Thursday, 25 November 2010

Ronin (1998)



Synopsis:
Robert De Niro, Jean Reno et al drive quite fast around France after a shiny briefcase. Lots of people get killed. There's some ice-skating.

Post-Jackal/Mission Impossible, pre-Bourne Euro assassin thriller - this film has a '70s feel, and with a bit more steely nous than a typical Hollywood thriller, this film does seem to be the perfect stepping stone between the high octane, unbelievable and really quite sterile Mission Impossible and the existential, intellectual Bourne trilogy.

As with the aformentioned thrillers, there is interesting use of technology. There is use of mobile phones but not digital cameras and this does place the film (and the others mentioned) firmly in time and space - the different technologies used act as a marker that instantly takes us to a specific year.

I really like the use of the McGuffin of the shiny briefcase - in the end De Niro is not interested in the case itself, but the destined owner of said briefcase. Just like the stolen cash in Psycho, it is the red herring that lures the viewer into thinking this is a run of the mill thriller. However, we begin to realise as the film goes on that there is none of your bog standard 'explaining' scenes about what is within the case.

The scenes toward the end of the film at the ice rink echo Frankenheimer's 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate - the big stadium and a sniper again forging a link between Ronin and previous thrillers. The European setting also reminded me of other similar thrillers, especially after reading an article in the December 2010 issue of Sight and Sound about the George Clooney assassin film The American.

Anyway, a really enjoyable romp with a satisfactory ending that doesn't insult the viewers' intelligence and well worth seeking out if you enjoyed Bourne et al.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0122690/

Monday, 22 November 2010

Q&A (1990)



Synopsis:
Bad cop/good lawyer go head to head in a classic police corruption procedural from Sidney Lumet and David Mamet.

I can still recall the episode of Film '90 or Film '91 that I was watching when the review of Q&A came on. The clip they showed is about half way through the film, when young assistant District Attorney Timothy Hutton is attending a crime scene and dodgy, corrupt cop Nick Nolte starts a tirade about the sanctity of police officers. I remember thinking that I wanted to know/see more, so only ten years late.

Q&A is a great thriller with lots of touches of the standard corrupt cop film but with some really original bits too. I kept being reminded me of James Ellroy's LA Confidential as we never, ever get to know the baddie, just like Ellroy's ultimate evil character, Lt Dudley Smith (played by James Cromwell, also known as the farmer in Babe. Confused? You will be). This makes them even more badass as we don't ever see their weaknesses or vulnerability, whilst we are constantly empathising with the limitations of the good guys. The only downside to the film version of LA Confidential is that Curtis Hanson decided that Dudley Smith should get killed off (baaaaad idea), rather than continuing as an unkillable enemy that he does in Ellroy's books.

We're introduced to hard boiled New York Irish American cop Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) in the opening scene, in which he coldly dispatches an unarmed Peurto Rican lowlife and then makes it look like justifiable homicide. From this highly charged beginning we are lead into a very murky world of corruption, double dealings and murder, ending not so happily and more than a little ambiguously for the good guy.

Nick Nolte's character, Mike Brennan is a nasty piece of work and we learn much of this through others. There is something powerful about hearing bad stories of someone alongside seeing just a sample of their crimes. We do see Nolte killing people, but we never see him at home, rarely alone. What we do hear is others' tales of his history, who he knows, what he knows about them and what they know about him.

The good guy, Timothy Hutton's lawyer, has his flaws. We learn how he had previously left his girlfriend after learning that her father was black. The casual racism of the white cops against black and Hispanic colleagues also further highlights that alongside quite sophisticated corruption, that the NYPD painted here is one made up of thuggish throwbacks.

So many scenes have really cracking dialogue (courtesy of Lumet, Edwin Torres, who wrote the original book and with some help from David Mamet), from the police interviews with local Italian and Peurto Rican gangsters to the lawyers bar scene.

Armand Assante gives a great performance as a Peurto Rican drug lord looking to get out (with Hutton's ex), go straight and live the good life back in the mother land. As we get to know him and actually how moral he is, the idea that good and bad is not black and white is reinforced.

I kept hoping that we would get the great coming together/shoot out/good triumphing over evil scene, but Q&A is not that kind of film. The '80s/Miami Vice feel and look to the film belies its grittiness and I was left a bit bereft that there was not a clean happy ending. Ultimately though, it kind of made me respect it much more.

The only sticking point about the whole things was the music. Some bad '80s AOR style tunes were included, where what was really needed was some highly dramatic orchestral scoring to underline the heavyweight nature of what you get as a viewer.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100442/



Saturday, 13 November 2010

Wings of Desire (1987)



Synopsis:
Angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) flies about Berlin, dropping in on various lives but never being able to interfere. He eventually falls, both down to earth and for a human.

The film begins with a poem about children/childhood. We return to this poem throughout the film, and alongside images of children, you start to get a sense of Damiel's view of humanity as children, we don't get the eternity he has had to really learn or experience anything. But, he also sees into people's thoughts and feelings and realises how many of us are always thinking about mortality and the meaning of life.

Beginning in warm black and white, we begin with Damiel visiting many different people, in their homes, on the street, in cars. He discusses what he's been doing with a fellow angel and proclaims that he wants to take part in life, be seen, be part of things on earth.

They both visit a library, seeing lots of other angels overlooking those studying. A nice parallel - whilst the angel wishes to take part in mortality, the humans he's watching struggle with theirs.

We then see him visit a circus, where he sees a female trapeze artist, Marion, dressed as an angel and he falls in love with her. There are some lovely moments here with Marion saying to her colleagues "these wings bother me", well, exactly. As we watch her fly about on her trapeze, the film is suddenly in bright colour for several seconds. Is this our angel beginning to see the possiblities of a life in love and as a mortal?

We follow them both back to her trailer, where, as she thinks about her life and future, Damiel takes in her belongings, her past, photographs. She is longing for love and so is he, but he does not exist in her realm.

To me, Wings of Desire is an essay on humanity, our struggle with only being here for a short time. Between birth and death we experience so much, but in the bigger scheme of things it is but a sigh. How do we deal with mortality? We regret all the things not done, not yet experienced but also look back and enjoy what we have done. Is the regret of things not done a more powerful sensation than of the pleasure from things done? Some look to the bigger narratives, war and peace, history, but the majority look to their own private lives.

Set in Berlin (a city destroyed by war and divided by ideology) in 1987, this is also a work about a divided society, a divided self. We and Damiel follow citizens wandering the city, cut off by the Wall from memories of things past, reminiscing about cafes and buildings that have since been destroyed. Are all of us part human and part immortal angel? We oversee our own lives, think about our own histories and yet cannot escape the onward march toward death.

So, this is also a film about borders, passing between different states of existence, obsession with the past and how it continues to affect the present.

Peter Falk is ace as himself, shooting a film about the Second World War, again recreating history, dragging another world into the present.

Wenders and his photographers (including assistant director Claire Denis) use lots of crane shots, the descending camera constantly coming to down to 'our' level, the human level from where sometimes our heads are in the clouds.

There's a gorgeous moment as Damiel sits with the audience of children at the circus, the child sitting next to him turns and speaks to him. He then turns to look at us directly in the camera and smiles knowingly. Was this perhaps destined to be an outtake but then kept in as an indication of the importance of children?

Damiel finally breaks through to both life and colour film. We see him experience many things for the first time - tasting his own blood, being cold, learning the names of different colours, drinking coffee. This reminded me of my own learning, thinking back to when I learnt many of these things, as a child of course. He then goes after the trapeze artist but finds the circus gone. They eventually find each other and through experiencing love with Marion, Damiel discovers what it is to be human and even though he has brought himself down to human level (and only for a limited time), he finds that transcendence is also possible through love.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093191/

Friday, 12 November 2010

Scenes From a Marriage (1973)



Synopsis: Middle class Swedish couple argue about marriage. The End.


