NORTHLAND TALES : 2007 TROMSí˜ FILM FESTIVAL (part 2 : Thu) now complete

EMMA'S BLISS : [6/10]
Emmas Gluck
Germany 2006 : Sven TADDICKEN : seen 18/1 at Kulturhuset (public show)
Rural and urban ways collide – literally – with ultimately rather beguiling results in Emma's Bliss, a nicely-handled if somewhat schematic and predictable romance between a terminally-ill car-dealer and a sexually-frustrated farming woman. Jordis Triebel is Emma, whose pig-and-hen smallholding is about to be repossessed by her creditors. Salvation arrives in the unlikely form of Max (Jurgen Vogel), who – in a slight echo of Psycho's Marion Crane – impulsively steals a stash of money from his employers and absconds in one of the firm's Jaguars. Losing control of the vehicle on a dimly-lit country-road at night, he crashes through the fence surrounding Emma's property and wakes up, hours later, dazed in one of the farmhouse beds. Emma has meanwhile 'confiscated' the cash and set fire to the Jaguar, so that Max will presume the loot has gone up in smoke. It doesn't take long for Max to deduce the truth – or to fall under the spell of Emma's earthy charms. But the shadow of death is seldom far away… There's much to like about Emma's Bliss, from the warm performances to the wry humour that serves to prevent proceedings from becoming either too cloyingly sweet (the middle section) or too oppressively tragic (the final act). It's all rather manipulative and didactic, of course, rather crudely contrasting ineffective "city" methods of treating fatal illness (palliative care) with Emma's rather more drastic, old-school solutions – the picture is a euthanasia tract in all but name. But Taddicken and his scriptwriters at least have the courage of their convictions, developing the narrative to the tearjerkingly intense conclusion which even the densest viewers will have seen coming a full country-mile away.

Hirtia va fi albastra 
Romania 2006 : Radu MUNTEAN : 92m : 18/1 at Fokus (public show)
… and so will much of the audience after enduring this grimly plodding chronicle of one chaotic Bucharest night in December 1989: a Death of Mr Lazarescu in cobalt khakis, if you like. The film is set during the final hours of the despised dictator Nicolae Ceacescu's totalitarian regime – not that many of the participants here recognise them as such. Confusion, misinformation and miscommunication are the order of the day as members of the army and the local and national police, struggle to keep order, maintain sanity, accumulate information and discover whose side they are (or should be) on. Things are even more disorienting for the public: bobbing corks in a river of history which has suddenly accelerated into a flood. The picture's focus is on Costi, a member of the paramilitary national police (known as "militia") who impulsively decides to join the revolution – only to be promptly detained by several of his new comrades-in-arms. Meanwhile Costi's whereabouts become a matter of crucial concern not only for his own squad and commander, but for a much wider web of combatants, friends and family. Promising stuff, and executed with a certain technical skill, a real-time, you-are-there doggedness and a Bloody Sunday-style verisimilitude that may impress certain viewers. In the end, however, the atmosphere of laborious, grittily downbeat intensity – relieved by only the barest flecks of ironic humour – proves monotonously uninvolving, capturing all too well this long, long, dark, dark night of one nation's troubled soul.

WHITE CITY : [5/10] aka Frozen City
Valkoinen kaupunki
Finland 2006 : Aku LOUHIMIES : 92m : 18/1 at Verdensteatret (public show)
With his Frozen Land not long off the film-festival circuit and the lively rocker-priest comedy-drama Man Exposed also doing the rounds, writer-director Louhimies is clearly nobody's idea of a slacker. Though worth at least a look, White City (aka Frozen City) suggests he needs to slow down a bit and pay more attention to his scripts. An extended, post-modern homage to Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, it's a technically-accomplished, well-acted but – in the end – gratuitously depressing little tale in which all manner of indignities, misfortunes and mishaps are rather sadistically piled on the deceptively broad shoulders of our big, not-especially-dumb, well-meaning lunk of a protagonist. Beefy, bouncerish Veli-Matti (Janne Virtanen) may share Travis Bickle's profession and, as his opening voice-over (accompanied by a suitably jazzy, Bernard Herrman-ish score) makes clear, some of his misanthropy. But 'Velu' is, unlike Bickle, a family man – holding down a job and looking after his two kids in a cramped Helskini flat while his wife Hanna is off in France, presumably 'discovering herself.' Her return is just as abrupt as her departure – and this is when Velu's problems really begin. A wicked witch of the icy north if ever there was one, the sniping, thin-lipped Hanna (a thankless role for Susanna Anteroinen) wastes no opportunity to make Velu's life a misery – and she has willing accomplices in Louhimies and his co-scriptwriters, to the extent that a picture initially notable for its down-to-earth realism spirals off into contrivance and implausibility. Velu stoically endures sufferings at times reminiscent of those visited upon Lars Von Trier's hapless heroines – but to little obviously-discernible point or purpose: "Here is a man who – would – not – take – it – anymore!" indeed.

USA 1976 : Alan J PAKULA : 138m : 18/1 at Verdensteatret (public show)
"Turning journalists into heroes takes some doing" – a casual aside from The Mekons' classic 1989 track 'Empire of the Senseless.' The comment, like the song, was intended as an indictment of Margaret Thatcher – but it applies quite nicely to All the President's Men, the adaptation by Alan J Pakula (director) and William Goldman (scriptwriter) of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's book of the same name. The book chronicled how the pair's investigations proved crucial to the eventual downfall of President Richard Nixon over what became known as Watergate – a line which Pakula and Goldman are happy to adopt.
     There's rather more to the whole affair than either book or film let on, of course, and historians debate the actual impact of Woodward and Bernstein's work. Leaving such considerations aside (something many remain decidedly reluctant to do), All the President's Men continues, three decades on, to work thunderously well as a movie. Still pressingly topical in its wider implications, it's an enthralling depiction of the journalistic process that concentrates – with surprising intensity – on the profession's nuts and bolts.
     The film contains no fewer than 25 telephone conversations in which the audience is privy to both sides of the exchange: the actors playing Bernstein and Woodward's unseen interlocutors are in many ways the hidden heroes of the movie, and there's justice in the fact that 'Best Sound' was one of four categories in which the picture was successful at the Oscars.
     Jason Robards won Best Supporting Actor for his effortlessly authoritative turn as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, in a picture which has countless speaking parts and is conspicuously well cast down to the very smallest roles. It's notable that, while the main focus is squarely on men (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman prove a successful cheese-and-chalk combination as what Bradlee eventually comes to call 'Woodstein'), it's the women of Washington who provide the crucial bits of information that keep the investigation rumbling along.
   And while the journalists' quest keeps hitting various obstacles and speed-bumps, All the President's Men rips along at such a clip that its 130-odd minutes simply fly by. Even if you don't know Gordon Liddy from Maurice Stans from John Mitchell from Donald Segretti – and the film is audaciously light on exposition, featuring not a single geographical or chronological on-screen title – the picture is a textbook example on how to present decidedly complex real-life events in an accessible, compelling and enthralling manner.

Neil Young
24th January, 2007

NB all details (timings, years, countries, etc) are from TIFF film-festival catalogue

INDEX to our TIFF 2007 coverage