Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Five Again Take Three.

Take Three of about a million and a half, at this rate. I've watched four more films since the last one, so I'm not really getting far ahead...

This was unexpected. I've watched most of David Lynch's films (with Eraserhead coming up, it leaves Inland Empire and Dune as the only two features left - I finished reading Dune a month or two ago, so I'll have to hit that up some time.) Known for his crazy, dense, almost incomprehensible films, The Straight Story was a blast from left-field for Lynch, being, as it were, a straight story. Simply, it is the story of Alvin Straight, an old man who travels six weeks on a ride-on lawnmower to visit his dying estranged brother. Going blind and with only minor use of his legs, it is a heartwarming story of tenacity and family, and the personal rewards that come from doing something everyone says you can't. Richard Farnsworth was Academy Award nominated for his role, and was backed up very well by Sissy Spacek as his mentally disabled but very bright and caring daughter. A beautiful story well told, and a surprising entry into David Lynch's catalogue, further cementing his 'great' status. 4 stars.

The DVD for Brighton Rock was another floating around the living room when I didn't have anything to watch, and I'd heard something about the remake in the preceding few days, so I thought I'd check it out. And it was quite good. A very young Richard Attenborough takes on the lead role of Pinkie in this inter-war crime film set in the eponymous English seaside town of Brighton. Pinkie is the precocious leader of his gang, showing very little fear in the face of anything that comes his way, who marries beautiful waitress Rose (Carol Marsh) to keep her quiet. As he starts to lose his grip on his gang and on the Brighton scene, he becomes more and more desperate and violent. Attenborough is terrifying in his role, precipitating a long and fruitful career both in front of and behind the camera. The remake (or should I say readaptation of Graham Greene's source novel) doesn't seem to be getting the same props as this 1947 production, so it's well worth checking out. 4 stars.

Ah, Harmony Korine and Lars von Trier. Dogme 95 was previously explored here, and looked at Korine here. Korine (uncredited) was writer and director on Julien Donkey Boy, the sixth entry in the Dogme 95 movement, about a severely dysfunctional family comprised of undiagnosed schizophrenic Julien (Ewen Bremner), his sister Pearl (Chloe Sevigny) who is also carrying Julien's child, his brother Chris (Evan Neumann) and deranged father (Werner Herzog - brilliant.) It's a wholly disturbing film complete with the Dogme look of verging-on-amateur, though the gravity of the story and depth of the performances ensures you're never fooled into believing this is anything but the real thing. Korine has a way of making films that are quite physically unsettling, and I find them often quite hard to sit through, though that isn't to take away from the power of his stories. 3 stars.

1969 - what a year. Costa-Gavras' Z powered into the Oscars with five nominations, including for both Foreign Language Film and Best Picture, taking home both the former and Best Editing. A not-so-subtle indictment of the Greek government at the time (though officially a work of fiction, I believe, with a starting disclaimer that any resemblance to real life is entirely deliberate), the film examines judicial and governmental moves to silence a burgeoning leftist movement in the unnamed country (again, definitely meant to be Greece, though the film was primarily shot in Algiers and is in French...) It's a brilliant piece of filmmaking, throttling the viewer with its viewpoint and forcing your engagement every step of the way. I'm not familiar with the rest of Gavras' work, but I'm definitely keen to rectify that. 5 stars.

In my head, 24 Hour Party People was a totally different film. I can't think now of what I was getting it confused with, but it certainly wasn't what I watched, which is why I put it off for so long. The story of the Manchester club and music scene in the late 80s and early 90s, the film primarily focuses on Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), a journalist who becomes a budding promoter and club owner, brought up and down by his own hedonistic decadence and belief in himself, at the same time seeming to compromise the very vision he pioneered and propagated. Looking also at the rise and fall of bands such as Joy Division, Happy Mondays and New Order, it is a fascinating and very entertaining look at this time, filled with frequent fourth wall breakages to insert actual memories and commentary on the time. Director Michael Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce both work splendidly to create this masterful biopic of an era, as told through one man. 4.5 stars.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Round Two of Five At Once.

Right, I'm fairly well on record on not being Christian Bale's biggest fan, but this DVD was fanging about in the living room and I had nothing to watch and I kept hearing such great things about, and about his performance (I'd heard similar things about his showing in American Psycho, and we all know how that panned out...) I think the points given to him in The Machinist are for his weight loss, which yes, while demonstrating incredible commitment, also demonstrates a level of insanity - boy, that's going too far. And he still seemed like Christian Bale. Emaciated, but still him. An interesting tale of being haunted by your conscience, it might have played better if Fight Club hadn't done such a bang up job a few years earlier. I remember being a little scared in a few points, but I shit myself over anything. 2 stars.

