Month: May 2013

Popularie (Régis Roinsard, France, 2012)

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If you like Almodóvar circa Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the ‘Think Pink’ number in Funny Face, 1950s clothes, cha-cha music, the look of Doris Day/ Rock Hudson movies, or ironic romances laced with a dash of camp, you’re likely to find Populaire charming .

It’s a relief to see a pretty romantic comedy that doesn’t assume its audience is moronic. However, this is a film where the heroine’s idea of romance and adventure is to simply find Mr. Right; so the sexual politics of the film can at times seem as retro as its chic. It might be best to approach Populaire with the same amused, affectionate and ironic sense of wonder with which the film itself presents its characters and its world.

That said, Populaire  is a sustained achievement in that most difficult of elements to get right – tone: light, buoyant, gurgling with glamour but morally girdled. The effect is as if Samantha from Bewitched had twinkled her little nose at Don Draper, squeezed all the sourness out of him, and found him a princess who could type.

Romain Duris and Déborah François play the couple as if the only thing blocking their waft towards a billowy nest of love is their  (gentle) butting of heads. The typing contest, filmed like a gunfight at the ok corral if the ok corral were a gleaming art deco hall, is a joy. The whole lovely confection is directed  with great precision and crack timing by Régis Roinsard.

José Arroyo

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W.E. (Madonna, USA, 2011)

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As a director, Madonna’s wonderful with sound and image; she’s got a lovely eye for detail; and the use of objects, décor and costuming here is that of a consummate connoisseur. She can use, draw upon, and create iconic images. A lot of W.E  is shot like video-clips strung together into story. But based on what we can see in W.E,  Madonna has yet to master narrative.

Here she has trouble telling even one of the most famous and oft-repeated stories of the 20th Century; which is to say she has trouble telling even the pre-told: how Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) renounced his throne to marry Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), a smart American woman, already twice divorced, who was too thin, not rich enough, and way too old. What Madonna has to say on Wallis, on the period, even on the wish to be a mother etc. is too trite. And even that triteness is not well-conveyed or shown or told. Why the story of a modern-day Manhattanite (Abbie Cornish) needs to be set up as our conduit into this is so unnecessary it seems baffling; and this attempt at complex dual sotry-telling over-relies on montage and voice-over to such an extent it sinks the film.

Madonna is her own drama, a spectacular one that fascinates millions, but she cannot dramatise the stories of others so as to hold interest much less enchant; she’s able to show but not tell; and her showing is more of an act of hiding than of revelation (it has ever been so with her, even when she took her clothes off, even with Sex). However, W.E. is interesting in that it focuses on the foreigner, the outsider, the woman. Andrea Riseborough was rightfully praised for her performance as Wallis; she convey the nervy, edgy, jazz-age energy and smarts that one associates with Wallis, though her feature are softer than those we see in old photographs and she is perhaps too beautiful for the part. The film is not good but was too severely and unjustly damned. The jewels and costumes alone are worth seeing.

José Arroyo

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2008)

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The work of Kelly Reichardt is new to me and clearly a revelation. In Film Comment, James Naremore called Wendy and Lucy  ‘one of the most tense and moving treatments of the thin line between poverty and chaos since The Bicycle Thief ‘(Vittorio Da Sica, Italy, 1948). It’s high praise indeed but the film earns it. Wendy and Lucy is a poetic, heartbreaking movie about a young girl on her way to Alaska to get a job. Wendy (Michelle Williams) leaves her dog tied up outside a rural supermarket whilst she goes in to get some things but gets arrested for leaving the shop without paying for a small amount of dog food (did she steal it? did she forget to pay? was she just checking that her dog was ok outside?).

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     When she comes out of jail, her dog is gone. Her car breaks down; it’s not worth fixing. A man abuses her in the night whilst she’s sleeping rough; her family can’t help her. All she loves in this world is that dog and now Lucy’s lost. Wendy needs every penny to get to her new job and now she’s got no car, her savings are leaking away and she has to find her dog. Like in melodramas of the 1930s, at the end of the film Wendy finds the dog but leaves her where she found her because Lucy’s now in a better home than Wendy can offer: Wendy sacrifices her wants for the dog’s good and hops on a freight train to try and get some work. Replace child with dog and you have a modern-day Depression melodrama but without the excesses.

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     In an interview with Kelly Reichardt, Gus Van Sant writes on the film, ‘Oh, is it going to happen like that? Where you get a parking ticket and that leads to lifetime imprisonment if you make the wrong move. And that comments on our society, how society is able or not to take care of its people. Wendy and Lucy for me was about our materialistic society. If you don’t have a few bucks, you’re going to have to live in the woods, because Wendy sort of is in the woods.’ In response to this observation, Reichardt tells us that, ‘The seeds of Wendy and Lucy happened shortly after Hurricane Katrina, after hearing talk about people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and hearing the presumption that people’s lives were so precarious due to some laziness on their part. Jon (Raymond, novelist and screenwriter) and I were musing on the idea of having no net—let’s say your bootstraps floated away—how do you get out of your situation totally on your own without help from the government? We were watching a lot of Italian neorealism and thinking the themes of those films seem to ring true for life in America in the Bush years. There’s a certain kind of help that society will give and a certain help it won’t give. So we imagined Wendy as a renter; no insurance, just making ends meet, and a fire occurs due to no fault of her own and she loses her place to live. We don’t know her backstory in the film but we imagined Wendy was in that kind of predicament.’

