Month: October 2013
Thor: The Dark World is much better than Thor. Visually, it’s a fan-boy’s delight, with the comic-book world a dream cinematic rendering. The filmmakers have succeeded in creating a believable world that is nonetheless not too far removed from the three-strip colour comic of adolescent memory. The CGI works beautifully for this type of superhero film as, even when its detectable, it only reinforces the ‘illustrated’ dimension of the comic-book world that is being created for us.
The look of the film, surely the most beautiful and imaginative production design of the year, exceeds expectations. Thor’s world is a wonderful intersection of Gothic Viking imagery, a knowable and iconic London, and that which its sci-fi/ fantasy setting makes permissible (super-powers, the aligning of dimensions, magic). One comes out of the film with an appreciation of the brilliance of its imagery: Odin’s throne-room, Frigga’s funeral, Loki’s prison, each is recognisably what one expects, yet better composed and executed than one dared imagine.
There are also fantastic set-pieces that do make one gawp: the initial battle sequence, Malekith’s entrance into Asgard, the aerial fight as Thor and Jane Foster try to escape it, the magnificent way Thor calls for his hammer in the final fight. I found all of this viscerally exciting and visually thrilling. But if the whole look of the film is spectacular, the actors who people that world and bring these characters to life are also deserving of praise.
Chris Hemsworth is clearly born to that part; with his hair, his colouring and his musculature, it’s hard to think of anyone else in the role. But then there’s also Tom Hiddlestone with his wonderfully theatrical performance of Loki, and the way Anthony Hopkins as Odin creates effects just by the way he enunciates the final consonants in key words; and Christopher Eccleston unrecognizable but also vocally superb as Malekeith, and the way Idris Elba’s face is used almost sculpturally to create a superb visually iconic myth of Heimdall — note how the yellow of his eyes is co-ordinated with his armour and helmet makes for very memorable close-ups — but one which also creates the illusion of three-dimensions. Aside from these, there’s also Kat Dennings and Chris O’Dowd for comic relief (which I found tired but which I attribute to my age as the younger audience seemed to lap it up) and Natalie Portman, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgaard. It’s an extraordinary all-star cast.
The particulars of the story are sometimes hard to follow and I’m not sure if the story is as tightly plotted as one would have wished. However, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t much matter here. There other pleasures that more than compensated: the self-referential cameo by Chris Evans as Captain America, the jokey way the portals between dimensions is introduced, the appearance of Chris O’Dowd and other minor aspects of the film are delightful. But the main thing is how Thor: The Dark World looks true to the original yet newly striking, how the film moves beautifully and how it plays so well; and with some exciting action and a few laughs thrown in for good measure. Whiners may quibble; but it’s one to see again, preferably on IMAX.
The original trailer for the French release in 1970 promised that Les choses de la vie/ The Things of Life would be ‘about people, people like you, people to whom things happen, things of life: beautiful, sweet, stupid; things of life that make life worth living’. If the ‘you’ referred to is an ideal ‘you’ – richer, more glamorous, more beautiful – then, the film delivers on that promise.
Les choses de la vie begins with an image of the wheel of a car in a field. We realise that a car has crashed in a rural motorway. Inside the car is Pierre (Michel Piccoli), a successful architect. As he drifts in an out of consciousness, we find out what his life has amounted to, what has been important to him: Catherine (Lea Massari), his wife, whom he’s separated from but who he still has unresolved feelings for; Helène (Romy Schneider), the mistress who adores him but whom he finds a bit clingy and demanding; the son, suddenly grown-up and growing more distant by the day; his parents; the problems with his job; the things he did wrong and might never get a chance to fix; flashes of joy experienced whilst sailing with his family or kissing his mistress in a meadow.
Les choses de la vie could so easily be soap opera; could so easily have become what its American re-make, Intersections (Mark Rydell, USA, 1994), turned out to be: a glossy, glamorous melodrama with people one couldn’t relate to and that remained at one remove, as if the pretty-ness of the image was a glass barrier to feeling. Yet, Sautet’s film is something else: even more exquisite to look, but here the look providing a lens through which to see a complex life in a way that is much deeper, much finer.
It’s a poetic film, sad, with an emphasis on feeling and on thought rather than on action; where things are felt but hidden, half-said, mis-articulated; where the narrative shows all the complexities that the characters cannot themselves express, may not yet know, may in fact be trying to hide; a film where things are expressed visually and aurally, as befits a film.