Another one of those modern foreign art-house classics that one is supposed to have seen. I thought that this would be a struggle to get through in that it's about two and a half hours long and not much really happens. Apart from talking. A lot of talking. This film is all centred around the dialogue of a couple that have been married for some time, the husband has an affair, they break-up and eventually divorce but begin an affair of their own even after both have remarried.

Anyway, I needn't have worried about being bored. The dialogue is fascinating and not quite the intellectual merry go round that I had expected. It is an honest look at what couples can feel about each other, using accessible language and ideas.

We get to know the couple, Marianne and Johan, pretty well throughout their rows/discussions. We see their vulnerability and their strength as they both move through the different stages of the marriage and break up and I got a real sense of how, by the end, they both change a great deal.

As we begin the story, Marianne and Johan first speak to a reporter about their marriage (Johan bragging about himself and Marianne shyly talking about herself) and then as they entertain another couple. This bourgeois dinner party soon turns sour as the friends begin a vicious Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf style battle of put downs and insults. Marianne and Johan look on objectively, and even pride themselves on their own smug happiness after the couple have gone. We get a sense that we are being set up for some sort of fall as both the discussions with the reporter and the dinner party point to potential problems.

We also get a few scenes in which both partners are shown struggling with their family obligations and we see the strain that this puts on the other. Eventually Johan declares his love for another woman and leaves Marianne. This scene is a hard watch, as its played so low key, so matter of fact. Bergman gives them so much room in these scenes to go over what is happening and yet still you're left with that desperate notion (that many of us have experienced) at time having run out for them as a couple.

Marianne deals with the break up through various emotions: denial, anger and finally a strong resolve to pick herself up and carry on. There's a great sequence when Johan visits Marianne for the first time in six months for dinner. She discusses the therapy that she's been in, reading from her diary. I thought this scene was really superb, as Marianne (through photo flashbacks of Liv Ullman as a girl growing up) describes how her upbringing and adolescence has shaped the woman she has become. The insight and authenticity that Bergman brings to the female mindset is remarkable considering he also wrote these scenes and although much of Marianne's monologue feels very psychoanalytical, it still rings true on a much more instinctive level. The ace climax to her intimate monologue is that Johan has fallen asleep whilst listening, which is perhaps even more authentic than Marianne's speech.

This is followed by Johan's attempted seduction of Marianne, reminding me a bit of the end of Antonioni's La Notte. Bergman shows how sex between the couple has become a matter of bargaining and no longer of passion. Even as Marianne admits how she has thought of Johan in that way since their separation, she will not give in to him because of how this will make her feel. Earlier on, pre break up we see a couple of attempts of one or the other at suggesting sex, with the other rejecting for some banal reason. I would bet a hundred quid that anyone in a long term relationship would recognise themselves or their partners in these sequences.

The other cracking sequence is the one in which (again months or is it years) later, they are in Johan's office to sign the divorce papers. This felt like a scene from a stage play - it's an over extended scene in which the characters get drunk on expensive French brandy, first get along and agree and then argue horribly about getting divorced. They take turns in having the upper hand until Johan resorts to physical violence, finally releasing the tension that has built up between them over several years.

So many times whilst watching this I felt as if I were a voyeur, eavesdropping on the most delicate and intimate discussions of the couple. I think this is partly as the vast majority of scenes are between Marianne and Johan, we get very few supporting characters and even then they are largely off screen. This creates a claustrophobic atmosphere (much like a real relationship) in which the couple exists almost in a vacuum.

That they embark on an affair with each other even after re-marriage is perhaps testimony to an idea of what? not being able to let go? being just this side of right for each other? masochism? The ending, with the couple on a dirty weekend in a seaside cottage, is very much open to interpretation. Will Marianne and Johan continue with their affair or will their relationship ever finally come to an end? Maybe Bergman is saying that we could spend our entire lives exploring relationships with the same people, but still never really learn enough to be happy, either about ourselves or our partners.



Sunday, 7 November 2010

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)



Synopsis:
Terence Davies' contemplative vision of his upbringing in 1940s/1950s Liverpool.

I saw Of Time and the City not that long ago - Davies' homage to his home town of Liverpool and the changes that the city has seen from the '50s onwards. A lovely sort-of-documentary but in my mind not quite as good as a much earlier BFI documentary on Northern cities - Morning in the Streets. Anyhow, Distant Voices really exceeded my expectations and is also a deeply emotional film.

The film starts with us looking at an ordinary terraced house, fairly drab, nothing extraordinary. As the camera takes us inside the house and along the hallway to look at the stairs, we see a woman come to the bottom of the stairs and call up to her three children to come down for breakfast. We then expect to see the children tumble down the stairs but instead we hear their voices and footsteps but see nothing. This immediately said to me that this film is about memory; that sensation of being in a place full of memories and senses coming back to you - words said, noises heard.

It also gave me a hint that this was going to be a non-linear narrative. It is a film full of tableaux and vignettes, all centering around a working class, Catholic family and the big events that frame their lives, the births, marriages and deaths. Each event is staged like an act in a play, kind of out context of the rest of the film, but each episode is like this with only images and music threading everything together rather than the standard voiceover or necessary explanatory scenes. This format gives the film lots of spaces and silences, allowing the viewer to slow down, absorb the images and contemplate on their own history, their own life.

The theatrical feel extends to the settings and surroundings, lighting and sound direction. Many scenes include shafts of slightly unreal looking sunlight coming through windows and very little or no extraneous noise in the street scenes. The colour palette is very drab and washed out in the first half, with even rosy wallpaper looking pale and dated. The second half warms up (as explained in the interview with the director in the DVD extras) as the story becomes slightly warmer, though to say why may ruin the film.

The story itself is about Davies' family and is one of the most emotive and down to earth depictions of domestic violence I've seen for a long time. There's no Nil by Mouth De Niro-esque ramblings from Dad Pete Postlethwaite in this film. We don't get an explanation as to why this man is an unpredictable tyrant towards his family, we simply see the erratic, violent outbursts and the fallout. Reminding me as it did of part of my own family one generation back, I found this a very uncomfortable watch but perhaps brought me closer to understanding what my own grandmother must have gone through.

In a broader way, I think Davies does a great job in showing how men and women experience life differently, especially at that particular time and how the expectations of family, church and community had a tight grip on people's lives. He also evokes a real spirit of place, with the characters singing songs and using language of a very specific location and era. In this way, Davies has created a wonderful document of memories of his early family life, but one that gives us many universal truths.

Next to watch will be his follow up film The Long Day Closes.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095037/

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Lourdes (2009)



Synopsis:
MS sufferer Christine is on a pilgrimage to Lourdes along with other sick folk and the pious. Miracles can happen...

This film is an interesting take on the power of faith, testing of religious (and medical?) skepticism and possibly fantasy. We see Christine, a young French woman with MS, alongside many other sick people and those who are well but fiercely religious on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. They are chaperoned by young nurses and a group of what look like soldiers. We watch the group dynamics change over the course of several days spent at Lourdes, visiting the shrine and taking the waters, attending a mass and going on a hike in the mountains.

As the days progress, we see Christine go from pragmatic terminally ill patient through to seeing her feelings aroused by one of the soldiers, and her envy at not being able to interract with him as her young female helper does. We also see the other pilgrims and their quite patronising and appalling view of miracles and the disabled. Christine's room mate is an almost silent much older lady, who befriends Christine when the young helper one day abandons her for a trip with the soldiers. This older lady looks after Christine without question and their relationship is largely silent. Is she a guardian angel? Maybe, but an angel that thinks she knows what's best for her charge.

The group dynamics get very interesting when one of the soldiers begins to take a shine to Christine. This coincides with Christine's miraculous 'recovery'. At first we see her previously crumpled hands unfold and reach out to touch a rock. We then see her rise out of bed and brush her hair. There is astonishment from the rest of the group, but also a great deal of jealousy from other ill pilgrims who have not been touched by a miracle. It's almost as if the arousal of passion for the soldier has awakened Christine's previously static body, like a modern Sleeping Beauty. But there is also the possibility that we are in the realm of fantasy. Is this all in Christine's head? Is she simply overwhelmed with the religious fervour of those around her and imagining a recovery and romance with the soldier?

