So Beautiful, But Horribly Sad, Too: A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)

“I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.”

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) is the final entry in the unconventional, loosely connected trilogy of films by Swedish director Roy Andersson that explore what it means to be a human being and the absurdities of life. The film was awarded the Golden Lion for Best Film in the 71st Venice International Film Festival.

As one of my Christmas presents last year, I received a collection of Roy Andersson’s films, which includes, probably his most famous film, A Swedish Love Story (1970), as well as all three films in his Living trilogy – Songs From The Second Floor (2000), You The Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014).

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All three films in the Living trilogy are shot in a particular style, using only wide angles and the camera remains static throughout each sequence. There are also no intercuts between the scenes. In an interview, when asked about this stylistic choice to only use wide shots, Roy Andersson explained that:

“I think that the wide shot tells a lot about the human being that a close-up can’t. About their place in the world. The wide shot defines the human being more than the close-up because, for example, the room where the person is tells about his tastes, his life. Even if it’s not home, you can read the history of a person better in a wide shot. When you read this wide shot, there are so many elements that make the picture more tragic.”

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The films are composed of short, thematically linked vignettes. Each scene features a pasty, unhealthy looking character or group of characters battling with isolation and loneliness. For the most part, these are ordinary people, who are weighed down by mundane everyday existence, stuck in the perpetual grind to make ends meet and struggling to connect with their fellow human beings. All these vignettes have a certain absurd comical quality, because, despite the rather unusual situations, they tap into emotions that are very difficult to describe but say something deeply honest about the human condition. Also, the choice not to intercut between the scenes and leave the camera immobile gives the viewer the time to discover the various details that are deliberately placed in the background of each scene. The use of a washed-out, desaturated colour palette in the colour grade only adds to the bleak and sterile atmosphere. Sometimes it almost seems like the characters are blending into their surroundings.

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In several vignettes we see an assortment of different characters talking to someone on the phone and repeating the phrase: “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.”, while clearly feeling lonely, defeated or miserable. The film showcases people that appear to be trapped in their own private hell, worn down by the mundanities of life and unable to precisely describe their feelings or connect to the people around them. Even their partners, families or friends can’t seem to alleviate their sense of alienation.

In all three films of the Living trilogy, Andersson explores a variety of human emotions and conditions, but mainly focuses on themes such as people’s universal fear of loneliness, the cost of materialism, the lives of woman in a male-dominated society, the impact of the past on the present, the delusions and dream castles that people build and hold on to deal with the mundanity and absurdities of life and the masks that human beings create and present to the world in the place of their true selves in fear of being misunderstood and rejected.

A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence is an honest and dark existential comedy that will appeal to those, who enjoy ruminating on philosophical topics. I also highly recommend the two previous films, Songs From The Second Floor (2000) in particular, which remains my favourite of the trilogy.

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Because Someone’s Got To Sing The Pain: One More Time With Feeling (2016)

“Just file it under lost things. My voice, my iPhone, my judgment, my memory… Isn’t it the invisible things that have so much mass?”

imagesOne More Time With Feeling is a raw and deeply moving documentary, directed by Andrew Dominik, about the recording process of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ sixteenth studio album Skeleton Tree, while Nick Cave is dealing with the grief from the tragic death of his son Arthur. Instead of having to bear the obnoxious questions from the media about the tragedy in the context of promoting the new record, Cave decided to finance the production of this documentary.

I’ve always been fascinated by the intensity of Nick Cave’s music. His deep, brooding voice and poetic lyrics always manage to evoke a certain darkly beautiful atmosphere. Each song seems to encapsulate a whole story that is told not just directly through his lyrics but is also conveyed through deliberate silences and omissions. It is then up to the listener to fill in the blanks and uncover what was left unsaid and what is maybe only alluded to. The same could also be said to describe this documentary. So much of the horrible anguish is left unspoken or is communicated through artistic expression (poetry, music) and meaningful silences. We can see him trying to find space for creativity in the aftermath of this trauma, and his struggle to accept the kindness and sympathy of the people around him.

“Because someone’s got to sing the stars,
And someone’s got to sing the rain.
And someone’s got to sing the blood.
And someone’s got to sing the pain.”

