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Film reviews: The Love Witch; Toni Erdman; Silence


THE LOVE WITCH is a 2016 film, Written and Directed by Anna Biller. The story is of a woman betrayed by her husband, who murders him, and then embarks on a career as a seducer of men using witchcraft in her pursuit of the ONE.

It is filmed as a horror-thriller, without much horror or thrill. It also sets out to create a filmic homage to the mode of the 1960’s studio output, with elaborate set and costume and a colour palette of period technicolour. It is filmed in Eureka, California and has the Hitchcock THE BIRDS, look about it. That film, filmed in nearby Bodega Bay, California.

The acting is presentational and woefully difficult to take seriously. Samantha Robinson, our Love Witch, Elaine, is beautiful with wig and make-up – eyelashed to kill – and costume, always cinematically immaculate. As an actress she has two facial gestures and they are both relatively immobile and become repetitively boring over the length of the film. The men all have the ‘John Gavin’ look – grotesquely Mount Rushmore kind of handsome – and Gian Keys as Griff, the local cop on the prowl, fulfils the requirements of the visual style and acting chops admirably, at least in the stylistic requirements of Director, Ms Biller.

The only actor that seemed to be able to ‘act’ at all was Jeffrey Vincent Parise, as Wayne, the first victim that fails to please the Witch and soon follows the same ‘life’ trajectory as the Love Witch’s departed husband. Of course, Mr Parise, may be an aberrant performer, if the other actors can act and are playing in the mode that Director Ms Biller wants. I could not decide whether this was all a deliberate parody or not. For the film really has no wit or even self-deprecating self-consciousness at all, it is just a rather flat storytelling and straight forward creation of the bad cinema of the ‘1960’s. And, if it is meant to have a political edge – a feminist point-of-view – it is a fairly opaque one.

I sat gob-smacked at its horribleness – paralysed in a state-of-wonder – perhaps be-witched? There were some audience members vastly entertained with a kind of mocking knowingness in their laughter at some of the film that completely passed over my head. THE LOVE WITCH must have become a ‘cult’ film. But this kind of ‘cult-ure’, I think I metamorphosed out of sometime ago in my floundering youth’s need to be ‘cool’ – I was so ‘cool’ in being sooo appreciative of the John Waters’ early adventures, I remember!

The film is part of the programming at the Golden Age Cinema and comes with some critical credentials. So, what do I know? This was my first visit to this Cinema and I loved it.

The curated program spans over this kind of eccentric film, weird documentary, and the classics, such as CASABLANCA, CHINATOWN, and contemporary screenings, LA LA LAND, PATERSON etc. The bar is gorgeous and the service delicious. The theatre, an old industry screening room – Paramount or 20th Century Fox of yore – I recommend it as a place to go.


TONI ERDMAN, is a German/Austrian production, Written and Directed by Maren Ade. It has been pitched as German comedy – I, and some of my friends, think that to be an oxymoron! (gross generalisation). Well, as it turns out the comedy is not so much open mouthed: “Ha ha”, but, rather, gentle lip smiling-stretch: “ah hmmm” (smiling with your lips closed).

What the film is, is a moving personal story involving an estranged father and daughter, and an astute and subtle observation/satire of the demands of the contemporary work machine and the consequent demise of human sociability and connect. Ines Conradi (Sandra Hubber) is a hard working, high flyer in the Corporate world with a challenging International career, at present ‘slogging’ it out in Bucharest, Romania, after a stint in Shanghai. Her father, Winifried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), has just retired from a school-teacher’s life and with the death of his dog, finds a need to reconnect to his daughter. He travels to Bucharest and finds Ines incredibly involved with her career and finds that the only way for him to involve himself with her life style is to assume an alter-ego, Toni Erdman, which he establishes with an awkward set of false teeth and wig. There are many adventures which at first invades the space that is Ines’ world until finally she decides to include the persona of ‘Toni Erdman’ in her journey which leads to some hair raising moments of social and business awkwardness.

The journey of these two people finding a connection and establishing a relationship, told by Director, Maren Ade, is a painfully beautiful and embarrassingly amusing time in the cinema. Ms Ade uses her camera with destabilising angles and dares to take long moments of silence to give space for the audience to have to ‘hang’ in the dilemmas of the characters. We are ‘forced’ to engage and participate in the situations with the characters. When the comedy escalates into a ‘naked’ office party in Ines apartment and to the arrival of a Kukeri – a Bulgarian folk creature – a catharsis of immense mellow joy suffuses us as a reward to being witness to this amazingly gentle tale.

Be warned: the film is 162 minutes long. But be forearmed: it is time well worth spending. It is an incredibly subtle storytelling that creeps up on one. The film has high credentials, the British film magazine SIGHT and SOUND and the French film magazine, CAHIERS DU CINEMA, both declared it to be the Best Film of 2016. Hollywood has seen its potential and coaxed Jack Nicholson out of retirement to make an American make-over. Don’t wait for that, see this film/version first.