The film is told earnestly and without any gimmicks, so we're left with making up our own minds about what we are seeing. If we take it at face value Christine's condition does undergo improvement but using our own realistic faculties, we know that a recovery from MS is a very rare, if not impossible, situation. It does really make you think about how you would deal with witnessing such an event but also about how we all imagine great changes to our lives and that these can be the catalyst for real change.

There is also another interesting element to this film. Early on, Christine has a second helper a slightly older woman, extremely pious and caring. Later on in the film we see her helping out preparing for the end of trip party when she collapses. As she falls to the floor her wig comes off and we realise that she herself is terminally ill with cancer. Is this perhaps the other side of the coin to Christine? Whilst the skeptical leave themselves open to many possibilities, do the religious only really have one chance at being saved and what happens when this chance is denied?

Something about this film reminded me of another modern film set in the world of religious fanatics/skeptics - Jesus of Montreal. They both deal with 'miracles' happening amongst non-believers and show that sometimes there is a very thin line between those that have faith and those that do not.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1405809/

Monday, 13 September 2010

White Material (2010)



Synopsis: White French coffee plantation owner defies both the French Army and un-named African rebels to stay on her land as a vicious civil war begins. AKA Apocalypse Maintenant.

Another great film from Claire Denis. Isabelle Huppert (formidable, fantastic Isabelle Huppert) does a sterling job in the lead as Maria Vial, a woman caught up in a civil war that she 'disobeys'. She and her family - father-in-law Michel Subor (Denis regular), ex husband Christophe Lambert (er, Chris, you dropped an 'r' mate), grown up son Nicolas Duvauchelle all play their distinctive roles in fanning the flames of rebel insurection and general chaos.

The film is told in flashback as Maria rides a packed bus back to her plantation. She carries no posessions and is wearing a thin, pink dress - somewhat out of keeping with the dusty, inhospitable conditions. As the scenes unfold, we realise she is at the end of an era. She is warned by the French army to leave (they drop survival kits out of their helicopter as they bark warnings to Maria). In a way, this feels very overdue, but also totally up to date as we see stories in the news of white, post-colonial farmers being chased out of Africa (out of Africa, do you see what I did there? Ha!).

We know Maria and family are therefore living on borrowed time but the air of menace never spills over into melodrama and we never feel pity for her. Isabelle Huppert gives a performance that's almost Bressonian in its simplicity and non-emotiveness. She just acts. One of the reviews that I read said that if this had been a Hollywood film, we would have had scenes of long, tearful speeches given by Huppert about how much she loves Africa etc. etc. Excrutiating, pointless and unrealistic. Here we have a woman who doesn't understand why she should leave or why she should be apologetic about being there in the first place.

We see her interact in various ways with the locals and we see them fleeing the plantation as war moves in. We see her ex making deals with the local mayor to sell the plantation and make as much as he can before getting out himself. We see her hire more workers to take the place of the previous lot. All futile attempts to maintain a status quo and save her coffee crop.

All the while, we're also following the beguiling Isaach De Bankole as the local rebel hero, Le Boxeur, fatally injured and making his way...somewhere unknown. Maria's and his pathes cross and she offers him food, water and medicine (this is the point we realise that apolitical as this film kind of is, we know that Maria naturally sides with rebels).

A couple of moments really stood out as visual references to Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam-athon Apocalpyse Now. That film, based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, shows a white man with a shaved head gone mad and gone native in Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz. In White Material, the son, Nicolas Duvauchelle, previously a layabout, good for nothing undergoes a significant tranformation at the hands of two child would-be killers. After his humiliating ordeal he shaves his head, grabs a rifle and heads out to join the rebels, behaving psychotically. For me this was a clear nod to Kurtz.

And, in one of the final scenes of the film, Maria comes across her father-in-law, the plantation owner, as they both discover her son's charred and very dead body. Without hesitation, she clobbers him on his neck, killing him. I was instantly taken to the scene in Apocalypse Now in which we witness a rather violent religious rital take place that ends in the beheading of a sacred cow. Again, the visual similarities mirrored how this story completes a circle, along with Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness.

The other thing that really strikes you about this film is the pace. About half way through, when we're with the son, watching his story unfold, I thought to myself 'boy, this film has a lovely rhythm'. As with her other films, they feel slow but without being Iranian or Chinese (if you know what I mean). She takes the correct amount of time to allow a story to unfold, without it feeling padded or over stretched. Absolutely masterful.

I think I need a second viewing of this film and I now feel like re-watching some of her others. One that I haven't seen is her first film, Chocolat, again set in post-colonial Francophone Africa.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1135952/

P.S. Perhaps as a tribute to the just dead Claude Chabrol, I should finally get around to seeing Madame Bovary, with Huppert as Emma. A match made in heaven, I reckon.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Notorious


Synopsis:
Espionage and star crossed lovers make for a potent mix in Hitchcock's classic with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.

I'm so glad that I finally got around to watching this Hitch. It's a taut thriller, ace love story and there is a camera shot that you may not see in many other films. Ingrid plays the spoilt daughter of a Nazi war criminal, living it up in the U.S. American agent Cary Grant approaches her and forces her into working for the government to help uncover a dastardly plot involving more bad Nazis hanging out in Rio. She agrees (or has little choice) and Grant and Bergman head down south.

Whilst planning the mission the pair begin to fall in love although Grant is careful not to let it get in the way of the plan to have Ingrid 'fall in love' with Nazi No.1 Claude Rains. Eventually, Ingrid ingratiates herself all the way into Claude's home that he shares with his mother and they get engaged. All the while both Ingrid and Cary try to deny their feelings but you can see they feel deeply for each other and are frustrated in the whole situation.

The really tense stuff starts as Ingrid has to stealthily find out what the Nazis are up to and to pass on information to Cary. She starts well but it all goes a bit Pete Tong at the engagement party when her and Cary's behaviour starts to make the baddies suspicious. There is a technically amazing camera shot, that goes from almost a birds eye view of the party in the mansion. The camera pans all the way down from this very wide opening shot right down to a tight close up of a key in Ingrid Bergman's hand. I've read a bit about how this was done (very difficult to film apparently) but it looks fluent and effortless, further evidence of the Master's technical brilliance.

As the baddies have now sussed out poor Ingrid's task, they begin to poison her slowly so that neither she or Cary notice what's being done to her until it's almost too late. However, this leads to a wonderful rescue scene in which Cary comes to take Ingrid away. He manages to extract her from the evil grasp of the Nazis but it is SO tense. He is in the nest of vipers, risking his life and Ingrid's life but he (sniffles) loves her so much he won't sacrifice her to their fatal plan.

I liked the sacrificial, masochistic element to this film. You see both of them (but especially Ingrid) really suffering for each other, almost to prove their love to the other. Hitchcock loves to punish his characters, loves to test their resolve and their faith in humanity. This film illustrates perfectly that test and how two people can find inner strength that they never knew they had.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038787/

Spellbound


Synopsis:
Girl meets boy, they fall in love, then they find out if he's a killer.

One of Hitchcock's more thoughtful and delicate films, I really loved this. Ingrid Bergman plays a psychiatrist at a rural mental institution. They recieve a new head psychiatrist (Gregory Peck) to take over from Dr Murchison who is retiring. All seems well. Very quickly Greg and Ingrid fall in love. There is a great scene in which they first kiss that kick starts everything from then on. As soon as they declare their love, Ingrid discovers that Greg is not all that he seems and the story takes a thrilling turn.

Greg and Ingrid realise that he is not the doctor that he is supposed to be but Greg has amnesia and can't remember who he really is. Cue a riveting tale of false murder charges and selective bad memories coming back to Greg, all the while on the run from the law, with Ingrid in tow.

