A disastrously belated welcome to a special celebratory edition of This Week on Demand, where the column reaches the dizzying milestone of 500 films—and TV shows, lest we forget—reviewed. It’s an appropriately broad range of selections this week, heavy on documentaries that play with the medium’s boundaries and indie offerings that bring more to the table than so many of their big-budgeted counterparts. There are films from Canada and China, Spain and the Netherlands, Japan and Australia, America and more. There’s even an appearance from Martin Scorsese, who’s a big fan. Here’s to 500 more.
A documentary in nought but name, Denis Cotê’s Bestiaire is a perplexing creature, a film that wordlessly follows the lives of a wide range of animals in a Québécois nature reserve. Interestingly experimental in approach, it’s an unreservedly arty film that will likely frustrate more than fixate, its strange structure making no accommodation for those unwilling to meet it halfway. The genius of Cotê’s concept is witnessed in those moments of peculiar transcendence, wherein the eye of an animal meets ours—or rather the camera’s, by proxy—and challenges our notions of spectatorship: as we scrutinise these creatures and their strange social structures, so too do they gaze bemusedly at our mannerisms, doubtlessly as confounded by us and our cinema apparatus as we are by they and their interrelations. It all makes for some stimulating cinematic discourse, yet Cotê’s pretty pictures can only go so far to assuage a growing sense of tedium as cows, still feeding, enter their tenth minute onscreen. SO-SO.
Che Part 1: The Argentine
It’s fitting that Steven Soderbergh’s 2008 revolutionary epic should see Netflix addition the same week as Side by Side; touted largely in that documentary as an exemplar of the artistic capabilities afforded filmmakers by the Red One digital camera, Che is a gorgeous immersion in the bipartite life of its celebrated subject. Part 1: The Argentine explores the well-documented Cuban revolution of the late 1950s in which Guevara and Fidel Castro ousted the island’s military dictatorship; framed by Che’s 1964 address to the United Nations, it’s a fascinating history lesson of a film, gripping as a piece of storytelling if rather less effective as an insight into a famous figure. Given the epic nature of the production, it’s strange that Soderbergh should offer so vague a portrait of Che the man, his actions depicted with far greater prominence then his motivations, his complexity glossed over in favour of an entertaining tribute to his legacy. WORTH WATCHING.
Che Part 2: Guerrilla
Shown though it was back-to-back with The Argentine at its Cannes premiere, Che Part 2: Guerrilla is very much a different film entirely; tonally and technically distinct, it’s a comparatively sombre piece, following Guevara’s effort to spread the revolution to South America, beginning with Bolivia. For its ability to build upon the iconography of its predecessor in ironically tragedian ways, this is the superior part, its fatalistic flavour adding a certain character depth noticeably lacking in its predecessor. It’s also a less well-known story, and all the more interesting for it: though its inevitable end is knowingly foreshadowed throughout, the journey thereto is what fascinates. Showcasing more intimate work from Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro both, Guerrilla has a little more to say about the folly of the revolutionary hero’s ideals, bringing some deal of criticism to bear that wisely complicates the portrait of this character. Look out for a Matt Damon cameo, as brief as it is distracting. RECOMMENDED.
An interesting—if amateur—observation raised time and again in the wake of this latest Oscar season is that surely the best film must also be the best directed film, and vice-versa, a claim many a movie seems made solely to disprove. By few stretches of the imagination could For Ellen be dubbed a great film, yet it is certainly greatly directed: So Yong Kim’s visual approach is as a crutch that supports her movie as it hobbles along, impeded by the wounds her screenplay abundantly inflicts. Her characters—the hard-partying front man of a mildly successful rock band and the titular daughter he is soon to sign away his parental rights to—are sparely-sketched clichés surrounded by familiar plot points and awkwardly forced humour, but boy are they beautifully shot. No matter the greatness of Kim’s composition, though, nor the calibre of performance she elicits from lead Paul Dano, hers is a script too mired in mediocrity to ever forge a great film. SO-SO.