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The combination of high contrasted, black-and-white shots and the dark tone of the music from Skeleton Tree pulls at your nerve stings and evokes a deep feeling of sadness and anxiety. The documentary consists of performances from the recording process of Skeleton Tree and interviews with Nick Cave, as well as pieces of recordings of his monologues and poetry readings, through which he tries to articulate his feelings after going through this horrific trauma. We also briefly hear from his wife and his long-term collaborator Warren Ellis.

large_53a55b31d37f991c009d95fe1a2f9e2ebc0d9d57Watching this reminded me of the excellent documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017) that I also recently watched and highly recommend, in which the prominent American journalist and writer Joan Didion reflects on the process of writing her essay collections The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. In these essay collections she tries, in her own way, to make sense and express her feelings of losing first her husband and soon after also her daughter. As much as we read and hear about other people’s experiences with loss and grieving process, nothing can truly prepare us for the emotional turmoil of loosing of a close family member. Even more so, if it’s due to unexpected and tragic circumstances. In case of Didion, she channelled her grief into her work and found that the process of writing helped her to sift through her emotions and find a way to move forward after losing two loved ones. But in the case of Cave, he believes that the powerful trauma that he was confronted with will hinder his creative process. He is very honest in admitting that it is becoming harder and harder for him to continue doing what he is doing.

Overall, One More Time With Feeling is a creatively shot, intimate look into a musician’s creative process and a profound and moving exploration of grief.

Film Reviews: The Death of Stalin (2017), I, Tonya (2017), The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)

The Death of Stalin (2017), directed by Armando Iannucci

“I can’t remember who’s alive and who isn’t.”

a495279130bea28067ff459fa02e8239_500x735A film that created quite a stir in Russia and was banned from being shown in theatres until after the election. This fact, naturally, garnered it more attention from the press also in my country and resulted in sold-out screenings. Even my grandfather, who’s not a big moviegoer, wanted to see this film.

Based on a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, The Death of Stalin is a satire about the chaos and intense political machinations following the sudden death of Stalin (played by Adrian Mcloughlin) in 1953. If you have seen some of Iannucci’s previous work (The Thick of It (2005-2012), In The Loop (2009)), you’ll pretty much know what to expect – dark, edgy humour criticising the incompetence and ambitions of politicians. The film mainly focuses on the main players of the Soviet regime at the time – Nikita Khrushchev (great performance by Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). If you don’t like morbid humour and are easily offended, I suggest skipping this one, because the film constantly takes sharp turns from the silly and darkly comic to the very bleak, even shocking, showcasing the terror that Stalin unleashed on the people.

It’s a very fast-paced film that feels appropriate to the uncertainty and paranoia characteristic of that period, where anyone might be promoted one day and imprisoned or shot on the next. However, it might also make the film confusing and hard to follow for those, who are not that familiar with the historical events of the time. Even though the film tries to keep the audience up to speed, I think that having some prior knowledge about the political landscape of the Soviet Union at the time will increase your enjoyment of the film.


I, Tonya (2017), directed by Craig Gillespie

“I thought being famous would be fun – it was like being abused all over again.”

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I, Tonya is a highly entertaining, energetic, mockumentary style biopic about the life of American Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie) and her involvement in the attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 that destroyed Tonya Harding’s promising figure skating career.

Margot Robbie gives a truly impressive, emotionally nuanced performance in the role of Tonya and Allison Janney is brilliant as her abrasive, chain-smoking, verbally abusive mother LaVona Golden, who believes that her twisted parenting methods will make Tonya a champion. The film shows how Tonya, despite her extraordinary talent and hard work, was always the outsider of the superficial, highly subjective figure skating world and how she was discriminated by the judges because of her background and failure to comply to the “wholesome” image that the ice-skating establishment wants to project.

The film also shows her turbulent relationship with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who at first seems like a goofy dork but soon reveals his violent side. He and his delusional friend are the ones who orchestrate the plot against Nancy Kerrigan. This results in an incredibly stupid incident that unfortunately cost Tonya her career.

The strong performances, a combination of different genres, fast camera movements, tight editing style (especially during those amazing ice-skating sequences) and great musical choices make this a very thrilling and hilarious and at the same time thought-provoking and moving film. I, Tonya is a cautionary tale about the dangers of surrounding yourself with delusional idiots and it’s certainly one of the best films that I’ve seen this year so far.


The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017), directed by Noah Baumbach

“If he’s not a great artist, that means he’s just a prick.”

MV5BMTY1MTA1MjU4NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTAwMzE2MzI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_Another clever and sharply comic family drama from writer/director Noah Baumbach. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) focuses on the complicated family dynamics between the ageing, narcissistic father Harold (brilliantly embodied by Dustin Hoffman) and his three children – Danny (played by Adam Sandler), Matthew (Ben Stiller) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) – who all crave and compete for their father’s approval. The father, however, doesn’t conceal his disappointment that none of them have followed in his footsteps and become artists. Although, it seems that if any of them did, the father would still be competing with his children for the spot of “top artist in the family”.