They end up at her old Professor's house for some ace scenes in which we see Greg have one of his odd memories/associations, pick up a cut throat razor and wander through the house at night. We're left not knowing if he has killed either Ingrid or her Prof but soon are relieved to learn that the Prof had worked it all out and given Greg some bromide to put him to sleep before he caused any harm.

Eventually the case is solved by the lovebirds but not before some soul searching from Greg and some crazy dream sequences designed by Salvador Dali. What I really liked about the story, and perhaps all of Hitchcock's films, is the underlying ideas. What's he really saying about love by having Greg not be what he makes out and by having Ingrid almost blindly faithful in her belief of his innocence? Is he saying that we can be blinded by lust and intense emotion as to the real or sometimes imagined bad side to our new beau?

Many other stories/films have explored this with Hitchcock's own Suspicion up there among them.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038109/

Pickpocket



Synopsis:
Dostoevskyian morals and Bressonian 'acting' in masterpiece of understatement and perhaps the main influence on Matt Damon's wooden style.

I'd wanted to watch this film after reading Robert Bresson's Notes on the Cinematographer - his Marcus Aurelius style treatise on how to make films and how actors should act. This short work is full of gems on how film should not just be a pseudo theatrical artform but should take advantage of what the camera can do that the stage cannot.

The film follows a newly released prisoner (Michel) as he navigates his way around getting back into normal life again. We see him in his one room flat, grubby, dishevilled bordering on unhygenic. We see him visiting his terminally ill mother, trying to work out a way of getting hold of her money. We also see him interact with a female neighbour of his mother's. We also see the police keeping an eye on him, in bars and other locations. We see him make contact with another thief, and attempt to set up several robberies.

All the time we are with Michel, we begin to realise that he is amoral, almost psychopathic or sociopathic. Bresson's direction to his actors is simply to read the lines and act out the part. There is no emoting, no gestures, no raised voices and for some characters virtually no facial expressions. Bresson argues that most film acting is born of theatre acting, where actors have to exagerrate emotions in order to reach the back row. In film however, the camera picks up every tiny movement and so actors (or models, as he calls them) are required to do no more than they would in real life. He argues that in reality emotion and expression often do not match up neatly in time, so that even if you argue with someone, you may only really show your feelings once alone.

Part of this method is to get the actors to read and rehearse lines again and again until the script is engrained in their memories and that they will then read their lines with ease and more realism.

As a viewer, this way of acting is really interesting, especially when compared to the Method acting style and the mainstream of Hollywood acting. We almost forget that we're watching a flesh and blood person and we certainly don't associate the character with the actors own gestures as with many very famous names (think Jack Nicholson's trademark grin etc.). We are simply given action and observation.

And what action it is. Michel goes from almost getting back on track to falling fully in with a gang of thieves and perfecting his pickpocket technique. There are some virtuoso and near silent scenes in which we watch in detail as Michel robs from fellow travellers on trains and at a railway station. The timing is fantastic in these scenes and they are really tense to sit through.

Eventually, the catalyst of his mother's death means that Michel's journey back to proper badness and prison is complete. The film reminded me of Crime and Punishment, another story of an outsider testing out morality and societal norms until they reach breaking point.

A really fascinating and unique take on what cinema can do.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053168/

Friday, 23 July 2010

The Kreutzer Sonata (2008)



Synopsis: Husband with insane jealous streak winds up murdering his wife when he (wrongly) suspects her of having an affair.

Based on a Leo Tolstoy story which is itself a scathing attack on marriage, this film from Bernard Rose is first rate. I'd read about an earlier film that he'd made, Ivans XTC, again based on a Tolstoy story and starring (as this one does) the very talented (and very handsome) Danny Huston.

I've now read the Tolstoy story to get a good comparison and found it be pretty much spot on. It's uncanny how modern Tolstoy was in his attitudes/observations toward marriage and having a family. Even more so that Anna Karenina, The Kreutzer Sonata demystifies much of middle class, Western received wisdom on relationships and romance (more of which in Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch). He pretty much smashes any illusions that love between men and women is anything other than a bloody battlefield. Okay, so Levin in AK does come through and learn to appreciate his wife and baby son but on the whole, Tolstoy (a father of thirteen children himself) does not hold any truck with romantic novelists who espouse a 'love conquers all' line.

So, approaching this film with a healthy skepticism, I was not disappointed. I think Bernard Rose has crafted a really great little film. I say little as it's made on a digital camera and with only a small handful of 'names' (but two Hustons for yer money!). Even so, it is a very well constructed film, well photographed and edited, with a very tight narrative length.

I wondered if the cheap(er), digital format would bother me or detract from the film, but I can honestly say that it didn't. Apart from a couple of scenes with lots of visual 'noise', I reckon if using these smaller, digital cameras can allow directors more freedom, then great. Some of the newer digital SLRs with movie-making facilities on them are now churning out some very high quality images and will really change film-making.

Anyway, back to the story. The tale mostly translates well, although I didn't really buy the line that just because the couple at one point have unprotected sex this would have necessarily ended up in pregnancy. What about the morning after pill? That the female character, as a high-flying concert pianist, would sabotage her career so easily really didn't sit that well with me.

Apart from this one slip up, the story hangs as true today as in Tolstoy's time - that once a couple is married and have their first child, their lives and most importantly their joint life, is changed forever, often for the worse. There's a great line about women knowing that children are a burden that I didn't think could have been lifted from the original story, but it is. Here is a male writer that really understood that a woman's role as wife and mother is not every girl's dream and is often a big disappointment.

The tension of the alleged affair and the husband's jealousy is very well done with some of the arguments between the couple almost too honest and cringe worthy to watch. The climactic scene is very lightly done but so devastating - you can't quite believe what you've just seen. The performances are all very good, especially Danny Huston (where has he been all these years?? Edit: just rembered that I saw him in Silver City years ago - he was ace in that too) and Elisabeth Rohm as his wife.

I cannot wait to see what Bernard Rose makes next. Oh...it's a biopic of Howard Marks. Oh well, we can't make Tolstoy adaptations all the time I suppose...

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1172063/

Monday, 19 July 2010

On the Waterfront (1954)



Synopsis: Corrupt union boss Lee J Cobb keeps Noo Joisey longshoremen (oh, look it up) downtrodden. Marlon Brando becomes the main man to stand up to them, with the help of a local priest Karl Malden and flaxen-haired lovely Eva Marie Saint.

This is one of those films that you are supposed to watch, otherwise you're not a proper film fan...blah blah blah...so when it was on telly one Saturday afternoon I didn't really have an excuse not to watch. Glad I did, as there are many great things about the film, but not quite what I expected.

I discovered that the film was made after the director Elia Kazan had testified against colleagues at the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for being communists. Therefore, On the Waterfront became a justification of his actions. This makes watching the film interesting but confusing.

The story is about standing up to thugs, intimidation and poverty-inducing working conditions. I'm not quite sure what sort of parallels you can draw between this and Kazan's annoyance at his commie acting/directing mates giving him a hard time. However, politics aside it is an edgy, tense and brilliantly told story. The tension is ratcheted up with finding out pretty much from the get-go that the guy most obviously targeted to stand up to the baddies is brother to No.1 baddie's henchman. The menage-a-trois of frustration and hatred between Lee J Cobb, Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger is brilliant and heart-breaking to watch.

The other aspect of it that intrigued me was Brando and Kazan's method acting. I'd never really paid much heed to what method acting was and how it differed from other types of acting, so I was paying close attention to Brando this time. There are some fascinating touches, such as Terry playing with Edie's glove rather than handing it back to her. But, but...I'm not sure if these were insightful or just distracting.

Interestingly, since watching On the Waterfront I've seen Robert Bresson's Pickpocket, in which Bresson's acting philosophy is played out by his actors, or models as he prefers to call them, do not 'act' as we know it, do not emote or pout or do much of anything apart from act in the purest sense. There is action, they stand up, walk, talk, do lots of other things but without any hint of emotion or thought. This is almost at the other end of the spectrum to Brando, who seems to expend all of his energy totally embodying his roles.