Michelle Williams, slight body curled up inward, is like a grief-stricken waif — vulnerable to all the elements but with inner composure; and she makes the audience understand every emotion that Wendy feels; the audience is put in the position of offering this lonely, vulnerable but hard-working and determined girl the empathy her world denies here.

Screen Shot 2012-06-01 at 19.02.32      Reichardt’s sober, handsome and evocative imagery — which I understand has been influenced by the photographs of Joe Deal and Robert Adams — does not spare the viewer. The film abounds in stark, striking images of rural alienation, poverty and want; there’s now a very thin line between poverty and total destitution in the land of plenty.  It’s a world where a little gesture of kindness (here only six dollars) can means so much.

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At the end, Wendy ends up where she started but minus dog and car. It’s a heartbreaking story, delicately told, and with an acuity and expressiveness that reverberates like a good haiku. ‘After watching Wendy and Lucy’, says Gus Van Sant, the sense of people being of no use to society..of being a blight like stray dogs, ‘was just palpable. It was so omnipresent. I was part of the film, but the film had stopped. I was actually now in my own version of it, just dealing with my life. It had infused me with its own story. I was still living it, which is a great achievement, and really hard to do. It’s a delicate thing to get somebody into a feeling that they can’t actually get rid of right away’. It’s what art does and art is what Wendy and Lucy is.

That actors like Michelle Williams continue to support the making of art in American cinema (not least with their performances) is a great credit to them; that such films are not finding the audience they deserve is a great shame and a kind of indictment of us all.

José Arroyo

Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, USA, 2009),

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All movies are, in some way or another, a reflection of their times. Horror movies, preying as they do on collective fears in order to scare us, are perhaps a more self-conscious commentary on the time in which they are made than other genres. In 30s horror films such as  Frankenstein (James Whale, USA, 1931) and The Mummy (Karl Freund, USA, 1932),  all those experts who didn’t know what they  were doing and ended up bringing forth monsters, all those weak and ineffectual men, and all the women those men were unable to prevent from being preyed upon sexually and psychology, were thought to be a reflection of, and  commentary on, The Great Depression. Today, we’re living through another Economic Disaster and contemporary horror is telling us equally interesting, if different things, about the world we live in. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, USA, 2009) is a case in point.

Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) former fat girl still fresh from the farm, is a loan officer with a bank. She’s going out with a Clay Dalton (Justin Long), a young university professor from a rich family. Christine wants to move up in life. She’s working hard on herself, learning ‘proper’ diction from audio-tapes, and also working hard at her job. She’s up for a promotion but has a competitor in Stan Rubin (Reggie Lee) who, in spite of being Chinese-American, benefits from being a man and having Lakers tickets to give to the boss, Mr. Jacks (David Payman). The boss worries that, in spite of her excellent qualifications and her work ethic, Christine won’t be able to make the tough decisions necessary to be Assistant Bank Manager. However, he offers her a chance to prove him wrong. Unfortunately for Christine, that chance comes when an old gypsy woman, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), comes to ask for a third extension on her mortgage. Mr. Jacks leaves the decision entirely up to Christine, and though it is in her power to help Mrs. Ganush, Christine opts instead to show she’s got the right mentality to climb up the corporate ladder. Big Mistake. Christine makes it worse when Mrs. Ganush gets on her knees to beg and instead of helping her up, she calls security, thus not only depriving her of her home but also of her pride. The audience fully understands why Christine turns the old lady down. But it is with the old gypsy when she visits the curse of the Lamia on her: a loan officer, Christine,  will suffer horribly for three days after which she will be dragged straight to Hell. Hooray!

Drag Me to Hell is a wonderful movie. It’s got a thrilling pre-amble, a flashback to forty years ago that opens the film in an exciting manner whilst setting the context for the subsequent narrative. The Lamia Curse’s three-day deadline is a most effective structuring device for the story and one’s mind is constantly trying to work out the next turn. The heroine and the villainess are both nicely balanced, one understand the motivations of both and the film benefits from two powerful and witty central performances from Alison Lohman as Christine and Lorna Raver as Mrs. Ganush. Director Sam Raimi, lately director of the Spider-Man films, here returns to his roots and achieves a complex mix of expertly-judged tone, sometimes simultaneously making the audience laugh whilst feeling both scared and disgusted. It’s a film that’s made for the audience, much rarer than one would think, and the audience appreciates it. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a cinema where the audience has been so vocal in demonstrating unequivocal enjoyment of the variety of pleasures the film offers.