I’ve been a fan of Noah Baumbach’s work since I saw his first feature film Kicking and Screaming (1995), which is a refreshing and honest look at a group of highly educated, young people, who are struggling to move on and find meaning in their lives after graduating from college. Also, judging from his later work that I’ve seen (Margot At The Wedding (2007), The Squid and The Whale (2005), Frances Ha (2012)), it seems that he is a keen observer of human behaviour and manages to capture in a very honest way the complexities of familial relationships and friendships. He is great at writing sharp and witty dialogue that feels very true to the characters, and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is another example of his talent in writing believable characters, who make you laugh in one scene and ponder the tragedy of life in the next.

The Life Of The Mind: Revisiting Barton Fink (1991)

“I gotta tell you, the life of the mind… There’s no roadmap for that territory… And exploring it can be painful.”

1991-barton-fink-poster2Whenever I meet new people and they find out about my passion for film, I get asked that inevitable question to list some of my favourite films of all time. Happens every time. This question usually leads to an awkward silence during which I’m struggling to come up with an answer because I’ve momentarily forgotten the title of every film that I’ve ever seen. After being caught off guard by this question several times, I now have a prepared answer for such situations. A pretty standard list that includes titles such as Taxi Driver (M. Scorsese, 1976), Blue Velvet (D. Lynch, 1986), Manhattan (W. Allen, 1979), 2001: A Space Odyssey (S. Kubrick, 1968), There Will Be Blood (P.T. Anderson, 2007), Vertigo (A. Hitchcock, 1958), Sunset Boulevard” (B. Wilder, 1950), however, people are usually surprised to hear that the list also includes one of the Coen brothers’ earlier films – Barton Fink (1991), starring John Turturro and John Goodman.

Even though I tend to agree that (by objective standards) some of their later films surpass Barton Fink, this film has a special place on my personal list of top films because it combines some of my favourite elements in terms of storytelling, genre and visual style. Last week I was suddenly inspired to revisit this film, so I thought I take this opportunity and try to write down some of my thoughts about it.

The film tells the story of a successful, idealistic, left-wing New York playwright Barton Fink (played by John Turturro) in the 1940s, who, after writing a hit Broadway play,  is invited to write screenplays in Hollywood. He is commissioned by the mercurial  Hollywood producer and studio head Jack Lipnick (played by Michael Lerner) to write a wrestling picture, even though Barton knows nothing about the genre and thus suffers from writer’s block. The film plays with the familiar caricature of the eccentric, cigar-smoking Golden Age Hollywood producer with a working class, immigrant background. A self-made man, who has learned the rules of the “Hollywood system” and only produces escapist films that have proven to be successful, while crushing the dreams and ideals of the fragile artist and our main character Barton Fink, who wants to produce work that reflects the problems of the “common man”.

This dichotomy between commercial low art and high art is a central theme of the film. At least at the beginning, the story is set up in a way for the audience to sympathise with Barton’s struggle against the “Hollywood system”, however, soon after it subverts our expectations as we start to realise that the film is not just another satire of the “Hollywood system”, but also a clever and critical examination of the self-centred, idealistic ambitions of a writer, who, in his mind, is fighting to retain his integrity while working on a project that he finds meaningless. This becomes clear from the way Barton interacts with his next-door neighbour, the travelling insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), who (at least at the beginning) is the perfect archetype of what Barton considers to be “the common man”. The dialogue scenes between the two characters in Barton’s hotel room cleverly reveal that Barton’s interest in the struggles of “the common man” is purely abstract, since he constantly interrupts and ignores Charlie’s stories, and only wants to talk about the hardships of, what he calls, “the life of the mind”.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the setting. Barton stays in an old, eerie L.A. hotel, a character of its own, and the visual shots of the hotel corridor that alludes to the famous corridor shots from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Considering the popularity of The Shining, it is possible that the film expects the audience to make this connection, thus amplifying the sense of unease. I, personally, really appreciate such stylistic choices. The inclusion of film references or familiar clichés challenges and engages viewers by building upon their existing knowledge of cinema. It elevates the film by creating another layer of meaning beyond the images on the screen. The film also adopts some of the stylistic conventions of film noir by presenting the monstrous amidst the ordinary and using archetypal characters such as the fragile artist (Barton), the femme fatale (Audrey), the hard-boiled LAPD detectives (Deutch and Mastionotti) and the talented yet troubled and alcoholic writer (M.P. Mayhew). The film is very dialogue heavy and each character has a distinct, dynamic speech pattern that corresponds to his/her specific character traits or profession.

