Mabul (The Flood) (Nattiv, 2010)

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This underrated, near forgotten 2010 film from one of Israel’s most interesting directors, Guy Nattiv, is a triumph of complex characterisations, interwoven stories and the hardships of coming-of-age. In Mabul (The Flood), Nattiv turns the spotlight on a family in crisis. 13 year old son Yoni (Yoav Rotman) has his Bar Mitzvah fast approaching but he’s severely underprepared. His mother Miri (Ronit Elkabetz) and father Gidi (Tzahi Grad) are distant, each with their own inner wounds to tend to. Gidi is a pilot for the local village but has been suspended for the past six months, something he’s been unable to share with his son. Simultaneously he’s been losing himself to self-pitying reveries brought on by one too many marijuana hits.

Miri, her relationship with Gidi perhaps fatally soured, has begun an affair with the father of one of the children she cares for at her pre-school. To add further complication the couple’s mentally handicapped older son Tomer (Michael Moshonov) has now been forced upon them because the institution that has always cared for him has closed due to crippling financial hardship.

Nattiv and co-writer Noa Berman-Herzberg, expanding upon their 2002 short film of the same name, skilfully weave these various threads into an honest and coherent narrative in which each individual’s story is given space to breath. Moments of contemplation, illuminated against painterly widescreen framing, are movingly contrasted by moments of conflict as the escalating tensions begin to take their toll.

Ultimately Mabul is a story told through the eyes of Yoni however. His transformation is a neat one. At first he’s eager to skip adolescence and begin adulthood as a more imposing physical specimen. He writes fellow students’ homework assignments for money that he spends on protein supplements that he sadly imagines will speed up the process.

We empathise with his resentment when Tomer is first re-introduced into the family, causing frustration all round with his stubbornly resistant, non-communicative ways. On some level Yoni hates his brother but in time comes to perceive him in a different light – not only that of the freak who gets ridiculed by townsfolk in public but as his own flesh and blood.

There’s genuine redemption to be gleaned from the final act of Mabul as a series of rude awakenings solders the family unit together in moments of severe crisis. The film’s title alludes to the when-it-rains-it-pours philosophy of accepting life’s tribulations, though a literal cleansing, when it arrives, is especially symbolic for Yoni and his mother.

The writing of Nattiv and Berman-Herzberg is well-grounded and distinguished by its sensitivity; it displays the capacity to build believable character arcs for his creations – something that was evident in Nattiv’s feature debut, the excellent Strangers (2007). Mabul is a first-rate domestic drama and confirmation of its director’s talent.

The acting is superb, especially Roni Elkabetz who shown so brightly in one of Israel’s great modern films, The Band’s Visit (2007). But both young performers, Rotman and Moshonov, deserve special mention, never overplaying to the point where their portrayals stray into lopsided clichés that blackmail us into giving ourselves over to sentimentality.

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Antiviral (Cronenberg, 2012)

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Brandon Cronenberg does indeed prove to be a chip off the old block. His superb directorial debut Antiviral (2012), despite a limited budget, is rife with fascinating ideas and striking visuals that reflect the alternate world in which chief protagonist Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) finds himself. And yet is this incarnation of Toronto really so far removed from the present day equivalent of a western city in which all sorts of weird obsessions consume the populace to an unnatural degree?

March is employed by a medical clinic that specialises in selling blood-harvested samples of the latest celebrity viruses. These are injected into paying customers whose obsession with their idols includes experiencing their pain and distress first hand. March also smuggles samples of these viruses out of the clinic inside his own body to sell illegally via a butcher who, when not cooking up ‘celebrity cell steaks’, moonlights as a black marketeer. But things become murkier for Syd once he allows a diseased sample from dying celebrity Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) into his bloodstream. From there things begin to get a bit messy – in more ways than one.

There’s much to admire about Antiviral, a film which exposes and satirises the various malignancies that blight our world – chiefly, that of celebrity obsession that leads to disturbing, harmful, and of course – for this is a Cronenberg film – perverted transformations of the mind and physical self. At our basest, Cronenberg shows us, we’ve become parasites hungering for experiences that mirror those of idolised non-entities.

In peculiar and audacious ways, Cronenberg’s film harkens back to the early ‘body horror’ films of his father David, like Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979), with a sustained tone of bleakness and sterility exquisitely engineered through the striking use of stark white interiors. True, the third act is wonky, with the impression of a narrative losing coherence and eating its own tail. But the pros far outweigh the cons for me; this is a promising, at times startling debut, handled with the aplomb of a veteran – not so surprising given its director’s pedigree. Cronenberg was hardly likely to be fumbling in the dark upon taking the plunge into cinema. He also makes canny use of E.C. Woodley’s music to provocatively support his images, something Cronenberg Sr has done for years with the aid of the incomparable Howard Shore.