The film is structured around the car-crash, spectacularly choreographed by Gérard Streiff and shown in a variety of ways depending on the mood the film is intent on conveying when it returns to it, as it does throughout the film; it’s the event that anchors the narrative and permits it to drift off in fragments whilst still being experienced as linear; it works as memory, as drifting thought, but it at all times makes sense to the viewer.
We sometimes see it in slow motion, or with the film speeded up, or even with the film being run backward; and when we return to the accident, we sometimes cut to the witnesses of the crash, sometimes to an event in Pierre’s life; sometimes just to his point-of-view as he’s trying to make sense of what’s happened to him. In one instance we see a shiny black boot, stepping on a gorgeous ground of green grass, poppies and little blue flowers. As Pierre tries to focus, and at the very moment in which he realizes he might die, he can still see beauty amongst the black.
One can understand why Sautet thought Jacqueline Thiédot, chief editor, important enough to come first at the end credits. The film is a masterpiece of editing. But really, the film is a masterpiece for many reasons.
It’s full of wonderful moments: the two scenes where Pierre and Helène discuss their relationship, first in the elevator and then in the car, where the shadows as the elevator ascends through floors, or the lime yellow of passing traffic, create a murkiness, a lack of clarity, that symbolizes all of the mis-communication, the pain of Helène’s honest and vulnerable expression in the light, or lack of light, of Pierre’s inability to express his own emotions, in the light, or lack of light, of his silence.
Or the wonderful close-up of Romy Schneider at the auction (see clip below), where one can see exactly why Pierre fell in love with her; or those moments of bliss sailing, never to be repeated, already in the past as the image fades to white; or the exquisite pan around the wedding banquet where the dream of what might have been suddenly turns into the nightmarish realization of what actually is in one sweeping camera movement. This is the work of a truly great director.
Sautet here also enjoys the collaboration of an extraordinary team. Not only the aforementioned Thiédot but also an intricate screenplay based on the novel by Paul Guimard which Sautet superbly knitted together with Guimard, Sandro Continenza and Jean-Loup Dabadie, who would later write at least dialogue for many of Sautet’s other films (including the marvellous César et Rosalie). Jean Boffety is director of photography and responsible for very beautiful and evocative images with a lighting design that signifies; one in which, things are half shown as they are half-spoken, capable of great beauty in that wonderful Eastman colour that picks up primary colours and makes them almost shine (sadly it is also the process most prone to fade and turn to red ). Also the camera renders the space almost sculptural in the way that it frames all that happens as spaces of changeable feeling and meaning; all this greatly aided by Phillipe Sarde’s very beautiful score (the film itself is almost structured as a fugue).
A popular success, Les choses de la vie was the 8th highest earning film of its year with 2,959, 682 admissions. It won the Louis Delluc Prize for Best Film in 1970. It was also nominated for Golden Palm at 1970 Cannes Film Festival. The film would revitalise the careers of Sautet and Schneider and lead to many future collaborations between them, including Max et les ferrailleurs/ Max and the Junkmen and César et Rosalie, both superb. Les choses de la vie was remade in Hollywood as Intersections directed by Mark Rydell and with Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Lolita Davidovitch. It might be worth noting that the performances of Piccoli, Schneider and Masari are so great they completely eclipse any memory of the American actors, which I saw first. Courrèges did Romy’s chic, career-girl A-line mini-dresses. Lovely.
To my knowledge, Les choses de la vie is not available in the UK or the US with English sub-titles. I hope someone does something about it soon. It’s only a matter of time before Sautet’s great works are re-disovered. Les choses de la vie is one of them.
César et Rosalie is the kind of film current cinema seems to have given up on: about love; small scale but thought through; each shot both a picture worth looking at and a space of feeling; and about something worth feeling too, which is to say it’s about that which hurts.
César (Yves Montand) loves Rosalie (Romy Schneider). Years before, Rosalie had loved David (Sami Frey), an art designer and illustrator, but he moved to New York for work. On the rebound, she married an artist, Simon (Dimitri Petricenkio) and had a child with him, Catherine. Neither cared for the other enough to stay together but they each love their child and get on very well as a result. As the film begins, she’s with César, a rich dealer in scrap metal, rough-hewn, extrovert, manly, in many ways the opposite of the quieter and more artistic David. César is head-over-heels in love with Rosalie. But then, David reappears.