Have I mentioned that I love Atom Egoyan's name? Yes, I think I might have here. His name will always draw me to his films. Of course, whacking Julianne Moore in there is going to go a long way towards me heading out to see it also. I liked The Sweet Hereafter, but not so much Chloe. It was fine, I guess, but it didn't grab me the same way. The family drama was all a little off. Moore was terrific, as always, but I didn't quite gel with Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson. I just don't think they quite worked. (Max Thierot was cute though...) And the cerebral nature of everything kept it all a little cool and distant - the white rooms and glass everywhere, I can see where it was going with the kind of sterile environment and how that plays against the drama within, but it was all a little too much. It was a fine film that could have been great but in the end I feel that it missed it because of lazy visual cues. 2.5 stars.

Man, I totally don't even know where to start with Aguirre: Wrath Of God. Werner Herzog is one crazy, crazy guy. Like, seriously. Nuts. Brilliant, but loopy. I definitely don't think I can contain all that is this film in such a nutshell. Klaus Kinski is the titular Aguirre in a South American expedition to find El Dorado. He takes charge, seizes power if you will, and leads his troops or whatever onwards against all common sense, coming under attack from all sides, until eventually his men are hallucinating and he is proclaiming himself the wrath of god whilst covered in monkeys. No, really. Herzog really laid the groundwork for many of his latter films with this one. Kinski is terrifyingly mad, Herzog is terrifyingly creative, and the film somehow works for it all. It's mental, absolutely mental, but such a riveting piece of filmmaking, and seemingly such an influence on films such as Apocalypse Now (I'm seeing it - anyone else?)(In looking back, that's another film I watched and didn't write up. Damn.) 4.5 stars.

This is a film I really want to spend time on. But I must be strong. Abbas Kiarostami is a genius, he really is. I really enjoyed Close-Up, I loved loved loved Taste of Cherry, and now I really liked Ten as well. His is an oeuvre I really need to explore in much more depth, and repeatedly. Here, he has ten episodes of customers (or a son) in the passenger seat of a van, driven by their psychologist, who is interacting with her as she drives them around Tehran. It's such a simple concept, all taking place within the car, but it is a masterclass in what can be achieved with so little, and so simply. It is truly beautiful and a wondrous look at the often ignored stories of the women in this part of the world, opening them up not as victims of repression but as people just like the rest of us. Without it ever feeling like that is what is going on. Truly marvelous. 5 stars.

The major thing I can say about Food, Inc. is that is has changed the way I eat. Literally. I pay so much more attention to it now. To where my produce is coming from. To its content. I'm shopping more at farmer's markets when I can, but when I can't I'm doing everything within my means to make sure I pay attention to the lessons learnt from this film. Because they are many. The film follows in the footsteps of other docos like The Cove that are truly terrifying, particularly affecting (I've only eaten salmon twice since watching The Cove, and I used to eat salmon a lot. And they don't even mention salmon!) I can't recommend it highly enough, but be prepared to be very challenged about your habits. As a look at the global food industry, it is a horrifying exposé. Overly didactic and preachy in parts, perhaps, but when dealing with a subject as important as this one, a little bit of ramming down the throat probably doesn't go astray. 4.5 stars.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Long Time...

Right, a few things have happened. I've moved to Berlin. It had been in the cards, but it then all became concrete in a very short space of time, and then I left, and then I had to find a place to live, and now I have and I'm in Berlin and I love Berlin and I am only here for a couple of months so I'm going to try and make the most of it. Of course, I love films, so they are going to keep popping up, but there's no way I'm going to hit my target of 365 over a year - I'll be very lucky to hit 270 I think. Still, a good effort considering.

I'm also way behind on writeups, so I'm going to give some very brief notes on all of those that I'm behind on over the next few entries, spreading them out a little.

First things first:

I'd never seen Oliver Stone's Wall Street until recently. Never. It had always kind of drifted around wanting me to watch it, always there hovering somewhere in the middle of the list of titles I want to pick up. Probably due to the recent release of the sequel I finally got it out. I gotta say, I didn't overly love it. Michael Douglas' performance in it was fine, but even that didn't really wow me. Strong, yes, but not mind-blowing. Some good moments, the 'greed' speech being obvious, but I've never much liked Charlie Sheen either. That phone of Gordon's is hilarious. And sure, it was entertaining enough, towards the lower level of enjoyment. Let's go with 2 stars.

I saw Inception right when it came out in the UK (that's how far behind I was to start, and then the last almost month in Berlin has taken even further behind...) and came out of it really, really liking it. Visually amazing, though goddammit I want to see Leonardo DiCaprio smile at some stage soon - after Shutter Island and then this I'm so tired of his furrowed brow, and I know he can do other things. Joseph Gordon Levitt (future husband) I loved, but I'll love him in pretty much anything, and Tom Hardy gave his character a difference to what one might imagine for his Hollywood breakout - his Bronson promise will hopefully come good. I thought the film as a whole was very cerebral, very clever, but lacked an emotional core. I sense that the Marion Cotillard segments were aiming for it, but I don't think Christopher Nolan managed to pull that off. Now that I think about it, his films always seem a little detached from the heart. It is a terrific film, a very showy piece that doesn't go over the top, and what it does show, it shows well. I don't understand how people found it confusing - if you're paying even half the attention any film deserves, they spell it out pretty clearly as to which dream layer you're in. Very good, but not great, and a couple of months on my desire to rewatch that was very strong after exiting the theatre has become a general feeling that it's not necessary for me to go there again any time soon. Very entertaining, but not earth-shattering. 4 stars.

