Exit Elena

Director: Nathan Silver
Writer: Nathan Silver, Kia Davis
Year: 2012
Cast: Kia Davis, Cindy Silver, Nathan Silver

★★★★☆

Simplicity is the key strength of Exit Elena, a short feature directed by Nathan Silver, who also plays a version of himself with a different surname. Silver co-wrote the film with the lead actress, Kia Davis, who plays the eponymous character, and it also stars his mother, Cindy Silver, again as herself. The real life relationships among the small cast help to create the sense of documentary reality that permeates the film, as the characters are gradually drawn into a web of intimacy that we never doubt for a second.

Elena is initially hired as a nurse to care for Jim’s (Jim Chiros) elderly mother, Florence (Barbara White), but it quickly becomes clear that the family require more than a professional relationship. Elena remains an ambiguous figure and almost nothing is revealed of her origins or motivations, which proves frustrating for the other characters but interesting for the audience. She has an air of being lost, displaced and alone, but we are given no indication as to why that might be.

Exit Elena

The narrative progresses extremely well, as moments of drama and changes in tone are introduced before the audience have any opportunity to lose interest. Silver deftly brings out different sides to the characters just as the film needs to step up the intimacy, but the guarded dialogue ensures we never come close to feeling that we know all there is to know. The characters are familiar yet distant, like genuine acquaintances we have never had the opportunity to learn more about.

The drama is kept minimal and deals solely with everyday social situations, but becomes quietly powerful towards the end. The final scene is the only one which is ostensibly staged, but we accept it as real because that tone has been sustained for so long. It is a poignant, strangely liberating moment, even though Elena’s future remains very much up in the air.

The performances are vital to the film’s authenticity, and ensure it never deviates from absolute realism. The discomfort and claustrophobia of being confined in a small house with strange, or estranged, people is prominent in the early scenes, and the peculiar dependence that develops between the characters is believably executed, despite the blurring of normal social boundaries. It is Cindy Silver who gives the stand out performance, as her character develops from a fussy, overbearing housewife into a complex, likeable woman.

Silver resists the temptation to stretch the film out longer than is needed, keeping the runtime down to a modest 70 minutes. There is little excess, with the exception of some unnecessary date and title frames, meaning it remains focused on what it is trying to portray. The result is a meticulously observed piece of realism and as genuine a film as you are likely to see. Despite its tiny budget and refusal to resort to artifice, Exit Elena is a compelling portrait that never misses a beat.

Rob Dickie

Hugo

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: John Logan, Brian Selznick (book)
Year: 2011
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Sacha Baron Cohen

★★★★★

It might seem incongruous for an expensive 3D blockbuster to make clockwork technology and the primitive origins of filmmaking its principle subjects, or indeed for that most adult of directors, Martin Scorsese, to venture into children’s cinema for the first time in his long career. However, Hugo demonstrates that these incongruities are only apparent, as they form the basis of a wonderful character-driven story and the best live action family film in years.

It opens with the title character (Asa Butterfield) attempting to steal a clockwork mouse from Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the ageing owner of a toy booth in a Parisian railway station, which is continually under the watchful eye of an uncompromising Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Georges catches Hugo in the act and confiscates his most valued possession, an old notebook containing instructions for the repair of a broken automaton, which represents the only tangible connection he has to his dead father (Jude Law). Hugo leads a lonely existence, living in apartments built into the station walls and tasked with ensuring that the clocks run on time. The only thing keeping him going is his desire to repair the automaton and discover its secret message.

3D Clockwork: Scorcese uses new technology to bring old inventions to life.

He is forced to work in the toy booth to earn back his notebook, and while doing so he meets Georges’s daughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Together they embark on an adventure that uncovers the hidden past of the Méliès family, and takes them on a journey through cinematic history. Hugo is a celebration of cinema and Scorsese affirms his love for the medium in the same way that Giuseppe Tornatore did with Cinema Paradiso. Both explicitly through the film’s message and implicitly through its presentation, Scorsese emphasises the magic of cinema, regardless of how primitive or advanced the techniques that are employed. In an era when the use of 3D technology is frequently seen as a modern degradation, Scorsese makes the point that filmmaking hasn’t changed a bit.

The 3D effects are wonderful, ranging from the intricacies of facial expressions, clockwork mechanisms and the multiple 2D layers of the oldest film sets, to the spectacular vistas of 1930s Paris, which give the city height and scale like never before. It looks stunning, and, while the effects are deliberately conspicuous, they are never a distraction. Effects are there to tell a story, as we are told, and Scorsese ensures that they all have a purpose and enhance the story he has to tell.