The film blends satire with the macabre that brings to mind the work of David Lynch. It is full of symbolism, most notably Barton’s small, hot, cheaply furnished hotel room with peeling wallpaper that serves as a visual representation of the deteriorating state of Barton’s psyche. Barton’s final emotional breakdown plays out visually in a powerful scene where the hotel is literally engulfed in flames during the final confrontation between Barton and Charlie, who (in his own way) is also trying to free “the common man” from the hardships of life.

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The film left a profound impression on me the first time I saw it, and I’m pleased to report that, upon revisiting it again very recently, my opinion hasn’t changed. I love the way it fuses different genres and creates a unique view of the world by challenging specific genre barriers and inviting interpretation. I think it deliberately doesn’t provide a tidy or satisfying ending and refrains from making moral judgements to allow the viewer to formulate their own opinion. The open ending also returns to the idea of low-art v. high-art, represented by the picture that hangs in Barton’s hotel room of a girl sitting on the beach alone and gazing at the ocean that is recreated in real life in the final scene of the film. During Barton’s struggles, his gaze constantly returns to this stock image of the girl on the beach. A banal and sentimental image, like you, would find on a cheap holiday card, that is nonetheless somehow comforting, just like the low-art movies produced by the “Hollywood system” that may have a certain value after all by providing some escapism for “the common man” from the hardships of everyday life.

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Film Reviews: Mustang (2015), Carol (2015), The End of the Tour (2015)

Mustang (2015), directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven

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The film takes its title from the name of wild, free-roaming horses that are an apt symbol for the strong, stubborn spirit of the group of five young sisters who are taught and ultimately forced to conform to the conservative cultural norms of their remote coastal Turkish village. The film manages to capture a special aura of innocence with an underlying layer of uneasiness around the seemingly impenetrable bond that the sisters share with each other, evoking the enigmatic atmosphere of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999). The film gradually increases the sense of urgency as the story progresses from a familiar teenage coming-of-age tale to a fascinating exploration of the conflict between these modern, free-spirited girls and the old-fashioned traditional role of women that is forced upon them and suppresses their personal identities. We see the lengths to which the adults will go to shield them from the outer world, denying simple pleasures and, in fact, imprisoning them in the house.

Despite the grim subject matter, Mustang is a believable, sensitive and moving portrait of growing up in a specific part of the world by effectively balancing the sequences of innocent, child-like play with sequences showing their continuous rebellion against oppression.


 Carol (2015), directed by Todd Haynes

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Carol is a stunning period drama with close attention to detail that looks at a blossoming relationship between a young, shy photographer and a charismatic older woman in conservative 1950s America. In line with the sentiment of the time towards LGBT relationships, no direct label is ascribed to their relationship. The director has framed the shots to visually communicate the complex sentiments of the characters through subtle looks and subliminal messages that manage to speak louder than words. The film creates a clever juxtaposition between Carol’s polished style and glamorous lifestyle and her inner struggles. Both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are excellent at portraying the unspoken emotional struggles of the characters and the intense but outwardly reserved love that they feel for each other. These characters have to play a certain role every day to conform to society’s expectations, supported by the way that the film portrays their road trip, that has an almost dreamlike quality, where the characters are portrayed as more outwardly affectionate, which gives the audience a glimpse into their true selves.

Overall, an important and hopeful exploration of a lesbian relationship amidst the prejudices of 1950s America that remains true to the spirit of the source material and adds new subtle elements through the power of visual storytelling.


The End of The Tour (2015), directed by James Ponsoldt

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A compassionate, heavily dialogue-based exploration of the five-day long interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal) after the 1996 publication of his novel Infinite Jest. Their conversations about writing, television, relationships, fame, authenticity and depression effectively reveal their individual personalities, the identities they want to present to the world as well as the secrets that they try to keep under the surface. It is not a biopic since it equally focuses on Lipsky’s unrealized ambitions for the same success and critical recognition that his subject has achieved. The director focuses on moments that reveal Lipsky’s inner conflict between his genuine admiration for Wallace and his work assignment for Rolling Stone magazine that requires him to push Wallace into answering uncomfortable questions. This conflict is visually represented by the sequences that acknowledge Lipsky’s tape recorder that creates a constant palpable barrier between the interviewer and his subject.

The End of the Tour is a moving and empathetic study of two creative personalities, who, despite their different personalities and professional obligations, develop a brief bond through meaningful, self-reflective conversations on life and the craft of writing.