Two men in love with the same women is a staple of Hollywood cinema. But there, the bigger star always wins, even in Lubitsch’s Design for Living (and by-the-by, Ralph Bellamy is perhaps the most famous never-quite-a-star who made a career of playing the man who lost out in films of the 30s and 40s)). There was another type of film, one where men were equals in relation to their feelings for the woman, and where they in fact bond with each other over their feelings for her (which she reciprocates towards both, though maybe not at the same time or when they want or need it most). In this type of film, which begins to appear later, the woman is the central character: Truffaut’s film might be called Jules et Jim but its plot is all about Catherine; and the camera is completely in love with the woman who plays her, Jeanne Moreau. Perhaps due to the influence of ‘La Nouvelle vague’ in general and Jules et Jim in particular, there was a vogue for this type of scenario in the 1970s: Mike Nichol’s The Fortune (1975) is but one example; and in fact Paul Mazursky even directed a loose remake of Jules et Jim called Willie and Phil (1980) which I remember liking very much. César et Rosalie is part of this cycle, at the very beginning of it in fact, and in my view, the best exemplar of it.
But let’s return to the beginning. César and David interact before they meet, in a competitive car chase to the wedding of Rosalie’s mother that César loses. César is a man who is not used to being challenged much less beat. And, in relation to Rosalie, it’s not David that beats him, more a kind of nostalgia Rosalie has for that which never was between her and David that nonetheless remains a whisper of a yearning, one which César’s crude attempts to drive David away inflames into a shout . She still longs for dreamy, artistic David. But she continues to love earthy, business-savvy César. He in turn does everything possible to keep her, not only buying her a country house but, eventually, even bringing David to her. Near the end of the film, she flees from both but, in the process of losing her, the men discover they like each other and become firm friends.
At the end, as César and David are eating by a window, the camera shows us Rosalie, seen behind an iron gate, arriving in a taxi. The camera then cuts back to the men and we see David looking at César looking at her. David’s always been the one who loved without desiring. César’s love has been total, focused, certain. However, as the camera returns to Rosalie, the frame freezes, a throb, a heartbeat before we can be really sure of who she’s returning for; perhaps she’s returning for both.
These nuances of feeling, mixed up, uncertain, sometimes with emotion at battle with reason is one of the things that makes viewing César and Rosalie such a rich and lovely experience. Another is that though Rosalie loves both, she’s never really confused about her own feelings. She’s not only honest to others but to herself; and Romy Schneider, lovely in every film I’ve seen her in, is especially touching here. There’s something feline, fragile but honest about her Rosalie. She seems gentler than everyone else in the movie, elegantly melancholy as if the tinge of sadness that envelops her weighs down her movements; as if her integrity, her principles,and her honesty, were burdens impossible to shake.
Montand is also a joy. He’s at his most likeable and best here. I’d forgotten how sexy he can be; big, light of step but with a firm stride, short of thuggish but capable of brutishness; and with a showman’s eagerness to please. He makes us understand why César is a successful businessman and shows us that charm is part of the arsenal he draws upon in his constant battle to win. One gets a sense not only that he sees Rosalie as a class above, as almost too good for him, but that the intensity of his emotions have taken him by surprise. Montand has a way of jutting his shoulders back, tilting his head up and flashing a great big smiles that shows he’s a seducer who knows how to charm, and charm all: men, women children. We see him in action, singing, telling stories, and he’s at all times believable: we’re as delighted as the audience within the film. Yet there’s also the panic in his eyes, and the sadness ,and the bursts of violence over what happens. We see that, although he might be a class below David and Rosalie economically, his feelings are as pure, as honest and as refined as anybody’s.
The film is produced by Michelle de Brocca and beautifully mounted with superb production values. Phillip Sarde’s music has a jaunty electronic urgency that gallops situation and feeling along. Sautet stages scenes in long takes with, and I’d never thought I’d use this phrase, an elegant and restrained use of the zoom. Characters express their feelings in beautiful locations beautifully filmed by Jean Boffety and the locations and the way they are filmed are part of the way the film expresses those feelings. Schneider wears a glorious Yves St. Laurent wardrobe, amongst the most elegant 70s fashions you can hope to see, particular in terms of clothes worn as everyday wear, that I would like to know more about. We even hear Michel Piccoli as a discrete voice-over narrator filling in some of the backstory but in a way that deepens and enriches: we never get the feeling he’s telling us all there is to know.
