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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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