The response to Drag Me to Hell whilst watching it is physical. But like the very best Horror,  later on, whilst mulling it over, the film also offers something to think about. Drag Me to Hell is an interesting commentary on how things have changed in America. Firstly, we get an interesting depiction of who America is now considered to be made up of. The whole preamble to the film is in Spanish with sub-titles, perhaps a nod to the growing percentage of the American population that is of Hispanic origin. Christine’s rival in the bank is called Stu Rubin but is played by Jackie Lee so either he was cast blind or given that name to alleviate Chinese-American stereotyping. Interestingly, the only non-white or Asian (in the American sense of the term) amongst the principals is Dileep Rao as Rham Jas, the fortune teller. With Obama President, it would hardly do to cast an African American in the mystic hocus pocus role; but clearly things have not yet progressed to the point where they’d cast a black man as Christine’s love interest either. It might also be worth pointing out that the only social group tinged with villainy is the gypsies, presumably the only one without a sufficiently strong lobby group in Washington. So this film’s America has a poor nice blond girl from the heartland at its centre, a nice weak white middle-class professional (with an in-built joke as the Psychology professor who doesn’t believe in mumbo jumbo) entrenched, if ineffectual, at  the periphery. Hispanics, East Asians and Chinese, the film tells us, are very much at the heart of this America if not yet representative of it. These nasty new immigrants from Eastern Europe, however, are clearly a curse.

Class is a recurring issue in the film. Christine is poor and embarrassed by her origin. We are introduced to her practicing ‘correct’ diction whilst listening to audio-tapes in her car, something I don’t remember ever seeing in an American film before. It’s rare for American films to make distinctions between class and money, and certainly accent has rarely been an indicator of bank balance. Moreover, I’ve not recently seen rich people portrayed as negatively as they are in this movie; the father, ugly and ineffectual; the mother a thin, drawn, dragon-lady, her flesh clearly a sacrifice to her ambition; their house, a picture of soul-less minimalism; their values ones sure to make the audience wish the curse of the Lamia on them.

Christine is made to be very sympathetic. She’s a good girl, with a nice nerdy professional boyfriend. She used to be fat (Pork Queen in fact) and now isn’t, which in recent American culture has sometimes been depicted as akin to overcoming the affects of both thalidomide and drug addiction. Her mother is an alcoholic, which in a nation in which, until recently, people have competed amongst themselves to claim victimhood, has usually been enough to milk sympathy for practically anything, working effectively as a rationale and excuse for countless nasty actions. However, that was then and this is now. Christine is a loan officer. She’s effectively turned someone from her home and repossessed their house when she didn’t need to. In the current climate, and if the audience is any indication, that’s enough to get anyone dragged to hell. We like Christine, we understand her. However, when she need to get ahead she chucks an old lady on the street; when it comes to the crunch, she’s willing  to sacrifice her cherished and helpless kitty to save her own ass. She’s nice yes. We understand her. We like her. But she’s done wrong and bankers have run out of excuses. Two years ago she might have lived. In the current climate, does she get dragged straight to hell? Is it a spoiler to say, ‘No Shit Sherlock’?

José Arroyo

Rock of Ages (Adam Shankman, USA, 2012)

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Rock of Ages is really bad, really camp, hugely enjoyable: Alec Baldwin throws himself into a crowd like a happy hippo into a mud pool and ends up in Russell Brand’s arms; Mary J. Blige gets a head-to-toe makeover for each shot she’s in (and plays the ‘manageress’ of a strip joint, of course); Bryan Cranston enjoys a caning from his stenographer; and Tom Cruise and Catherine Zeta-Jones go completely OTT as the slithering sex god and the mayor’s wife trying to ban heavy metal. The film is very poorly directed, visually and rhythmically, but the actors are great. This is what people who don’t like musicals think musicals are like but no less enjoyable for that. Julianne Hough wastes her second chance at stardom.

José Arroyo

Heller in Pink Tights (George Cukor, USA, 1960)

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Has any director loved actors more than George Cukor or done better by them? Heller in Pink Tights is his ode to performers and performing. The story takes place in a Western setting. There are places called Bonanza, and covered wagons, and Indians and shoot-outs but it would be a stretch to call it a Western; none are as light or as pretty; and the only sensation this film wants to elicit is a sigh at the gorgeousness of costume against landscape, at the romance, at the delicacy of feeling even vaunting ambition can’t spoil.

