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/

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

L'Avventura (1960)

Synopsis: Rich but bored group of friends sail out to a rocky island off Sicily. One of them, Anna, goes missing. In the search for Anna, her lover Sandro and best friend Claudia become attracted to one another. The group eventually return to their empty parties and ennui, with Claudia and Sandro going through the motions as a couple.

This film was part of the 50th anniversary of Psycho season at the BFI Southbank. I didn't watch it there though. After watching Antonioni's La Notte not so long ago I ordered L'Avventura on DVD immediately. Both films are part of a loose trilogy on Italian upper class ennui.

The interesting thing about this film is that the critics (Ebert, Kael) talk up the existential themes (boredom, discontent) but my immediate response was that the relationship between Sandro and Claudia highlights the difficulties of new romantic attachments. So, I was slightly confused at my total misreading of the film until I re-read a book on Antonioni in which he says himself that the film is also about the terror of a difficult new relationship.

The two most violent (and by violent I don't mean blood and guts but something out of character and shocking) scenes in the film were when Sandro first kisses Claudia and when he knocks over the ink on the drawing. Both actions display an unrepentant and almost psychopathic arrogance and are both terrifying in their own ways.

First, the kiss. Remember, this is the day after Anna has gone missing. We have had no indication that Claudia and Sandro had feelings for each other previously or that Sandro is taking 'comfort' in Claudia. During the search for Anna on the island (which is a character in itself - rocks falling, rough waves, wind and rain) we see them both passing glances at each other and we start to see what might be happening. But you keep thinking 'his fiancee and her best friend is missing, possibly dead, and he's giving her the eye??, this cannot be!'. It's almost as if throughout the search when we, the viewer, get a really strong sense of Anna's presence (through certain camera POVs being hers etc.), their memories of her are slipping away.

We then realise that Claudia is becoming distressed at the thought of her friend being missing/dead. She makes her way back to the boat and Sandro follows. We know that he is feeling something toward her and he is insistent, even when it is totally inappropriate (Anna's disappearance is the elephant in the room).

A bit like Dangerous Liaisons - you've got that tragic game playing. Sandro chases and chases poor Claudia until she's exhausted and gives in. From that moment onward, you get a really threatening sense in his treatment of her. He doesn't love or care for her, but sees her as another piece in his game playing. Their exchanges become pure wordplay, his attempted seductions are tense and uncomfortable and then flippant and his climactic treatment of her (when she catches him with a prostitute) is disgusting and tragic. The final scene of the film, in which a distraught Claudia comforts a sobbing Sandro shows a real truth; that relationships are messy and with the best will in the world, once you are attached to someone it can be difficult to judge even their worst actions. Claudia accepts her place with Sandro (although we'll never know for how long), holding a mirror up to every dysfunctional relationship out there.

The other violent scene involves the ink drawing. With Claudia back in their hotel room, Sandro is wandering the streets. He comes across a couple of young men, one of whom is sketching with ink. He is a trainee architect (Sandro has sold out as a designer and no longer creates anything of worth) drawing details of a building. Sandro approaches, swinging his watch on a chain/key ring (?) and as he gets nearer to the work we foresee what is about to happen. Sandro 'accidentally' knocks the ink bottle on to the drawing, ruining it. Impudent, childish and spiteful.

This film may concentrate on boredom and how despondent the upper classes can be, but this manifests itself in a very sad relationship. Claudia is the only real conscience and even she is getting off with her best mate's boyfriend about three days after she's gone.

As this was part of the Psycho season, I was looking out for parallels with Hitchcock and once you start spotting them, you can't stop. Here are a few of my faves:

- Immaculate, beautiful, blonde heroine in Monica Vitti (Psycho, Vertigo, The Birds, To Catch a Thief etc.)
- Crowd of rough looking men surrounding Claudia like the rooks on the climbing frame in The Birds
- Sandro and Claudia go up in a nunnery clock tower a la Vertigo

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053619/

Sunday, 2 May 2010

8 and 1/2 (1963)

Synopsis: Italian film director Guido (meant to be Fellini) gets writer's block, thinks about how complicated his love life is, remembers some stuff from his childhood. His wife (Anouk Aimee) and conscience (Claudia Cardinale) turn up and all turns out well. A much more fun take on writer's block than, say, The Shining.

I'd read lots about this film and its theme of times remembered and our relationship with our childhood memories. The film starts off with Guido in a near silent traffic jam in a tunnel (a symbol of his birth?). Suffocating in his car, and surrounded on all sides by other cars, he eventually escapes through the sunroof and floats off into the sky. As we look about at the other cars there are several freeze frames on other motorists faces as they gaze upon Guido in his car.

Move on a couple of scenes and he's staying in a fancy resort hotel, getting 'cured' for writer's block and attempting to get a film started surrounded by producers, writers and his mistress.

We follow him to a formal park, full of old ladies (BIG theme), a band (cf. I Vitelloni) and many of his friends. There are several similar scenes in which he's in this or similar park. There's a lovely energy to these sequences, full of life in all its mixed up glory.

At one point, during a meal in the park, a telepathic old lady attempts to read his mind and gets a message from his childhood. We are then taken back with his memories, which are now heavily intruding on his present. His memory is of grape pressing as a young boy, Bacchus always a strong impetus in his indulgent life. The women involved, including his mother and sisters are fighting over him, which becomes a recurrent theme. This culminates in a virtuoso sequence in which he is confronted by all the women in his life, including an aging dancer whom he has cruelly relegated to 'upstairs' due to her advancing years.

Eventually, Claudia Cardinale (beautiful, divine Claudia) appears playing an actress but more of a muse/conscience to Guido, to help him get his (ahem, creative) juices flowing again.

As part of his remembering his childhood in relation to the script he is writing, we are taken back to a joyous scene on the beach. Young Guido and his mates pay a local enormous bosomed dancer (prostitute?) to dance the rumba for them. As she dances with Guido, priests emerge and chase and catch him (this is great as the film speeds up for a bit of slapstick at this point, it's very funny). This beach dance scene reminded a little of another film with themes of strong childhood memories influencing a man's adult relationships with women, Le Mari de la Coiffeuse (The Hairdresser's Husband). It's almost as if Guido can never approach women as an adult man, but will always be the little boy, fascinated and tempted by every woman he meets.

The scenes with his exasperated wife are kind of sad. She knows all about his infidelities but chooses to stay with him. His odd view of her is that she's all wise and knowing and can put up with him. However, that we see her puffing fags and quaffing Valium tells a different story.

We then move into the Catholic guilt and penance for his temptation, with confession booths looking like winged angels of death. There's a religious repetition of smoke/steam from the start of film - this original sin is what he emerged from at birth...

The climax is at the building of an enormous spaceship (part of the planned set of the yet to start film), we also get a repeat of the start with a huge queue of cars travelling towards the set, bringing everyone (including the lots and lots of old ladies) to judge him. He then realises that he doesn't need to worry about creative criticism and should just be as honest as he can with his film making.

The film then draws to a close with all the characters dancing a sort of conga around the set on the beach. 3...2...1...lift off!!

8 and a 1/2 is full on self-indulgent existential and egotistical masturbation, but when it's this fabulous, you can't help but get swept along. Absolutely joyous.

See also: The Shining, Hairdresser's Husband, Nine

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056801/