I was alive in the 1980s, but only just, and I've never much liked the period. It's only recently that the fashion, the music, the general vibe of the decade hasn't grated on me, so I'm putting the blame for having never seen The Breakfast Club right in the court of the 80s in general. John Hughes' seminal teen flick starring Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwals and Ally Sheedy was fun to watch with its broad characterisations and strong stereotypes. As a basic introduction to cliques and generalised judgements of character it works well by keeping it light while introducing us to the characters. Maybe if my viewing of it had been more timely, instead of twenty-five years after the initial release, my opinion would be different. Maybe if I sat down and laughed and watched it with friends I'd have enjoyed it more. That being said, it was fun, but it's not in my own personal canon. 2.5 stars.

Melissa Leo gives a tour de force performance in Courtney Hunt's debut feature Frozen River, which won the Dramatic Prize at Sundance in 2008 and netted Leo a deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Leo is single mother trying to get together the money to pay for her new double wide before the cut off date when she loses her deposit when luck finds her united with a native American people smuggler. On the border of the US and Canadia, the pair take people back and forth between two reservations on opposite sides of the frozen river that is the national border. It's a marvelous story of what two different women will do for their children in very different circumstances. I wasn't a huge fan of the ending, it all felt a little 'righteous Hollywood', but there's no denying the power of Leo's performance. Hunt is surely someone to watch. 3 stars.

When I saw that Caligula was the next film on my list I did kind of laugh out loud. This film is a fucking mess, but a brilliant and hilarious mess nonetheless. It was only after the fact that I realised there are about a trillion different cuts out there, and I saw the tamest, shortest one. I'm half inspired to go and find the original 7000 minute version or whatever, but then I also remember how bad this was, and despite the camp hilarity, do I really want to do that again? Though the cast is terrific - Peter O'Toole, Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud - it is a ham-fisted mess, apparently directed by Tinto Brass though with financing from Penthouse's Bob Guccione really directing the themes of the film and what goes on screen. Caligula is the young heir to the Roman throne, and after doing away with his predecessor takes over, becoming quite popular despite his eccentricities. There's a bunch of debauchery involved. There is incest and intrigue and coercion, and finally Caligula is murdered. It really is a terrible film, but so terrible as to be almost entirely watchable. I will one day hunt down the longer version. 1 star.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Don't Touch Me.

The Todd Haynes/Julianne Moore fest continues! This is title four for Mr Haynes (with a fifth on the way) and title six for Ms Moore (with two more on the way - can anyone say Julianne-love? I can, but it's not a very attracting combined word, so I might drop the hyphen. Good? Good.)

Safe hit in 1995 and was a bit of a breakthrough for both Haynes, post Poison, and Moore, landing them both in the limelight. It was a title I remember seeing around at the time and in the years after, and have heard a lot about, making me expect something wondrous. I must say, I was a little disappointed.

Carol (Moore) is a suburban housewife, partnered to Greg (Xander Berkeley), stepmother to his son. She spends her time around the house, not working, not really doing anything that might be considered productively using her time - there are no real hobbies outside of decorating her home. There is nothing really wrong with her life, per se, but it does seem somewhat hollow. Suddenly she begins to develop horrible allergies and unexplained medical problems - asthma strikes, nosebleeds, vomiting, convulsions - and they get more and more severe as the film progresses. Doctors can't work out what is wrong with her, and, struggling, she reaches out to an advertisement she sees for a new age retreat called Wrenwood, a rural estate designed to help people suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity. Cars are not allowed, allergens are kept to a minimum, all to try and allow these people to function on a day to day basis.

Whilst there, she almost seems to be brainwashed. Religion is involved, visits are limited, and her condition doesn't seem to improve at all. In fact, it is not long before she is wheeling around an oxygen tank and eyeing off an old igloo-type structure that another chronic sufferer created in order to bar all outside intrusion in the hope that this will help.

I don't mean to cheapen the experience of anyone who may actually suffer from disorders like this (I have no doubt that there must be some repercussions to the hugely increased chemical intrusion on our day to day lives), but it does seem to be quite heavily implied that much of this from Carol is a cry for attention. More than that, actually, it seems that she is looking for a niche to involve herself in, for a world that gives her meaning, structure, purpose. Or at least gives her a very valid excuse for not being able to pursue one. 

