Monthly Archives: October 2016

  • Toni Erdmann

    Maren Ade (2016)

    Toni Erdmann is an unusual and, at 162 minutes, unusually long comedy-drama.  After half an hour or so, the themes and characters seem clearly defined and I wondered how the film would carry on for another two hours or so.  At the end of those two hours, I couldn’t understand how it had taken the writer-director Maren Ade so long to tell her story.  In between, though, I was often amused, sometimes frustrated, occasionally moved and always absorbed by the father-daughter relationship which Ade explores.  Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) looks to be in his late sixties.  He’s made a living (it appears not much of a living) as a music teacher:  his hirsute dishevelment suggests a superannuated hippie.  Divorced, Winfried lives with his aged, ailing dog and regularly visits his aged, ailing mother.  His ex-wife, now remarried, invites him to a gathering in honour of their only child Ines (Sandra Hüller) – a kind of welcome-home-cum-early-birthday-party.  Ines is a management consultant, currently posted to Bucharest.  Work commitments won’t allow her to be in Germany for her actual birthday so her family marks the occasion during this flying visit.  Ines is tense and wary – her mind is still on the oil industry outsourcing project on which she’s working – and she’s particularly brusque with Winfried.  Not long after this meeting, back in Bucharest and on her way to a business meeting, Ines is appalled to catch sight of her father hanging around the lobby of an office building.  Winfried, whose dog has died, has come to Romania in the hope of reconnecting with his daughter.

    And with the certainty that he’s going to embarrass her.  Toni Erdmann is, at one level, a comically exaggerated take on the idea of children – even children in their mid- to late thirties – being publicly ashamed of their parents.  As the audience already knows from the film’s opening sequence, when a postman attempts to deliver a package to his home, Winfried has a penchant for practical jokes.  These usually involve his putting on a ridiculous disguise.  His favoured props are a bad wig and prominent false teeth, both of which he’s wearing when Ines catches sight of him skulking in the office lobby.  Watching Toni Erdmann involves a fair amount of schadenfreude:  part of the movie’s grip comes from the viewer’s enjoying what Winfried gets up to, while realising he’s much easier to take from the safety of a cinema seat than he would be to live with.  As soon as he turns up in Bucharest, he starts to interfere with his daughter’s professional life, which is so vital to her.  Winfried’s doing so is the principal means of exposing the insufficiency of Ines’s work and relationships; the fact that she can’t get rid of him illustrates how part of her will always be her father’s child.  Maren Ade has said in interview that Winfried’s joker side is inspired by her own father’s.  She doesn’t, however – and unlike, for example, Mia Hansen-Løve – assume that semi-autobiographical material is bound to be as fascinating to others as it is to her.  Ade’s screenplay for Toni Erdmann is carefully constructed and contains plenty of eccentric and entertaining incident.  Strands such as Winfried’s disguises and Ines’s birthday reverberate through the story.  Yet there are two persistent difficulties with the film.

    First, Ade repeatedly relies on large improbabilities to generate highlights. On the first evening that Winfried is in Bucharest, Ines isn’t sure what to do with him so she takes him along with her to a reception at the American Embassy.  At the reception, Ines makes awkward attempts to ingratiate herself with Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn), the oil company’s German CEO.  Henneberg responds less to Ines than to the extraordinary things that Winfried says – in particular, that he’s hired himself a replacement daughter because his own daughter is always too busy at work to bother with him.  To Ines’s horror, Henneberg invites Winfried to join them – along with the CEO’s wife and a couple of business associates – for drinks after the reception.  This makes for some good and, from Ines’s point of view, painful comedy but your enjoyment of it is circumscribed by the certainty that Ines would never have allowed her social loose-cannon father near the embassy reception in the first place.  Next day, Ines has a tiring schedule and is desperate for a short nap before the evening’s agenda begins.  She incredibly relies on her father to wake her up and misses three crucial phone calls through oversleeping.   Much later in the film, Winfried and Ines are handcuffed together when one of his pranks goes wrong:  she’s late for an important appointment as a result.  Ines was irritated as soon as Winfried approached her with the cuffs and he didn’t force them on her:  why did she agree to put them on?  The handcuffs symbolise, of course, the inextricable nature of the pair’s relationship – perhaps Maren Ade would justify all the above improbabilities (and others not mentioned) on similar grounds.  This isn’t convincing:  the decisions made by Ines in these instances are basic contradictions of the particular, workaholic way in which she’s determined to assert her independence.  They’re crucial to the comedy plot but you can’t accept them – in the way you might have accepted illustrations of the same point that were brought about by circumstances beyond Ines’s control.

