Four Reviews from GFF’19

Mid90s, Dir. Jonah Hill. 

This year’s Glasgow Film Festival opened on Wednesday night with a screening of Mid90s, actor Jonah Hill’s directorial debut. Young, diminutive Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is friendless and bored, living at home with his mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston, in a thankless role) and abusive, abrasive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). One day, from across the street, he sees a group of boys skating on the pavement. There’s something about the way they carry themselves; not only can they skate well, but they’re confident and have obvious (and toxic) rapport. Stevie shyly but surely begins inveigling his way into their circle.

There are two figureheads in this small group, each of whom will exert an influence on Stevie. There’s Ray (Na-Kel Smith), supremely assured and worldly wise, he aspires to become a professional skater; and then there’s Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt, named so for his tendency to say “Fuck! Shit! That was dope!” after each of his tricks), a charismatic party-boy. These opposites are triangulated when Dabney becomes aware of his proximity to the usual teenage temptations.

Hill, whose recent performance in Gus van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot ranks among the best of his career, grants himself certain luxuries for his first film. It’s (expensively) soundtracked with familiar songs, it’s scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and it’s shot on 16mm, using a 4:3 aspect ratio. Hill’s problems begin with the last of these facts.

The tall and narrow frames of this film reveal that Hill has nothing like a developed understanding of film space; the camera’s placement is often merely convenient, and offers a viewer easy answers as to its purpose: when Stevie is alone outside his house, the camera is withdrawn, emphasising his loneliness, and when he’s skating on the road, the height of the frame is an emblem of his newfound freedom. It’s not even been a year since Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen played in cinemas, a film which displays a great deal more intelligence in the framing of its characters.

Skate Kitchen’s drama is also more involving, as its characters’ portraits are richer, the badinage within the group more soulful. The friendships in Mid90s are paper thin, and Hill compensates for this with some ill-fitting formal tricks. For instance, later in the film, when a situation arises, the film’s sound design is ramped up; because, if you cannot make an audience care about the film’s subjects, you can always attack their senses, and see if they can tell the difference.

Hill’s film is a bit like Stevie’s entry into the group. As Stevie is desperate to fit in with the cool, poised older kids he looks up to and envies, so Hill is trying to fit in with the cues and marks of a tight, coming of age indie drama. Where Stevie cannot execute a trick, Hill cannot find an expressive scene, a fitting image. Mid90s is a film about belonging which itself wants to belong: and it’s unsuccessful on both counts.

At Eternity’s Gate, Dir. Julian Schnabel.

A cursory glance will tell you actors are drawn to performing the role of Vincent van Gogh. Something in the life of the visionary artist has always been and remains appealing: there’s Kirk Douglas as the Dutch painter in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust For Life (1956)Martin Scorsese portrayed the man in Akira Kurosawa’s vignette film Dreams (1990); there’s a Maurice Pialat biopic (1991); and then more recently — believe me, I’m sorry to remind you — there’s an awful 2010 episode of Doctor Who. Now, Willem Dafoe is in on the act, inhabiting the role of van Gogh’s as a person in emotional and mental turmoil, under the direction of Julian Schnabel.

At Eternity’s Gate starts with Vincent’s first exhibitions, before he relocates to the south of France; he only does so at the behest of Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac; yes, really), not before the sage painter regales the new talent with the lowdown on Parisian schools and artistic inspiration. It’s deathly boring for a long while, suffering from that usual biopic problem: it thinks its audience are idiots who need to be coddled through all the details of the characters’ milieu.

Even if the script (by Louise Kugelberg and Jean-Claude Carrière) is not the brightest, it’s ameliorated by Dafoe’s wonderful vocal delivery. There’s an air of self-possession to his speech, conveyed by that gentle and deep voice; during his breakdowns, this ruptures, and his torment is audible in his throat. There are scenes shared between Vincent and his brother, Theo, that are so affecting in isolation they illuminate the other parts of the film which reach for but don’t achieve similar wellsprings of feeling. In one scene, the brothers lie down in Vincent’s hospital bed, and embrace with a lovely tenderness; in another, Schnabel makes the images of their faces merge, almost as one, superimposed on each other. This sounds abstract, but its purpose is simple: in refusing to cut between the brothers, making them share the screen, Schnabel emphasises that Theo is the only figure of unconditional love in Vincent’s life.

The ending offers a somewhat radical reenvisioning of the usual van Gogh story, and the director’s means of telling the story try to match this visually. Aside from the recreations of the painter’s work in the film’s compositions, Schnabel and his cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s camera adopts an extreme subjectivity, which proves distracting, and at times, reductive. The painter’s emotional perceptions are performed by the camera’s movements. In moments of frustration, the camera cants and bobs and bounces and tilts, in one instance falling to his feet following an argument with Gauguin. By making this restive camera such a part in the creation of mood, At Eternity’s Gate sometimes sequesters Dafoe’s performance: the result is a canvas distinctly lacking in harmony.

Loro, Dir. Paolo Sorrentino.

Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo (2008) is a biopic of Giulio Andreotti, the infamous former Italian Prime Minister and all-round corruption magnet. The sordid, immoral work of this character’s existence is animated by Toni Servillo, a veteran Italian actor, who is adept at highlighting the strange oddities and quirks of the subjects he seeks to embody. In short, he’s a fine physical comedian. As Andreotti, he walks around with hunched shoulders in Nosferatu poise, his hands clasped in front of him in the shape of a small pistol, his face fixed in a generalised look of dissatisfaction.

