Thank goodness for our friends at Fortissimo Films, whose catalogue forms the bulk of this week’s VOD releases, yet another selection that seemed doomed to dullness until a sudden unanticipated influx of quality material. It’s a good week for advocates of world cinema, taking us from Taiwan and Thailand to Japan and Germany with plenty more stops along the way. The more Anglophonic among us will be pleased to see a decent selection of American independent films ranging from comedy to sci-fi and even to sport. The best of the best, though, are the documentaries: two of last year’s finest non-fiction films arrive on demand this week; neither should be missed.
5 Broken Cameras
As the extraordinary closing sequence of Waltz with Bashir so powerfully attests, no fiction can ever portray the horror of war as well as simple fact; for all the impactful narrative features to tackle the Israel-Palestinian conflict, nothing hits as hard as depictions of the real lives thereby destroyed. The third of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Feature Documentary to arrive on Netflix, 5 Broken Cameras began life as a simple collection of home videos filmed by Emad Burnet, a Palestinian resident whose documentation of his family’s growth gradually grew to focus far more on the violence which enshrouded them. Cobbled together by Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi from almost five years of footage captured by the variously destroyed cameras of the title, it’s a film that—despite the contrivances Davidi adopts in construing a clear narrative from the material—conveys the horror of this conflict just as well as any before it. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
It’s a sad shame that Counterpunch’s greatest merit is perhaps simply the fact that it holds the honour of being the first 2013 release to be covered in this column: released direct to DVD and VOD this week, it’s the well-intentioned tale of Emilio, a young man from the wrong side of the tracks who tirelessly pursues his goal of becoming a champion fighter. Quickly derailed by a lacklustre ensemble, dialogue riddled with dreadful efforts at humour, and every dramatic cliché applicable to this kind of story, the movie can’t hope to support its admirable aspirations, the framing narrative whereby Emilio recalls his life so far from a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt contributing subject matter worthy of far better treatment than this. With little more than a strong central performance from Alvaro Orlando to offer, Counterpunch has its heart in the right place, but the same can’t be said for its head. AVOID IT.
Dreams of a Life (read our full review)
One of the best documentaries of 2012 was, alas, also one of the most sorely underseen; Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life is a film every bit as extraordinary and unbelievable as the tale it tells, that of vibrant young Londoner Joyce Vincent, whose decomposed body lay undiscovered in her home for three years after her death. There’s a raw, searing passion to Morley’s work as she—possessed by the need to tell this woman’s story—interviews Joyce’s friends and attempts to piece together this fragmented puzzle and discover how anyone could disappear from the world so unnoticed. It’s a film of almost uncomfortable power, the impassioned anger it inspires just as affecting as the profound, overwhelming sadness that takes interminable hold of the mind throughout the film and for days, even weeks, afterward. An uncanny experience that somehow manages to transcend the specificity of its subject, Dreams of a Life is a film that needs to be seen, for the viewer as much as for Joyce. MUST SEE.
If concept were all, Flirt would be a resounding success of a movie, its experimental structure wherein the same story is retold—via virtually identical dialogue—three times over in vastly different contexts making for a fascinating dissection of the machinations of narrative. Alas, such is not the case, and it’s by consequence of several shameful issues that what should be an ingenious treatise stumbles in its execution, becoming eventually just a minor curiosity. Tackling the theme of love as the three central characters—American, German, and Japanese individuals of assorted genders and sexualities—are made to choose between two lovers, Flirt’s cast is by far its biggest issue, their universally staid deliveries of these lines making their repetition more tedious than anything else. It’s only in its reckonable wit that the film manages to keep itself afloat; this is a brilliant idea on the level of Run Lola Run: it deserved far better treatment. WORTH WATCHING.
The brain behind our last installment’s film of the week Ploy, Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang imbues an initially unremarkable crime story with his distinctive touch of thematic depth in Invisible Waves, enlivening the tale of a remorseful Hong Kong chef who travels to Phuket having murdered his lover on the orders of her enraged husband. Primarily set on the cruise ship between the two cities and a vacation resort in the latter, it’s a strange oddity of a crime thriller that somehow eschews all key tropes of the genre whilst still incorporating each key element. Beautifully shot by Wong Kar-Wai regular Christopher Doyle, the murky greys that mire the aesthetic visually manifest the mental torment of this troubled protagonist as he undertakes his existential journey, beset by bizarre happenings that bring an unlikely comedy to the film. It’s minimalist approach may seem disaffected at times, but Invisible Waves is, for better or for worse, a crime film in a world of its own. RECOMMENDED.