    The second difficulty of Toni Erdmann, amplified by its excessive length, is that, for all the excellence of the two actors in the lead roles, their characters don’t develop much.   From her first entrance, Ines is anxiously assertive, uncomfortable in her business outfits and in her own skin.  We soon realise that Winfried’s practical jokes are the refuge of a lonely man who must laugh-in-order-not-to-cry.   Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek both have some splendid moments, though.  Toni Erdmann is one of Winfried’s inventions:  he materialises during Ines’s evening out with two woman friends (Lucy Russell and Hadewych Minis), at a point in the story when Ines thinks her father is safely back in Germany.  ‘Toni’ introduces himself as a business consultant, lifestyle coach and associate of Ion Țiriac.  (After the references to Janet Lynn in After the Storm, it was quite a couple of days at the London Film Festival for those of us with a good memory for 1970s sporting personalities.)[1]  Winfried drags Ines along to an Easter egg-painting party, presided over by a woman to whom he’s passed himself off as the German ambassador to Romania – and Ines as his secretary, Ms Schnuck.  He tells the hostess that, to thank her for her hospitality, he (on piano) and Ms Schnuck (vocals) will perform Whitney Houston’s ‘Greatest Love of All’.   The first sequences at the Easter egg party seem among the most needlessly extended in the movie but Sandra Hüller’s rendition of the song is a genuine high spot.  It’s relatively easy to accept that Ines would allow herself to be caught up in this situation – and that she feels it may be marginally less humiliating to go through with the performance than to explain the truth (not that their hostess believes Winfried is the German ambassador).  When Ines first opens her mouth to sing, her voice is quiet and constricted with embarrassment.  As she goes on (the sequence reminds you what an tiresome, rambling number ‘Greatest Love of All’ is), she gets stronger:  attack is the best means of defence – and of expressing how angry Ines is with her father.  The second she’s finished belting out the climax, she exits the room.  This routine elicited a round of applause from the LFF audience – thoroughly deserved.

    Maren Ade’s description of the impersonal business world that Ines inhabits seemed to me well observed but unsurprising.  The last part of the film, however, is startling, in various ways.  Her boss Gerald (Thomas Loibl) has suggested it will help team-building for Ines to invite colleagues for brunch at her apartment to celebrate her birthday (on the actual day).  Everything has been meticulously prepared.  Just as her guests are about to arrive, Ines gets into difficulties with her tight-fitting dress.  After a struggle, she yanks it off.  The doorbell rings and rings again.  Ines decides to remove the very little she was wearing under the dress. Impulsively – or because this wardrobe malfunction is the last straw?  As with the handcuffs, Maren Ade looks to be using what she sees as an essential metaphor in the story to spark a farcical set piece.  As noted above, Ines’s power-dressing has always been under threat.  She gets something on her costume even at the pre-birthday do in Germany.  She traps her toes in a sofa bed as she’s taking it down (when she hopes Winfried’s stay with her in Bucharest is over), hobbles to the office for an important presentation, and goes to the ladies’ to try and remove the damaged toenail:  blood from the wound squirts up and stains her white blouse.  The birthday suit scene results from Ines’s culminating clothing mishap:  stripping naked seems an expression of her realising it’s futile to keep up the pretence of the life she’s constructed.