I didn't find myself overly intrigued by the story. There is a distinct possibility that that is at least partially the fault of the time passed since the setting of the film - like the Y2K hysteria, there may well have been a bigger cultural fear of traumas like this becoming more common and destructive during that time period. It definitely feels like a mid-1990s complex. Looking back on it it seems a little absurd, but maybe at the time is was much more topical and therefore more relevant. Now, for me (and this might be a cause of my own rampant skepticism of cults and cult-like organisations, which Wrenwood does superficially appear to be) it simple seems a little absurd.

Moore is fine in the film. I've seen her do much better work, I think. She didn't overly engage me with her character - I kind of wanted to slap her and tell her to go and get a life, stop being so passive and do something to improve her situation. And that was all before her problems started. I just didn't have any desire to empathise with her. 

Hayne's work both as writer and director also didn't really allow me in. He kept us very distant from the actions, not really allowing us into the emotions of anyone. The camera remained very objective, refusing to judge either Moore or Wrenwood or society, and I feel the film as a whole suffered for this. A little more editorialising might have allowed me to find a stance that gave me emotional involvement, whether positively or negatively, but instead it just left me floating loose in the middle.

The film as a whole was kind of interesting, but kind of not at the same time. It's memorable for a few moments of imagery, and it definitely serves as a marker in the trajectory of Hayne's career, coming between Poison and Velvet Goldmine. You can see the lessons he learned from his debut, and also where he stands to learn with his third film. 

I have now watched all of Hayne's films, and I definitely think that going through his career I like each of his films more than the last. Which is a truly remarkable thing to watch. Every one of his films (will) appear on this blog, and he will be the only filmmaker with more than one or two films (I think) to have that honour. I will have watched his entire oeuvre over a six month period, which has really enlightened me to the movements of him as a filmmaker, his development. And I really like that. I'm really happy I have had this opportunity.

Having said that, the film is 2.5 stars.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Truth And Illusion Are Often Disguised As Each Other.

I briefly mentioned my love for Tony Leung back here, but the older I get and the more films I watch him in the more I realise I have a quite unprecedented crush on the man, considering is, what, fifty-odd? Almost. Oh, 48. That isn't so bad. But it's quite long-lasting. At uni our units relating to contemporary cinema invariably looked a lot at Asian cinema, and he does feature quite a lot in that particular region. Especially considering the heart that was directed at Wong Kar Wei back in the early years of last decade, before 2046 (which isn't terrible, mind) and My Blueberry Nights (which I haven't seen, but I have never held my breath for) came out. I think my true love for him, however, stems from my 200...5 (?) watching of Happy Together at an ACMI curated festival of WKW films at the Dendy in Circular Quay. It was the first time I'd seen the film, it was a last minute decision as my boss had a spare comp ticket, and I loved the film. I'd always liked Leung before that, but with the addition of a much, much loved film he suddenly jumped higher. And now I've seen a bunch more titles with him, and my love for him (more a strong emotional respect than the kind of love I have for, say, Jónsi, Brad Pitt or Joseph Gordon Levitt, mind) grows each time I see him in something.

Which is almost entirely beside the point. This has nothing to do with love, really, or with Happy Together, WKW or my future husbands. It's to do with John Woo's first Asian film since 1992 (or his first two films, depending on where you happened to take them/it in.) Apparently, the story is quite well known in China, but it was deemed to confusing with too many characters with similar names for western audiences to handle unabridged, so the two part film was reduced to one film (still two and a half hours long, but that's well reduced from the four of the original) for our eyes. Probably for the best. I do sometimes struggle. As we know.

Red Cliff is an epic Chinese war film, that surprisingly does away with the general martial arts stylings that seem to be favoured by the big action pieces that seem to have emerged from the region over the last decade or so (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, House Of Flying Daggers etc.) I have no issue with this martial arts style, but it is nice to see something a little more lo-fi. Having said that, John Woo does know how to go for big action stylings.

The story is ostensibly about duelling war lords in the China of 1800 years ago. There are alliances broken and collapsed, treachery suspected and punished, ploys both successful and unsuccessful. And at the end, the battle of Red Cliff, the climax. Both sides employ some clever (and marginally diabolical... though if only modern warfare were so poetic) tactics in order to both unsettle and offput their opponents, and the final battle is terrific to watch for its cleverness and luck. Tony Leung sniffs out the wind and everything goes well for the right people (of course - that's not a spoiler, that's a fact of life in the movies, honey. Especially ones with mammoth budgets.)

Woo, who wrote the script also, does very well. I believe the last film I saw of his was Face/Off, though there is a chance I saw M:I-2 also... generally speaking, his aren't the kinds of films I enjoy. This, however, I enjoyed. I liked the way it looked, I liked the way it played. The focus wasn't merely on the action, but neither was the prominent subplot a love story - it was about tactics, about past wrongs. It was more cerebral than emotional, with the head feeding into the heart. I liked that. It kept me thinking, rather than trying to manipulate me into feeling - something I find happens all too often. The performances weren't overly important, but they were good. Leung was gently commanding with his presence, taking over last minute from Chow Yun-Fat whose physicality would possibly lend himself more to this position. Photography from Lu Yue and Zhang Li was good, though the visual effects could have done with a bit more money thrown at them, or a little less reliance to make their sometime clunkiness a little less distracting.