Here’s the beauty and strangeness of César and Rosalie: there’s a sense in which the wardrobe, locations and situations are somehow addressed to a female audience; the plot also seems to centre on the woman; and yet, it is the character of César who is the vehicle for and bears the burden of feeling. And it is perhaps that combination that makes it seem so rare and special, particularly when packaged as a glamorous, commercial, big-star vehicle. César and Rosalie is exquisite.
A Fount of Pleasure and a Matrix of Meaning: Notes Arising from a Viewing of ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’
Seeing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown again earlier this week made me think that, whilst each Almodóvar film can be enjoyed in and of itself on first viewing, his films become richer seen as part of the process in the unfolding of his ouvre. I suppose this can be said of any great director and was certainly a basic precept behind the auteur ‘theory’. However, with Almodóvar, its different, or perhaps just more intensely so, in that it’s not just a coherent style or recurring themes but a kind of unfolding of ideas, situations and themes from film to film in a style that seems the same in spirit but is the product of a much greater command of the medium as the oeuvre progresses. For example, one can see how the nugget of an idea in one film (Tina playing Cocteau’s ‘La voix humaine’ on stage in Law of Desire  becomes the basis of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown , the filming of which becomes an integral plot point in Broken Embraces ).
In looking at Almodóvar’s work, this unfolding comes to seem richer still if these inter-connected elements are then linked to a conscious articulation of the references they were employed to evoke. The idea is to see Almodóvar’s films in the fullness of their diachrony but also within their synchronic relations. Each film could be seen as a matrix in which not all the dots need to be joined together to get pleasure or meaning. They could exist as relational planes, one beyond the other but also circling within a cybernetic type of space in which the viewer can at best access only certain elements. Yet the desire to see them in their fullness is an enriching drive because there are always pleasures and meanings to be had behind and around the view on overt display by exploring relations, echoes, references, the little bytes of meaning, colour and design the bricoleur that is Almodóvar utilised in the overall design of the image to achieve its dramatic intent.
As an example of this unfolding in Almodóvar’s work let’s linger over Carmen Maura in Women. Up to that point she’d appeared in all of Almodóvar’s features bar Labyrinth of Passion (thought it might be worth noting that that film, like Women, has a similar race to the airport as the film’s finale). In Law of Desire she played Tina, a trans-sexual, who gets the lead in Cocteau’s La Voix humaine, and triumphs nightly onstage in a female monologue of a woman speaking to her invisible and inaudible lover who is leaving her to marry another woman.
This scene of Maura as Tina onstage as the protagonist of La Voix humaine, a great part that had already been enacted by great actresses and stars on-stage (Berthe Bovy), on vinyl (Hildegard Knef, Simone Signoret) and on-screen (Anna Magnani in L’Amore (Italy, 1948) a film directed by Rossellini which included Cocteau’s ‘La Voix humaine’ and also Federico Fellini’s ‘Il Miracolo’), then becomes the germ of the idea for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It’s a tour-de-force part for, to use Kenneth Tynan’s term, a ‘high-definitio’ performer — one can see why Poulenc turned Cocteau’s play into a one-act opera, in which form it continues to be staged as a showcase vehicle for a long line-up of illustrious opera divas, Lesley Garrett being but a recent example.
In Women, Carmen Maura plays Pepa, constantly too late to say to her ex-lover what she needs to tell him; he always having left just as she’s arriving; she in contact only with his recorded voice, smooth, professional. Carmen playing Pepa in a melodramatic screwball becomes Penelope Cruz playing Pepa but in the original script idea for Women on the Verge entitled Chicas Y Maletas (‘Chicks and Suitcases ‘or ‘Gals and Suitcases’, neither translation quite conveys that combination of girly-ness and hipness that ‘Chicas’ does – the logical equivalent something like a ‘cool chick’ to me always seems a moniker with an implied male designator or addressee, whereas ‘chicas’ has a communal female feel, a term used by women within a female context but to refer to youthful behavior that might border on the slightly transgressive) but this time in a film within a film composed within the porous, billowing fog of noir.
In Broken Embraces, Penelope Cruz is playing the Carmen Maura role. Maura had played Cruz’s mom in Volver. Pe is thus the Pepa once played by the actress who was to play her mom. But Penelope Cruz in Broken Embraces is not just a version of Pepa, she is also and simultaneously a version of Audrey Hepburn, and Dietrich, and a film noir heroine, and an ideal movie star.
