With a surface of bristling geezer swagger, Andrew Hulme’s Snow in Paradise constantly threatens to dive headlong into straight-to-video East End thuggery – before stepping out into the blinding daylight of the unexpected.
Our young upstart on the seemingly formulaic trudge through the Hoxton underground is Dave (Frederick Schmidt). All mod-revival polos and foul-mouthed bravado. The nephew of local kingpin Jimmy (co-writer Martin Askew), he isn’t so much desperate to ‘be someone’ as just rudderless. So when the opportunity of ‘a job’ comes along he leaps at the chance. Unfortunately for Dave, he makes the critical error of taking his best mate Tariq (Aymen Hamdouchi) with him – a sweet-natured British Asian who is eyed with suspicion and utter racist disdain by his uncle’s cronies.
Fierce depression and spiralling paranoia mount for Dave as an old pal of his dad attempts to draw him away from Jimmy – whose own actions become increasingly erratic – but most straining for him is the unexpected disappearance of Tariq. Fearing him dead, he only has himself to blame. There’s little else for him to do but get lost in an overwhelming haze of drugs, flushing his desperate reality as far away as possible.
Beginning his journey in the pursuit of crisp £50 notes and shrink-wrapped blocks of cocaine, Dave finds the purpose and spiritual fulfilment he never knew he needed in the welcoming, brotherly arms of Islam. Marching – shoes on – into a local mosque in search of Tariq, he tastes a peace and calm never previously present in his life. While not instantaneous, we see a change behind his eyes. The world suddenly has rules, and reason.
This religious awakening is Snow in Paradise's reason to exist, and its most affecting draw – so it’s unfortunate it is somewhat relegated to a subtext as we wallow in the bland gangland back-and-forths for prolonged periods. I’ve lost count of the number of by-the-book thugs-and-drugs films I’ve been subjected to, so I almost shared in Dave’s deep inhalation of relief as he finally gives himself over to religion. The film lacks the strength of its convictions to totally become the transcendental character piece hinted at – but even these flickers of life elevate it above so many others that wear the same skin. There is a soul here.
Hulme's ambitions plainly run deeper – visually it’s an alluring lo-fi palette of over-saturated colours and dank back rooms. The conventions of the gangster drama are underwritten and uninspired – Hulme and Askew care as little for this as we do. Every moment Dave is alone with his thoughts or soaking up the strange world of the mosque, Snow in Paradise instantly clicks. It is Frederick Schmidt’s film. We want to share his journey, and feel his pain. The young actor gives a tremendous breakout performance, proving equally adept at broad-shouldered intimidation and lost boy fragility.
A parallel riff on gentrification (“gritty, innit!?” Dave accosts a hipster art student) runs alongside the religious angle – and although the subjects are probed, neither is given the space to become a fully realised thought. Regardless, Snow in Paradise is a debut feature that stretches itself beyond convention, closing its eyes and opening its arms to strange new worlds.
[ 2014 — Dir: Andrew Hulme — 108 mins — IMDb ]
A lone mourner attends three funerals in the opening movements of Uberto Pasolini’s Still Life. He distantly listens to the eulogies and observes the coffins being lowered, with not a flicker of emotion. The squat, suited figure is Eddie Marsan’s Mr. John May, a South London council worker tasked with identifying next of kin and making funeral arrangements for those who have passed away with no one in their lives.
For May, this has surpassed duty to become a devoted obsession, almost a penance for unknown sins – writing rosy heartfelt eulogies for lives not lived, and painstakingly hunting for the smallest connections to the living, while returning home to an empty flat and a dinner of dry toast and tinned tuna, denying himself milk and sugar in his tea while there are still those to be laid to rest. A saint, devoted to the lost souls in limbo.
While May soldiers on alone, going as far as to paste the photographs of his ‘clients’ in a scrapbook of ghosts, the unsentimental bureaucrats of the council are seeking to clear their mortuary shelves more efficiently and ultimately make him redundant. As the news strikes, May has begun a new case involving a man a stone's throw from his own flat – a haunting reminder of his own mortality. If this is to be his last chance of bringing peace to the dead, it must be done thoroughly. So off he goes: hunting down clues, interviewing past lovers, trekking up and down the country to give his final client a befitting send off.
Sometimes Still Life verges on magical realism, drawing glimpses of heartbreaking pathos from May’s mute existence. Ultimately, though, its simplistic structure and subpar performances from the supporting cast nullify any lasting impression. It is an old fashioned film in many regards. Slow, methodical, sentimental. If the screen ratio had been squashed to 4:3 and the colour stripped away, perhaps a little more magic could’ve been found in the nostalgia of format.
