Starring : Aaron Johnson, Thomas Grant
Director : Matthew Thompson
Sunshine Cleaning [5/10]
Starring : Amy Adams, Emily Blunt
Director : Christine Jeffs
ALMOST exactly a year after its world premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival, family drama Dummy now somewhat belatedly arrives on our cinema-screens. The delay isn't hard to understand: small-scale and low-key, this moderately promising debut from award-winning shorts and TV director Matthew Thompson isn't an obvious commercial prospect, with little to make it stand out from the dozens of British features which are produced each year and never manage to obtain distribution.
The main selling-point is the presence of fresh-faced teenager Aaron Johnson in the central role of Danny, a Brighton 18-year-old who, after the sudden death of his mother (Therese Bradley), is left in sole charge of his younger brother Jack (Grant) – their father having long since vacated the scene.
Though hardly a household name, Johnson is being widely touted as British cinema's next big thing thanks to his casting as a very young John Lennon in the upcoming biopic Nowhere Boy – the feature-film debut of high-profile artist Sam Taylor-Wood, based on a script by Matt (Control) Greenhalgh. Seen most recently as a lad-next-door hunk in Gurinder Chadha's Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, Johnson – whose resemblance to Lennon is marginal – is a likeable enough screen presence, though here he's frequently forced to play second-fiddle to Grant's scarily precocious Jack.
The latter is the focus of the narrative, as the boy's grief at his mother's passing gradually pushes him from mild eccentricity into suicidal dysfunction. It's a situation which quickly proves rather too much for Danny to handle, the older brother – an aspiring DJ – taking advantage of his new-found freedom to escape into a booze-and-drug-fogged hedonism.
The premise relies rather heavily on scriptwriting contrivance: the middle-class brothers are "very well provided-for" by their bohemian/artistic mother's will, but seemingly have no relatives, friends or neighbours to call upon for help (and surprisingly little interference either from educational authorities or the social services.)
Instead, Michael Mueller's screenplay – story by Thompson and Paula Barnes – emphasises the duo's unhealthy isolation in an atmosphere that's more morbid than mournful, building to a disappointingly overheated and melodramatic climax. That said, David Langan's cinematography is a consistent plus throughout, while Thompson's sensitive direction – especially his handling of the two youthful leads – goes a considerable way towards offsetting the plot's nagging deficiencies.
SIBLINGS dealing with the traumatic death of their mother are also to be found front and center in Sunshine Cleaning, a perky, indie-flavoured comedy-drama from globe-trotting director Christine Jeffs. Wellington-born Jeffs made an auspicious debut in her native land with 2001's impressive coming-of-age tale Rain, decamped to Europe for 2003's more tepidly-received Plath biopic Sylvia and then headed to the States for this latest enterprise, set and filmed in Albuquerque. New Mexico. While fairly likeable, undemanding fare, the film is nevertheless a disappointment from such a talented film-maker – nor will it do much to boost the ascent of fast-rising stars Amy Adams and Emily Blunt.
The pair play Rose and Norah Lorkowski, brought up by their father Joe (Alan Arkin) after the suicide of their beloved mother: as shown in flashback, the duo, then aged about ten and six, stumbled across the latter's body – and decades on, they still haven't properly come to terms with the experience. They get the chance to do so after they stumble into the apparently lucrative business of "crime-scene and trauma clean-up" – tipped off by Rose's (married) cop boyfriend (Steve Zahn, notably underused.)
Up to this point the shrinking-violet Rose has been working as a more general house-cleaner, but she's nothing if not ambitious – even if she lacks the entrepreneurial chutzpah of her dad. Rose and Norah throw themselves into their rather new, somewhat stomach-churning employment – which, as Rose puts it, allows them to "help, in some small way." Her own specific motivation is rather more prosaic – she needs money to send her son to a private school, though the lad (Jason Spevack) is precocious, bright and eccentric rather than any kind of disruptive tearaway.