There’s a plot about gambling and Sofia’s virtue  but who cares about plot when you can look at Sofia at her most glamorous or at Anthony Quinn, very touching in a rare restrained performance. Cukor not only directs his actors to advantage but presents them beautifully. Loren gets a magnificent star entrance  (see clip above); and Quinn, finally filmed by a connoisseur of male beauty, is shown to to have  eyelashes that in their own way are as luscious and startling as Gary Cooper’s. The mise-en-scene here is not only the orquestration of cinematic elements around actors with the goal of exploring performance  but  is itself a tour-de-force of gorgeous performativity.  George Hoyningen-Huene is credited with the marvellous use of colour. It’s a joy to see Eileen Heckart in her prime, a declining Ramon Novarro as an ageing villain, and an attempt at an adult role by Margaret O’Brien.  A minor gem.

José Arroyo

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Gayby (Jonathan Lisecki, USA, 2012)

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Gayby is overly sitcom-y, rather stereotypical and quite funny. The director, Jonathan Lisecki, is good with actors but not with situations and doesn’t have a visual bone in his body (except perhaps that one needed to appreciate the lead actor, Matthew Wilkas, who looks like a younger ‘Dexter’).

José Arroyo

Born and Bred/ Nacido y criado (Pablo Trapero, Argentina, 2006)

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A man seems to have a perfect life with a lovely wife and child. His only fear is that she might leave him. Instead, they have a car crash whilst he’s driving. No one will answer his questions about his family, and he, overtaken with grief, tears out his IV and escapes. He ends up in the remotest part of the country, working in an airport landing strip, scraping a living, impotent with grief, scarred inside and out. He tries to shoot himself but can’t. He then finds out that his grief has done nothing but cause further pain, as his wife is alive, like him mourning his daughter, but also trying to understand why her man left her at her time of greatest need. Born and Bred reminds me of Historias Minimas: the stark landscape, the spare style, the microscopic focus on feeling that magnifies audience understanding. Stories of men loving and suffering are still relatively rare and this one is very romantic in a very understated, masculine way. A very beautiful film. With Fernanda Almeida, Federico Esquerro, Martina Gusman.

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About Elly/ Darbareye Elly (Asghar Farhadi, Iran, 2009)

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An old proverb, repeatedly refrained in About Elly,  warns that  ‘a bitter ending is better than an endless bitterness’. But is it? That’s one of the questions this lovely, wise and moving film engages us with and explores. In About Elly,  beautiful people are glamorously filmed living through recognizable circumstances in real settings. The drama involves slight events that get out of control and become forcefully dramatic: little lies that unravel and become big dilemmas; people who try to do good but end up doing harm because they insist on getting their own way. Life is hard and Farhardi’s films show us this movingly, beautifully. The way Farhardi so easily convey the beauty in people, even when they don’t act on the purest of motives, is a ravishment; it’s a kind of aesthetic ennoblement of ordinary people that is a delight to the eye and a balm to the soul. With Golshifteh Farahani, Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Merila Zare’i.

José Arroyo

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The Last Stand (Kim Ji-woon, USA, 2013)

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The Last Stand is expectedly preposterous and rather grotesque in its gleeful dependence on a loud bang and a patriotic flourish; but it is also unexpectedly smart and funny, cleverly directed by Kim Ji-woon, and it presents an elderly Schwarzenegger with surprising gentleness and wit. The film is  also upheld by a truly magnificent cast: Forest Whittaker, Eduardo Noriega, Johnny Knoxville,  Peter Stormare, the film buff’s delight that is Harry Dean Stanton and the glorious Luis Guzman at his funniest and best. The old ‘condom-stuffed-with-walnuts’, now rather batter and bruised if not quite torn, has never gloried in such superb support.

José Arroyo

The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, USA, 2013)

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Gatsby’s lush to look at: a multitrack film with pretty images of old things shown in a new way; beautiful words that a lot of people remember from school; and syncopated sounds that evoke jazz and the twenties but also the current bling-bling life. The film is pastichy, multi-layered, textured. I love the digitized prettyness of it all; the way the pastel-y romantic images meld into one another in a syncopated flow — it’s the way one imagines a Harper Bazaar or Vanity Fair layout from the twenties would look ‘brought to life’.

Harper's Bazaar brought to life.
Harper’s Bazaar brought to life.

If the film has any depth, it lies in its surfaces; and what surfaces! – a trail of delicate art nouveau flourishes edging into but giving way to gorgeous art deco geometry. The film is set right on the cusp where one style gives way to another: everything is a treat to the eye — the advertisements for Arrow shirts in Times Square, the digitally constructed Long Island Sound, the parquet flooring, the yellow Duisenberg, the clothes, the jewelry and the most beautiful silver tea-service I’ve ever seen.

Multi-layered and multi-track
Multi-layered and multi-track

It’s a dream setting for that moment in American culture where the Edith Wharton-esque East Coast aristocracy, not too far removed from working grime themselves, are trying to keep at bay the too-fresh flash types bootlegging was bringing  into their neighbourhood, the kind wearing raked fedoras and arriving in the shiniest of fast cars — picture James Cagney smashing a grapefruit into  the world of The Age of Innocence. Gatsby evokes this clash between the newly acquired and still chaffing refinement of American ‘old money’ brutes and the natural gallantry and elegance of rich moist-eyed gangsters. The film enwraps Gatsby’s optimism, his sadness and his longing in a glamorous criminality that the film renders as sensational.