    Some of the arriving guests gamely join in with the impromptu theme of the party; others opt out and take their leave.  The joiners-in include Anca (Ingrid Bisu), Ines’s eager-to-please PA.  Among the opters-out is Tim (Trystan Pütter), whom we watched earlier in the film having loveless yet inventive sex with Ines.  Gerald goes away and, fortified by Dutch courage, returns undressed.  Although much of the audience roared with laughter through the naked brunch, I found it increasingly distressing – I think because, as also noted above, Ines is as uneasy under her clothes as she is in them:  there’s nothing liberating in her nudity.  A further guest – towering and unspeaking – arrives, identity concealed under what Screen Daily describes as ‘a traditional Bulgarian “kukeri” monster costume’.  This is the climactic disguise of the shaggy hero of the shaggy-dog story that Toni Erdmann is.  I couldn’t make sense of Ines’s appearing not to know at first who the hairy monster was – who else but Winfried could it be? – but his departure from the gathering and the scenes that follow are emotionally powerful.  When she realises the silent guest’s identity, Ines throws on some clothes, leaves the apartment building, follows the beast into the nearby park into which he’s wandered, and embraces him.   After she’s gone back home, Winfried topples over under the heat and weight of his costume.  For a moment you think he’s died in it but Maren Ade then cuts to Winfried upright again, in a hospital reception area.  A helpful nurse manages to wrench off the massive headpiece of his outfit.   The look and weight of the ‘kukeri’ costume illustrate, extraordinarily and affectingly, Winfried’s ridiculous, inescapable need for his daughter’s love – and how hard it is for them both to get past what has come to separate them.

    In a virtual epilogue, Ines returns to Germany for the funeral of her paternal grandmother, whose death completes Winfried’s isolation.  We learn that the debacle of the birthday brunch brought to an abrupt end Ines’s contract in Bucharest but that she’s since got a job with McKinsey and is now based in Singapore.  Winfried tells Ines that his mother’s funeral has to be a serious occasion and Toni Erdmann ends on a quietly melancholy note but – as so often in this strange, protracted, interesting film – the tone is complex, and Maren Ade’s final cadence is highly effective.   In the garden, at the reception following the service, Winfried and Ines talk to each other, with unusual calm and ease.  She even puts the joke-shop false teeth in her mouth.  Winfried is delighted, says he must take a photograph to capture the moment, disappears to get his camera.  Standing alone in the garden, Ines waits a little while then realises the moment has passed.  She takes the false teeth out.

    8 October 2016

    [1] Ion Țiriac, best-known in the tennis world as Ilie Năstase’s doubles partner, became a businessman in West Germany when his sporting career was over.   He returned to post-Communist Romania and is now the wealthiest man in the country.

  • War on Everyone

    John Michael McDonagh (2016)

    After seeing an advert on television for War on Everyone, I was a bit shocked to discover that John Michael McDonagh was responsible for it.  After seeing the whole film, I still feel the same way.  The poster for this crime comedy has the strapline ‘Bad cop, worse cop.’   The two principals, detectives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, are partners in crime as well as in crime prevention.   Their exasperated boss (Paul Reiser) warns them they’re on the verge of losing their jobs, thanks to corrupt practices and generally outrageous behaviour.  The movie’s trailer includes the pair deliberately driving their car into a man dressed in Marcel Marceau costume.  They do so in order to satisfy curiosity as to whether a mime makes a sound if he gets hit by a car.  The cops’ names are Bob and Terry (which may or – more likely – may not be a nod to The Likely Lads).   They’re an odd couple of grouchy family man and loose-cannon lone wolf.  Bob (Michael Peña) is married with two kids.  Terry (Alexander Skarsgård) is addicted to drink, drugs and Glen Campbell songs.

    McDonagh’s debut feature The Guard (2011) was also a cop-behaving-badly comedy.  Part of the comedy came from the mismatch between the rural Irish setting and other major elements of the piece:  the abundant political and professional incorrectness of Brendan Gleeson’s Garda; the arrival on the scene of Don Cheadle’s smooth FBI special agent; the mega-bucks scale of the drug-trafficking these two join forces to thwart.  War on Everyone lacks any such incongruity: there’s no collision between characters and context in a crime story set in New Mexico, especially after Breaking Bad.  McDonagh’s first film also featured a discussion, among the members of the drug ring, about Bertrand Russell, Dylan Thomas and the distinction between psychopath and sociopath.  That exchange was virtually a one-off in The Guard:  in War on Everyone, nearly every significant character – however vile or insensitive they may otherwise be – has intellectual or literary pretensions or, at least, insists on linguistic precision.  Philosophy graduate Bob and his wife (Stephanie Sigman) routinely discuss Simone de Beauvoir et al.  Terry is keen to establish whether it’s he or Bob who’s pronouncing ‘Al Qaeda’ correctly.  (This makes for a moderately funny sub-‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’ routine.)

