The Edge Of Democracy
After decades of rule under military juntas, Brazil turned to democracy in the 1980’s, which many of its citizens hoped would usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. But recent political drama appears to have undermined this dream. Here, director Petra Costa outlines the recent history of her country, and examines how the increasing polarisation of Brazilian society has become manifest.
“Imagine a country named after a tree” is how Costa starts off her third feature documentary, immediately imbuing her depiction of Brazil with a certain detached wistfullness, that will follow for the rest of the production. Her tranquil narration and gentle panning shots of Brazil’s political centres and public office holders’ residences belie the seriousness of what is being discussed, namely how Brazil has lurched through a succession of recent crises in its main leadership, stemming from accusations of corruption, systems of patronage and political interference in judicial processes.
Costa attempts, sincerely I believe, to outline a factual account of the Presidential terms of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff, their triumphs, their failures and their ignominious current circumstances. But the main fault of The Edge Of Democracy – though, I am well aware that some will not consider it a fault at all – is that the entire affair is hopelessly skewed in favour of its main focus, namely those aforementioned leaders of Brazil Worker’s Party.
The director essentially makes a saint out of Lula, and isn’t all that far off the same thing with Rousseff, whose relationship with the director’s mother is cause enough for concern on the grounds of conflict of interest. Costa isn’t interested in fully examining the charges that were laid against the two regards bribery and corruption, and all-too-casually dismisses the cases that had been built up, instead preferring to imply, and then insist, that the entire affair was cooked up by right-wing figures out to screw the little guy. In brief moments of access to those figures, like current President Jair Bolsonara, they are made to look arrogant and pitifully foolish, while Lula and Rousseff are quietly dignified or passionately idealistic.
The whiff of conspiracy theory is strong, as is that of left-wing propaganda, but I will allow that in many specific instances Costa makes her case well enough. It’s just that she can’t help but sound like a blinkered true believer in the cause at every turn, such as when she quickly skips over the inner details of criminal charges levelled at Lula because the prosecutors went public with them. This does not make the right’s frequently racist or sexist attacks justifiable, but Costa is kidding herself if she thinks this documentary is anything more than preaching to the choir.
The Edge Of Democracy is a bit more interesting to the outside viewer when it focuses on the growing split in Brazil, with its most potent imagery being of conflicting bands of protesters being carefully segregated outside government building (leftists to the left, right-wing to the right, as Costa discovers from the local police). Naturally one thinks of Trump, Brexit and any number of populist nationalist figures or movements, and the countering of the same, but in Brazil it is tinged with a certain sense of desperation and fear: as Costa herself outlines through a look at the experiences of her parents, Brazil is too close to the history of military rule – a rule that the latest leadership celebrates and defends – for strong-arm political opportunism to not be viewed with great concern. As a left-leaning primer on recent Brazilian history, but for little other reason, this is recommended.
After suffering a terrible loss, Mikey (Michael James Regan) is approached by his estranged stepbrother Dale (Tommy James Murphy), seeking his help in robbing a local mafia bar. Though reluctant owing to Dale’s cocaine addiction and their troubled past, Mikey eventually goes along with the plan, but may have some secret motivations of his own.
I will admit, this was a total random watch based on a Netflix recommend, and one of those things where the poster and blurb oversold itself. I got through Recall largely on the back of its not very lengthy running time, and on my own stubborn insistence of finishing things I’ve started. Those were about the only reasons.
I’ll give this to Recall, and its director James Regan (also the lead): it’s rare you will find a film this amateurish make it all the way onto Netflix, so they should be congratulated for that accomplishment. Recall has all the look and feel of a film student final year project: just about cobbled together enough to look like an actual film, but really lacking in just about every department, to the point that I can easily call it one of the worst films of the year that I have seen.
James Regan clearly wants to make something akin to a Goodfellas, mixed with an M. Night Shyamalan twist at the end. The only problem is that his writers can’t write a Goodfellas-esque mobster production (here’s a hint, aspiring film-makers: covering up your own screenwriting inadequacies with loads of swearwords can only make up for so much) and the twist is telegraphed and hackneyed before it occurs, and badly executed when it does. And then there is just the idiocy of the premise, the idea that two stepbrothers would decide to rob a local mafia bar with no plans, resources or sense that they are not criminally inept. It’s a bit of a stretch, to put it lightly.
I don’t feel the need to belabour the point too much in regards the cast, other than to say they are plainly limited, though I wouldn’t discount the director in terms of blame. James Regan is called upon, by himself, to be a tortured, reluctant criminal, but mostly comes off as aimless and whining; James Murphy, as stepbrother Dale, is supposed to be desperate, conniving yet that kind of scoundrel-like charming such a role requires, but is mostly just vacant and lacking presence. The dialogue between the two is delivered so poorly that it approaches parody. And the less said about the mobsters, real “foegedabuit” types that substitute violence for character, the better.
It looks really rough, with an over-emphasis on darkened locations to cover the less-than-stellar cinematography skills, that ends up making everything look remarkably dreary. There’s no effort to distinguish present day from flashbacks properly. The editing is clownish. The brief moments of action are static and bland. Even when working with what I presume was a very limited budget and resources, there is no excuse for how badly put together all of this is. Avoid.
When his heavily pregnant wife Taryn (Teyonah Parris) is kidnapped by the same man who assaulted him earlier in the day, ER nurse Paul (Anthony Mackie) is drawn against his will into a cat-and-mouse game with career criminal Abe (Frank Grillo). In order to save her, Paul must do everything he can to help Abe, before crooked cop Regina (Marcia Gay Harden) catches up with them.