Lars and the Real Girl
It’s perhaps no great surprise that Nancy Oliver, a writer of Six Feet Under—a series which represented its protagonists’ interior monologues in imagined conversations with their family patriarch—should structure her first screenplay around an imagined character. Casting Ryan Gosling as the eponymous 27 year-old loner, Lars and the Real Girl centres on his relationship with a sex doll whom he names Bianca and treats as though she were his wife, a delusion his small town accommodates for the sake of his mental health. Gosling is typically terrific, bringing a shy humility to Lars that makes tolerable the sheer, unashamed quirkiness of the film and acutely manifests the deeper psychological implications of this strange story. At times too cute and quaint to really cut to the heart of its major themes, Lars and the Real Girl is still predominantly a success, charming enough to carry the comedy of its curious conceit. WORTH WATCHING.
Little Red Flowers
Scarcely are political films so effective as when told through the eyes of a child; there’s something about looking at the world from the perspective of a young protagonist that, in their simplified views of social issues, reduce matters to the very essence of their being. Zhang Yuan’s Little Red Flowers adopts such a technique in its examination of Communist China, using the story of four year-old Fang Qiang Qiang as a pointed criticism of the bland conformity of the nation’s populace. The flowers of the title are the rewards given Fang and his classmates for obeying the rules, a simple symbol yet one given ripe relevance in Yuan’s subtle implementation throughout on an increasingly larger scale. Dong Bo Wen is an utter delight in the lead role, aptly balancing the sad tragedy of Fang’s story and the cheeky antics that define his vibrant character, yet to be quashed by the oppressive regime that surrounds him. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
A relentlessly charming piece of work, Miao Miao follows the fortunes of a Japanese exchange student to Taiwan, dubbed with the titular sobriquet by the friends she quickly meets in her cookery class. Embodying the vibrant energy of newly forged school bonds with aplomb, it’s a marvellously amusing film with a lightness of touch and levity of tone that greatly aids in the gradual tackling of its somewhat heavier thematic material of aging and sexual awakening. The latter of these is less well-handled, the central romance between Miao Miao and the laconic employee of a record store she frequents convincing in its own way, but never quite strong enough to anchor the film. Credit is due co-writers Yi-fen Tsai and Hsiao-tse Cheng for the unexpected directions they take toward the end of the film, yet the suddenness of these near-twists jars with the relaxed pacing of the rest of the film, leaving Miao Miao something of a mess, though a perfectly pleasant one. WORTH WATCHING.
Heralded by many as the greatest time travel film ever made, at least in the conviction with which it sets about tackling its central conceit, Primer is the brainchild of mathematical graduate Shane Carruth, who stars as well as writing, producing, scoring, editing, shooting, and directing the film. Modestly portrayed in suburban homes and industrial estates, it’s the story of a duo of scientists who accidentally invent a means of time travel, and the moral quandaries they face when they attempt to use this powerful new tool for personal gain. Impressive above all for the grounded nature of its presentation and the heavily-scientific dialogue Carruth employs, Primer might well be termed realist sci-fi, its blending of a high-concept plot and everyman characters setting it aside from the bulk of its generic brethren. Though dulled to some extent by its cheapness and relative austerity, this is a film that thrives on the smartness of its ideas, and they don’t come smarter than this. RECOMMENDED.
The Last Days of Emma Blank
Debuting in 1986 with the strange, almost surreal comedy Abel, Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam has forged a career portraying the oddest of family units, his signature blend of absurdist humour offering as much in the way of social commentary as it does in pure amusement. The Last Days of Emma Blank is his latest film, a typically weird tale of the titular heiress whose terminal illness motivates her to employ her family as servants so that they can earn their share of her estate. Brilliantly acted by a gifted ensemble, including van Warmerdam himself as the brother who acts as the family dog, it’s a hugely and hilarious unusual story that perfectly handles the quirkiness of its material. The silliness of all we see serves to hide the deeper commentary on familial structure that van Warmerdam has to make; by its inspired end, The Last Days of Emma Blank has taught us a valuable lesson about the way we relate to our loved ones. RECOMMENDED.