The director’s real masterstroke may have been in casting Jones in the lead. The directness and intensity of his haunted eyes are remarkably persuasive, non-verbal indicators of the doom that descends upon March as he’s swallowed up by the ugly ramifications of his viral theft. The relatively inexperienced actor, best known for his work on The Last Exorcism (2010) and a small part in X-Men: First Class (2011), gives the impression of being far older than 23. Antiviral is both a wonderful throwback – like an old, unscreened gem rescued from the vaults of Cronenberg senior’s back catalogue – and refreshingly original. A follow-up is still eagerly awaited.

Compliance (Zobel, 2012)

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A fast food outlet in small town America receives a phone call from a man purporting to be an officer of the law. The store manager Sandra (Anne Dowd) is informed by Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) that one of her front-of-house employees, Becky (Dreama Walker) is guilty of stealing money from a customer, a fact backed up by his own team’s surveillance. Unable to attend the scene he instructs Sandra to perform a series of actions on his behalf.

A ritualistic violation by proxy begins through the harried Sandra and other employees, progressing from an invasion of privacy to far more serious crimes. Inspired by true events, Compliance (2012) is a frightening examination of our darkest fears and the threat of being exposed to our most base weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Alternatively it may be viewed as a less than enlightening illustration of humanity’s continued descent into a zombified state of rank stupidity.

The chief implication of Craig Zobel’s film is that when the authority of law enforcement is invoked, individuals often act like pre-programmed rats in a cage. Are we really so susceptible to suggestions that contravene our basic knowledge of the world and the way it operates? In this case, as Sandra robotically follows orders, the assumption of innocence is deleted – as is the need to assert basic rights and question a series of commanded actions in the light of their moral and ethical inappropriateness.

Compliance certainly makes for compelling viewing. Is the fact that it angers, infuriates and becomes harder to stomach as it progresses a testament to the effectiveness of Zobel’s film as an instructive tool, or a depressing reflection of the inanity which blights humanity and allows such absurd miscarriages of justice and moral surrender to occur?

Zobel certainly poses fascinating questions. Perhaps the cut and dry conclusions you’ll rashly jump to camouflage deeper, more disturbing truths. The performances of all cast members are excellent and generally naturalistic, especially those of Dowd and Walker in the key roles of the acquiescent store manager and her accused employee. True, Becky’s generally meek submission may test credibility but who’s to say how any of us might act under these circumstances? At key junctures, the Philip Glass-influenced minimalistic figures of Heather McIntosh’s excellent score act like jagged accusatory refrains underlining the downward spiral of humanity’s loss in the face of this insidious strain of evil.

Fish Tank (Arnold, 2009)

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Anyone familiar with Andrea Arnold’s first-rate feature debut Red Road (2006) will be well aware of her ability to generate compelling drama from a seemingly modest scenario. Interweaving a spell of ghosts from the past with a gripping voyeuristic compulsion, Red Road turned the dank back streets of Glasgow into something sinister and perverse. In her follow-up, Fish Tank (2009), the late-blooming Arnold returned to England armed with an insightful, uncompromising original screenplay of her own.

Set in the heart of a low-income neighbourhood of Essex housing estates, Fish Tank filters life through the eyes of sullen, moody 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) who lives with her indifferent mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and a smart-ass young sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), who she’s constantly feuding with.

Mia is like a boxer awaiting her turn in the ring: full of pent-up aggression, being slowly suffocated by the stagnation and poverty of her joyless life. Her only avenue of expression comes through the slowly evolving hip-hop dance routines she works on in the seclusion of an abandoned flat.

When her mother’s latest boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), enters the frame, the household’s dynamic subtly shifts. Though she often displays over-compensatory aggression towards Connor, Mia finds herself intrigued by this overtly masculine figure, the kind of mature-bodied male she’s been oblivious to until now. A vaguely sexual yearning gradually comes to a head and with it the potential for dangerous consequences.

Arnold’s film is an expressive, powerful example of the British social realism most commonly associated with the films of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Fish Tank is deliberately toned down in visual terms, though as became evident in Red Road, Arnold has an uncanny knack for eyeing concise, hushed moments that reflect an evocative sensation of poetry in slow motion.

Here, Fassbender was already exhibiting the indefinable qualities that would fast-track him towards the allure of even meatier roles though at the cost, naturally, of integration into projects engineered more for the masses than the art house. His immersive, jaw-dropping portrayal of Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) may still be regarded as a career highpoint years from now, but he has always provided a magnetic impression when on screen and Fish Tank was but another indicator of his gifts.

The rawness of non-actor Jarvis – plucked from real life by Arnold – makes for an interesting contrast. This is an accomplished, uninhibited debut performance by her, though she’s been gifted with a role in which she’s given plenty of room to manoeuvre by Arnold’s incisive, unsentimental screenplay.