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (our full review)
Purists may bemoan Takashi Miike’s remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s esteemed samurai classic Harakiri for its rigid adherence to the story structure of its 1962 predecessor, yet few appreciate the suitability of such lack of change to the very nature of this narrative. Proud warrior Hanshirô’s tale is told predominantly in flashback when he arrives at the great house of a feudal lord intent on committing ritual suicide to save his honour; we see first the grisly fate of a similar traveller from two months prior, and then the sequence of events by which Hanshirô came to follow in his footsteps. Initially a structural curio, eventually a heart-wrenching evisceration of the romanticisation of Japan’s feudal heritage, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai becomes through its unexpected turns the oriental equivalent of the great revisionist westerns, condemning the societies that make myths of this violent “honour” and the way in which they and we—as the equal relevance of Miike’s film evidences—never learn. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Nobody Walks (Read our full review)
Directed by Ry Russo-Young from a script co-authored with Lena Dunham, Nobody Walks’ valiant attempts to interweave a range of sexually-charged relationships comes across less as the natural motivation for a feature film than a desperate effort to connect the concepts of several shorts. Primarily centred on upstart experimental filmmaker Martine and married soundman Peter, into whose home she moves to work on her movie, it’s a solid story sullied by the various subplots that constantly tether it to tedium. Ever the captivating leading man, John Krasinski makes an appealing character of Peter, though his potential for complexity finds insufficient expression in the easily mapped trajectory of the plot. Olivia Thirlby’s Martine is more engaging still, though equally underwrought in Russo-Young and Dunham’s meandering intentions. Strong direction and fine supporting performances so much to elate the film; much like Martine’s own, it may never find its footing, but it is intriguing to behold. WORTH WATCHING.
North Sea Texas
Akin to the work of Céline Sciamma in both subject matter and the measured consideration of his pacing, acclaimed short filmmaker Bavo Defurne makes the transition to feature production with North Sea Texas, a delicate story of blossoming teen romance in 1970s Netherlands. Hinged on the interactions of its characters, it reaps the benefits of disarmingly talented young performers Jelle Florizoone and Mathias Vergels as the shy son of an alcoholic single mother and the older boy next door whom he begins to fall for. Though sprung from a scene that never quite fits within the narrative framework, the secretive, seasonal, sensual relationship that begins between the burgeoning men forms the crux of the film’s deceptively powerful emotional punch. Evocatively interspersed with striking landscape shots as defined by their shallow focus as is the conservative viewpoint of this wider society, North Sea Texas is a brilliantly staged coming-of-age drama, a sign of great things to come from Defurne. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Rec 3: Genesis (Read our full review)
Having begun in 2007 with one of those disappointingly rare successful found footage films, the Rec series takes the semi-prequel approach with third instalment Genesis, exploring a viral outbreak at a wedding roughly contemporaneous to that of the first movie. Not content to simply repeat itself, however, the franchise takes a bold turn toward reinvention here, ditching its diegetic cameras ten minutes in and welcoming comedy to the party too. Director Paco Plaza—here assuming sole credit; series partner Jaume Balagueró will helm the fourth instalment solo—makes a smart move in defying audience expectations, yet his wise sidestepping of found footage repetition sees him stumble at every zom-com hurdle, his effort to avoid the familiar conventions of one subgenre leading to assume all those of another. Its decadent gore is Genesis’ saving grace; familiar though the bulk of its ideas and gags might be, its bloodshed is inventive, keeping us intrigued for Rec 4, if no longer hopeful. SO-SO.