The story is angry and violent but ends with the hero triumphing at last. I loved the gritty look to the film. We only ever see New York in the very background, reminding us that this community are outsiders to civilisation and there is some ace contrasty chiaroscuro with dark, shiny blacks in the alley ways and corners of the docks.

This is meaty film-making, proper Shakespearean/Greek storytelling and a real testament to a director and lead actor making big statements.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047296/

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

La Grande Illusion (1937)



Synopsis: First World War - French pilots get captured, escape, get captured etc. until they end up in posh prisoner of war camp and hang out with Erich Von Stronheim. Much ado about social classes pre-war.

A bit like Blackadder Goes Forth when Ade Edmonson as German flying ace Baron Von Richtoven. French and German pilots getting along in German prison camps. The officers, regardless of country loyalties, recognising the more important ties of social class.

This is one of those films where all the way through you're going 'Oh, so that's where so-and-so got that idea from!'. There's the digging tunnels/distributing of soil via trouser leg episode that we later see in The Great Escape. Then there's the scene when the French pilots all stand to sing the Marseillaise a la Casablanca.

Other lovely vignettes include the posh Brits rehearsing It's a Long Way to Tipperary and the wonderful moment when all the POWs are rifling through a trunk of women's clothes to find costumes for their gang show. One soldier dresses up and pretty much silences the other men, all no doubt dreaming of the women they have left behind. Later on in the gang show, we see one dolled up just like Hugh Laurie as the fair Georgina.

This film must have been one of the strongest influences on later tales of the ridiculousity of war, cf. Catch 22, Dr Strangelove. The constant escape attempts, close look at class/social relationships of soldiers and overall meaningless of war see this satire as a top class example of that genre (if there is such a thing).

The wonderful Jean Gabin stars, as do some familiar Renoir visages from La Regle De Jeu. The sublime Erich von Stroheim (complete with fake 'von') is just perfect as the gentleman pilot von Ruffenstein, trying to make sense of all these upstart working class men taking over the running of the world. There's a fab death scene (won't say whose), in which Erich gets to pontificate about the way of things and how everything's gone downhill that is really reminiscent of Renoir's other masterpiece (if you can have two masterpieces) La Regle De Jeu. This is a film about the change of the world order after the First World War and how seismic that shift was.

Later in the film the two French hero pilots have escaped and find themselves at the (rather lovely) mercy of Dita Parlo as a German farmer's wife who has lost pretty much every male member (now, now) of her family to the ravages of war. Dita and Jean fall in love but he is soon off to finally make his way into Switzerland and safety.

A great companion piece to Regle De Jeu, even though they deal with different wars. You could incorporate a drinking game into your viewing - taking a swig each time you see a scene that's influenced another film. I guarantee you'll be squiffy before too long.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0028950/

Monday, 12 July 2010

An Education (2009)



Synopsis: Middle class London suburbanite teenage girl makes some mistakes and almost messes up her future. Ends up as Lynn Barber.

I had avoided watching this film after all the attention that it got, and I thought that it looked a bit too smug for its own good. I got over that and have finally seen on DVD. It's not bad. Not bad at all.

The story rattles along at a nice nifty pace and Carey Mulligan is really natural as the lead character Jenny. So, in fairness she probably has deserved all the accolades currently being chucked her way.

All the supporting players do their bit, with Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper and the dishy Peter Sarsgaard creating a world of '60s indulgence and dodgy morals. Basically, whilst well on her way to Oxford, Jenny falls in with the 'wrong lot' and almost gives away her future by dumping Oxford and marrying a philandering thief. However, we see how more grown up than she is than those around her (Mum, Dad, boyfriend etc.) and she attempts to pull back from the brink and rescue her future. Her female teachers being the only moral centre for her to properly rely on, she realises the error of her ways and pleads for their help.

I'm still a bit confused about the message of the film. Jenny is drawn as very likeable and intelligent but also naive, although not the usual naivety of other, more obvious films and lead actresses. Carey Mulligan's performance as Jenny portrays a girl with a huge sense of self confidence, even in her own mistakes. We don't ever really see her 'suffering' for her idiocy; she just picks herself up, gets help and charges ahead with her original plans. The self-assuredness is frightening indeed.

The '60s dresses etc. are lovely to look at (as is Peter Sarsgaard. Did I say that already?) and the scenes at Walthamstow Stadium were particularly fondly watched (I'm from E17). Nicely done.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1174732/

The Black Stallion (1979)



Synopsis: Boy meets horse, horse saves boy's life, boy rides horse in important race. The end.

One of my desert island films, I first saw this film on telly years ago and it immediately struck me as a cut above the usual kid/animal story - Andre it ain't. The visual style (the director Carroll Ballard is also a cinematographer) is really elegant, classy and thoughtful. Beautifully composed frames and sequences take their time and create a really strong sense that here is a film maker that really loves looking at his subject matter, the locations and different types of light.

Dialogue is almost foregone completely for much of the film in favour of highly lyrical vignettes between boy and horse, into which Carmine Coppola's (Dad of Francis Ford, who produced the film) music melds really nicely.

The horse. There are some unbelievable sequences involving the stallion, including the angry, rearing horse on the ship, the horse's bridle and ropes caught up the sinking ship's rudder and of course the races. The sound editing in the final race is brilliant; the horse's thundering hooves and overworked, snorty breathing putting you right in the place of Kelly Reno as he struggles to cling on to his lightening fast steed.

I can't immediately think of many other films that capture quite the same inner worldliness of this one. There are plenty of emotional scenes but as I say above, these are largely without dialogue, the feelings of the grown-ups, the kid and horse portrayed visually rather than through schmaltzy speeches.

I don't care how naff it sounds, but this is special film, made in the 1970s, when Hollywood was going through another Golden Age. Much overlooked, I think The Black Stallion is real, proper gem of a movie.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078872/

Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Road (2009)



Synopsis: Post apocalyptic ash covered nightmare from Cormac McCarthy brought to life by The Proposition director John Hilcoat.

I'd read the book of this film last year and really enjoyed it. Well, I say enjoyed, but you can't really enjoy the book, so bleak is its outlook and so desperate is its message. But it is written with such a strong voice that it hooks you in and drags you along on the journey.

I then read that the film version had been successful in rendering the spirit of the book, its bleakness and 'look'. Sounds odd for a book to have a certain look, but if you read The Road you'll know what this means. McCarthy's vivid description creates a very powerful overall image of the post apocalyptic world that the father and son inhabit.

So, to the film. It's good. It does transfer the look of the story that I had in my head when reading to the screen pretty successfully. It also mainly manages to recreate the deep sense of loss and despair that permeate the pages of McCarthy's book. However, there are some downsides.

The flashbacks. Totally unnecessary in my opinion, they only served to break up the monotony of the father/son journey and give it some sort of context. In the book, all we know is that there once was a mother, but that she left (and died presumably) leaving the father and son to fend for themselves. That the film keeps returning to this previous life somehow dilutes the present situation and weaken the anger and despair of the book.

As I was watching I realised that this wasn't the first film version of a beloved book in which I'd seen this happen. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is possibly the angriest book I've ever read. Full of beautiful language, description and dialogue, the book also conveys a deep sense of injustice and open, white-hot rage directed at what the author sees as a man made economic and social disaster. The film, from John Ford (no stranger to passion himself), does go some way to keep that anger but it is definitely lessened. Presumably, this was partly because of screen censorship/sensibilities of the time (I can't imagine many directors in the 1940s getting away with showing a woman having just lost a baby in childbirth suckling a starving adult man) and partly because I think once you have someone else making a version of anothers work, whatever the original intentions behind it are going to be lost somewhat as the personal feelings are going to be difficult to recreate.

John Ford allegedly didn't quite believe Steinbeck's vision of the Californian work camps (a bit over the top and depressing thought Ford) until he visited them himself as part of location scouting. It was only upon seeing the hellish conditions first hand that he understood the full ferocity of Steinbeck's work.