Overall, it was a good film. I'd actually really like to watch the double feature version now that I've wrapped my head around the basic story, but that's one for the future. For now we'll just leave my enjoyment at 3.5 stars.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Her Majesty's Most Expensive Prisoner.

People know Tom Hardy now because of the fact the he called my future husband 'darling' in Inception, but a few years ago he made a film that was in the World competition at Sundance and won the 2009 Sydney Film Prize. He took on the fearsome role of the notorious British criminal Charles Bronson (born Michael Peterson), putting on something like 20kgs and spending much of his time fighting, and much of that naked. It's a fearsome breakout role, played stunningly by our English friend (whose first two screen credits are for Band of Brothers and Black Hawk Down - not bad debut roles, huh? Apparently he's also taking on the Max role in the new Mad Max film.)

Bronson (the character in the film of the same name) was a brawler from a young age - he is shown fighting as a young boy at school, wielding desks as weapons. Not long after marriage he robs a post office and is sentenced to a rather sever seven years in jail. But while there he begins to treat it as a hotel, and decides to fight with the guards every night. He is shifted from prison to prison, then to a psychiatric hospital where is kept drugged, but finally plots his return to a normal prison by strangling a man who confesses being a pedophile. After arriving at Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital, a high-security facility, he manages to start a riot, ending up holing himself up on the roof, earning himself the title of this entry.

Paroled (for some unknown reason...) he moves back with his parents and takes up bare knuckle fighting for money - do what you're good at, right? He falls for a girl, who isn't interested in him in a serious way, and robs a jewellery store for an engagement ring. This constitutes a violation of his parole, and he is sent back to prison, where his violent outbursts become more and more creative, leading to extension after extension on his term. He is beaten, constantly in solitary confinement (he is apparently most renowned for having spent the majority of his life in solitary, in fact), but he seems to revel in every moment of it. This is what he wants - and this is how he gains the fame and notoriety he has always craved.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (who is apparently responsible for the Pusher trilogy, though I have no idea what that is... should I?) also co-wrote the screenplay, placing Bronson on a stage, performing to an audience, as his narration. Bronson always wanted to be famous, but didn't have the normal entertainer skills - Refn gives him those skills in his biopic, channelled through Hardy's brilliant performance. Hardy, for his part, entirely inhabits his character. I don't recall seeing him in other roles (though I must have), but I don't think it would matter - truly, his appearance is terrifying and his character is appalling. But his performance, with Refn's script, gives him humour, and depth, and emotion. Yes, he probably deserves all of the beatings he gets, but it is a cry for attention, and one wonders how the prison system can function with abuse like that as rampant as it is portrayed. Maybe there is creative license - but maybe not.

The film was quite indie, and I'm certain a lot of criticism must have been levelled against it for glorifying the life of a criminal, especially one as violent as him - similar criticisms were levelled against Chopper back in the day. But Bronson, as sympathetic as you may feel towards him at times, is never shown as anything other than the masochistic monster that he is. Just because you can laugh with him doesn't mean he isn't a monster. It just means he's a funny monster. You still want to keep him well away from your children. 4 stars.

And And And!

That was number 200. A nice little milestone to hit. Later than I intended, but I have a backlog of thirty, so it's not quite as bad as it seems...

Not Quite Stealing.

She has a bunch of César awards, a Golden Lion, has been up for a few Golden Bears and a Palme d'Or. But never an Oscar, though if my memory serves me correctly she was on a longlist a couple of years back. Who is it? Why, Agnès Varda of course! An influence and marginal precursor to the French New Wave and member of the Rive Gauche movement, married to Jacques Demy. One of only five people present at the burial of Jim Morrison in fair Paris.

Now, she is kind of old. Her hair is greying, her hands are wrinkling. But this doesn't stop her from making powerful films, such as her 2000 title The Gleaners & I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse.) For those not in the know, gleaners are those who glean, who go through the detritus or the ignored, who wander into unexplored or public areas, who look where no one else has bothered to find things of value. This can be out of necessity for the poor (that homeless man rummaging in the bin for an empty aluminium can? Gleaning) or to obtain a culinary edge (René Redzepi of Copenhagen's Restaurant Noma famously 'forages' for foods - gleaning.) It can be for interest, for collection, or for environmental reasons - recycling the old rather than constructing the new.