The performance by Sandra Huller, is an incredibly layered one and worth all the attention it has received – it is a marvel. Mr Simonischek, is amusing but does not reveal the same complexities of need as the father figure facing his end of time – he delights in the comedy mask of ‘Toni Erdman’ but does not reveal the well-springs of his motivation with much depth. This is Director, Maren Ade’s third film, following on from other lauded work, and we shall, probably, be given more in the future to provoke us to look at the harsh world we are permitting to intrude on our basic human relationships, our distinguishing humanity. It is a remarkable film and I recommend that you see it, with the caveat that you go with time to spend to enjoy – it is demanding, but in an incredibly perceptive and intelligent way. Cathartic in its simple ending sequence.

Still, MOONLIGHT is my favourite great film of the year.


SILENCE, is the latest film from Martin Scorsese. It tells the story of two Portugese Jesuit priests, Sebastigo Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who travel to Mediaeval Japan in search of their mentor/missionary Priest Ferriera (Liam Neeson), who is rumoured to have become an apostate, after persecution of the Christians – that became the Kakure Kirishitian – Hidden Christians. It is based on a 1966 novel by Shusako Endo. It was made into a film in 1971, by Director, Masahiro Shinada.

The film is an investigation of the Silence of God in the face of the most grotesque death by torture. Why does God permit such atrocity? Why does God remain silent? This is a question any of us have asked as members of the ‘faithful’ in the face of natural and manmade events of history. It seems to fit with the ‘religious’ mediations that Scorsese has investigated in other work, such as, THE TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) and KUNDUN. Questions of faith can be seen as a core interest in all of his work. It all directed from a Catholic upbringing – even in the modernity of work such as THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, it glimmers.

SILENCE is a ponderous journey framed cinematically in a relative pattern of ‘close-ups’ (Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto. Editor: Thelma Schoomaker) Some critics, in speaking of this film, have referred to the work of David Lean (THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, RYAN’S DAUGHTER) but there is no epic here. No figure in a vast landscape – rather just the figure with glimpses of landscape. The relentless bleakness of the torture of the persecuted sect of Christians has very little contrast in mood or pre-occupation. It is almost as indulgently shown to us as in Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), here is the same sadistic trope. Both films ‘bathe’ in it – the same Catholic graphic visual choices, a ‘pleasure’ in the pain. The screenplay adaptation by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese

The principal problem for this approach is that Andrew Garfield as the protagonist of this journey/investigation displays a relative superficiality to the travails of Rodriguez, drawing on an instinct of projecting the sentiment of ‘goodness’ (as distinct from sentimentality) to solve his craft decisions in the acting, to tell of the philosophical quandaries the film is attempting to investigate. This instinctual approach/habit was what was apparent as well to his work for Mel Gibson’s HACKSAW RIDGE (2016) in playing the ‘religious hero’, Desmond T. Doss. The work is sustained ‘good’ acting but not what SILENCE, or the HACKSAW RIDGE really requires. The quality required are a broader, deeper view of the ambitions of homo sapiens in trying to understand the nature of the world they live in.

This impression of Mr Garfield’s offers is compounded further by the work of the actor Adam Driver who takes on the smaller role of the other priest, Garupe, who has a quality of profundity, in all of his choices. A depth of understanding that this story is a ‘representative’ of a vastly equivocal spiritual one – one that is in search of understanding of what is, truthfully, an unexplainable Mystery (even if it is a ‘Mystery’ conjured by man.) Mr Driver, has that inner life that draws upon an organic nature of a bottomless depth, not the surface of sentiment. His physical look is almost enough for us to grasp the immensities of the heart of the film. That he speaks and moves makes it even more absolute for our grasping and understanding. When he is on screen the film becomes great. He is not on screen enough, unfortunately, to save it. The actors should have swapped roles. (I guess Garfield was the more commercial marquee choice – after all he was Spiderman). Even in the recent role of the poet Paterson, even in that naturalism in the Jim Jarmusch film, Mr Driver radiated this nature, this powerful ability to transcend the real, the ordinary and infer the ‘other’, the ‘sacred’. Dare one say he brought that same quality to his character, Kylo Ren, to the STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) action epic? I, certainly, was impressed enough to note the actor’s name.

Liam Neeson, when he finally appears as Ferriera, too, has some of that same quality. Yosuke Kubozuka, as Kicchijiro, the fluctuating man struggling with his faith and the pragmatics of living, too,  brings an epic sensibility to the struggles of his character.

If one loves cinema, SILENCE is a film that must be seen. It is, after all, a Martin Scorsese film and is a necessary for any of us interested in the Art form to know. It is, otherwise, a failure. It leaves one unmoved. It leaves one cold.