Its most powerful scene is its most stripped back – as a painfully melancholy piano score plays, the screen pans through the happy, loved faces of May’s tragic photo album. Men, women and children who have passed from these joyful shared moments to a lonely forgotten death. These quiet passages of reflection are Pasolini at his strongest. A glance at fingerprints left in a dead woman’s moisturiser. A pillow which still retains the impression of her head. The director effortlessly breaks our hearts.
Narratively he leaves us wanting. The set-up falls into trite convenience, verging on schmaltz in the latter stages, as the subtlety of its human moments slips away. Marsan is, of course, excellent – an actor in possession of an anxious glum face that emits all the character's innermost thoughts without so much as a twitch. To his credit he rounds the morose figure of Mr. May into something close to relatability, whereas the screenplay has him as a comedically strait-laced caricature, fastidiously checking his watch, striding around with his briefcase and crossing roads with an absurd degree of caution.
A purposely small, reserved film, Still Life has several key moments – not least its closing scene – that will powerfully shatter hearts with their pure humanistic poignancy. Beyond these shimmering tableaus much of the pilgrimage feels stiff and cold.
[ 2013 — Dir: Uberto Pasolini — 92 mins — IMDb ]
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What happens when four ancient vampires become housemates in contemporary New Zealand? This hilarious mock-documentary, featuring Taika Waititi and Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement, details all the comic complexity that arises from such difficult living (or not living) conditions. A young new initiate who won’t stop telling people how cool it is to be a vampire adds to the supernatural chaos.
Hands down the best horror comedy of 2014. Twisted, giddy brilliance that never hits a bum note, What We Do in the Shadows is a destined cult classic that has a surplus of killer jokes and is eminently quotable enough to withstand repeated viewings. The best horror comedy since Shaun of the Dead. And what a double bill that’d make.
Read our ★★★★☆ review here.
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An opening shot framed and held as if a painting – a father and daughter in 19th century dress sit motionless against an endless sweeping vista. A man naked apart from his army medals lies waist deep in a rock pool masturbating. A man gurgles his final breaths through the pouring blood of his cut throat. Lisandro Alonso’s is a film that tells its story visually, through the transition from one striking image to the next. The plot – merely suggested in the billowing wind – concerns Viggo Mortensen’s Danish Captain Gunnar Dinesen who has journeyed to Patagonia with his teenage daughter Ingeborg to aid in a genocidal slaughter of the region’s natives. “Relationships and comfort are debilitating,” warns his lieutenant, and so it proves as the presence of the young woman stirs an animalistic lust in the troops, but even tougher for Gunnar to take is that it is reciprocated by Ingeborg – who takes off in the dead of night lovestruck with a young soldier. They have no common language, she has no home, and soon Gunnar will awake to find he has no daughter. Jauja is about what isn’t there. Its canvas is vast and blank, a dry sandy purgatory that has thrown a collection of lost souls and miscreants together. Gunnar ceremoniously buckles up his spurs, cutlass and trench coat and ventures out into the desert to return her.
Trudging the same roads as Klaus Kinski's Aguirre, the Dane begins to lose his grasp on reality as a bloody-minded drive to see his daughter again ravages his body and psyche. These later transient moments are Jauja’s strongest suit, for although the long periods of reflection offered by the slow ambient choreography of the establishing movements are what the Argentine director intends, there is never enough for us to latch onto. It requires nearly all of its emotion to be projected from the audience; working us hard to become a part of its voyage to the eponymous land of abundance and happiness.
As stated, this is a film of imagery. And what entrancing images they are. The sharp craggy rocks and long grass, the dogged look in Gunnar’s eye. It is a slog to get any narrative satisfaction, but the film sweeps us up in its visuals, effortlessly creating a transcendent atmosphere that fulfils in a different manner. The characters and their movements are deeply considered elements of the overall compositions, which are lent a peculiar air of nostalgia by the 16:9 round edged format. It is Gunnar’s journey, but he is just a part of the textured landscape presented in the retrograde format.
On the rare occasion there is any musical accompaniment, Mortensen stares deep into the night sky – holding a symbolic toy soldier found by his daughter – as plucked reverberating strings wash over the image. It is part of the film’s succession of poetic moments that meditate on the man’s desperate quest. Individually beguiling, the passage from one image to the next is dependent on our patience with this measured, distant style of filmmaking for it to succeed. The question of whether we are willing to follow the disturbed father into the endless desert is one only you can answer.
[ 2014 — Dir: Lisandro Alonso — 109 mins — IMDb ]