Arriving at school to find the new pupil is none other than Sora, the rentboy he hired the night before in an effort to forget a recent heartbreak, teacher Aoi is understandably pessimistic about what lies ahead in this latest term. An interesting premise, if rather an icky one, underlines Schoolboy Crush, which meets the challenge of making good on its intrigue with a variously hysterical and humdrum approach. Developing more romantic subplots than is ever advisable for a single narrative, it’s a story as defined by its bagginess as it is by its tonal eccentricity, running the gamut from melodrama to mumblecore with astonishing frequency. Evidently lacking either the equipment or the directorial chops to make much more than a murky mess of his scenes, Kôtarô Terauchi lends little visual flavour to an already bland narrative stew of uninspired characters and disinteresting plot developments. Interestingly only for just how much of it doesn’t work, Schoolboy Crush is a cinematic disaster. AVOID IT.
Side by Side (Read our full review)
Boasting a roster of interviewees to set cinephiles’ hearts aflutter, Christopher Kenneally’s engrossing documentary Side by Side examines the fate of celluloid in a world overrun with digital technology, asking what space—if any—there remains for the photochemical process in an age driven by demand for greater convenience and lesser cost. Hosted by unlikely narrator/producer Keanu Reeves, it’s a fascinating piece of work that begins with the basic and gets gradually more complex, using the wealth of Hollywood directors and cinematographers at its disposal to explore every aspect of the analogue-digital divide. Disrupted though its intended balance might be by a comparative lack of those willing to talk-up the merits of sticking to film alone—Christopher Nolan there stands alone, despite big names like Tarantino sharing his views—Side by Side is an effortlessly enjoyable, well-structured overview of a contentious issue, an interesting take on an important topic that should speak to experts and amateurs alike. RECOMMENDED.
The Blood of Yingzhou District
Commendably turning to tell a story all-but-unknown to the world, documentarian Ruby Yang trains her camera on the children of China’s impoverished villages with Oscar-winning short The Blood of Yingzhou District, giving voice to those orphaned by AIDS or suffering from it themselves. Deeply affecting in its depiction of kids maligned by wider society out of nothing but ignorant fear, it’s a horrifying piece of work assured to get under the skin of all, a frankly uncomfortable yet undeniably necessary experience. Studded with unbearably difficult footage of the orphaned Gao Jun as he sits atop an upturned box in the dilapidated animal shed he’s forced to call home, the film communicates the agony of these abandoned children and the social stigmas that keep them excluded with a palpable pain, their desolation and despair felt in every shot that uncomfortably lingers, refusing to cut away and let their hardships be forgotten. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The Cup (Read our full review)
One of the limpest dramatic experiences the past year in film had to offer, The Cup takes us deep into the world of Australian horseracing, centring on the difficulties of Damien Oliver, a jockey determined to meet his potential in the sport despite the lingering shadow of a famous father who died in the saddle. Seemingly constructed solely of faux-inspirational speeches on the need to pursue one’s passion in life, it’s an almost amusingly formulaic story that would fall at every fence if it ever got going at all. Doing as little to support the film as its blandly boring aesthetic, Stephen Curry is an embarrassingly inexpressive leading man, the range of emotions his character should undergo never visible upon a face that generally just looks confused. An out-of-place performance from Brendan Gleeson at least brings some colour to the film for a time, though even his efforts to enliven a movie this void and vacuous amount to little more than flogging a dead horse. AVOID IT.
The Imposter (Read our full review)
The runaway documentary hit of 2012, The Imposter represents a remarkable debut for British director Bart Layton, who takes a story utterly enthralling in itself and enriches it with a cinematic sheen that deepens the drama, pulling us yet further into this fascinating web of deceit and detection. Told from the perspective of Frédéric Bourdin, a 23 year old French conman who posed as missing 16 year old Texan Nicholas Barclay as an escape from his homeless life, it’s the sort of story that would never be believed in fiction, and one that gets progressively stranger—and incrementally more entertaining—as it winds on. The “manipulation” against which its detractors have most strongly protracted is, in truth, merely a bravura show of brilliant filmmaking, Layton and his team using the visual language of a thriller to make as appreciable as possible how it must have felt to experience this story as it unfolded, in all its surreal oddity and disquieting weirdness. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.