Even though I felt that The Road suffered a little from this same sense, it doesn't really pull any punches and doesn't miss out any crucial events (apart from the father's visit to the ship). It is pretty much as grim as the book.

Viggo Mortensen is really well cast in the role of the father but even though he gives a decent performance, I reckon Kodi Smit-McPhee is still a bit too cute to pull off the son's character. The inclusion of Charlize Theron as the mother just goes to strengthen the argument for scrapping the flashback sequences altogether. They strike such a false note, I do wonder why they included them. Surely it would be too cynical to think they were added in to get a big 'star' name.

If you need actual visual representations of stories, then The Road is worth watching. But, if your imagination is as vivid as mine and you enjoy creating the world of a story in your head, then skip straight past the film and go for McCarthy's book. You will have a far more interesting, if far more depressing, journey.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0898367/

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Don't Worry About Me (2009)



Synopsis: London bloke David has one night stand and follows her back to Liverpool. Doesn't work out with her, and he ends up hanging out with a lass from a betting shop, Tina, for the day and night. Goes back to London having learnt some important lessons.

This directorial debut from actor David Morrissey wasn't quite the gem I was expecting, but there are still bags of affection up on screen.

The story (fish out of water gets shown round Liverpool and also goes on an emotional journey) offers plenty of opportunity for insights for both characters. There are clues all along the way that make us think there's more to David than meets the eye and Tina also gets the chance to reveal a big secret.

Although it's difficult to explain exactly why, the fine detail of the writing (the script was written by the two leads) and characterisation isn't as nuanced as it could have been. Some of the acting (mainly with David's character) is a bit heavy handed. The scene on the beach with David on his mobile sounds and feels as if it was designed more for a stage play than a film as he repeats his offensive remark several times until Tina hears it. Surely with film this can be done more subtly?

The photography and set up of the frames feels very definitely like an amateur's debut or film school graduation film. Unfair maybe, but if you compare this to Samantha Morton's debut, The Unloved, you will see what I mean. I suppose with many actors' directorial debuts, you're never sure how much is their work and how much slack is taken up by DoPs etc. but The Unloved is really something quite remarkable.

Don't Worry About Me feels more like a starting point, a first go at making a film. Nothing wrong with that at all, except perhaps I was expecting something more.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1120920/

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Cloud 9 (2008)



Synopsis: Golden aged infidelity in this poignant tale of forbidden love between German OAPs.

I'd seen a trailer for this when on holiday in Germany in 2008 and it looked like a thoughtful essay on an age old story: falling in love with someone you shouldn't fall in love with (cue Buzzcocks). It was a bit different to what I expected but it is an interesting take on the subject.

German pensioner Inge is married to Werner and lives in a flat, doing sewing and alterations. One day, she delivers a pair of trousers to a handsome gentleman named Kurt and before you can say 'shall I just take your inside leg measurement?' they are undressing and making love on his living room carpet. And there's no holds barred in what the film shows. For those of you with a queasy disposition when it comes to watching the older generation engage in adult fun, this won't be an easy watch. But, I found it just as erotic as many other well executed love scenes in European films and it's kind of reassuring to see that sex doesn't stop even when you're drawing your pension.

The illicit relationship gets off to a shaky start and Inge is plagued by guilt and her strong love for her husband. But she cannot deny her feelings for Kurt and tells her daughter (Werner's step daughter) what has happened. The daughter encourages Mum to continue the affair and to keep it quiet (huh?) but she can't hide it much longer and tells Werner. This sets off a chain of events that ends sadly but also hopefully.

I found Inge's character a bit irritating and frustrating. At one point in an argument Werner tells her that she only lives for the moment and doesn't know what she wants and you can see that about her. She's not a defiant, strong willed adulterer. She's confused, ashamed and yet still confident enough in her new found feelings to know that she wants Kurt more than Werner.

There are many scenes which will feel familiar to anyone in a long term relationship: Inge and Werner spending evenings in near silence, watching TV, listening to Werner's train records (!) and generally behaving like a couple that have got used to each other's company rather than really relishing it.

One thing I found particularly interesting was Inge's desire for her husband even after she begins the affair with Kurt. It's fascinating how someone can continue to conduct a sex life with one person whilst embarking on a new sex life with someone else. Somehow, this didn't seem odd but only added to the character's sense of confusion and trying to come to terms with such a seismic shift in her life.

After watching the film I read Roger Ebert's review and he mentions a similar film called Innocence (2000), which he reckons is even better. Cloud 9 does have its flaws - Werner's ending (without giving too much away) was particularly troublesome for me. I plan on seeking out Innocence to compare and contrast.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1037228/

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Last Detail (1973)



Synopsis: Two US Navy lifers (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) accompany a young seaman (Randy Quaid) to jail after he is convicted of petty theft. Much adventurous drunken hilarity ensues.

A funny, warm, profanity laden and intelligent film from one of Hollywood's golden ages. The 1970s saw a celluloid smorgasbord of incredible films come out of Hollywood and The Last Detail is firmly part of that creative period.

Based on a novel, the story is a classic 'journey' tale, with all three characters going through emotional catharsis alongside the geographical journey. We also see Jack Nicholson and Otis Young act as parents to young Quaid, with each respectively slipping easily into the Mom (Young) and Dad (Nicholson) roles. A bit like good cop/bad cop, the twosome display traits to emphasise their own growing emotional attachment to Quaid's character.

This angle of it reminded me of In Bruges (older know it all looking after a younger version of himself, and with a tonne of swearing).

With a feeling of a stage play, there's some great dialogue between the characters. There's a great scene on the train in which they discuss Quaid's crime in a laid back way. There's such a lovely naturalness to this scene it almost feels like improv.

Also reminded me how sexy US sailors can be, with their bell bottoms and flat hats. If you need any further reminding, take a look at Marie Cosindas' beautiful and iconic photograph.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070290/

The Idiots (1998)



Synopsis: A bunch of neo, proto, ersatz anarcho hippies in Denmark spend their time pretending to be mentally handicapped, which they do in order to question social morality and values. Or something. A new recruit gets sucked into this world and eventually releases "her inner spass" before a truly emotional and shocking denouement.

This was one of those films that I'd meant to watch for years, ever since Lars Von Trier and the Dogme '95 lot from Denmark released their manifesto. I had very set preconceptions about what the film would be like - pretentious, boring, pointless, badly made. So, I was slightly trepidatious when putting it in the DVD player. I was, very happily, proved wrong on all counts.

Whilst the idea of a manifesto to make films without using artificial light or using much post production etc. sounds wanky, it is a very interesting experiment. What can you achieve if you strip away the well accepted touch ups and techniques used in film making? After watching the film, I don't think that it detracts from the story or feel of the film. Some have described The Idiots as having a documentary feel, but I didn't see that at all. The way it is constructed by including interviews with members of the group could be seen as documentary style, but the intervening action is very different, being so intimate and delicate as to contrast very strongly with a non-fiction tale. We aren't watching characters who are being self-consciously watched.

The film is also far from boring. Each vignette or episode is really nicely put together and keeps your interest. You can never quite believe what you're watching (the group at a swimming pool, hanging out with some Hell's Angels and scaring off a potential house buyer) but rather than giving you that cringeworthy embarrassment associated with Sasha Baron Cohen's Borat or Ali G's exploits, the idiots in The Idiots are so in character and are so vulnerable in those characters, that you feel an empathy and an anger, but not embarrassment.

Now, the accusation of the film being pointless is a bit more difficult to defend. As you get to know the group of middle class dropouts we realise that it's a game to them, a game that they try to justify but you never really understand. Ultimately, as the group disintegrates and the heroine reveals her own, very real, tragedy, you do wonder what any of them has achieved through their messing about. However, I think it is some what successful in highlighting how society reacts to the handicapped (we see a local council representative trying to bribe the 'handicapped' home to move to a neighbouring borough).