Servillo is the best thing about that film, an over-long, ostentatious, and woefully stupid borrowing of the perspective it seeks to send-up. And what do you know, this director-actor pairing have done the same thing again. Loro (which means ‘them’) is a biopic of sorts, a film that takes another representative figure of Italy’s political and moral degradation as its anti-hero: Silvio Berlusconi.

For a time, this is diverting. Servillo’s impersonation is entertaining: the confident, pot-bellied, wide-grinned, bronzer-gorged appearance barely relents for the film’s runtime. But he’s absent for the first half-hour, and I think Sorrentino may be pulling off a superb trick here: the first part of the film is so awful you’re actually quite glad to see Berlusconi when he turns up, and those aren’t words I ever thought would need to be written. This is because the opening follows an awful Berlusconi-wannabe, Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio), in his slimy attempts to court influence and power, and win an audience with “him him.”

Loro is, ineluctably, an utter mess. Ineluctably because in Italy and elsewhere, it was released in two parts; the original bifurcated film runs to around 225-minutes, whereas the version that will appear in UK cinemas is a 145-minute Director’s Cut. This accounts for some (though only some) of the film’s poorness. It’s slovenly and meandering, and features many too many scenes of Berlusconi plotting, leering at women, and attempting to prove his salesman’s prowess.

The critic Michael Koresky refers to Sorrentino’s “capital S-style”, and there’s no way of improving upon this withering formulation. In the first section, with the long takes and the slow-motion and the music video aesthetic (complete with a gaze so repellently chauvinist it becomes a challenge to endure), the film advertises and calls attention to its lack of substance; but it is mounting a critique of this life, slowly, and by the end, unconvincingly.

In its final moments, Loro changes its mode of attack from mimicry to condemnation, and in doing so, becomes ridiculous in a new way. A good handler of comic performances Sorrentino certainly is; a master of tone? No, he’s certainly not. But I can’t shake the terminating shot of the film from my mind, even though I find it wholly, absolutely dumb.

The ending focuses on the aftermath of the L’Aquila earthquake, and the extraction of a marvellous marble statue of Jesus from out of the rubble of a partially collapsed church. As it’s gradually located and lowered down, a crowd of onlookers clasp hands and ruminate on the sight, as the score’s strings swell in accompaniment. The craning camera investigates every crevice and contour of the figure, in what amounts to a genuine pietà moment. Obviated of its meaning, the shot is wonderful; but what it communicates is hilariously obvious and easy: Berlusconi is a Bad Man. Well, and there’s really no other way to phrase this: duh.

Happy as Lazzaro, Dir. Alice Rohrwacher.

Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro is a film about extreme poverty, exploitative labour, systems of cyclical and hierarchical abuse — and magic. At first, it’s impossible to discern the time the film is set in: a group of workers (sharecroppers) are living in the pastoral Italian countryside, but the land is removed of meaningful period signifiers. Slowly, some clues enter the frame. There’s a car (1970s, possibly?), a character has a mobile phone, slightly dated, and a Walkman (the late 1990s?). As wolves howl in the moonlight and the people toil in the day, it slowly becomes clear that they’re living in the near-present, working under feudal conditions implemented by the Marchesa Alfonsina (Nicoletta Braschi), a tobacco tycoon. They all live in a secluded estate, the Inviolata; but, just as the labourers don’t know that they’re working as slaves, so none of them realise that one of their number has a secret of his own.

This is Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a gentle though guileless young man, with a tendency, as the other sharecroppers term it, to “stare into space.” He’s the workhorse of the outfit, asked to do innumerable menial jobs over and over again. He accepts all of them with a smile, and his pleasing manner hides the fact that he is abused in turn by those abused by the Marchesa. Her son, the Marquis Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), wonders who on earth Lazzaro could be doing any harm to. He sets up a scheme involving Lazzaro, earning his trust by calling him his “half-brother.” What exactly happens as a result of Tancredi’s design should be left to a viewer to discover: all that need be said is it made a full screen of people (myself included) audibly gasp.

After this, Rohrwacher makes a thrilling temporal and spatial leap, shifting the film into the future and away from its previous setting into the modern city. In the Inviolata, there was one kind of timelessness; in the city, there’s another. The experience of the impecunious does not change, all that alters are the methods by which they’re mistreated.

The film’s transformation might have been jarring were it not for the central, beatific performance by Tardiolo (an economics student by day). He plays Lazzaro as someone not quite of this world; he’s placid and yet totally receptive, displaying an openness to the people around him which could easily be mistaken for a child’s. In conversation, his voice lilts, and he tends to turn his whole body towards the person speaking (or ordering him around), as though there’s no other way of paying attention. His gestures are not to be ignored, with his moon-round, bright, beautiful face, but this is extraordinary physical acting as well. With his stocky figure, quick walk, and poise (his fists clenched before his trouser pockets), it’s clear that he’s ready to work at any moment of his life: his long, bandaged shoes are reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp.

Rohrwacher’s film is based on a real incident of rural economic manipulation and combines neorealist patience with flights of illogicity and the folkloric. It’s easy to imagine, in a colder director’s hands, this concoction spoiling itself; but there’s a warmth infused throughout the film, from the vibrant 16mm photography and occasional associative editing to its performances. And even as the ending — a true heartbreaker — comes into sight, the film never loses its deep humanity or its humour in the face of incessant cruelty. Happy as Lazzaro is one of the great contemporary fables.

(Each piece was originally published on The Student‘s website.)

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