‘Chicas y Maletas’, Broken Embraces’ version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, gets barbarically destroyed in the initial edit by the industrialist villain in Broken Embraces. But at the end of that film, the remaining protagonists hover around a steenbeck looking at a restored section of ‘Girls and Suitcases’, and declare it wondrous and marvellous. Personally, I found it to be a pale, thin, sitcom imitation of the masterpiece that is Women.
As I was watching Women on the Verge there were moments when I was thinking simultaneously back to Law of Desire or Labyrinth of Passion and forwards onto Broken Embraces, and on different planes in relation to Magnani and Signoret, and also in relation to a whole history of female stardom in a variety of guises that seemed to somehow foreground glamour and film noir, all without losing sight of that wonderful comic timing, and still being moved by Maura, and still admiring the 80’s chic of it all. And there were many other moments in the film where this way of looking simultaneously diachronically but also within an extraordinary range of synchronic relations resulted in bursts of all kinds of pleasure.
A clever and funny film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology basically amounts to an illustrated lecture on ideology taking excerpts from a wide variety of films (The Sound of Music, The Searchers, They Live, If, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket by Kubrick, also two from Forman, Loves of a Blonde and Fireman’s Ball) as case studies with which to illustrate aspects of Slavoj Žižek’s thinking on the subject.
The readings of the films are always entertaining but unsubstantiated and he could easily have said the exact opposite had he chosen to — he offers no proof either way. One can imagine him adding to the ‘perversity’ of it all by saying something completely different about the films and being just as funny, just as provoking and just as clear on his own thinking; the choice of films is amusing but so personal and idiosyncratic as to seem ad-hoc.
The exposition of the thinking, however, is always stimulating and almost too Cartesian, beginning with a central idea, breaking it down, juxtaposing it with its opposite and then guiding one through a dialectic that sees no contradiction in bringing together desire and historical materialism, the self and the social, the unconscious, the repressed and the other invisible forces that act on us, materially, such as forces and relations of production, and us once more, this time via the social, through the circulation of value in commodity culture.
And why would Žižek of all people seek, much less find, such contradiction? As far back as 1989, in The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek was already writing that, ‘there is a fundamental homology between the interpretative procedure of Marx and Freud – more precisely between their analysis of commodity and of dreams.(p. 11).’ They’re both attempting to make manifest what is otherwise invisible and which not only act on us but in effect create the us we think we are. Movies are almost an embodiment of such issues and concerns: the dream commodity, the viewing machine that commodifies our dreams, the dreams that commodify our desires.
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology has a really interesting exposition of how the first part of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ has been used as a unifying anthem throughout the political spectrum, internationally, and across the twentieth century. At the end of the film, there’s an equal interesting speculation on the notion that ‘without God, everything is permitted’. Žižek claims that the debate prompted by the notion was begun by Sartre in the 40s (in Existentialism is a Humanism) as a central question on Existentialism from a misquoting of Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. One can understand why Existentialism with its focus on individual responsibility in relation to ethical action would have to address the issues that religion had previously provided a framework for. However, Andrei I. Volkov disputes that Sartre misquoted Dostoyevsky and makes a very persuasive argument that Dostoevsky did in fact say what Sartre attributed to him though it shouldn’t be taken as an axiom or even as a hypothesis.
The point here is not to discuss Sartre or Dostoyevsky but merely to note that Žižek is not to be relied upon for facts and rigour. However, as a polemicist, he reigns supreme and the film is funny and thought-provoking. The way he looks, all crumpled up, as if he fell asleep in his clothes last night and has just awoken, and with huge black circles under his eyes, like he’s read so much his mind is a whirl of almost coherent ideas, is funny; as is the emphatic harshness with which that low and somewhat raspy voice of his enunciates.
I’m also glad that ideology as a concept is once again being discussed after all these years of postmodernist emphasis on the partial, the instertitial, the liminal etc.all of which have a narrower focus and whose purpose is of course decimating grand narratives. He shows how those grand narratives nonetheless persist and affect. He doesn’t do a good job of explaining it all and it’s more the work of a provocateur than a thinker. But I liked the provocation very much.
As an added treat, the film places him within the setting of those movies he discusses, Travis Bickle’s bedroom from Taxi Driver say or the military barrack from Full Metal Jacket, which is a way of setting him in the midst of the desires those films enflamed and the ideas they propagated and is a stroke of genius. Another excellent byproduct of the film is that it makes you want to see the films he’s discussing, some of them again, some for the first time (in my case I’m now desperate to see Seconds, the early Forman films and They Live). So all in all, it’s funny, it makes you think, and it makes you want to see more movies — a successful use of 2 and a 1/2 hours for me.
