Archive for September, 2014

There is something brilliantly magnetic and potent about seeing photographic stills on the cinema screen. For those brief few moments, time seems to stand still as we take in the details of the scene – almost, perhaps, more powerful than examining a photograph in real life. The new documentary Finding Vivian Maier is an excellent testament to the alluring power of the still image. Directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel hone their lens in on the elusive Vivian Maier, a New York nanny in the 60’s and 70’s who left a hidden world of photographs behind, only to be unearthed recently.

Co-director Maloof was the lucky recipient of those photographs. An avid antique lot goer, he chanced upon an unidentified trunk of negatives and duly purchased them, only to find that this lot was not so ordinary. Meticulously scouring through the negatives, he discovered images of great beauty; monochrome street photography that captured life in all its variety. The photographer had an acute eye for composition, a sense of playfulness and an ability to capture their subjects vivacity.  The images feel at once timeless and completely alive. Ladies of leisure are juxtaposed against homeless cripples stranded on the pavements, children battling against their mothers.

But what about the person behind the camera? Maloof discovers someone clearly set apart from the art world, a woman who renounced attention and fame for the freedom that anonymity offers. Vivian Maier worked as a nanny for a number of different well-to-do families around New York and Chicago. Through a series of talking heads we learn about the mothers of those families and their now grown up offspring. They tell a story of an intensely private, eccentric person who would take her camera almost everywhere. That she took jaw dropping photos is a huge surprise to them. While not really the focus of the film, it is quite incredible how people can be so close to someone and not really know them at all.

While the photos interspersed throughout the documentary are indeed striking, Maier is no less of an interesting subject. That she became a nanny makes complete sense; an occupation where you are observing, perhaps even intruding, on other people’s lives while retaining a distance, an occupation that allowed discretion and encouraged the freedom to go outside, which Maier clearly thrived on. For much of the film, Maier comes across as fairly harmless, an extroverted introvert finding the world through her camera lens. However, the documentary takes a darker turn when there are hints of Maier’s darker, more sadistic side. What we are left is an impression of a distinctly complex character, who doesn’t conform to any easy characterisation.

There are a few minor flaws in the film; the restless, sub- Glass score is overbearing and typical of some of the brasher, less refined US documentaries. Maloof has also come in for criticism in some parts, his eager, nerdy presence on screen irking some viewers who feel he detracts from the focus on Maier. Personally, I found Maloof’s story made the film richer as a whole as it mirrored the audiences excitement at the discovery. There is also a danger of the film becoming a little too dry and worthy, painting Maier as an important artist. One question does arise from the documentary: what would Vivian herself, who was so keen to hide herself away, make of a film that exposed her to the whole world? And does it matter?

I’m glad to have seen the film and come to know both Maier and her photographs, even if we will never know the full story. There is a perhaps an enjoyable romance in a great artist never revealing their gifts, but in this case, romance can go to hell.

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Polish born, Paris/London based director Paweł Pawlikowski’s (My Summer of Love, Last Resort) new film Ida is the first of his to be shot and set in his native Poland. This seems a crucial decision, for Ida is a film about looking into the past, be it the characters, director or an entire nation. Set in 1962 and filmed in monochromatic, “Academy” ratio (traditionally used for silent movies) we find Poland on the precipice: the haunting ghosts of World War II still linger over the perpetually foggy countryside, a place that no doubt looks the same as it did in the middle ages, with the modernism of Jazz music and technological advances heralded by the Soviets just around the corner.

We join Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young, sheltered, novitiate nun in her convent, who is ordered by her mother superior to visit her one surviving relative before she takes her vows. Said relative is her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) who is Anna’s complete opposite; a steely willed, loose talking, heavy drinking former judge of Stalin’s regime, who coolly delivers the news that they are in fact a Jewish family, the rest of which perished during the war and that Anna’s real name is Ida Bernstein. Consequently, Anna/Ida wishes to find out what happened to her family while attempting to retain her Catholic upbringing and while Wanda offers to help, questions “What if you go and find there is no God?”

The film’s narrative is driven by the past, discovering what happened to these people, both real and imagined, in post war Poland as they go hurtling into the future. What’s fairly astonishing about Ida is how it manages to do with this without any particular rhetoric and avoids nostalgia or sentimentalism. Here, the war has thrown these varying peoples and the previous order they knew, be they Jewish or Catholic, into the air and those who have been left behind are scrambling around for answers as they move into a brave new world. This is perhaps the modernist bent a film set 50 years prior provides, but it is refreshing nonetheless to find a film with so much socio-political dressings be entirely human and relatable.

