Berlinale 2018: Cobain

COBAIN still 30.jpg

Life is hard for young protagonists in European co-productions, like 15-year-old Cobain (Bas Keizer). He’s forced to take care of his mother Mia (Naomi Velissariou), who’s well into her third trimester and unable to kick her drug addiction. Despite getting assigned to a foster family, Cobain decides to make Mia his top priority, and soon finds himself working for a pimp named Wickmayer (Wim Opbrouck, looking like a second-rate Gerard Depardieu in his boxers and open bathrobe) in order to earn money. It’s the perfect mixture of tragedy and social realism, or a mixture just perfect enough for an international tour of the festival circuit.

Maybe I’m being a bit too hard on Cobain, but after years of enduring these tales of woe and misery geared for the arthouse there’s a breaking point. Like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, character traits, plot points, social environments, and other details appear as vague forms of things we’ve already seen before, and our general familiarity with these dramatic building blocks lets the filmmakers leave us to do all the work for them. Feast your eyes on the seemingly friendly pimp who turns cruel and predatory towards our teenage protagonist because it’s the point in the story where the third act as to begin; look at the prostitutes with hearts of gold who give our lead a sense of family until they fulfill their dramatic usefulness; and don’t forget about the complicated mother, whose mean and self-destructive behaviour towards her son are offset by one or two scenes where she shows some affection when she’s tired, high, or both.

Cobain inspires schematic thinking because it’s a schematic film. Every piece pops into place as it should, and all the dramatic beats play out as expected, with the only exception being the absurd direction the story takes. It’s hard enough to believe a 15-year-old could get a stash of methadone, put his strung-out pregnant mother on a motor scooter and drive her into the country to detox, but that’s just a warm-up for the bloody, ludicrous climax. I won’t spend any more time dwelling on it, because I’m afraid that by now I’ve put more thought into this than the screenwriter.

Review: Before We Vanish

Before-We-Vanish-1-1600x900-c-default.jpg

Following Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s output can be like riding a roller coaster. He’s one of Japan’s best filmmakers working today and for a loyalist like myself it can be tough to navigate the peaks and valleys of his more recent work. But it’s difficult to not have interest in whatever comes next from the director of Cure and Kairo. Most directors would be happy to make one masterpiece in their lifetime; Kurosawa has two, and plenty of strong titles peppered throughout the rest of his filmography. But for every high point -- like his family drama Tokyo Sonata or aptly titled thriller Creepy -- there’s a slog like Journey to the Shore or a haphazard mess like Daguerrotype

Thankfully, Before We Vanish falls more on the positive side, with Kurosawa taking a stab at an alien invasion movie. Three extra-terrestrials arrive on Earth and inhabit the bodies of three people in order to better understand the human race before launching an invasion. Their desire is to understand “conceptions” of human ideas like family, work, freedom, and self, but their process of doing so involves extracting these concepts from humans who, in turn, lose all comprehension of whatever the aliens take from them. 

Kurosawa and cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa keep the camera moving at a frequent rate, with plenty of pans and tracking shots that give the film a classical feeling (the same goes for Yusuke Hayashi’s score, which uses the likes of Ennio Morricone as an influence). Despite its overlong runtime, there’s an energy to the presentation that keeps things moving along, and Kurosawa’s trademark of making the fantastical look banal unsurprisingly makes for a nice fit with this particular genre. There’s a sort of relief that comes from watching material like this being done with such an assured hand.

But no matter how confident Kurosawa’s direction may be, his screenplay (based on Tomohiro Maekawa’s play) doesn’t commit hard enough to one thing to make a strong impact. While the film offers a handful of action sequences and thrills, it’s too conceptual and spread out to work as a more direct genre film. And its main theme involving what it means to be human (along with what humans become when certain ideas are taken away from them) is shallow, with a resolution that relies on an unearned sentimentality. Kurosawa makes his ideas understood, he just never makes them felt.

Still, Before We Vanish’s writing issues don’t tank the film by any means. Like some of Kurosawa’s other titles, frustration comes from seeing someone capable of making a great film not entirely rising to the occasion. Genre has always been his strong suit and Before We Vanish is entertaining and accomplished enough to show why Kurosawa remains one of Japan’s foremost auteurs working today. The roller coaster may not be a pleasant ride, but for the time being, there’s no reason to want to get off just yet.

Review: The Insult

37488-the_insult__2_-h_2017.jpg

Words have unintended consequences in Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult, which tackles one conflict in the Middle East with a well-meaning tin ear. Taking place in Beirut, the initial conflict starts when construction worker Yasser (Kamel El Basha) comes to fix a building code violation at an apartment belonging to mechanic Tony (Adel Karam). Yasser tries to fix the violation, only for Tony to freak out on him, leading Yasser to tell him off. But Yasser’s insult is just a warm-up, as when his boss forces him to apologize for his behaviour, the Christian Tony tells the Palestinian Yasser that he wishes Ariel Sharon wiped all of them out.

Yasser retaliates by punching Tony in the stomach, breaking two ribs and setting off a chain of events that leads them to court. Tony receives the help of a high-profile Christian attorney (Camille Salame, perfectly slimy) while Yasser gets assistance from a young lawyer (Diamond Abou Abboud) wanting to fight for the persecuted Palestinians. By this point, The Insult turns into a full-blown courtroom drama, and there’s a fun theatricality to the proceedings. Doueiri and director of photography Tommaso Fiorilli use plenty of steadicam shots swirling around characters to heighten the drama, and at one point a plot twist gets revealed in a way that would make Ryan Murphy proud. Before it ends up getting to what it really wants to say, Doueiri makes his film entertaining in the way it indulges the genre’s tricks of the trade.

As the case evolves into a media sensation -- even in the film’s universe, people can’t resist the symbolism of the central conflict -- Doueiri fumbles his landing. The trial turns into an examination of what could have led Tony and Yasser to act out on each other, which delves into their respectively tragic pasts. This is yet another example of the “context is everything” argument, but it’s flimsy when applied to this story. No matter what either character has gone through, it doesn’t justify Tony wishing for an entire nationality of people to be wiped out. The problem here is that Doueiri wants to generate sympathy for Tony, but all he can muster is a variation on “both sides do it.” That might have worked if the incident itself had some ambiguity to justify it, but it’s pretty clear-cut in terms of who wronged who.

Surprisingly, The Insult’s themes of cultural division and the difficult road to progress mirror another title from 2017: Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (both films also have the pleasure of being Oscar nominees). But at least McDonagh’s film had a sense of humour, more interesting performances, and the ability to get messy in its exploration of messy issues. The Insult holds back too much, starting out as high-minded camp before settling into an attempt to say something meaningful. It might have been better if it sat back and let the dramatic fireworks do the talking instead.