Ultimately the film is more than a glimpse inside the fish bowl that holds the youth of a British underclass at arm’s length with little chance of escape. Forms of betrayal are experienced at every turn: in the apathy of a mother who is blithely neglectful of her maternal duties; in the moral betrayal of a man who exploits Mia’s underdeveloped sexual potential, pricking her into action in a way that places the safety of innocents in jeopardy. Even the dance audition she earns is merely a euphemism for further exploitation, choking off an additional avenue of escape.

Considering the grim circumstances and relentless grip of this decaying urban dwelling, how does Arnold achieve some kind of catharsis for Mia? Though there are times when Mia rubs us the wrong way, it’s hard to not be moved by the painful choices she’s ultimately forced to make. None of this is easy to watch but Fish Tank is grippingly alive with people, emotions and consequences that are all, too often, devastatingly real.

It Rains on Our Love (Bergman, 1946)

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The second feature from Ingmar Bergman may seem relatively unpolished and lacking the depth that would characterise his later work, but It Rains on Our Love (1946) is more than just a curiosity plucked from his back-catalogue. The earliest signs of a filmmaker able to align an audience with the plight of highly empathetic characters are on display, in this case two strangers who meet at a train station. Both Maggi (Barbro Kollberg) and David (Birger Malmsten) are down-on-their luck outsiders, heavily-laden with chequered pasts and with little but small change lining their pockets.

Maggi is won over by David’s charm but misery, in a sense, will bind them together. After a tryst in a hotel room that breaks the shackles of mounting frustration, they finally board a train to the country hoping to make a clean break. A rocky beginning awaits, in which a gleefully malicious old man threatens David with arrest, before they settle down in a home he keeps open for rent. However the road ahead is littered with obstructions blocking their progress towards a better life.

Though spliced with whimsical, comedic anecdotes centered on the town’s eccentric characters, the film generally takes a fairly bleak view of humanity. Regardless of the couple’s good intentions, every turn for the better is soon cancelled out by the poisonous suspicion or ill-will of those around them, especially the horrible wife of the man who employs David in his greenery. Her malicious response at the first sign of David’s distress when accepting bad news via a phone call, asking with malevolent glee, “what is it……..something tragic?” represents the nadir of scorn tossed like a bucket of cold water on his reformatory ways.

It Rains on Our Love can also be taken as a pessimistic, anti-authority film; a tirade against the misuse of power of those whose higher social standing affords them arrogance and contempt. These grim figures, portrayed as vampiric agents of faceless tormentors preying on the good intentions of David and Maggi are unrelenting and without conscience.

Conversely, our protagonists are far from saintly figures, with David’s life of crime and Maggi’s loose morals spelt out clearly early on. Yet both have made a pact with the past, to leave it behind and embrace a fresh beginning. Will their love be strong enough to overcome circumstance and human intervention? Or will their dreams tear apart at the seams once more? Malmsten and Kollberg are a great pairing. There’s a commendable earnestness in their portrayals of David and Maggi who are forever bracing for the worst with grim-set expressions which make the flickering moments of joy all the more convincing.

Bergman’s film holds up remarkably well, and though it’s difficult to reconcile this as emanating from the man associated with so many masterpieces of world cinema in the decades to come, there are glimpses of a serious director to keep an eye out for. Certainly the main theme – an acerbic probing of a man’s downfall and loss of faith in humanity – rings true, albeit with less psychological impact than Bergman would become notorious for. Then there’s the roving ‘narrator’, acting like an omniscient overseer mysteriously inserted into the story by Bergman as advocates for the beleaguered pair at crucial junctures. Another notable example is the montage of faces superimposed over the court documents as snippets of their testimony are presented to the jury. It’s a clever touch and seamlessly grafted onto the narrative; indication enough that this young director had the talent already to impart a story with something other than conventional methods.

You, the Living (Andersson, 2007)

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This astonishing 2007 Swedish film, presented as a series of serio-comic vignettes, is the work of writer-director Roy Andersson. It’s no easy task attempting to categorise You, the Living; simply put it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Each scene is short and sharp and virtually every set-up is a static one, but filled with fascinating, tiny details that speak of a meticulous attention to detail. It allows a painterly, dreamlike through-line to develop, like watching abstract works of art slowly come to life. Only twice in the entire film does the camera move.

The colours are muted and drab in this sunless world of mostly nameless, pasty-faced protagonists whose lives are played out in mournful, incremental advances. Andersson’s deadpan humour provides memorable surreal moments of suffering and joy, the avenging, repeating lines of these hapless, downtrodden souls insisting that “tomorrow is another day” regardless of their proximity to despair.