Varda narrates her own journey into the world of gleaning, going through the French countryside and discovering the various people doing the various gleaning things they do. She looks at the laws surrounding gleaning, the people and companies who encourage gleaning, and those who go out of their way to stop it. But the most fascinating segment of the documentary involves her analysis of her own gleaning ways. Her view that, with her camera, whether making films or documentaries, she is gleaning from the reality of the world. She is gleaning moments, ideas, inspirations, beauty, horror, whatever. And it is a true and wondrous way of contemplating her own space within the world, as a leading filmmaker of the last fifty-odd years. It spins a whole different light on the actions of any artist - we're all just gleaning off someone else. That line of dialogue you overheard on the bus and is now in your novel? Gleaned. The framing of that shot reminiscent of that painting you saw in that gallery one time? Gleaned. In the same way that every story has been told before, every shot has been composed, every note played, every thought framed. And we're all just gleaning off each other, hoping to be able to form them into a new mould. Or a mould in a different shape, constructed, as it is, of many existing fragments.

It is this idea, rather than the interesting but otherwise somewhat bland notion of following a bunch of foragers, that makes Varda's film eminently watchable. Her constant parallels to her own activities, and her lack of compunction when it comes to scenes such as the dance of the lans cap (watch the film and you'll understand) show a bravery towards her own artistic tendencies and a belief in her own abilities, both to glean and create. The dancing lens cap, for example, can be said to owe a debt to Sam Mendes' dancing plastic bag in American Beauty - is its inclusion therefore gleaned? Or is it a lucky mistake?

Surprisingly, watching a seventy year old French woman roam the countryside is gripping and beautiful, much more than geriatric films generally are for those of a younger age. Varda brings her character and life to the forefront, gives us everything she has learnt (or gleaned), and teaches us something about each and every one of us. 5 stars.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

I Humbly Beg You, Show Mercy To These Men.

In all my years, to never have watched Paths Of Glory. I can understand my reticence to pick up Barry Lyndon, it looking so unlike the Kubrick we all know and love, but to ignore his breakout film? The film that got him the Spartacus gig? Which in turn allowed him to go on to be possibly the greatest filmmaker to have lived? For shame. 

But now rectified!

Paths of Glory wasn't Kubrick's first feature (that honour belongs to either The Killing or Killer's Kiss, depending on whether you count the latter as a feature due to its run time - which in turn probably depends on the version you're watching), but it was his first to really make people sit up and take notice. I'm sure no small part of this is due to the casting of Kirk Douglas, who was just about to receive his third Oscar nomination in less than a decade - though not for this film.

Douglas plays Colonel Dax of the French military, commanding troops against the Germans in the First World War. General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) orders his subordinate General Mireau (George Macready) to send his troops on what will effectively be a suicide mission to capture the strategically important Anthill. Mireau in turn orders Dax to take charge of this operation, having had his opinion swayed by the promise of promotion. Dax resists but eventually follows orders, leading his troops onto open ground where the majority are promptly slaughtered. Some troops even refuse to leave the trench, under such heavy fire that they know they will get nowhere, inspiring Mireau to order his artillery men to open fire on his own troops to inspire them to charge. The artillery men refuse without written orders (as is protocol), infuriating Mireau, who decides to execute 100 of them for treachery. Broulard manages to convince him that three would be enough, one from each company, to make an example.

The three are selected for various reasons - one to cover up a grave error by his superior; another because he is a 'social undesirable'; and a third just by pure bad luck, despite the fact that he is a valiant and courageous soldier. Dax, a lawyer in the civilian world and outraged by what is happening considering the suicidal mission they were all sent on, takes it upon himself to defend themselves in the court martial that is convened to try them. The court martial is a preposterous affair, however, and branded such by Dax, who fails to get the men off. Dax does repeatedly try, submitting further evidence to Broulard in order to try and sway for clemency, but he fails every step of the way. Ultimately, Broulard offers Dax the promotion he was going to give Mireau (after indicting Mireau for the order to attack his own men), prompting Dax to violently challenge Broulard on his assertion that this was all in order to move up the ranks - Dax has always had his men's best interest at heart, and is disgusted by any inference to the contrary.

It is a powerful premise and a terrifically executed story. Douglas is magnificently torn and conflicted, struggling with navigating his own best interests, those of his men, and how best to make his way through the intricate labyrinth of the hierarchy of military life. He knows it is unfair, but he also knows kicking and screaming means nothing in the army. If proper protocol isn't followed you may as well just hand yourself over for a misconduct charge.

Menjou, Macready and the entire support cast perform very well. The three men on trial present entirely opposite faces to the world, perfectly matched to provide a snapshot of human nature in the microcosm of an army jail, and  played wonderfully. 

Shot in and around Germany, with Americans playing French military, it is a little discombobulating to watch at times, but a little suspension of disbelief allows you to fall into the world Kubrick has created. Maybe not entirely, but as discussed before (here, here and here), he never truly lets you fully into the sphere of the film, instead too happy to keep this world at arm's length from the audience. In this world the maestro is unafraid to show off the stylistic flourishes that would become his trademarks - the faces, the tracking shots, the thematic struggles - all in the wonderfully constructed world of trench warfare and palatial court-martials. 