It was the technical and aesthetic aspects of the film that really had my preconceptions turned around. I expected handheld camerawork and natural lighting, which there is, complete with getting shots of the mic boom and second camera on film. But, the quality of the framing and the structure of the shots is so good that whilst we're dealing with some amateurish techniques, we do not get amateurish results. I just kept thinking, 'wow, these guys really know what they're doing'. The acting, which is first rate, also keeps the quality threshold pretty high, belying the overall feel of the film.

There are a few sequences that really stood out for me as particularly excellent. The first scene that has stayed with me is towards the end of the story as the group throw a party in the house that ends in an orgy (including an infamous shot of penetration). Two of the more delicate characters, Jeppe and Josephine (pictured above) go off on their own to another room. Whilst still in 'spass' character they very slowly and tenderly embrace and proclaim their love to each other. It's such an intimate moment and so beautifully played.

The other scene that really blew me away was the heroine, Karen, returning home with another member of the group, Susanne, to visit her family. We're not quite sure what is going on as Karen is effectively blanked by her mother as she re enters the family home. However, fairly quickly we become aware that Karen joined the group just after her baby son had died, missing his funeral. To make things even worse, Karen has agreed to 'spass' in front of her family to prove to the group the importance of their 'work'. As Karen's family sits quietly pouring coffee and eating cake we see her gradually begin to display mentally handicapped traits (not being able to eat properly). The actress playing Karen, Bodil Jorgensen, has a wonderfully expressive face, with downcast eyes, emphasising her pathetic nature. The scene is played so well, leaving you feeling shocked, devastated and that everything suddenly falls into place. Here is a very damaged woman in need of care and love, who has been hanging around with a group in which, on the face of it, sympathy is scarce. But, actually the group do give love and a sense of family on some odd level. It doesn't last, but clearly has a somewhat positive impact on each member.

So, it is definitely worth watching. An engaging, intriguing, interesting film with brilliant acting and a refreshing approach to film making.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0154421/

Monday, 7 June 2010

The Damned United (2009)



Synopsis: Based on the David Peace novel of the same name, this is the story of the 44 days that Brian Clough lasted as manager of Leeds Utd. Ups, downs and an ultimately warm tale of one man and his assistant coach.

Initially attracted to this film both for Sheen's impersonation of Clough and to listen to some of my favourite Clough-isms, I really enjoyed Tom Hooper's comedy drama. What's so good about it, is the relationship between Clough and Peter Taylor and how, without Taylor to assist at Leeds (and many other problems to boot), Clough comes unstuck. We see the tough talking, the hilarious one liners, the drinking and the ego. However, Michael Sheen still manages to create a warm, lively, honest character, one whose achievements can't be overstated and whose humanity can't be ignored.

Visually, the film is nicely photographed by Ben Smithard, with a nice '70s colour pallette but use of quite a few wide shots (many on wide angle lenses) for a reason I couldn't quite figure out. It gave the film a slightly gritty feel (maybe trying too hard to chime in with the feel of other film adaptations of David Peace works) that I don't think it really needed, as the story isn't about Clough's downfall as such, and includes much humour.

After watching the film, I sought out some of Brian Clough's TV appearances. Two of these appearances really stand out. The first is an almost 10 minute extract of an interview with John Motson. The interview is very uncomfortable, as Clough lays into Motson and what he sees as the problem with modern football analysis and TV punditry. He even namechecks Shirley Williams. Just brilliant.

The second video is of Brian Clough's meeting with Don Revie, the man that he had taken over from at Leeds Utd. The interview is portrayed in the film and I assumed it was not based on a real event, as it seems so set up. The TV meeting of these two men is fascinating, as it shows two rivals having an open, honest and electric debate. You just would not see anything like this on TV now. Incredible.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1226271/

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Tony Manero (2008)



Synopsis: Pinochet era, Chilean disco dancing serial killing impotent nutbag goes up in a Tony Manero looky likey TV competition.

I was very intrigued by the premise of this film (serial killer obsessed with Saturday Night Fever, what's not to like??) and even though the first act was kind of slow-ish, the second and third act more than make up for it with some bloody brilliant touches.

We are introduced to Raul and his odd living/family arrangements. There is a mother, a girlfriend and her daughter and then her boyfriend ?! all living above some sort of cafe/restaurant/social club in Pinochet's Chile. The political situation is ever present (mentions of curfew, charges of Communism etc., tanks on the streets).

Raul and his odd bod dance troupe rehearse dance routines around his own version of Travolta's central dance in Saturday Night Fever. Watching Raul et al practice those well known dance steps is properly tragic, as they are about as good as you or I dancing in front of the mirror in our bedroom.

In between rehearsals, we get a glimpse into Raul's psychopathic activities. And they are properly psychopathic. He kills an old lady for her colour telly, a wood/glass merchant to get hold of his glass bricks (to build the coloured lit dance floor of course!), the cinema owners to get hold of the Saturday Night Fever film reels. Although the most disturbing episode is late on in the film, when it's revealed that the daughter's boyfriend will also be trying out for the Tony Manero competition. Raul finds out that the boyfriend has a better white suit than he has, so he ruins in the worst way he knows how. By defecating all over it.

By the end of film, we're witness to his performance at the looky likey show. He actually turns out to be the best impersonator with the best moves but...BUT he's not young and attractive enough to be allowed to win and even though audience applause tells us that he's won, the presenter gives the prize to another contestant. We follow Raul to the bus stop as he watches and follows the winner and his wife on to a bus. The film ends as they ride the bus, leaving us to assume that Raul will kill the guy at some point just out of spite.

Raul as an anti hero is pretty awful. We don't get any sense of him being human at all, with very little given away in his facial expressions or dialogue. At times the film reminded me of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Killing of a Chinese Bookie, with beautiful '70s colour tones and handheld camera work. (The dance sequences also took me back to one of my favourite dance scenes of all time, in the closing credits of Claire Denis' Beau Travail as Denis Lavant lets himself go in a Djibouti nightclub). Some of the out of focus shots didn't quite work for me, not sure what they were really for, but some of the group scenes used the handheld shooting really well. The camera moves about from character to character, focusing our attention first on Raul's slow dance with his girlfriend's daughter, then shifts to his girlfriend staring at them both, then follows them as they move upstairs and Raul fails miserably at seducing the girl.

Raul is almost like a child. He reacts remarkably simply to events around him, mostly through anger. At one point as the rotting floorboards on the cafe stage start to disintegrate beneath his dancing feet, he just starts to smash them up in a fit of rage, like a 5-year old child. Basically, he will kill to get his own way and has an unbelievable ability to delude himself.

The director has said that this film was a way of discussing the effect of living under a dictatorship; that in violent times people begin to behave with no morality and bascially only act for themselves. Pretty brilliant film.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1223975/

Up in the Air (2009)



Synopsis: George Clooney plays a cynical singleton, hired to travel across the US to fire people. He meets an equally cynical business woman, Alex, and they indulge in some no strings sex. As Clooney mentors a colleague in how they do things, the three of them learn lots of life lessons from one another.

Still not quite sure what the massive fuss was about with this film. It is funny but loses its edge about half way through, when it becomes predictable and slightly schmaltzy.

The comic acting from Clooney and Anna Kendrick is pretty darn good, both having to cope with treading the line between tragedy (they fire people for a living) and comedy. Poor old Vera Farmiga gets the sort of baddie role that was a bit easy to spot coming.

Worth watching but not as edgy as it promises to be.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1193138/

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The Man From Laramie (1955)



Man from Laramie. Alternative title: King Steer (d'you see what I've done there?)

Synopsis: James Stewart is the titular hero who delivers goods and some ol' fashioned revenge on some baddies who have done 'im wrong. He gets involved in some complicated King Lear nonsense with local cattle baron Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp - last seen by me as the lovely Dad in National Velvet). Ends sort of well for Jimmy and very mixed for all the others.