The dizzying fall from a skyscraper and onto a smiling Nick Carroway
The dizzying fall from a skyscraper and onto a smiling Nick Carroway

Gatsby is full of delights: the best star entrance any contemporary director has ever staged for a male star as of yet; the dishy first look at Daisy (Carey Mulligan); the dizzying fall of the camera from a skyscraper and right into the smiling face of Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) — a tour de force of joyful filmmaking; the wondrous staging of the first meeting of Gatsby and Daisy; the car accident; the shooting at the pool; our last look at Gatsby; our first sight of Amitabh Bachan; and, not least, the way the film  incorporates words and writing into striking images so that it can then romance the viewer with phrases as well as sights and sounds.

The first meeting of Gatsby and Daisy
The first meeting of Gatsby and Daisy

At the heart of the film, however, is Leonardo DiCaprio, the greatest star of his generation at his most, romantic, glamorous and best. No other male movie star has done masculine yearning as well as he does here; and no other director has pictured DiCaprio more beautifully or glamorously than Luhrmann (remember  Romeo and Juliette?). This is a great pleasure but it may be part of the problem with the film as well — the way Luhrmann gets Gatsby to look at Daisy is the way the film invites us to gaze at DiCaprio; and shouldn’t the film’s gaze be with Gatsby’s on Daisy? But let’s not quibble, it’s a swoony film. I can’t wait to see it again in 3-D.

The introduction of DiCaprio as Gatsby
The introduction of DiCaprio as Gatsby

Note on 3-D

I did go see The Great Gatsby again in 3-D and it’s the best use of it I’ve seen so far. The way it’s deployed at the very beginning,  so as to make us feel as if we’re floating into the centre of the screen and through that golden Art Deco symbol and into the world of the film, is brilliant in terms of concept and in terms of showmanship. The party scenes where all rooms opposite seem to come alive not only with music but also seem to move forward, the equivalent in theatre of breaking the ‘fourth wall, and making us feel that yes, they too can see what’s happening at the party. The way words are used so as to float or hover over the heads of the audience.

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words

This film springs from, is surrounded by, draws inspiration from those words but, importantly, is also NOT those words, they’re just an element here. And of course the 3-D permits a staging in a kind of depth that would have made Bazin feel that movies had come a bit closer to his idea ot Total Cinema.  3-D is normally used as a stunt to offer a cheap thrill (and almost never succeeds) here the thrill aimed for is more complex and more satisfying. Luhrmann stages operatically, all those rustling leaves and billowing curtains to indicate states of mind could have come straight from Sirk. But the aim  here is to evoke male yearning and the dream world he makes reality as a setting for a love that ends up never being returned. To help show us how, as Fitzgerald writes  ,‘Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further. And one fine morning –’

And how we all ‘beat on, boats against the current, borne back carelessly into the past’.

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Images

The 3-D here makes a gorgeous film even more beautiful, a really good one almost great because it embodies, gives metaphorical shape to that green light, that girl that is almost within reach but never within grasp, always and forever tragically unobtainable.. The 3-D is absolutely integral to the aesthetics of this film, it’s in 3-D that this really good film becomes truly great.

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 15.14.53José Arroyo

Dead Man Down (Neils Arden Oplev, USA, 2013)

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Dead Man Down doesn’t quite work: not-so-deep in its not-so-rotten core is a romance that’s not rendered romantically; and the action isn’t good enough to stand out on its own (as in the District 13 films say). Visually, the film is serviceable but doesn’t dazzle; and there’s something off and perhaps off-putting, at least to American audiences, in having all these Europeans in what is essentially a New York movie. Yet, what actors they are!

Colin Farrell is getting more handsome as he ages, and he’s got gravitas now; when he was younger, his charm was that he evoked a sense of life as a whiz on whiz; that everything was fun with the right drugs. Now he conveys the feeling of a man who’s lived, who’s had troubles, who thinks, and a lot of that thinking is about what’s made him unhappy. Of course, that’s the role; but he seems to inhabit that brooding presence; he kind of evokes a melancholy menace just with his stillness.

Noomi Rapace is harder to watch. She’s got an unusual and unsettling presence (you can understand why she was cast in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). She’s got a face with wide, flat, rounded cheekbones that can come across as plain; and in some scenes here she seems kind of stumpy in her too-high heels; but suddenly she can also unfurl a stream of fury, or evoke a kind of ease with skill, or make herself seem an original and startling beauty.