A riveting film in every way, Kubrick did more than make his mark with this film - he shouted to the world that he is here, and he is not going to stop. And thank god for that. 5 stars.

Liverpool Calling.

There were a lot of criticisms levelled at Nowhere Boy when it opened here last year. Coming, as it did, from acclaimed artist Sam Taylor-Wood, a lot of people were hoping for something edgier, something a little more artistic. Probably coming off the back of films like Hunger and Le Scaphandre et le Papillon by artists of similar stature didn't help. Then, a lot of people had similar criticisms that were heaped on Coco Avant Chanel - why focus a biopic on the time before the subject was famous? Surely there are better stories to tell from that period. After all, that's the John Lennon/Coco Chanel/whoever that we all know and love, right?

The last sentiment I totally disagree with - if anything, we already know that story. All we may know of the earlier period is 'John Lennon grew up in Liverpool, primarily looked after by his Aunt. He was kind of rebellious.' His later life? So well documented that showing it on film isn't really going to provide any insights - we know it all already. Unless you take a different tack and go down the lines of something like I'm Not There, the Bob Dylan biopic (which is coming up on here shortly, when I catch up), which was an incredibly innovative way of presenting a story we may otherwise already know way too well.

The first criticism I can understand, however. Prior to the release of the film I was looking forward to it like... something that is is looking forward to something a lot. I was very excited about seeing what Taylor-Wood would do with this story, how inventive it would be. Then the reviews came out, and I thought 'oh, ok, maybe I won't rush out and see it.' And then I got busy and didn't see it. And then I saw it on DVD and hired it. And that brings us to here. (Please do let me know if you would like blow-by-blow descriptions of how I came about watching every movie. I think that was possibly the most thrilling few sentences I've ever put on paper. Or pixel. Shut up.)

So, I went into this exploration of Lennon's early years not expecting visual fireworks, and that's exactly what I got. What Taylor-Wood has provided, instead, is a solid little look at what it may have been like for our little Beatle (played by Aaron Johnson) growing up with his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) without knowing his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff.) When he discovers his mother in fact lives close by, he rebels against Mimi, who may have been strict at times but is heartbreakingly portrayed as hoping for only what she considers the best for John, before discovering precisely how unreliable his real mother his - she is prone to fits of depression and despair, irrational anger that forces those near her again and precipitated the need for Mimi to take control of her son's life.

Throughout this John is beginning to spread his musical wings, fashioning himself after Elvis Presley as he puts together a band, including first meeting and collaborating with Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster.) His music is an outlet as much as an escape route, but his egoism threatens to break everything apart - as we know, however, Paul and John went on to the incredible partnership with George Michael and eventually Ringo Star. And the rest is history. Which is presumably why it is not in this film.

Scott Thomas and Duff have been suitably lauded over the year since the film's release, so I won't really go into it again except to reiterate that they are, indeed, magnificent. Johnson is very good in his portrayal on Lennon, much better than my impression received from his turn in Kick-Ass earlier this year. Sangster has an incredibly intriguing look about him that is almost too distracting - I still remember him very well from his brief stint in Bright Star last year because he just jumped out at me. He is incredibly intense and just cocky enough to put up with Lennon and fight back when necessary. His is a job very well done.

Matt Greenhalgh, who penned the fabulous Control a few years back, was on scripting duty here, and did well, layering the characters nicely and providing depth to all who shared the screen. Goldfrapp duo Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory provided the great accompanying score, which featured pretty much no Lennon tunes - it was nice to see that in a biopic. Of course, it makes perfect sense - you can't feature a song in a biopic before it's written, right? And Seamus McGarvey shot the film very nicely - there was nothing flashy about it, but everything looked... well, right. Like it fitted. There were no visual distractions.

Ultimately, this is probably going to be my criticism here. Yes, the film was good. It was a good little film, well made, well acted, well told. But nothing popped. And when someone like Sam Taylor-Wood is at the helm, you kind of expect it to pop. Even if it pops in a terrible, terrible way. Like, put Andy Warhol at the helm of Lonesome Cowboys and you don't really get a great film, but fuckdamnit it's interesting! It's at least fascinating as an artwork. Sure, there's real money from real investors at stake here, so maybe you don't want it to be a total disaster, but you can take some risks. Steve McQueen's Hunger could have been a total failure. The film had virtually no dialogue, for god's sake. There's, what, a sixteen minute static shot in the middle of it? It could totally have fallen on it's face. It didn't, but without the risks it just would have been another biopic. This was interesting, and yes it turned out terrific. But only because the risk was taken.

In the end, I don't think a desire for what the film may have been in a situation like this should take away from the verdict of what the film was, and what I would have been perfectly content with had the director been someone other than Taylor-Wood. It's a definite 3.5 star film. And ok, while it may have been closer to 5 stars had Taylor-Wood pulled off some risktaking, it may also have fallen to 1 star. But what's better - mediocrity or failure?