However, Hugo is not only a film about film. It has a great story and a rich tapestry of characters, reminiscent of a Victorian novel. However minor they appear in the grand scheme of things, each character is rendered with a depth and humanity that takes them beyond their role in the plot. The community that inhabits the station is very much the heart of the film. Its interactions are genuine and understated but frequently poignant. Hugo exists in its hidden fringe but, towards the end, he goes from being a background observer to the focus of attention in a touching scene in which the characters he knows so well really see him for the first time. The acting is strong as might be expected from such a stellar cast; Ben Kingsley puts in the outstanding performance, but Sacha Baron Cohen’s is the most representative. His Station Inspector is both a villain and a clown, but always simultaneously a man. Having made his name playing a caricature, Cohen takes the opportunity to demonstrate the range of his talent.

Hugo is a film of intrigue and adventure, and one that is intensely aware of the debt it owes to cinema’s largely forgotten pioneers. In light of this, Scorsese refuses to allow it be anything less than exceptional. Like the enduring films from the past, Hugo deserves to be watched by generations who will smile knowingly at the archaism of the effects but will nevertheless fall in love with the cast of characters and the human story it presents.

Rob Dickie

Super 8

Director: J.J. Abrams
Writer: J.J. Abrams
Year: 2011
Cast: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler

★★★☆☆

Director J.J. Abrams has described Super 8 as a homage to the films his producer, Steven Spielberg, made back in the 1980s. He succeeds in creating that kind of mood. The influence of those films is obvious; we immediately recognise the suburbs, the kids riding everywhere on bicycles, the old-fashioned sense of adventure. Nostalgia is a big part of the film but Abrams doesn’t overdo it, with the exception of a few too many lens flares.

Super 8 revolves around a group of children making a zombie movie, clearly influenced by the Romero classics they are not supposed to have seen. They are inventive and determined young filmmakers, writing and rewriting scenes on notepaper, recruiting an older actress from school and sneaking out late at night to film the perfect scene. The children are endearing as a group; they appear childish in ways that modern children often do not. The relationship that develops between the central character, Joe (Joel Courtney), and Alice (Elle Fanning, who follows up Somewhere with another impressive performance) is very sweet and never overbearing.

Joel Courtney

Super 8 is best when it focuses on childhood innocence and innovation

While filming a late night scene, the children witness a train crash and it is clear that there is more to it than meets the eye. The crash is a superb action sequence; the train is tossed elastically in the air carriage by carriage. There is a dramatic contrast between light and dark, a trick that is repeated later on in another visually excellent scene that sees the military begin to destroy the suburb. After the train crash, a great sense of mystery develops; Joe takes a strange metallic cube as a souvenir, the town’s dogs simultaneously retreat to a ten mile radius, and the military presence increases. The cause of the mayhem is an extra-terrestrial monster, a powerful, spidery creature that was secretly being transported on the train.

The atmosphere is perfect and the story appears to be developing nicely, but, towards the end, Super 8 begins to falter. The monster is better left in the shadows and ends up looking like a weird cross between the creatures in Alien and Avatar. Its lair appears to have been produced entirely for aesthetic effect rather than being an appropriate fit for the rest of the film. The ending generally appears rushed and the final confrontation is so innocuous, it may as well not have happened at all. I was pleased to see the homemade zombie film included in the credits. If it hadn’t been, it may have been easier to forget why I enjoyed Super 8 so much in the first place.

It’s a film that does the little things well. It could have easily been an exercise in empty nostalgia, but the writing and characterisation are too strong to allow that to happen. The best scene sees Joe apply makeup to Alice’s face. She gives him her best zombie impersonation and he ends up with fake blood on his neck. It’s a very tangible moment, one that seems every bit as significant as any disaster going on around them. And it’s that kind of scene that legitimises Super 8 as an excellent film in its own right, rather than one that depends solely on its connection to Spielberg’s past achievements.

Rob Dickie

The Way

Director: Emilio Estevez
Writer: Emilio Estevez
Year: 2010
Cast: Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick van Wageningen

★☆☆☆☆

The Way is set on the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route, now used by travellers. It is evidently a personal film. Emilio Estevez directs his father Martin Sheen in the lead role, and also plays the part of his son. The film was inspired by Estevez’s own son’s journey down the Camino, taken with Martin Sheen. But enough about the family.

Very early in the film, the father, Thomas Avery (Sheen), gets a phone call informing him that his son has died while walking the Camino, and he travels to France to collect the body. Naturally, he decides to complete the journey on behalf of his son, presumably to discover the true meaning of what he has lost, and a world he has never previously desired to explore. It is a simple story, and the ending is known from the beginning.