Two friends from college, Ben (Mark Duplassis) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard), meet up after several years, get stoned at a party and, as a result of a dare, decide that they are going to make a gay porn film starring themselves engaging in anal sex as an ‘art’ project. The whole film revolves around this question: ‘what would it be like for two men who are really straight to fuck?’ But it doesn’t fully engage with it because its answer is ‘if they’re really straight, why would they want to?’, which is how the film ends i.e. them not ‘doing’ it is just as much proof that they’re unpressured, unbiased, etc. as if they had; after all, they did consider it.
Much of the film’s humour comes from exploring questions such as: Who’s going to fuck whom? Will they be able to get an erection? What does it say about them if they do? etc. Thus the dynamic of desire and power relations, psychic and social, private and public, spontaneous or commodified, in relation to performing, feeling and/or watching, are humorously explored. But of course it is not so unusual for straight people, even of the same sex, to engage in sexual relations of great inequality, sometimes with a will to dominate, and for money. In fact, it’s a whole sub-genre of gay porn.
But if Humpday feels a bit of a cop-out at the end, I in no way found it offensive, which had been my great fear at the beginning. It’s an interesting, amiable, shaggy film and in its own way a great example of mumblecore cinema. It gives viewers a good idea of what ordinary people in an artistic community, at least insofar as any artistic community might be considered ordinary, around Seattle might be like (they don’t have the perfect teeth you see in American TV and movies, for example), how they talk (intelligently, sensitively, gently and with humour) and what they talk about (love, politics, sex, gender and homophobia) but one that promises depth it doesn’t quite deliver on. Visually, Hump Day is unremarkable but it’s an engaging dramatization of an idea that is greatly helped by the wit, affability and charm of its director and its performers.
A mother (Elizabeth Shue) and daughter (Jennifer Lawrence) move to a different place to start a new life together. The mother has until now been neglectful. Each has something to prove to the other. Their new home is near a semi-deserted house where the son (Max Theriot) of a family who were actually murdered by their own daughter lives. As The House at the End of the Street is teen-horror, Jennifer Lawrence confronts all the clichés of the genre; she encounters the cool crowd but rejects the sex and drugs; the town bullies victimize the object of her affection etc. Of course, everything is not as it seems and nothing is surprising.
Of interest is the use of meth (which I take to be used as a metaphor for the state of American culture in many works across film and television at the moment, most famously of course in Breaking Bad), again shown here as the reason why the parents are too zombified to notice one of their children has fallen of a swing. The other issue of interest, this time in particular relation to Jennifer Lawrence films, is the extent to which dead, distracted or absent mothers figure (In The Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone they’re both present and absent (due to mental problems and meth respectively). Here Elizabeth Shue is the woman who was a slutty party girl in her youth, has been a neglectful mother and wants to make it up all in one go. The film would seem to be a vindication for her but for the coda where you see the fault for the villain becoming a villain is that his mother treats him like a girl, forces him to be the Carrie-Anne whose death was caused by her own neglect.
The film, on the surface at least, seems to have very reactionary politics. At one level it seems to say that the bullying, prejudiced, violent neighbours had been right about the boy who lived down the street thus giving them a reason for their vile behavior (whilst making those who defended him and who died seem to deserve what came to them). It’s a stupid and confused film redeemed only by Lawrence and Shue; Theriot is fine but could have done more with the role (though he is always interesting to look at).
An interesting and handsome film on the rise and fall of a Brazilian gangster, Boca is based on the autobiography of Hirohito, the ‘King of Boca do Lixo’. It’s exciting to watch, with a sexy period setting — the brothels and nightclubs of 1950’s Sao Paulo — and a charismatic central performance from Daniel de Oliveira as Hirohito. The director, Flavio Frederico, keeps things moving but the film doesn’t offer much more insight or poetry than most films on the rise-and-fall-of-a-gangster genre and much less than the classics of the genre such as Scarface (either version) or The Roaring Twenties. The central character, Hirohito, is under-explained; it’s not clear why he embarks on a life of crime except that he’s liked women from a young age and has a complicated relationship with his father. I also don’t understand the rivalry between the gangs, the relationship with the police or his relationship with his underlings. Or rather, I think I do get what the film is saying but I want a fuller explanation and a more intricate and fuller understanding of those relationships than the film is giving. It’s nonetheless a pleasure to watch: Daniel de Oliveira is photographed so as to look between brutish and on the cusp of beautiful and the film shows him acting as if he’s constantly on the boil and ready to explode with unexpected violence, and in shots and within a design scheme that stay in the mind.