It’s a role and a story that seem to have confused some critics but that make perfect sense to me: a girl who’s been damaged unconsciously sees her life ruined whilst the cause of it gets off scot free and wants revenge. She meets a man, also, hell-bent on revenge. They’re opposites, she claims to be talkative though we never see her in quite that way; he claims to be reticent; though we never quite see him that way with her. They’re clearly made for each other. The film offers excellent reasons why she’s one way in the beginning and quite different at the end (Farrell changes with her, though less mercurially, as befits the plot).

Terence Howard is in it, slimmer and more handsome than previously though never quiet as threatening as he should be. F. Murray Abraham also appears (and it feels odd that he’s the only one in the whole film, including Howard, who really seems to belong in NYC). Poor Dominic Cooper is given the role that redeems the hero. The person who makes the greatest impression in the shortest time is Isabelle Huppert: like very few actors on film, Vanessa Redgrave is one of the few examples that come to mind, she can conjure a role into existence out of mere line readings and minimal gestures. and delight the audience with a  non-existent part; it’s a lovely kind of witchcraft.

Dead Mand Down is not for purists; those who like action will be pleased without being thrilled; those who like noir will have seen darker examples; it’s a romance that’s not a comedy and that lingers longer on loneliness than is comfortable. But people who like an interesting and intriguing combination of all of the above, with superb actors who seem to be growing in skill right in front of your eyes, will find a lot to look at and like.

José Arroyo

Away From Her (Sarah Polley, Canada, 2006)

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With its sharp images, clear light and airy, uncluttered compositions, Away From Her looks and feels Canadian, truly Canadian and it’s beautiful. Julie Christie won all the awards, and she is marvellous, managing to make virtue and integrity seem multi-faceted and sensual; but the revelation for me is Gordon Pinsent; that sad, healthy face, the face of Canada, weary, trying to do the right thing, not always succeeding and feeling guilty about it all because he senses it all springs from privilege. Pinsent has a kind and loving face, one that still gazes at Julie Christie with longing after forty five years of marriage, even after, especially after, she re-discovers an old beau at the retirement home.

Let’s go back to the plot. It’s simple. Fiona Anderson (Julie Christie) is getting forgetful, is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and makes the decision to go into a home. Her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) protests, tries to change her mind but bows to the inevitable. In the home, she slowly begins to lose her mind. Worse, she meets Aubrey (Michael Murphy), an old beau. Grant begins to question Fiona’s feelings for him during the course of their marriage, even though he was the one who had strayed, often and happily; yet, even in those moments of doubt, he loves her and tries to make her life as easy as it can be under the circumstances. When Aubrey is removed from the home because it’s gotten too expensive for his wife to keep up the payments, Grant does his best to get him to return. This is how he meets Marian (Olympia Dukakis), Aubrey’s wife. She gets him to pretend that he cares for her, even though she knows his true objective is to re-unite her husband with his wife, a prospect she initially finds shocking. In the end, by doing the selfless thing, Grant in turn gets the prospect of some joy and happiness himself.

The film is based Alice Munro’s great short story, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’. In ‘What Makes You So Sure You’re Not the Evil One Yourself’, Jonathan Franzen’s fascinating essay on Munro, he uses that very short story as an example of why Munro is such a great writer. After a lengthy quote from the passage recounting the meeting between Grant and Marian, he writes: ‘I want to keep quoting, and not just little bits but whole passages, because it turns out that what my capsule summary requires, at a minimum, in order to do justice to the story – the “things within things,” the interplay of class and morality, of desire and fidelity, of characters and fate – is exactly what Munro herself has already written on the page. The only adequate summary of the text is the text itself’. The film makes you feel a little bit like that as well.

Away From Her is directed with great restraint, simplicity and skill by Sarah Polley. It looks like a TV movie but conveys the depth and complexity of feeling of a great work. I found it very moving.

José Arroyo

Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2003)

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One event, the robbery of a jewelry shop, bookends the beginning and end of the film; but by the time we are shown it the second time, our views and our sympathies have been altered. Hussain (Hossain Emadeddin) is a war vet, currently on cortisone as a result of being wounded during his service, and his body has ballooned and is unrecognizable even to himself. Once in charge of electronic communications in the army, he now delivers pizzas for a living; even his old army mates don’t want to be seen with him, as if he’s contagious.

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Hussein’s deliveries take him all over the city, and all over the city we see an enormous economic divide and institutionalized social distinctions. We witness assorted injustices, many mere exercises in power but no less potent for being petty. The camera follows Hussein on his scooter through Tehran leaving enough room in the frame so that we see people going about their daily lives in those bustling, dirty streets. Thus the film places Hussein in his particular context and thus a whole way of life is revealed, sometimes by indirection, some aspects only hinted at, others allegorised: Hussein remembers when women didn’t have to wear a veil; his fiancé is concerned that her having removed hers might have offended him; drinking and dancing aren’t allowed yet some of them can do it with impunity; the police likes to harangue the liberal middle-class; a lowly soldier can’t afford to alienate his superior; dust and dirt are everywhere except in the jewelry shop and the rich boy’s flat. It’s a divided, repressed country with an enormous gap between rich and poor that is shown to be amongst the worst of injustices: all gold is metaphorically shrouded crimson in this film.

