This Week We’ve Been Watching…

    Mike’s Been Watching…

THE AVIATRIX OF KAZBEK [Main Picture]
DIR: Ineke Smits

I may not have seen much cinema from the Netherlands, but I have seen enough to spot an emerging trend, and a worrying one. With that in mind, let me ask you this: why does all cinema from the Netherlands feel like airport literature? Y’know, the sort of romantic escapism designed to match the light-headed feeling of flying? It’s innocuous and insipid, but it passes the time. Well, there’s no better way to describe The Aviatrix Of Kazbek, which wins the award for the most lackluster drama of the year. Sickly, pandering and deathly dull, its washed-out cinematography imbues the film with the feeling of being a wartime relic, and boy, does it play like one…

The Aviatrix Of Kazbek is the sort of film which thinks that the perfect way to express the jovial, happy-go-lucky nature of our protagonist is to have her dance across a clearly labeled minefield. Oh how she dances, time and time again, skipping and hopping over touch-sensitive explosives. How charming, right? Well, no. It makes her wreckless and stupid, and impossible to get along with, because she’s such a blithering, air-headed idiot. It doesn’t help that the script is drastically underdeveloped, to the point that she only has about twelve lines during the first hour. The first time we see her she’s gratuitously naked (not complaining, but what’s the point?) and staring into a mirror. The mirror observes her shadow dancing across the wall, except that she’s not dancing; it’s a free soul, y’see, and represents the girl’s inner strength. How fabulous.

Aside from the idiotic screenplay and obvious metaphors the film also delivers one of the most pedestrian (and unlikely) romances the screen has seen in years, and fails to present it against an over-simplified sociopolitical backdrop. The cinematic equivalent of diazepam, but presumably less fun.

THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE
DIR: Brett Morgen, Nanette Burstein
Based on Robert Evans’ 1994 autobiography of the same name, The Kid Stays In The Picture is one of the most honest films ever made about Hollywood, or more precisely, what goes on behind the façade of Hollywood that is sold to the public in glossy magazines – pearly white smiles, big ego’s and bigger paychecks. The 1970’s were a golden time for Hollywood, and especially for Paramount Studios, who rose to prominence under Evans’ careful gaze – he could practically smell a hit, and often fought furiously for the projects that everybody else predicted would be failures. Yes, the 70’s were a decade of excess and success for Evans, but the 1980’s derailed him with cocaine scandals and murder investigations (he was never charged, but the victim was involved in financing a picture he was developing), leading the producer to sell up and commit himself to a psychiatric hospital. All of this is narrated by Evans himself, with the vocals taken from an audio-book recording made some years after the publishing of his autobiography – I’m sure he would have loved to record new material, but unfortunately he suffered a stroke in 1998. The Kid Stays In The Picture is both a self-aggrandizing and self-loathing picture, brimming with the sweetness of success and the bitterness of failure; Evans sings his victories, but has the strength to admit his mistakes, of which there were many. Too many. His voice is cracked and weary of the world – the world of love, friendship and motion pictures. He once married Ali MacGraw, star of Love Story (1970), but she left him for Steve McQueen. He once made the greatest motion pictures in the world – The Godfather (1972) and Chinatown (1974) among them. But he also made Urban Cowboy (1980). Them’s the breaks, I guess. That’s Hollywood.

    Sam’s Been Watching…

SARAH’S KEY
DIR: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Sarah’s Key is a film of two (intercut) halves. In 1942, 9 year old Sarah (played by the excellent Melusine Mayance) is caught up in the round up of French jews by Nazi collaborators. Slowly separated from her family, all she wants is to get back to her little brother, whom she hid from the enemy by locking him in a hidden cupboard. In 2009, Journalist Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) is writing an article about the round up, and discovers that her extended family may have a connection to Sarah’s story, prompting her to try and find remaining members of Sarah’s family, and perhaps Sarah herself.

Only one of these parts works; the 1942 section of the film really stands out, thanks largely to an incredibly emotionally articulate performance from young Melusine Mayance. We believe in Sarah’s quest, and though we know where it is heading with total certainty it still rips at your heartstrings when the inevitable happens (this too is helped by Mayance, whose utter devastation is palpable and crushing). This section of the film is also more engaging at a visual level, with strong period detail and striking images such as that of Sarah and a fellow escapee running away from a concentration camp through a cornfield, in an almost dreamlike shot. It’s not perfect, and can feel a bit contrived, but it’s much more engaging than the modern day section.

All that the usually brilliant Kristin Scott Thomas is really asked to do in the modern day scenes is wander from place to place and spew exposition (about the story we’ve just been watching) to other people. The connections between this story and the 1942 section often strain credulity, and even if they didn’t, they have no real impact. Add in a shamelessly manipulative pregnancy subplot and, really, half the film feels wasted. However, the 1942 section, and especially Mayance’ performance, are so strong that you can’t quite dismiss Sarah’s Key. It does, however, remain disappointing.

THE TREE
DIR: Julie Bertucelli

Julie Bertucelli’s film has been critically acclaimed and nominated for several awards in her native Australia, but it just doesn’t quite come together.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, who suffers about as well as any actress working today, is hugely effective as a 38 year old Mother left alone with her four children when her husband dies, and young Morgana Davies is also good as her 9 year old daughter, who comes to believe that her Father’s soul now lives in a huge tree whose roots are beginning to undermine their house.

Where The Tree ends up lacking is when it departs from these central characters. The other siblings and Gainsbourg’s new boss/boyfriend (Marton Coskas) are ill defined, and never really feel like a unit, meaning that the film ends up lacking a crucial emotional through line, as well as picking up and dropping plot threads (the oldest son is meant to be moving away, but this is swiftly forgotten).

That said, the central thrust of the film works, thanks to strong work from the two actresses carrying that part of it. Yes, Davies’ character Simone can be irritating, but she’s irritating in a way that feels true to a nine year old in her situation. The film, while it is sympathetic to Simone, never indulges in or endorses the idea that she might be right, and her Dad’s spirit is actually in the tree, but it uses it as an emotional catalyst between Mother and daughter.

For the central performances, for the lovely cinematography, and especially for Charlotte Gainsbourg fans (and, by the way, if that’s not you, why the hell not?) The Tree is worth a look.