn’t until 1976 that Wajda was able to restart the project, with revisions to the script and the character of film student Agnieszka driving the plot forward, framing the story of investigating Birkut just as Thompson (William Alland) searches for the truth about Rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941).large_man_of_marble_927_blu-ray_Just as Agnieszka tries to find the person behind the image of Birkut, Wajda frames his female lead as an image – frequently at low angles as if to show Agnieszka as a towering statue – a symbol of passionate creativity in her blue denim uniform. Andrzej Korzyński’s soundtrack also goes a long way to cement the image of cool strength that Agnieszka embodies, with groove-heavy synths used heftily at moments when the young filmmaker’s purpose appears most clear.

The contrast between Agnieszka’s self-assurance and Birkut’s unassuming nature is one of the key points of focus in the film. Early on, we see the intrepid reporter viewing unused footage of Birkut shot by star filmmaker Burski (Tadeusz Łomnicki, also seen in Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers) in which his discomfort at being filmed and naïve manner is a source of fascination for Agnieszka – perhaps perceiving this to be the defining characteristic that allowed him to be manipulated into representing socialist ideology.man-of-marble_cameraCelebrated on its release in defiance of the censors that attempted to limit Man of Marble’s distribution, Wajda’s film appears today as a sharp critique of Stalin-era Poland, with a truly inspirational female lead, representing the filmmaking process as a fight for an autonomous voice in a male-dominated world, and the attempt to forge a formidable creative presence that might do justice to the idealism of her subject.

Beautifully restored for this release (restoration fans will note the image comparison feature on disk 2) by Second Run DVD, with fascinating interviews with the director, Krystyna Janda, and ‘unofficial’ assistant director, Agnieszka Holland. Fans of the damn catchy soundtrack might also note a new release on vinyl last month.

My week in film: An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, Don Jon and more…

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At the cinema this week I saw Silver Bear winning An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker - the fifth feature by Danis Tanovic, whose earlier effort No Man’s Land (2001) was one of the most awarded first feature films in history. That Tanovic spent two years filming for the army during the Bosnian war, was apparent in the energetic vérite style of No Man’s Land which takes two soldiers from opposing sides trapped together as its subject. The same focused vitality is also present in this latest tale, exposing the discrimination towards Roma communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a cast of non-professional actors reconstruct a traumatic event in their lives. 11_Kopie_large_copyNazif and Senada live in a small village and rely on the money Nazif makes selling scrap metal to support themselves and their two daughters, with a third baby on the way. When Nazif comes home to find Senada with crippling stomach pain, a trip to the hospital reveals that she has had a miscarriage and needs an operation, but the hospital refuses to perform it unless they pay a small fortune as Senada doesn’t have an insurance card. What ensues is Nazif’s desperate attempts to save his wife’s life, in the face of indifference from the authorities. Tanovic developed the film with Nazif and Senada after reading their story in a local newspaper, and based the scenes on their recollections, with purely improvised dialogue and many of the other villagers and family also playing themselves in the film. The result is an efficiency of performance and storytelling that focuses tightly the testimony of an unwavering, seemingly futile effort to illicit even a normal amount of compassion from the hospital staff they encounter. Shot in HD, there’s a crisp beauty to the image that further conveys they humanity in Tanovic’s extraordinary film. don-jon-netflix

Home viewing included Don Jon, written, directed by and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a deluded lothario more enamoured by pornography than sex with an actual woman. Gordon-Levitt demonstrates considerable skill in establishing the small, controlled world view of his perpetually self-stimulating charmer, but fails to develop his female characters, abandoning the potential for both Jon and Scarlett Johansson’s Barbara to learn from their one-sided approach to relationships, in favour of Jon’s singular emotional growth at the hands of Julianne Moore’s as bereaved mother Esther. Still, there’s a pleasing wit and leanings towards self-awareness in Don Jon which means I will look forward to Gordan-Levitt’s next feature.

ACOD-3Also viewed: Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) once again reduced me to tears at its treatment of the parental experience of the child leaving home, and along similar lines but with a completely different approach, A.C.O.D, Adult Children of Divorce (Stu Zicherman, 2013) looked at the ‘least parented generation in America’s history’ whereby Adam Scott negotiates the wildly ridiculous terrain of his parents reconciliation in anticipation of his brother’s wedding, shot dully and with inconsistent comedic effect. Yet another viewing of Avengers Assemble (2012, Joss Whedon) proved deeply enjoyable, and has greatly increased the likelihood of my seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, Anthony & Joe Russo).