No. No Booze. Sex. I Want Sex.

Well, a hugely grossing comedy (at the time) and your first (of seven) Oscar nominations is a pretty good way to break out, really, isn't it? Robert Altman really made a name for himself with MASH, kicking off a long and generally acclaimed (and very prolific) career with a huge fight with his studio - well done. But the film that came out of the scandal did nab an adapted screenplay Oscar, with four other noms.

The initials MASH stand for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, and the film takes place in one on the frontlines of the Korean War - despite Altman removing all references to Korea in the hope that the setting would be mistaken for Vietnam, which was still raging at the time, Fox insisted on an opening crawl identifying the location. The film, like the subsequent television series, is episodic, so while the story revolves around new arrivals Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Duke (Tom Skerritt) and their hijinks and exploits in and around the camp, there are a number of smaller, distinct and complete storylines that are interspersed and feed into this overarching narrative. Sally Kellerman picked up a supporting actress nod for her role as the new head nurse, quickly dubbed 'Hot Lips' O'Houlihan after exploits with Hawkeye and Duke's tent-mate Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), who otherwise thoroughly disagrees with the new pair's debauched womanising and drinking ways.

While the film is a comedy, there are some moving moments in it, as would be expected within a war film, and they are deftly handled by Altman and his cast (many of whom, outside the big names, were releatively inexperienced within film and were brought in due to their experience with adlibbing in clubs), including a story about a Polish dental surgeon who is depressed due to the fact that he has a very large penis and this means won't sleep with him, and this depression turns to suicidal desires. Our protagonists organise a fake suicide for him, and then organise for a nurse to sleep with him that night, thereby curing his depression. While broadly comic, the sentiment is touching.

The performances are very good, including a turn from Elliott Gould as Trapper, the third part of the Hawkeye/Duke machine. Altman, ever innovative, used overlapping dialogue from as many as four parallel conversations to bring across the messiness and confusion of war, something that worked extremely well, adding realism to the surreality of the comic placement. A grimy looking set was perfect, again dragging the film back to reality, with the operating scenes suitably gory, despite the disrespectful laughter forced out of you at every turn.

A truly entertaining anti-war film set within a war, Altman deservedly made a name for himself that would live on for three more decades and bring with it many more classic titles. 4.5 stars.

Friday, 20 August 2010

I Loved The Taste Of Blood Since I Tasted Yours.

I derive joy from simple pleasures. Like knowing that what is often thought of as the pioneering film of the French New Wave, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, was nominated for an Oscar. Strange it wasn't nominated for Foreign Language film (though that may well have to do with the submissions procedure), but for Best Original Screenplay for Marguerite Duras. Of course it lost (to Billy Wilder's The Apartment, which took home Best Picture also), but it did get a BAFTA (the UN Award - what the?)

Alain Resnais' 1959 masterpiece was widely acclaimed, coming around the same time as François Truffaut's The 400 Blows and just before Jean-Luc Godard's seminal A bout de souffle. Resnais brought in the jump cut between memory and present, as well as keeping his story of love in another country very simple. He (credited on as Luis but given no name in the film, played by Eiji Okada) is an architect in Hiroshima, who was on active duty when the bomb hit, but whose family all lived in the city at the time. She (similarly, her name is Elle, played by Emmanuelle Riva) is an actress in Hiroshima for 36 hours only. The two begin a passionate affair despite the fact that they are each otherwise married. But the film doesn't focus on the words these two speak of and too each other so much as what is said about the city. It is almost as though Resnais and Duras are attempting to heal the damage done fourteen years earlier, using love as the bandaid. And it is beautiful. As the film progresses it seems entirely plausible that their feelings could possibly undo all of the damage bestowed upon the city.

Of course it can't, and in the final scene, which heavily references Casablanca, it becomes apparent that all good things must come to an end. But, like Casablanca, the memories will last a lifetime - they may not have started a beautiful friendship, but they will forever hold in their hearts the few hours they spent in carnal embrace, discussing the world and their names as cities.

The Japanese sections in particular were beautifully captured by Michio Takahashi (the French segments captured as flashback and memory by She were shot by Sacha Vierny), and the whole film wove its way into my consciousness like not many can. Resnais' crafting of the structure, and the way it was all cut together by a team, gave it a freshness that still holds firm fifty years later. The realness that somehow permeates through the artifice of the medium is striking - I do think it strange that the jumpcutting in this film and in A bout de souffle in fact seem to be the realest ways to portray humanity, despite the almost Brechtian selfawareness they by nature have.

It is a beautiful example of how simple cinema can be whilst saying absolute volumes. There is a good reason why this film is held up somewhere near the pinnacle of film. This is a film I look forward to revisiting time and time again, as I'm sure that every time something new shall shine through. 5 stars.