A few scenes into this brilliant psychological Western from Anthony Mann and James Stewart (see Naked Spur below), we see the hand of a Native American on a stair rail (in the trading post where Stewart is delivering goods) in sharp left of frame. The camera pans out to reveal the character but the camera moves in such a way that the hand ends up in the dead centre of the frame. This hand is a huge clue to as why Stewart is here and how the denoument will play out.

Our Jimmy makes his deliveries but insists on taking some goods back with him to stop it being a wasted journey. When he is sent out to some local salt flats, little does he realise that they are on the land of local cattle baron Crisp. His son Dave plus sidekicks turn up, burn Stewart's wagons and shoot his mules. Oh dear. Jimmy himself also gets a whooping and dragged through a fire on a rope. The scenes at the salt flats had a touch of the Lawrence of Arabia's about them. We first see Dave's gang from a really wide shot that with their approach on horseback becomes closer and closer until the camera has swung around to focus on Dave and Jimmy.

So, Jimmy's been done wrong and keeps hinting that something else is keeping him in town, so he sets about getting even with the Waggoman's. He soon gets imbroiled with the father, son, stepson/cattlehand Vic and Vic's girlfriend, Waggoman cousin and trading post manager Barbara. Stewart has the help of grizzled old guy Charlie (taking the place of fool/conscience if we're taking the Shakespeare analogy to the extreme).

It all turns a bit prophetic when Donald Crisp says he's been expecting Stewart, and starts to get really interesting when we realise that ol' Donald's eyesight is faltering (blindness and "seeing" being another Shakespearean theme). There's also power relationships aplenty between Alec, Dave and Vic and it all gets a bit King Lear/The Big Country. Themes of destiny, death foretold. Dave is a hot-headed, jealous, paranoid, power-hungry psychopath but the real culprit is kept pretty well hidden until the scene between Dave and Vic. The scene when Alec comes to kill Will (shooting blindly at a stock still Stewart) reminded me a little of Cronenberg's History of Violence, another film about father/son/boss relationships.

As the climax builds Vic's paranoia just gets worse - it's played to absolute perfection by Arthur Kennedy. As the final scenes roll around, it all kicks off big time with Stewart revealing the real reason for his revenge and leaving Vic to his fate at the hands of some really quite cross Apache.

A real blinder from Mann/Stewart. (Ha! D'you see what I did there?)

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Four Lions (2010)



Synopsis: Five hapless Islamic jihadists plot to blow themselves up in the north of England. Sadly, they succeed but with hilarious results along the way.

Chris Morris' satire on British suicide bombers is a very funny and very sad tale. I found myself laughing out loud one minute and then gasping with shock and disbelief the next.

I reckon Morris and his team got the tone just about right, with excellent characterisation from straight man Omar and his goonish team mates. They all play off against each other really well, with some brilliant comic touches (I never thought I'd be in a cimema laughing at jokes spoken in Urdu). The comic/tragic acting is pretty great actually, especially from Riz Ahmed as Omar. The real struggle for us viewers is in seeing him as a 'normal' family man with a lovely wife and son. He's not a fanatic and we don't get any scenes of him praying with all Eastern-Gladiator music in the background. Chris Morris has really done his homework on this one. They're just ordinary guys who are doing something absolutely extraordinary.

There is some biting commentary on the role of the police, with Kevin Eldon as a sniper taking out an incorrect target. As he argues with his handlers he exclaims "He must have been the right target, he's the one I shot!" echoing what we've heard about the absolute bloody awful cock up (putting it mildly) of the Menezes shooting at Stockwell Tube station.

As we've come to expect from Chris Morris, we don't get trashy sentiment (the short scene in which Omar says a coded goodbye to his wife is genuinely heartbreaking) or glib, patronising sermons. What we do get is a sharp, intelligent, funny, angry and sad story.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1341167/

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Browning Version (1951)



Synopsis: Old school teacher leaves his school due to ill health and comes to terms with what he sees as his failures as a classics master (and husband).

Adapted from the play by Terence Rattigan, this film is fairly sparse and lean, and doesn't pull any emotional punches. The story focuses on the teacher, Andrew Crocker-Harris, his wife Millie, her lover Frank and one of Crocker-Harris' pupils, Taplow. It takes place over the final two days of his tenure at an English public school as the classics master.

We quickly come to realise, through some neat shots of the wife and her lover at morning prayers, that this teacher is not only unpopular amongst the student body but also with his nearest and, supposedly, dearest. She's embittered at years of being with someone whom she describes as already dead (at least emotionally) and is furious when she discovers that he's not to be given a pension.

The scenes between Frank and Millie are first rate, with Jean Kent giving a desperate performance of a woman with nothing left and nothing gained in her life. Her pathetic attempts to cling to Frank (in private and in public) are almost embarrassing to watch - we are watching her failures as a wife too. Frank turns out to be somewhat of a good guy and attempts a reconciliation with Crocker-Harris. He, along with Taplow, also spurs him on to his final act of redemption.

Taplow, for his part, innocently inspires Crocker-Harris to see that he has not been a total failure as a teacher. He has lit a fire in Taplow, and Taplow in turn responds with kindness and pity on his master. It is the giving of the titular gift that is the dramatic turning point for Crocker-Harris, it is the catalyst for the actions that will partly save him.

There's a great juxtaposition with another teacher, Fletcher, the school hero, leaving to play cricket for England. We see how much he is loved by the boys but when he gives his farewell speech we realise that he's a dumb lunk with no real substance. Funnily enough, his empty speech talking of the school sports achievements reminded me of this gem from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.

His farewell speech to the school had me blubbing. It's not completely sentimental and strikes just the right chord, with the camera focusing on Taplow and Frank urging him on. Never has the phrase 'I am sorry' sounded so deeply felt and tragic. I dare you to watch it and not cry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7q3nKi-PEBE

We will all experience failure in our lives and it is only with sympathy and encouragement (ironically what Crocker-Harris thinks a teacher should provide) from those around that can set us right again. Even though there are some cruel lessons in this story (especially with Millie, Frank and the treatment of Crocker-Harris at the hands of his employer) this is a gentle, kind film that gives courage and inspiration to us all, as our lives may not always be turning out how we had hoped.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043362/

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Cleo 5 a 7 (1962)



Synopsis: French pop princess kills two hours whilst waiting for medical test results. She wanders around Paris, bumping into friends, strangers, kittens and frogs.

I saw this on the big screen as part of a re-issue of Queen of the Nouvelle Vague Agnes Varda's films. I was intrigued by the premise and the idea of the film running in (almost) real time and following someone through the streets of Paris. Visually, this film is lovely - swooshing, sympathetic, humorous and intimate camera work gives us a sense of a young, spoilt woman but still a real woman, with anxieties and emotions that we can all can relate to.

The picture above is taken from a wonderful scene when both Cleo and her assistant are swinging/rocking in their seats. The camera's POV (one moment looking at Cleo straight on, then swapping to focus on the assistant from behind Cleo) is so delightful, so playful. I got the feeling the whole film was a real celebration of life and unstoppable energy.

We follow Cleo having her Tarot cards read, buying a hat, taking taxis, playing with kittens in her bright loft apartment, recieving her older lover, rehearsing with her band, wandering along boulevards to see a frog swallower (make sure you're not eating when watching this scene), driving round with a friend and finally getting chatted up in a park by an off duty soldier. The soldier becomes Cleo's companion for the final act of the film, accompanying her to find out her fate.

What I really loved about this film was how light and airy it is even though the underlying narrative (Cleo is waiting to hear if she has cancer) is dark as anything.

There's also a lovely little film within a film featuring Jean-Luc Godard as a silent film character contemplating life and death of his girlfriend.

The ending is great - Cleo and the soldier end up a l'hopital to get the test results. As they sit on a bench in the grounds, Cleo's doctor drives past in his sports car and delivers her positive result in the same flippant manner as she lives her life. Then the film just ends. FIN. A bit like life, non?

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055852/