There’s a randomness of observation that borders on genius, and yet there are moments of perfect clarity too. Though a large ensemble of characters’ lives overlap without rhyme or reason, there is also the irreparable damage caused by acute isolation, more than one person bemoaning the fact that “nobody understands me!”

There are moments of poignant contemplation; in others, characters speak directly to the camera, whilst some seem to be speaking to a person who isn’t there. There’s a lovesick girl who pines for the lead singer of a rock group; an old doctor who’s fed up with unhappy patients he regards as beyond his help; a hilarious sex scene where a wife’s sporadic, ecstatic groans are drowned out by her husband’s continual dispassionate descriptions of the intricacies of his retirement funds.

There are dozens of others too, perhaps a few don’t come off, but nearly every one is a gem in its own way – and ripe for rediscovery in a film that demands multiple viewings to re-assess its subtleties and vagaries.

You, the Living is unique and unconventional, pulled off with such startling precision that I’m tempted to label it a masterpiece, and yet one simmering with barely tangible notions; a film so rich with minute, eccentric detail that it threatens to redefine the very nature of cinematic storytelling. Watch it and, like me, you’ll crave to see it again and again.

Michael Clayton (Gilroy, 2007)

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Tony Gilroy’s 2007 debut behind the camera is brimming with smart, slick dialogue; some of it may come off as stagy, but by the time the noose of tension is being tightly drawn, I didn’t really care, hooked by the weight of its juicy cover-up and justifications for murder. George Clooney is the film’s heart and soul, and luckily he’s able to project the kind of introspective intensity required to ensure Michael Clayton is a believable, even if not entirely empathetic, character; his motivations seem dubious in the establishing scenes, though his clinical command of a situation is counterbalanced by his own weakness for a deck of cards.

Clayton is a jaded but highly proficient “fix-it” man for his law firm, a term replete with malleable qualifiers. He cleans up the mess of others, mockingly referred to by friend and co-worker Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) as “a janitor” – the connotations of which seem a little dismissive of his true importance – an integral component, plugging holes with occasional recognition but with neither fanfare or, to his chagrin, a shot at a partnership.

Gilroy begins the film with a 15 minute flash forward, though ending this first act with an explosion, which seen for the first time without any context to rationalise it, deprives it of real impact. But quickly the ship is righted as Gilroy sets about unravelling the sly backstory, commenced four days prior with Arthur’s very public, semi-naked descent into a medication-deprived relapse; a manic-depressive episode which seems to stir his troubled conscience, illuminating his overworked mind with clarifications that must seem like divine messages from on high.

Suddenly, a case in which Arthur’s been swimming with the tide, takes on the proportions of something else: connivingly engineered, amoral culpability; swiftly, the ruthless uNorth, a profiteering chemical company and makers of a weed killer that has seemingly claimed hundreds of human victims, begin their defensive strategizing in order to minimize backlash or harm to their reputation.

The clarity of a re-awakened conscience has dangerous potential and uNorth’s reflexive measures, initiated by its edgy, bundle-of-nerves attorney, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), become a relentless pursuit of concealing injustice for the sake of their own hides; Arthur becomes a liability, an internally diagnosed “cancer” whose silent removal would benefit both parties.

Slowly the pieces of the puzzle come into sharper focus for Clayton who only vaguely senses the conspiracy afoot at first, but has the added insight of his long friendship with Arthur to clear away any marginal doubts of their obstructive presence. Here, Gilroy’s steady writing builds a subtle, but compelling momentum as a race to find, and gently inform authorities, of the truth becomes paramount. This is a somber drama with the added dimensions of a thriller, and although reaching a neat, predictable conclusion, it does provide satisfaction – meeting that comforting sense of ‘vengeance is sweetest when served by the just and righteous’.

Clooney wears his steely-eyed compunction like a mask and with murky grey lines of fallibility – an ostracised brother, a dud investment and up to his armpits in gambling debts – soaking him in dour duty, he follows the one clearly detectable straight line to its unequivocal conclusion, subverting the intentions of his keepers, the men assuming he’ll stay blind to the truth and follow their orders. Swinton, as the jumpy, reluctant negotiator with shady, dark denizens of the night, and Wilkinson as the impassioned but deeply troubled Arthur, give excellent support, whilst the late Sydney Pollack adds a measure of real gravitas to the role of Clayton’s superior.

A writer with a sizable body of work already behind him (The Bourne trilogy, Proof of Life), Gilroy thrives in his first shot at the director’s chair; Michael Clayton is a fine drama and a highly entertaining one, with a compelling, watertight screenplay and tidy, unobtrusive direction. It’s dense with detail yet never strays into impenetrability, with just enough flesh on its bones to make us care for Clayton’s quest and Arthur’s sad plight. Similarly effective, James Newton Howard’s ominous, simmering electronic score creates tension of its own, whilst Robert Elswitt’s wintry, reduced palette fits the tone of the film like a glove.