LAND OF MINE

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You can watch CJ’s video review of Land of Mine on his web show Watch This here: 

CJ Reviews ‘Land of Mine’

**** (out of five)

My fingernails were being bitten down to the quick, by my teeth, because the young German soldier’s fingers were jittering. I was watching the Danish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, Land Of Mine, and it was a white-knuckle ride.

Here’s the context for the story: at the end of World War 2, about two million land mines littered the Danish coast. The Germans, occupants of that small nation for nearly the entire war, figured the allies would storm the beaches, try and take it back. That didn’t happen. When the war ended, as part of the reparations treaty, Germany had to supply soldiers to Denmark to find, diffuse and dispose of all those land mines buried in the sand. They sent, effectively, 2,000 boys – the youngest possible soldiers, sixteen year olds with wispy whiskers and baby faces. The land mines, of course, were live and lethal. Boys blew up.

In terms of tension and suspense, who could possibly imagine a better set-up? Writer / director Martin Zandvliet, however, gives us much more than a bloody horrorshow. By focusing on the growing relationship between Danish Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) and his squad of 14 young Germans tasked with clearing one particular beach over three months, Zandvliet forensically examines issues of vengeance, forgiveness, compassion and humanity – specifically, how different we really are, and how different we are willing to believe we are. Pretty relevant stuff for 2017, no?

We first see Rasmussen beating a German soldier as he walks out of Denmark with his colleagues. The German was trying to leave with a Danish flag, and the burley, very manly Rasmussen is livid. “This is my country!” he screams as he rains down blows. “Not yours! You are not welcome here!” And, despite his brutality, who can blame him? These were his oppressors, his home-invaders, the savage barbarian destroyers of his entire world – and everything was unequivocally their fault. Why shouldn’t they take a beating?

But should they get blown up on the beach? Well, why not? They bloody well put the bombs there in the first place, didn’t they? These are the moral, ethical and deeply humanistic value questions at play. Rasmussen – assumedly single and childless, living on a beachside farm with his dog – is a tough nut, but these are boys under his charge, and they’re getting their arms blown off. Is compassion inevitable, or are the wounds of the world’s worst crime impossible to bandage?

Møller is spectacular in the role of Rasmussen. His physique, his thin moustache, the way he wears his khaki uniform and his prominent insignias, the way he tends to the fist he injured beating the German at the film’s beginning, all point to a career soldier who still mostly has his shit together even as the world has gone insane – mostly. His character arc across the film is beautifully structured and he modulates it precisely and unsentimentally (as you imagine Rasmussen himself would). Møller got out of prison in 2002 after spending four and a half years inside for ten assault convictions; until now, he has almost exclusively played hard-core criminals, as he himself was. He justly won Denmark’s highest acting honour last year for his portrayal of Rasmussen.

The filmmakers shot at some of the actual beaches involved, and, during production, found a real mine. How perfect, and perfectly sad.

The Salesman

thumb_5722_film_poster_big**** (out of five)

Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi just won the Foreign Language Feature Film Oscar for The Salesman, another of his particular brand of contemporary social thrillers – a term of my own devising for his specific style. His best film, A Separation, won the same award five years ago. Together with The Past (2013) and About Elly (2009), the four films constitute a staggeringly exciting recent body of work. He is unquestionably one of the finest, most dynamic, most urgent auteurs working in modern cinema.

All four of these films take place immediately. Things are happening, now, with no time to lose, and the stakes are high. Often told over two or three days, with a smallish cast (he has an ensemble of actors who re-appear throughout the quartet), the films are contemporary dramas but with the effect of thrillers: they are all highly suspenseful, tense and grippingly immersive. There is always mystery and misdirection; there are plentiful secrets and lies. And there are the cultural, political and religious constraints of contemporary Iran, pressing down on these characters and, for those of us non-Iranians, providing another layer of relative ambiguous tension.

The characters themselves share, across the four films, specific qualities: they are urbane (from Tehran overwhelmingly), educated, smart, young (I would suggest most are around 30, as an aggregate) and for the most part very attractive. This is perhaps the one level of artificiality in his films, but then, it occurred to me – perhaps in Iran, to be an actor one must be attractive? It certainly helps in countries with far bigger film industries.

The subject of being an actor in Tehran is directly addressed in The Salesman, which stars Shahab Hosseini (A Separation and About Elly) and Taraneh Alidoosti (Elly in About Elly) as Emad and Rana Etesami, who are playing Willy and Linda Loman in what appears to be a professionally-mounted production of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman in Tehran. At the start of the film, while they’re in the final week or so of rehearsals, their apartment building suffers a semi-collapse, and they are forced to move, quickly and without the luxury of time to look around, into the first apartment they can grab, which happens to have a sordid history. That history cuts into their lives in a particular way, and, once it does, the film’s “thriller” aspects kick up a gear, and, as always with films by Farhadi, choices of monumental emotional and moral substance need to be made.