Another sleeper release on Netflix, Point Blank is a remake of a 2010 French film, with the cast and location transposed to Cincinnati in the US. It’s just about OK, suffering from a sense that its creators are going through the motions in replicating what came before, when what came before is already not exactly setting the world on fire: the straight-laced every-man just out to protect his family teams up with the criminal with the concealed heart of gold, and you can basically go either way on the comedy/action drama route depending on how many jokes you put in.
However, it is also fair to say that the material is greatly elevated by the cast, most notably Anthony Mackie. Coming from the MCU where he is the high-flying Falcon, he has to slip back into a more restrained, less conspicuous role here, and that can be quite hard to do (remember Jamie Fox in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, bafflingly called upon to play a weedy nerd?). But Mackie largely pulls it off, always seeming like his character wants the ordeal to be over, and never looking comfortable with car chases or guns. His desperation to get to his wife keeps the film going, and if the film’s central line is a boiler-plate “ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances”, then at least Mackie gives us a very good ordinary man.
He isn’t quite matched by Frank Grillo, also of the MCU (indeed, the two leads went hand-to-hand in Civil War as I recall) who is gruff, snarky and too much of the “ex-military type who is too quietly capable and confident” character that action dramas are often infested with. He always knows what to do and he isn’t going to put up with Paul’s bullshit: when the nurse pulls a gun on him, he’s calmly walking over to him and saying “Pull the trigger” before you can think “Modern-day Man With No Name”. Abe is the least interesting part of the story really, with his side of the peril taking a while to be fully enunciated, in comparison to Paul and his wife (played by a very serviceable Parris).
Point Blank trips along nicely, taking in a few low-budget action sequences that are well executed. The film proves you don’t need mountains of CGI or a limitless supply of prop cars to do a tense chase, and the hand-to-hand and gunplay gets surprisingly visceral. Hayden, as a dirty cop, is a good enough villain, Markice Moore pops up late as an entertaining cinephile gang boss (there is a delay before the big finale so he can appreciate “Friedkin week on TCM”),and director Joe Lynch crafts a visually engaging, if not super stimulating, production. Like so many Netflix exclusives, Point Blank is unlikely to lodge in the brain, or be remembered as either lead’s finest hour, but it’s a reasonably diverting 90 minutes. Recommended.
Cities Of Last Things
Thirty years into the future, ex-cop Zhang Dong-ling (Jack Kao) takes a bloody revenge on a number of people who have wronged him, while also having a brush with a face from his past. In the present-day, Zhang (Lee Hong-chi) uncovers the infidelity of his wife and evidence of corruption within his own police unit, while having a life-altering encounter with a young shoplifter (Louise Grinberg). In the past, a young Zhang (Hsieh Chang-Ying), a petty criminal, has an unlikely meeting with an older woman inside a police station.
Once in a while you want to try something a bit different, and this Taiwanese offering, from director Ho Wi Ding, is certainly different. Very different. The story of three vital moments in the life of Zhang, told in a reverse chronological order, Cities Of Last Things mostly comes across as a strangely fitting anthology movie, but is all the more interesting because of that. It’s easy to mess this method up – I recall the underwhelming Shimmer Lake from a few years ago as an example – but Ho’s trilogy is a well-worked set.
The first, set in a distant and cold-looking Seoul, is essentially a bleak sci-fi story, with obvious inspiration from Blade Runner. Zhang’s violent plans and reactions appear to come from a very embittered place, and Ho hooks you in with wanting to know how his main character got to this point. The second seems essentially to be an east Asian film noir tale, replete with back alley chases, crooked cops and seedy rendezvous in dimly lit bedrooms. Zhang’s dalliance with the intriguing French shoplifter is set against deep trauma in his professional life, and what comes after becomes clearer. The third, and last, is a more emotionally driven narrative, almost melodrama, wherein Zhang meets his absent mother (an excellent Ning Ding) in very difficult circumstances: Ho’s intention may be to show us a starting point, but he might create more questions than answers.
The key is figuring out what the through-line is, and I suppose it is how Zhang’s relationships with various women – his wife, his daughter, Ava and his mother – have propelled him at vital points in his life. Unresolved trauma from Part Three clearly has an impact on Part One. Ho appears to want to create a sense of pre-destination in a way, with a visual cue point in every story being handcuffs, that restrain people on certain paths, whether it is tying them to technology, leading them to police custody or being used in sordid sexual encounters characters may regret later. There are also constant references to the act of suicide, carried through or attempted, whether it is the grim future when the practice is so common PA’s blare messages encouraging people to value their own lives, or when Zhang puts a gun in his own mouth after discovering his wife cheating on him.
Any of the three parts of this triptych could potentially be parsed out into a feature of their own, and where Cities Of Last Things might fall down is in how it feels like we aren’t seeing enough of either narrative, especially the middle section. Ava feels under-written and underutilised, the mid-point cackling villain doesn’t really fit into proceedings properly. But I do have to admit that Cities Of Last Things surprised me in other ways, such as its simple yet effective world-building for the future-scape, or the way it manages to make an otherwise straight forward foot-chase into something genuinely tense. I cannot claim that I am a serious consumer of Taiwanese cinema, but Cities Of Last Things certainly serves as a decent introduction. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).