    The epidemic tendency to assert cultural credentials reaches a climax in a scene in which the detectives’ main antagonist, the suave, depraved ‘Lord’ James Mangan (Theo James), asks a man called Pádraic Power (David Wilmot) if he’s heard of Yukio Mishima. The question is pertinent because his lordship is about to end Pádraic’s life by beheading him with a large knife.  Before he does so, Lord Mangan explains to his victim how Mishima died by seppuku; before giving that explanation, he’s decided contemptuously that Pádraic won’t know about Mishima because ‘you’re Irish, aren’t you?’  That line might suggest John Michael McDonagh has a chip on his shoulder about his roots (he and his brother Martin, born to Irish parents, grew up in London).  It seems more likely that the recurring cultural oneupmanship in McDonagh’s screenplay is a way of reassuring himself that War on Everyone, beneath ‘its thin veneer of hipness and cynicism’, isn’t ‘smug, obnoxious, conventional and contemptible … a film with no redeeming features’ (both quotes from Ryan Gilbey in the New Statesman).

    The garish violence of this movie, combined with the calculated offensiveness meted out by the people in it, makes it sometimes hard to stomach.  McDonagh may enjoy watching this kind of stuff and he seems to stage the set pieces well enough but War on Everyone isn’t just disappointing after CalvaryIt’s baffling too, such is the strength of McDonagh’s anxiety to convince himself and his audience that we’re not simply lapping up vicious swill.  For the most part, his verbal wit doesn’t get him out of the hole he’s dug himself.   The politically and racially incorrect cracks are often no more than did-he-really-say-that shock effects (although one or two of the visual jokes are better:  I liked a tennis doubles sequence, in which one of a burka-wearing pair, after hitting the winning shot, does a fist pump).  There are plenty of other things to dislike.  Alexander Skarsgård, more than Michael  Peña, is on the receiving end of potentially disfiguring violence:  it’s as if the director wants – or thinks the viewer wants? – Skarsgård to pay for his good looks but the facial damage turns out to be superficial and heals quickly.  (Brian Helgeland subjected Mel Gibson to something similar, and with the same result, in a 1999 crime movie called Payback.)  At the same time, McDonagh looks to be developing an appetite for physical extraordinariness of a less conventionally pleasing kind – in the form of, for example, Bob’s hugely obese elder son.  There are a few echoes of Todd Solondz in this film, both in some of the human faces and bodies on display and in details like a dog enthusiastically licking Terry’s bloody face.

    Yet John Michael McDonagh is, almost in spite of himself here, an interesting film-maker and the movie does have redeeming features.  The mile-high Alexander Skarsgård and the short, almost square Michael Peña are an amusing physical pairing. (Even with the Neanderthal stoop Skarsgård has devised for the role, Peña seems to come up to slightly above his waist.)  They’re also good actors, able to suggest there’s more to Terry and Bob than their gross behaviour.  Bob’s taste for talking philosophy makes it easier for Peña to illustrate this but Skarsgård does so too, on an emotional level.  Terry’s soulfulness comes through in the scenes with his latest squeeze (Tessa Thompson, in a good performance) and, especially, in his passion for Glen Campbell.  This element probably works so well because of McDonagh’s particular feel for pop songs with yearning melodies and poignant lyrics, heralded by his use of ‘New World in the Morning’ in Calvary.   A song like ‘Wichita Lineman’ has these qualities in spades.

    Another Campbell song points up a persistent theme in McDonagh’s work:

    ‘Galveston, oh, Galveston
    I am so afraid of dying …’

    McDonagh seems horrified and intrigued by death.  He allows even the appalling Lord Mangan an arrestingly candid conversation with his children about what happens – what, in Mangan’s view, doesn’t happen – post-mortem.  While it would be daft to pretend that McDonagh’s morbidity justifies the lavish mayhem he puts on the screen, it does at least remind you that he’s troubled by the dying or dead bodies.  I was in two minds as to whether to go to this film:  I know little and care less about bad cop movies but I’d been taken with The Guard and very impressed by Calvary.  Because I had a few hours between London Film Festival screenings of La La Land and Toni Erdmann, I decided to spend them at War on Everyone.  The picture is, to a large extent, indefensible.  But after coming out of La La Land dreading Damien Chazelle’s next trick, I came out of War on Everyone impatient for what John Michael McDonagh does next.

    8 October 2016

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