Sunshine on Leith is all ‘rah-rah Scotland’, tartanry, and views of Edinburgh so pretty they wouldn’t be out of place on shortbread tins. It’s got men being ‘macho’ in a ‘trying-too-hard’ kind of way, rather like Gene Kelly in Brigadoon, but with military accoutrements and beer to add to the posturing. It’s also got communal singing in pubs; and Scottish dancing in social clubs and inside the National Gallery of Scotland; and outside of it, on Princess Street by Waverley Station; in fact it’s got quite good singing and quite bad dancing from beginning to end, punctuated by fistfights , melodrama and romance.
Whether you like the film or not will depend on how you feel about the music of The Proclaimers (meh for me) and on how well you tolerate melodrama (I generally love it). Peter Mullan is great as the father and he’s got a very moving solo singing ‘Oh Jean’ in a deep gruff voice. Jane Horrocks with her pinched face and high voice is less offensive than usual though the plot attributes all kinds of unreasonableness to her. Paul Brannigan, first seen by me inThe Angel’s Share and already something of a symbol of Scottishness, has a nice cameo as a former squaddie who’s now a paraplegic and whose sole purpose in the film is to act as a ‘There but for the grace of God…’ figure to the rest of the boys. The film has a very appealing young cast who can sing (but it’s those songs). They can’t dance , even though the film calls on them to do so quite often, but they move well and a good flash mob hides a multitude of sins.
There’s none of the visual expressiveness one expects of musicals .Yet the feeling of communal utopia is laid on thick and shamelessly, though not without charm. There’s bound to be lots written on it, maybe just as much as there was on Gregory’s Girl or Trainspotting. The current Scottish films (and this includes Filth) aren’t as good but the politics of the moment and what these films express about them are perhaps more interesting. What problems is ‘Sunshine on Leith’ providing imaginary resolutions to? Well, Scottish Independence seems to figure centrally if not overtly. The film seems to be saying that you can go out for adventure but home is best, even if you work in a call centre. England is visualized as a lovely girl of Asian descent who gets together with strong and proud Scotland. But though he would walk 500 miles, and he would walk 500 more, the door he’s planning to fall on is high up, by Leith, near Edinburgh Castle and not too far from the Highlands, and according to Sunshine on Leith, the best, and certainly the prettiest, of all possible worlds.
In spite of the corn of it all, the patriotism, and some degree of …perhaps not ineptitude…more like a lack flair and imagination, it’s nice to see a British musical. I don’t remember ever seeing a Scottish one. And you do leave the cinema humming, even if what you’re humming is rather clod-hoppy and crude.
I enjoyed Blue Jasmine very much; in fact I don’t remember Cate Blanchett ever being better. That last close-up of her welling at the fate she still doesn’t fully realise she brought on herself is extraordinary; as is the film as a whole; few filmmakers would dare take on such a downbeat subject about such a fundamentally unlikeable, self-deluded and superficial person much less end it on that note. The film is also extraordinarily fluid and confident formally with past and present melding into one another with ease and with subjective states of mind flowing equally fluidly into and out of external ones. It was a delight to see performers like Blanchett and Baldwin at their best, to discover new ones such as the charismatic Bobby Canavale as Chili and to re-discover or discover for the first time what once-famous names like Andrew Dice Clay could do (I’d never liked him until here). It is an extraordinary achievement from all concerned.
But I was also a little annoyed at the reception the film received. Anthony Quinn writing for The Independent notes, ‘To call Woody Allen’s new film a ‘return to form’ would be misleading, since his film-making in the last twenty years has been so erratic that it’s hard to know what his “form” might be anymore.’ Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian wrote ‘Here it is: the real deal, an actual Woody Allen film, the kind we once looked forward to, took for granted, then despaired of ever seeing again. After all those false dawns, non-comebacks and semi-successful Euro jeux d’esprit, Allen has produced an outstanding movie, immensely satisfying and absorbing, and set squarely on American turf: that is, partly in San Francisco and partly in New York’. Paul Martinovic in Den of Geek wrote, ‘ It doesn’t help that he’s wildly, famously inconsistent: since the excellent early to mid 90s run that included Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite, even the most fervent fan would be hard pushed to argue that his recent filmography has been defined by a long periods of mediocrity’. One could go on.
