Where do artists belong in the world today? Should they root themselves in their own countries as painters, writers, film-makers, citizens? Or should they claim freedom of entry to all parts of the globe – and the authority to mouth off about them?
The question is cued by four new films. Fish-out-of-water storytelling has long been the stuff of movie plots, from The Third Man to ET to Avatar. But should it be the stuff of movie-making? This week we find an American director in Albania, a Brazilian director all over the place (Fernando Meirelles in Vienna, London and Colorado in 360) and an American documentarist zigzagging China.
Last but first-placed, since it will put most popcorn in mouths and pops a few of the primal questions about diselemented directors, is Brave. Pitching camp in ancient Scotland, Disney-Pixar preach to us about Celtic history and legend. Nothing wrong with that, you might riposte: D-P are in the fantasy animation biz. But amid their usual virtues here (voluptuous landscape-painting, hi-fi pixelling of faces and costumes) their occasional vices are more than usually maddening. Item: cockamamie folklore from a land too distant for Hollywood digimators to strain themselves over authenticity. Item: lunatic “Scottishness” of manner, with every female character doing Jean Brodie vocals while the males sport mad hair, mad skirts and “och-aye” accents (led by Billy Connolly’s king).
In a plot flirting wistfully with female empowerment, a princess (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) deploys a witch to extract her from a forced marriage. There is also a long-winded chase-about involving the girl and her mother (Emma Thompson), who has turned into a bear. Extra work for the witch (Julie Walters) – who like the audience is a largely innocent bystander until swept up in the Celtic fever of spells, transformations and gale-force clan feuding underscored with noisy, guttural oaths. Disney-Pixar does the case for Scottish independence no favours, though sensible sceptics, viewing this cod-Caledonian mishmash, will deem the damage the film-makers do more self-inflicted.
More feud for thought in The Forgiveness of Blood. California-born Joshua Marston goes to the Albanian countryside. Helped by an indigenous co-screenwriter, Andamion Murataj, the indie director who made a good case for deracinated art in the delicately crafted, Colombia-set Maria Full of Grace wrestles a little authenticity into – or out of – the plot about territorially warring families involved in a “Kanun”: an ages-old code of law by which the victim of a supposed crime can kill his offender or his offender’s sons.
The siege story is set up. When itinerant bread-seller Mark (Refet Abazi), suspected of murdering a land-greedy neighbour, flees his home, the home becomes a fortress. It immures teenage son Nik (Tristan Halilaj) and liberates on-a- tight-leash daughter Rudina (Sindi Lacej), who becomes all at once – hurrah for backdoor feminism – the family’s breadwinner, bread vendor and multi-purpose go-between. The plot comes to a quiet boil. Then unfortunately it falls off the stove. Marston loosens his grip when it should tighten. The characters spill into inconsequence; the film, without an action consummation, bubbles meekly away, though we grimly admire the patterning of this countryside’s floor, its patch-quilt territorialism as quietly, dourly change-resistant as old kitchen linoleum.
If Marston almost wins his wager with wanderlust, Brazil’s Fernando Meirelles loses his in 360. Meirelles made City of God, that Rio-set masterpiece grounded in an almost face-grinding reality. We never doubted the director knew all his characters and their stamping grounds. He seems to know no one in this roundelay of stories strewn across Europe and the American Midwest, in which screenwriter Peter Morgan of The Queen (but also of Hereafter) essays a modern La Ronde.
Jude Law’s businessman trysts with a hooker in Vienna, but reckons without the anti-tryst machinations of a conference rival. Anthony Hopkins pursues a missing daughter across the Atlantic. Paroled sex offender Ben Foster encounters the temptations of freedom. Rachel Weisz loves and leaves a Latin toyboy … Morgan’s dramatis personae connect only in the way a house’s wiring connects after a visit by a duff electrician. Every time Meirelles tries to flick a switch – a sudden plot cataclysm, a climactic coming-together of characters – the whole thing blows. The cabling and connections are both faulty; not just the links between the humans but the humans themselves. They are stranded away from home without the DNA-stranding they need to survive: the back-stories, the depth of detail, the quirks and contrarinesses that bring screen characters to life.
“Where do artists belong in the world?” we started by asking. The subject of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry must ask himself that every day. The Chinese artist/activist has toured the world scattering the seeds of articulate dissent, not least in that Tate Modern show – the porcelain sunflower seeds – that won additional, weirdly appropriate publicity by kicking up a health-and-safety dust storm. Even abroad Ai can attract fascinated notoriety: never mind at home, where he has been attacked for attacking his own “Birds Nest” Olympics, has witnessed the vindictive demolition of his studio, has endured his government’s incessant snooping and sniping.
Alison Klayman’s documentary begins with a hilarious moment trouvé. Ai’s cat rises on its rear paws to turn a doorknob and open a door. After that it is 90 minutes of much the same, scenes from the life of a man who does, over and over, what he shouldn’t even be able to do. (Ai sagely observes: “The difference between cats and humans is the cat doesn’t shut the door behind it.” Humans have sense as well as invention and impudence.)
Ai tries to lead an unmolested life. But artists deal in truth and in China truth-speaking is a crime. In a thunderclap denouement Klayman cannot have dreamt of when starting out, her film ends with Ai’s infamous 81-day detention, from which he comes back taciturn and apparently chastened. That didn’t last long. Ai Weiwei returned to being an example to us all. We must take his wayward humanity – he is shown unblushingly raising a son sired outside his marriage – with his courageous defiance, seen most spectacularly in the Munich-premiered installation featuring 9,000 small rucksacks replicating those of the schoolchildren killed in the Sichuan earthquake. The government, back in 2008, repudiated charges of responsibility for poorly built schools. The artist repudiated the repudiation. Art had, as art always should have, the last word.
The Dinosaur Project is rip-roaring fun, especially if you have children allergic to the simperings and sermonisings of Brave. A boy (Matt Kane) stows away on his zoologist dad’s trip to a “lost world”, somewhere in the Congo. Cue pterosaurs, plesiosaurs and other sights for sore eyes. Feature debutant Sid Bennett’s motion-capture movie also does emotion capture. You will jump, gasp, grimace, just like the characters. The creatures are often very creepy. The Cloverfield-style dependency on “found footage” means everyone on screen must have a camera, but even that is carried off with dash and nonchalance.