The first Saturday means the big films start to rear their heads. I opted for a quieter day, however, with a mix of films which couldn’t be more different from each other.
My Sweet Pepper Land
An Iraqi Western (!), My Sweet Pepper Land brings together Govend, a beautiful village schoolteacher, and Baran, the region’s new police commander. He is a Kurd who fought for independence, and feeling unused in the region’s capital Erbil, he requests to move to a valley on the border of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. The region is presided over by Aga Azzi, a lord with ties to drug trafficking, who feuds with local female resistance fighters.
As a genre exercise it’s fascinating, but it never fully coheres. Director Hineer Saleem, who co-wrote the screenplay with Antoine Lacomblez, has a great flair for visuals; the film showcases a geography one might never expect to find in Iraq. But the story is lacking; the social commentary found in the village’s disdain for Govend is sidelined, and the band of resistance fighters—whose existence is barely explained—is somewhat forgotten after the first half.
Golshifteh Farahani is excellent as Govend, her soft features belying a stoic independence. Naturally, this aligns her well with the similar Baran (Korkmaz Arslan) whose defiance of Aga Azzi causes trouble for both of them. Ultimately it’s too uncertain of what it’s trying to do. While its neat subversion of genre tropes—refusing to follow expected beats, wringing comedy out of typically dramatic scenarios—compels for a while, it often goes forgotten too. It’s trying to swagger with the best of them, but it hasn’t quite broken in its boots.
Short Term 12
The much-anticipated Sundance hit turned out to be, as is often the case with Sundance hits, somewhat underwhelming. An affecting, powerful drama about workers and residents of Short Term 12, a housing unit for kids and teenagers trapped in between places. It’s a limbo of sorts, and the convenient metaphors don’t stop there.
It’s tough to be tough on a film like this, which is courageous in its earnestness and subject. It suffers, however, from a contrived overreach; it seeks to tie everything much too conveniently together. Seemingly every worker at Short Term 12 has the kind of background you would expect to find in the kids, with the exception of the useless audience surrogate Nate (Rami Malek), whose use as such is repeatedly on-the-nose—only once does he get to do something.
This is most evident in Grace (Brie Larson in an excellent, measured performance), whose past rises to her surface when a new resident, Jaden (Kaitlyn Dever), moves in. Grace also has a sweet relationship with co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), but she hasn’t trusted him enough to open up to him yet.
You can kind of see where all of this is going, which is the film’s biggest problem. It feels as though—strong as the characters are—writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton got nervous and took the path of least resistance. There are some challenging themes here which could have been better explored, and frankly, the lives of the kids are usually more interesting than those of Grace and Mason.
Still, this is finely made and moving stuff. At the very least, it will hopefully propel Brie Larson and co-star Keith Stanfield, who is great in limited screentime, to stardom.
[rating=3] and a half
Ari Folman’s follow-up to Oscar-nominated animated documentary Waltz with Bashir is a wildly ambitious blend of live action and animation very loosely based on the novel, The Futurological Congress by Staniszlaw Lem.
The film opens with title cards bearing the words, “Robin Wright at The Congress.” That starts to give you an idea of the film’s interest in perception versus reality. Wright plays a version of herself who has become washed up, having refused too many roles and made too many bad choices. Her son has a disease which is causing his hearing and sight to deteriorate. A film studio, Miramount, comes to her with an offer: let us scan every single element of your being and we’ll pay you, but you can never act again. Now our digital artists will put ‘you’ in any role we see fit.
Folman’s problem is that he loses control of this terrific conceit. The Congress is by degrees too frenetic in its story-telling and, at times, its creation. In the fantastic ‘scanning’ scene, Wright is encased in a dome of flashing lights; it’s a frightening construct, and Folman’s camera captures this. But he just jumps around too much; as Harvey Keitel, playing Robin’s long-time manager, tells her a story to get her to emote, the camera fixes on her face as the dome of lights moves and flashes above her. In this moment, you want to beg Folman to hold this shot for the duration of the monologue, but he cuts away to a shot from outside the camera dome instead.
And beyond that, the film can never quite measure up to the wondrous transition from live-action to animation. As Wright travels to the Futurist Congress twenty years later, she takes an ampoule of a substance that turns her into animation as she drives. This moment is vibrant and stunning and surprising, with an ocean of psychedelia swimming on either side of the road. The point where it transitions back into live-action evokes is a similar sensation but one of nearly exact opposite emotion.
The animation is gorgeous, though a bit too cartoon-y at times; one can’t help but feel that Folman wanted to spend more time in the animated world but couldn’t. If anything, the story here should have either hewed more closely to its original idea with less influence from the novel, or gone completely balls-out bizarre. As is, it doesn’t really do either. This doesn’t stop it from being an impressive attempt, however, and it’s certainly an intriguing ride along the way.
A Touch of Sin
Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin surprised many when it was cleared for a Chinese release. Essentially an indictment of the corruption, greed, oppression, and violence prevalent in modern China, the film’s four loosely connected stories range from very good to dull.
The first story is of Dahai, a miner whose village has become slave to a mine and the corporation that owns it, and also refuses to reimburse the village as it was supposedly promised. When his activism falls on deaf ears, he promises a distant lover that he can become more evil than she would ever think.
The second is of a migrant worker who finds freedom in the gun he wields, opening the film by shooting three men who corner him on a deserted road. The third is of a receptionist assaulted by a client of the sauna she works at, and the last is of a wayward young worker whose attempts to move up in the world always seem to fail.
The direction here is stellar, and Jia’s camera weaves in all the right ways. The stories themselves, however, are mostly thin and simplistic. This is somewhat compensated by the brutal beauty of the violence, but ultimately its themes are so overt that its waywardness is difficult to forgive. The stand-outs are easily the first and third segments, with actors Wu Jiang and Zhao Tao particularly good. Its stylised violence is captivating, but not as memorable as it might have been.
Tomorrow: Arraianos, The Square, Tokyo Story
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.