This is one of several details of a script – by feature-film debutant Megan Holley – which doesn't quite hang together at certain key junctures, while the underlying presumptions about the socio-economic circumstances of less-than-affluent strata of contemporary America are questionable at best. An odd combination of the bouncy and the deadpan, Sunshine Cleaning feels much more like an extended pilot for a TV series than a fully-fledged feature, and the not-so-subtle attempts to stir memories of the production company's far superior 2006 hit Little Miss Sunshine – prominently cited on the poster – can ultimately only prove counter-productive.
CLUJ FILM-FESTIVAL REPORT
"EVERY known superstition is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool" – so wrote Jonathan Harker in his shorthand journal, which forms the first chapter of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Arriving in Transylvania en route to his fateful encounter with the blood-thirsty aristocrat, Harker's first port of call was the city of 'Klausenburgh' – the old German name for what is now officially known as Cluj-Napoca.
This mini-metropolis of 400,000 souls remains the capital of Transylvania – that multi-ethnic portion of western Romania, with a particularly prominent Hungarian minority. And since 2002 it's played host to the Transilvania [sic] International Film Festival – TIFF for short, which introduces the latest cinematic treats to local audiences and, in turn, showcases new Romanian film-making for the benefit of its foreign visitors. Add in a warm, friendly atmosphere, characterful cinemas, nightly opportunities for socialising and a hilly, picturesque setting and the result is a more modern version of the "imaginative whirlpool" noted in Harker's diary.
And it's perhaps no coincidence that the seven years of TIFF's existence – under the genial stewardship of its founder Tudor Giurgiu (himself active as a producer/director*) – have seen the swelling of what's become known as the 'New Wave' of Romanian cinema. Winner of the top prize – the Transilvania Trophy – at the inaugural TIFF was Cristian Mungiu for Occident, who went on to win the Palme d'Or in Cannes for 2007's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Corneliu Porumboiu took home the Trophy in 2006 for 12:08 East of Bucharest, shortly after picking up the Camera d'Or (for the best debut) at Cannes, while major prizes on the Croisette also went to Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) and California Dreamin' (2007), the latter being the only feature completed by Cristian Nemescu before his tragically premature car-crash death, aged 27, in 2006.
What's really surprising about the 'New Wave' is that, four years after Lazarescu's Cannes triumph put the nation (back) on the cinematic map, it shows very few signs of dying down. While cinemagoing in Romania itself has been in crisis for some time – the number of picturehouses is scandalously small – the "export" situation is diametrically different.
Porumboiu's Police, Adjective was perhaps the best-reviewed film in Cannes last month: it won the top prize in the prestigious 'Un Certain Regard' sidebar, and many reckoned it could even have won the Palme d'Or if it had been allotted a slot in the main competition (conspiracy theorists speculated that it was kept out because organisers were wary of Romania triumphing twice in three years.) Joint winner of TIFF's Transilvania Trophy – with Norway's crowd-pleasing "road movie on snow-scooters Nord - Police, Adjective is a cerebral patience-tester about a taciturn young cop who comes to realise that his personal morality doesn't quite square with the laws he's sworn to uphold.
Full of long takes in which very little happens – slowly – Police, Adjective is as much a "structural" affair as Porumboiu's first (much more energetic) movie, but operates in a much more rarefied, austere mode of film-making. While solid in all departments and guaranteed to stimulate social/philosophical debate wherever it is shown, the snail-paced picture is a classic example of a movie seemingly made with international critics and festival-awards primarily in mind – as American box-office analyst Eric Lavallee put it, "this is an art house film for a very select crowd." So, expect to see it play in 'select' British venues later in the year.