None of Ida would really be so affecting if it wasn’t for the chemistry of it’s terrific cast. Both Trzebuchowska (her debut) and Kulesza are excellent as the central leads. The former brings all the initial restraint and naivety of a girl on the cusp of adulthood, who slowly realises the currency of her religious sisterhood and her beauty coaxed by her world-weary aunt into burgeoning modernity. Wanda’s own deeply traumatised scars begin to show, over time, her maternal opposition with Ida driving much of the narrative. Meanwhile the hitch-hiking jazz musician Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) sparkles while on screen with Ida; their youthful exuberance daring to break the form of the film, introducing her to Jazz which both contextualises and affects due to the film’s mostly diegetic soundtrack. Between him and Wanda, they show Ida an alternative to her current being, often just through a series of exchanged glances.

While the film has many dark notes, highlighted by it’s use of shade and focus, in what seems like every single beautifully composed frame the cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski throw at us, there is a lot of light in Ida‘s script too. Co-written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, it allows for much humour and cynicism in a film about holocaust survivors. While there are plenty of emotional moments, especially in the uncovering of barely dug graves, Ida still manages to keep a playful tone where necessary, especially through Kulesza’s firey “Red” Wanda. Therefore, it really is not surprising to learn that Ida has already won the highest accolades at both the Toronto and London Film Festivals. A film this perfectly balanced does not come around very often.

Adam Turner-Heffer

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‘Not with a bang but a whimper’.

The words of Dolly Parton, or perhaps TS Eliot, I can’t remember which, come to mind when we watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final screen performance. A Most Wanted Man is by no means a bad film, in fact there is much to recommend it, yet Hoffman’s career is littered with so many jewels that you can’t help but compare. He was a great actor who saw a great screenplay lurking in the corner of a crowded room and went about seducing it until it was his. Hoffman had the ability to morph from weak and pathetic characters to ones full of an almost sociopathic confidence, domineering and charismatic.  He was willing to debase himself in order to portray the uglier side of life, all the while humanising characters that often might repulse you.

A Most Wanted Man follows hot on the heels of the last big John Le Carre adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. While that film delved into the murky waters of the Cold War era, this adaptation is a contemporary post 9/11 spy thriller. A young Chechen immigrant named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg and seeks help from a local human rights lawyer, Annabel (Rachel McAdams) to avoid the authorities. The secretive German intelligence unit, led by Gunther (Hoffman) gets wind of Issa’s arrival and suspect he is trying to broker a deal with bank owner Brue (Willem Dafoe) in order to fund a terrorist group. In order to ascertain Issa’s intentions, Gunther’s band of spies must keep the elusive subject under constant surveillance.

The film is a slow-burner, steadily pulling the audience in. In fact, there is not one single shot fired in the film. Anton Corbijn, who directed the Ian Curtis biopic Control and the George Clooney vehicle The American, keeps his camera at a distance. There are some cute shots betraying Corbijn’s previous career as a photographer; an angular tower block lit only by a single light where a moody spy awaits. The edting by Claire Simpson is snappy and concise, and the film moves at a fair pace. The performances are all pretty solid; Hoffman is fine but unstretched by the grumpy, jaded Gunther, while Dafoe and McAdams are fairly convincing.

One thing that took me by surprise, though, was that Hoffman, Dafoe and McAdams are all actually German. Yes, they spoke a weird, broken language of Germanican. Who would have known! Seriously though, there is a question of why we still need to see these weird hybrids on screen. Sure, Hoffman and co. bring in the commercial clout, but as a piece of serious, ‘authentic’ film making, it looks and sounds ridiculous. It would have been nice to have seen the film performed in German, but then we would have to use subtitles, and who the fuck reads anything now anyway? While we are the on the subject of authenticity, the film also fell down in a few plot holes that for a John Le Carre adaptation felt strangely simplistic.

To reiterate, A Most Wanted Man is not a bad film, just a slightly disappointing one, and an unremarkable end to a remarkable career. The film ticks all the requisite boxes for a spy thriller: there is a hefty amount of atmosphere and suspense, and the audience is never left bored, yet there is something missing. For a director who has made his name for visuals rather than anything else, the film is oddly bland. There is no edge to the colour schemes. The story is intriguing rather than punchy, and you get the feeling that Le Carre has written better work. Finally, while the characters were solid and served the plot sufficiently, there was not enough invention or nuance to make them more than just cut out cliches.

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