The stunningly handsome Hosseini (he reminds me of Colin Farrell, but better looking) won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes for his work here and he deserved it mightily, even if his volatile black hair is a little too awesome during the film’s gripping, real-time third act. Alidoosti, who necessarily held her cards as close as one can to one’s chest in About Elly, gets to be far freer with her emotions here, even if her character Rana can only let them out when she’s on stage as Linda Loman. The Death Of A Salesman scenes are like lightening in a bottle, and there is no doubt that the Etesamis are meant to be read as fantastic stage actors. This is less of an ensemble than Farhadi’s other Big Three, but the work of all the supporting cast is excellent. Farhadi demands realism and his actors inevitably deliver; there’s nary a false note in any of the performances in any of his films, even from the children, who feature less here than in the previous work.

Despite some story elements that push it even further than A Separation and The Past into the thriller realm, The Salesman is more contemplative and in many ways smaller, more contained. It’s probably most evocative of About Elly, even though it’s obviously a more mature work about more mature people with, well, more mature baggage. Of his four films, I rank it number three, but it still towers above eighty-eight percent of the films that reach our silver screens. Don’t miss it, and if you haven’t seen his other films, correct that error now.

Mustang

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***1/2

At this year’s Academy Awards, the race for Best Foreign Language film came down to two horses: Mustang (which neatly fits the metaphor, yeah?) and Son of Saul. It’s completely understandable that the latter won: it’s a rather revolutionary work, which justified re-visiting the holocaust by its bold technique and astonishing integrity. Mustang is not revolutionary, it’s just a very solid and well-constructed film that is eye-opening without being heavy-handed.

Five sisters go to the beach after their final class for the semester. There they play in the water with some boys. It is a sequence of pure beauty and delight: young people enjoying a classic vibe. School’s out, and they are free.

But there’s the rub – because they’re in a Black Sea town in Turkey, not Sydney or Santa Monica, and a local old lady, watching from afar, doesn’t like what she sees. The sisters are orphans, living with their progressive or at least easy-going grandmother, and when the nosy old biddy dobs them in to their uncle, he takes it upon himself to tighten the reins. These beautiful free, somewhat wild horses are going to be broken.

The magic trick of Mustang is that it’s a scathing indictment of traditional patriarchal control in modern Turkey without being at all heavy handed. You’re in for the story and the message comes free. I had no idea this stuff went on in contemporary Turkey; that exposes some ignorance on my part and made the film all the more powerful.

The performances are all terrific but the girls are just sublime. The actresses – the youngest is thirteen – are astonishingly believable as sisters. In the opening, sunny, completely enticing early scenes, when the “mustang” is free, the way the girls move together, through the streets and open spaces of their town, is extraordinary. They flow like a single organism that contracts and expands, exchanging positions, following and leading, their energy seemingly binding them on invisible elastic cords, not so much like a school of fish as an amoeba.

Warren Ellis contributes a score made up of cello, flute and violin that suits the tone of the film perfectly, which is dreamy, soft and fluid, despite the imposing subject matter. It’s the debut feature for writer / director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who made the film for just €1,300,000. We’ll be hearing more from her.

Son of Saul

tumblr_nxgc9g0fVh1qm7fcfo1_500**** (out of five)

László Nemes’ Oscar-winning Son of Saul is as experimental as mainstream narrative cinema gets, and as bold. Set in Auschwitz in 1944 during the planning of a prisoner uprising, the film – and, very specifically here, the camera – follows Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jewish prisoner and Sonderkommando, as he tries to do one significant act of morality amongst the absolute horror of his surrounds.

The Sonderkommando were able-bodied prisoner work units within the death camps who aided with the disposal of gas chamber victims. They were separated from the general prisoner population and given adequate rations and sleep to remain productive (although, of course, everything here is relative, and we’re still talking about extreme and nightmarish conditions). With every move he makes to complete his objective, Saul risks his own life, the lives of others including those he “works with”, and the uprising itself. The stakes are as high as they get, and the milieu as dramatic as they come.

When I say the camera follows Saul, I mean it really follows Saul. Not to be glib, but the aesthetic here, bold and striking, is similar to that of a “first-person” shooter”, in that Saul is always in frame, usually centered, as the camera follows his every move. Beyond Saul, however – and here lies a crucial aesthetic choice – the world is out of focus. Nemes’ shoots the whole thing with an incredibly narrow depth of field, so while Saul is sharp, even the bodies he drags are blurry.

In a way, this technique makes the film bearable. We know these are bodies, and we’re glad not to see them. But on other levels, Nemes is getting to something, I think, of the mind-set Saul has to exist in in order to go about his business the way he does. He “sees but does not see”. Meanwhile, the soundtrack supplies us with endless horrors – but is also stylistically situated to reflect Saul’s emotional defenses: Nemes has stated that, to be truly realistic, we would hear much more screaming on the soundtrack, but Saul filters out the screams as much as he can, for his – and therefore our – protection.

It is an astonishing technical feat, especially considering the entire world the filmmakers must have constructed, only to shoot most of it out of focus. On a story level, the film is as murky as those blurry images, which fits in with the controlled chaos of the camp but also may alienate some viewers to the point of distraction. I gave up trying to keep track of a couple of story elements and instead let the world envelop me. Thank goodness, after an hour and fifty minutes, I was able to walk into the sunshine; Nemes, in his debut feature, has created such an immersive experience that it is hell to be part of, and yet must be experienced.