A similarly enigmatic character-study was the elliptical The Other Irina by Andrei Gruszinczki, in which a gloomy security-guard's wife takes a mysterious overseas job – with unexpected, unfortunate consequences for all. Our glum-faced hero finds himself in a genuinely Kafkaesque world of obstructive officialdom, his dogged persistence indicating that, despite the desperate nature of his plight, it's given him more of a reason to exist than ever before. Drab-looking and only intermittently engaging, The Other Irina nevertheless exerts an engrossing pull on the viewer – even if, in the end, it leaves us with many more questions than answers.
Somewhat more straightforward – and rather more "mainstream" in its thriller-like aspects – Adrian Sitaru's Hooked was the latest variation on Knife in the Water, whereby a squabbling couple out on a trip to the country are joined by a troublesome "third party" who proceeds to expose and exploit their frictions. Here the agent provocateuse is a comely, twentysomething prostitute plying her trade by the roadside, where she's knocked down by the protagonists' car during a moment of driverly inattention.
She emerges from unconsciousness seemingly oblivious to what happened – but it soon becomes clear that she's nowhere near as clueless as she appears. Transcending the limitations of what was evidently a shoestring budget, Sitaru's gimmicky central conceit is to shoot everything from 'subjective' angles – every shot being "seen" through one of the characters' eyes. Though distracting, this ultimately pays dividends in a final sequence that wraps up proceedings on a pleasingly ambiguous note.
If there was a Romanian production on show in Cluj this year that has a chance to appeal to local and international palates, it's Tales from the Golden Age, a seven-part portmanteau project devised and written by Mungiu, who also directed two of the segments. The (over-)ambitious plan is that six of the seven parts will be shown at any one screening, the selection and order to be determined by an as-yet-unspecified randomisation process. All seven sections were shown in Cluj, presenting ironic, wry glances back at the grim 1980s when Romania suffered under the quasi-Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Two of the segments ("The Legend of the Official Visit" and "The Legend of the Air Sellers") stand out from the remainder in terms of impact and quality, but overall the standard is pretty strong and, taken together, the "tales" do cohere into an entertainingly effective whole.
Rather more conventional in form and tone, but, on balance, more satisfying and accomplished, is Constantin and Elena, a reflective documentary from talented, 25-year-old debutant Andrei Dascalescu. Showing real flair as editor and cinematographer as well as director, Dascalescu – who worked as an assistant to legendary sound/film editor Walter Murch on Francis Ford Coppola's Romania-shot Youth Without Youth (2007) – painstakingly crafts an empathetic study of his own elderly grandparents as they go about their business in a sleepy rural village. Though shot on video, Dascalescu's "eye" is such that the picture is consistently striking to look at, as over the course of a year we observe and adapt to the rhythms of a couple who've been married – not always in perfect bliss – for more than five decades. And, as with Hooked, Dascalescu saves the very best till the very last.
Dascalescu wasn't the only twentysomething to serve notice of his promise – and ability – in Cluj this year. Providing further welcome evidence of the Romanian New Wave's ongoing vitality were a couple of outstanding shorts: Oli's Wedding by Tudor Cristian Jiurgiu (23) and For Him by Stanca Radu (26). Both, as it happens, deal with international communications via the wonder of Skype – the former a bittersweet tale of a proud dad in Romania "participating" in his son's nuptials as they unfold across the Atlantic in the USA, the latter a darkly comic (and genuinely funny) vignette in which technology facilitates (and then indirectly imperils) a long-distance love-affair.
Of the two, Oli's Wedding conforms more closely to the kind of established "art-cinema" tropes so masterfully explored by the likes of Mungiu and Porumboiu, while For Him is sparkier, wittier, displaying more of that elusive "commercial" sensibility in its directness, economy and visual flair. Radu's accomplishment is especially gratifying given the disappointing dearth of females among the Romanian directorial ranks – pretty much the sole previous exception being Ruxandra Zenide, now resident in Switzerland, who shows no signs of following up her fine debut Ryna (2005).