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By the end, Hussein’s story, which we at first thought to be a crime drama about a thug, is shown to be a tragedy about a person who does his duty, one so humane he goes to great lengths to ensure a young soldier may eat without reprisals. Jafar Panahi’s achievement in showing us the humanity of these people in that culture is a triumph of art, emotional tact and political courage. American directors should see Crimson Gold. There are many forms of censorship; Iranian artists suffer under an authoritarian regime; American ones from an enslavement to Mammon that is just as effective a censor. It does anyone good to see what a filmmaker with insight, art and humanity is able to convey even with few means and in a society with fewer freedoms.

José Arroyo

Les Misérables (Tom Hooper, UK, 2012)

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Is Les Misérables the ugliest musical ever? It certainly feels like it: pause the film at any point and you get a grey, de-centred close-up composition of a face, slightly canted and in shallow focus. The camera moves relentlessly with no detectable purpose except to a kind of beat. This whirling affront to eyes and intelligence nonetheless got a big round of applause. I think it might be due to the actors, all of whom are wonderful here and alchemise light, grace and humour out of crap (one whole scene takes place in the sewers).

José Arroyo

The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, USA, 2012)

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The Place Beyond the Pines
(Derek Cianfrance, USA, 2012)

When the movie finished, I overheard various people saying, ‘I read that it’s not one movie but three and it’s true’. It’s not. But when I first saw it, I did think The Place Beyond the Pines was a movie of three sections that didn’t quite cohere; with the first part being as great as contemporary cinema gets; and the other two, whilst very good indeed, not quite living up to the extraordinary beauty and depth of feeling of the first; the Ryan Gosling section seemed like poetry, the other two simply suffered in comparison.

A subsequent viewing convinced me that I was mistaken: the film now seems to need the last two sections. The themes of broken families, absent fathers, residual racial tensions, freedom vs. responsibility, they’re set up in the first part but unfold throughout the movie in a way that deepens the exploration of its themes and adds intersecting ones — the privileges and abuses of class, the corruption of social institutions, what the sins of the fathers do to the sons. And it does this in interesting ways: that photograph from the beginning reappears in newly meaningful ways that nonetheless do not fully disclose the occasion it was taken to memorialize; that ice-cream offered so as to instill an imprint of love reappears but gets displaced onto another father-son relationship; those shades a baby grasps at in a photograph will be his father’s only legacy to him. The Place Beyond the Pines seems to grow and deepen the more we watch and think about it.

We hear the movie before we see it: a sigh? A steadying out-take of breath? That sounds sets the tone for the movie. It turns out to emanate from Luke (Ryan Gosling), a carny daredevil, just before he rides into a ball-cage with two other bikers so that the crowds can gawp and thrill as the trio race inside the ball itself. The audience does too, not only because it does seem to be Ryan Gosling performing that stunt but because the whole extraordinary sequence is done in one marvelous sustained long take, a showstopper of a start and a shot that will establish a tone and style for the rest of the film: a searching, hand-held camera following the protagonists from behind before settling on a context, an action, a scene; our view, at least at the start always behind that of the protagonists, who know what they’re doing but not what they’re heading into: they know what their immediate actions will be, but are not necessarily aware of the repercussions of those actions.

The first section contains filmmaking as beautiful and moving as any I’ve ever seen. Ryan Gosling looks like a tattooed choirboy, a kind of fallen angel, the tear already inked in his face for all that he has suffered and all that he will sacrifice; the shape of the tear both a warning and a prayer (is it a dagger dropping blood or a crucifix?); his tattooed body, our first view of him, a history of the life he’s led (the Holy Bible tattooed on his hand), the life he expects (the struggle and fight conveyed by the two boxers tattooed on his biceps), the kind of attention he has gotten (heartthrob tattooed around his neck, the witty ‘hand’ which coupled with the questioning ‘some’ makes for a cheekily self-aware proclamation on the fingers of each hand) and a demand for the attention and the respect he seeks (which includes that of being an ‘outsider’). When Luke says to Romina (Eva Mendes),’don’t talk down to me’, you get the feeling that he speaks from a lifelong experience of being talked down to in just that way; and that he speaks not only for himself but for a whole sector of society if not for a whole class.

There are aspects of the movie that remain indelible: Gosling’s tears at his child’s baptism, and how he conveys the complete sadness of somebody who is not even worth being told he’s a father; the extraordinary beauty of Mendes in some shots; the two of them foregrounded against an out-of-focus but dreamily lit Ferris Wheel, an ideal of sub-prole romance; the sound of The Crying Shames’ ‘Don’t Go, Please Stay’ over a low-angle shot of Gosling riding into the night; the charge the film elicits when the stepfather, the actual parent of the child Gosling is allowed to father only biologically, is shown to be black (the camera holds back outside the door so as to theatrically reveal it) — that still signifies in American culture today, a frisson the film plays with when it deploys it again; though this time it’s Bradley Cooper’s son AJ (Emory Cohen) who conveys all kinds of demeaning assumptions through his sneer: his reaction is what the film expects the audience’s to be earlier on and which it now condemns in AJ.