Despite some beautiful shots, more should have been made of the scenery

Despite some beautiful shots, more should have been made of the scenery

It becomes apparent early into the journey that Thomas will not be travelling alone. He meets a jolly, cannabis-smoking Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen), a bitter Canadian woman (Deborah Kara Unger), and eventually an irritating Irish writer (James Nesbitt). Each have their own reasons for taking the walk and their own demons to overcome. They are an unlikely group of travellers, especially Thomas himself, who, for most of the film, looks like he would rather be somewhere else. He never seems to believe in it, which becomes a problem. It is difficult to care about his journey when his mind remains closed to it. It seems a duty, almost a chore.

His son (Estevez) also accompanies him. Thomas carries his ashes in a box, and sprinkles them gradually along the way. This works well. However, his son is also there is spirit and frequently appears in person. These visions always appear out of place, and are never anything other than comical. It is difficult to see why they are there.

Watching the film, you also get the feeling that Estevez doesn’t understand travelling. He has an impression of it. There are some unexpected experiences and brief glimpses of what these can mean, but the characters are tourists disguised as travellers and come across as insincere. One scene, in which Avery finds a hostel with everyone dining outside at a long table, is a good example. I don’t doubt that the event could take place, but watching it, I know it didn’t. Everything in that scene was forced. There are other examples. Even the identikit backpacks are difficult to believe.

There are good moments, such as when Thomas has to swim to retrieve his backpack, and when it is later stolen and subsequently returned. The former leads to nothing. The latter is better developed and provides some much needed sincerity, via a gypsy gathering.

The setting should have made up for the flaws to an extent, but, with a few exceptions, it didn’t. It lacks character, lacks threat. It comes across as very tourist board. The direction is bland and extremely safe, unable to bring the scenery (or the acting) to life. The soundtrack is also intrusive and often discordant.

The Way delivers the story it promises, but the execution is stale. It’s an emotional journey without emotion, exploring a wonderful setting without wonder. Due to its personal nature, it ultimately appears self-indulgent, offering mild comic relief but little else.

Rob Dickie

The Tree of Life

Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Year: 2011
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken

★★★★★

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?

The Tree of Life opens with this quotation from the Book of Job, set against a black screen. It is a big question, but this is a big film. It has been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey for many reasons, most of them aesthetic. However, it is also reminiscent of its scope, its attempt to portray, if not to answer, the big questions. 2001 presents an unattainable truth, concealed in an alien object which is beyond our understanding. The Tree of Life presents a family.

It is a film where every shot is genuinely astonishing

It is a film where every shot is genuinely astonishing

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? That is a question at the heart of every family. Jack (Hunter McCracken/Sean Penn) is a child, who, like all others, grows up to question the way of the world. He questions his father (Brad Pitt) for the way he has restricted his relationship with his mother (Jessica Chastain), for his forceful nature, for the way in which he and his brothers have been brought up. Pitt’s character is unsympathetic. It is clear he loves his children, but his love appears cruel and hard. His performance is all in the chin.

But the children do not know the way of the world, and it is up to the father to teach them. Who are they to question him, when all they have rests in what he has built? He has built it with his own hands, as he continually reminds us.

The mother is the antithesis of the father. She is love embodied. Considering the lack of dialogue she has to work with, Chastain gives a remarkable performance and Malick directs her superbly. The goodness and purity of the character shines through every look, every gesture, whether she is laughing or in tears. She is believable in every sense, as a mother, as the ultimate mother, as an Eve. At one point she floats in the air beneath a tree, and we believe her.

The struggle in the film is between the father and the mother, or the way of nature and the way of grace, as Malick puts it. In other words, between what we are given in life (by God) to work with, and the ideal that we yearn to be. The allegory is deceptively simple. All the wonders of eternity, all the grace and cruelty of God, presented in the image of a family which is unquestionably real.

It sounds too good to be true and perhaps is. The main problem is one of balance. At times, the middle section of the film does not seem to progress, and, despite beautiful imagery and strong performances, it cannot quite live up to the spectacular frame. Penn’s older Jack is underused, despite the importance of his role, and the omission of the dramatic catalyst of the narrative means the audience must take a leap of faith to entirely connect with the ending. It is evidently a personal film, which may explain Malick’s aversion to conventional narrative techniques, even at the expense of synthesis.

It is, at the same time, a very easy and very difficult film to criticise. It is not flawless, yet feels like it should be. It must be said that the opening and closing scenes are some of the most beautiful that exist in cinema. It is a spiritual experience and one that won’t be replicated for a long time. Just go and see it.

Rob Dickie