Even better news: Radu isn't alone. Keep an close eye out for California-educated 38-year-old Ioana Uricaru, whose hilariously acerbic, curtain-raising contribution to Tales of the Golden Age ("The Legend of the Official Visit") isn't merely the stand-out segment of that particular movie – it's also, pound for pound, perhaps the best single work to be found in Cluj's "imaginative whirlpool" this year.
Giurgiu's latest directorial opus, the hour-long documentary Music, Weddings and Videotapes, was shown in the festival on 'HBO Day', showcasing a handful of non-fiction works made for exposure via the channel.
These included Claudiu Mitcu's Australia – an unfortunate choice of title, given the recent Baz Luhrmann extravaganza. Romania would have been a better pick for this look at the the nation's representatives at the Homeless World Cup in Melbourne, as it's mainly about the way the players come to gain a fresh perspective on their homeland's deficiencies during their brief experience of life Down Under. Genial and likeable if a little superficial and non-analytical in its approach, Australia may find a welcoming berth at documentary-oriented festivals, especially those with a sporting or social-issues slant.
That said, it's essentially small-screen fare, though it has to be said that the Cluj audiences were vocal in their appreciation of this scrappily unassuming little crowdpleaser. They were likewise audibly supportive of Apocalypse On Wheels by Alexandru Solomon, an eye-opening expose of the hazardously overcrowded and un-civil state of Bucharest's city-centre road-network. It's distractingly choppy, repetitive and episodic in its approach to an urgent, topical problem – one by no means confined to the Romanian capital, though things do seem to be especially unsatisfactory there. As the end credits note, road accidents are a major cause of death among young males in the city – the aforementioned Cristian Nemescu being only the most high-profile of casualties in recent years.
DUMMY : [5/10] : UK 2008 : Matthew THOMPSON : 88m (timed) : seen at Cineworld, Edinburgh, 20th June 2008 (Edinburgh Int'l Film Festival) press show : THR review
SUNSHINE CLEANING : [5/10] : USA 2009 : Christine JEFFS : 91m (BBFC) : seen at Odeon, Nuneaton, 12th June 2009 (press show – 61st Cinemadays event)
APOCALYPSE ON WHEELS : [6/10] : Apocalipsa dupa soferi : Romania 2009 TV : Alexandru SOLOMON : 52m (TIFF) : seen at Cinema Victoria, 4th June
AUSTRALIA : [6/10] : Romania 2009 TV : Claudiu MITCU : 65m (timed) : Cinema Victoria, 6th June
CONSTANTIN AND ELENA : [7/10] : Constantin si Elena : Romania 2009 : Andrei DASCALESCU : 103m (TIFF) : Cinema Victoria, 4th June
HOOKED : [6/10] : Pescuit sportiv : Romania 2008 : Adrian SITARU : 82m (timed) : Cinema Arta, 6th June
THE OTHER IRINA : [6/10] : Cealalta Irina : Romania 2008 : Andrei GRUZSINCZKI : 95m (TIFF) : UBB, 4th June
POLICE, ADJECTIVE : [7/10] : Politist, adjectiv : Romania 2009 : Corneliu PORUMBOIU : 110m (timed) : UBB, 5th June
TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE : [6/10] : Amintiri din epoca de aur : Romania 2009 : Cristian MUNGIU, Ioana URICARIU, Hanno HOEFER, Razvan MARCULESCU & Constantin POPESCU : 149m (timed*) : seen as a "double bill" at Cinema Arta, 5th June
(all seen at public screenings with complimentary tickets at Transilvania International Film Festival, Cluj-Napoca, Romania)
* The film comprises a total of six episodes. According to the film-makers, only five will be shown at any one screening, to be selected at random. At Cluj all six were shown, in two separate performances, with each half featuring opening and closing credits. Timings as follows:
1. Official Visit : 19m
2. Party Photographer : 15m
3. Zealous Activist : 18m
4. Greedy Policeman : 22m
total including credits = 78m
5. Chicken Driver : 32m
6. Air Sellers : 36m
total including credits = 71m
overall total = 149m