In the first part, sequences are often linked by dissolves, as if the situation presented melts into its inevitable and pre-destined fate. There are other scenes where Gosling is kept in focus but everything else around him races past in a way that can’t be digested or gripped, headlong into uncontainable frustration and unavoidable destiny. Luke wants to do the right thing, provide for his girl and his kid, it’s his job to do so, he says, and he thinks it’s everyman’s right to get his own girl and kid if he wants them. But in the America Luke inhabits you can’t do your moral or ethical job if you have a minimum wage job like he does. So when Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) points him towards bank robbery, he doesn’t resist for long. In this film’s America, one’s got to go outside the law to claim one’s basic right to a family. Everything about the film, the lights of the Ferris Wheel, the way Gosling and Mendes look, the movement of the camera, the type of editing, help to convey this contrast between what society promises, the purity, beauty and modesty of the protagonist’s wants, and society’s inability to meet them. America is no longer a place which creates wants, meets them and convinces people they live in the best of all possible worlds. Or at least Luke and Ro don’t think so in The Place Beyond the Pines

The other two sections of the film are not only good but necessary: Avery, who appears in all three sections, is the film’s conscience and the core of the narrative. The second section, the central section of The Place Beyond the Pines, shift the focus from Ryan Gosling’s Luke and onto Bradley Cooper’s Avery Cross. It is not merely a continuation but a comparison, a juxtaposition that uses rhyming but different scenarios to accrue meaning. Avery Cross, like Luke, is a young man who wants to do the right thing but one who’s got his wife and kid and a job that can support them. However, Avery is not just on the other side of the law, he’s kind of slumming as a cop: his father, he’s got one, one he thinks of as a kind of superhero, is a judge. Avery’s got an expensive education, a law degree, and his wants and expectations are not as modest as Luke’s. But unlike Luke, by the time the film starts to focus on his story we’ve already been shown how this fundamentally decent man is also a liar and a killer; and unlike Luke, when he gets into trouble he’s got a very solid support system, institutional, therapeutic, medical, familiar to advise; and when they can’t help, Avery’s got a father.

In a way, the film is about how America treats these very nice men who want to do the right thing but end up making a few mistakes. One ends up dead; the other, after initially becoming a prisoner of a situation he’s caused and can’t find his way out of (when he ends up in the evidence stock room Avery is shot against a steel blue background only a little darker than his eyes, completely enmeshed in bars and fencing,), is freed from it, if not his own guilt from it, by his father. Luke cried because he wasn’t deemed worthy of being a father; guilt-ridden Avery can’t stand the sight of his own son, and feels even more guilt. But liberal guilt is no barrier to Avery’s ambition: he sells out his colleagues, loses his family but rises to the top. The contrast is rendered more vivid by the casting. In the latter parts of the film, Bradley Cooper’s open face wonderfully evokes a well-fed idealism. Later we see guilt and disappointment that follows the inevitable corruption of his fight against it; and later still the masked smile, so familiar to us from TV coverage of politicians, as he urges us to ‘Cross Over into the Future’ with Avery Cross on his election night.

The last part of the film features their sons, two stoners from two different classes: one rich, one poor; one part of a contemporary multi-cultural family, the other a child of divorce; one with a loving stepfather, the other with a father who feels guilt everytime he sees him. When Jason (Dane DeHaan), Luke’s son, takes Avery to that place beyond the pines, forces him on his knees, and is about to pull the trigger to avenge his father’s death, it is only Avery’s first threatening, begging, pleading to find out what happened to his son and then saying ‘I’m sorry’ for what he did to Jason’s father that saves him then and might yet save them both later.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a beautiful and poetic sighing for America, one that yearns for its ideal whilst mourning for its reality, that gap between what everyone wants it to be and what it has really become. When the film ends, AJ is right next to his father on an election platform, crossing right to his future on his father’s coattails; but the last shot begins with Jason, riding into his future off to the side of the frame into the unknown; and the camera stays focused on a tiny American flag, slightly out of focus, but smack-dead in the centre of the frame, surrounded by the pastoral barns, silos and landscape so familiar and so potent a symbol of an idea of America, one dear to cinema and indeed to filmgoers, and both like and unlike what the film has shown us. And then the first notes of Bon Iver’s ‘The Wolves (Act I and II) start and we hear the lyric ‘someday my pain, will mark you’ and the eyes lightly well up just as they did with Ryan Gosling in church and one thinks ‘This is a truly great movie’.

José Arroyo