The collective and over-riding impression from the reviews (though you’d find exceptions and variations if you follow up on the links to the full reviews above) is that since the early nineties, perhaps to the period of Husbands and Wives in 92 or perhaps to Bullets over Broadway (which I find a comic masterpiece) in 94, Allen’s output had been erratic and mediocre until Midnight in Paris in 2011. In fact, I too used to think something like that and, with a few exceptions, basically stopped going to his films. Then, a few years ago, I decided to brush up on my Allen since Husbands and Wives, systematically, in chronological order and I was truly surprised. Of course many of them ARE uneven but very few comedies aren’t. His are more serious, more substantial, funnier about more important things than almost anybody else’s. And cumulatively they are as formally daring as the work of any Hollywood director perhaps ever: the use of a Greek Chorus to open Mighty Aphrodite, the revue-style of Deconstructing Harry with the fantasy sequence in Hell, the filming of the same story in two modes that he undertakes in Melinda and Melinda, the play on the musical form in Everybody Says I Love You, the brilliance of the dialogue in Anything Else. One might well argue that these aren’t the equal of his experiments in Annie Hall, or Purple Rose of Cairo or Zelig. But that’s quite a standard against which to measure anyone’s work.
What I found seeing all of those films, again, and in order, is that almost all of them (Cassandra’s Dream, the only one I couldn’t be bothered to finish, being the major exception) made me laugh, a lot, and in unexpected ways. They were performed by the creme-de-la-creme of internationally renown stars and actors at or near their best (Penelope Cruz, Stockard Channing, Dianne Wiest, Judy Davis, Goldie Hawn, Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio…the list is endless) some of the greatest comic actors of the last fifty years showing they’re still masters of the situation, the timing, the inflection, and the punchline (Paul Giamatti, Robin Williams, Julie Kavner, Tracey Ullmann, Michael Rappaport, Elaine May, Jon Lovitz, Wallace Shawn, Dan Ackroyd, Danny DeVito, Larry David…again many others).
So perhaps it might be better to begin to think about how even at his worst, his non-best, and his near-best, Woody Allen, as all truly great directors, has things worth looking at, worth treasuring, and for critics to think to meditate on what their function is. From what I remember, describing accurately and evaluating convincingly are only part of the job. Introducing works to audiences, building audiences for difficult works, or works not guaranteed to please or that won’t please easily or that are only partly successful, these are also part of the function of a critic; and one could argue that it wasn’t Allen that failed by continuing to experiment, to develop, to at least try but the audiences and critics who failed him and failed that work.
There’s more that I need to think about but I thought I’d just remind you and myself of a few of my favourite moments from Woody Allen films in this so-called period of un-evenness and failure.
Goldie Hawn in Everybody Says I Love You (1996)
I’m not sure how this will appear in this form but I remember the collective intake of breath when Goldie Hawn begins to float. It’s sheer joy and one of those magic movie moments for the ages.
Woody’s vision of ‘Hell’ in Deconstructing Harry
Woody Allen descends to hell in Deconstructing Harry.
Judy Davis in Celebrity 1998
Judy Davis seems to get a line from each line reading; I particularly love her ‘bovine’ and ‘vache hollandaise’.
Sweet and Lowdown 1999
Sean Penn gives one of his most endearing performances in Sweet and Lowdown; and a killer punchline.
Smalltime Crooks (2000)
Situation AND slapstick
Larry David speaking directly to the audience in Whatever Works (2009)
This is the earliest of these films, with the longest scene, which is why I’ve kept it until the end. But I didn’t know when to end it. Jus as one thinks of cutting, another great laugh comes along.
Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
The humour seems to come from the shock at the way Mira Sorvino applies the Marilyn Monroe/ Betty Boop voice to a new pornographic language.
We should all be so mediocre and uneven.
I really liked Filth though I’m not sure it works. James McAvoy is at each instance both believable and extraordinary as a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But the arc of the performance doesn’t cohere: he keeps the audience onside whilst he does the most heinous things but he doesn’t make us feel for nor empathise with his character. Filth does have a very interesting structure, however, alternating between the external manipulations of Detective Sargeant Robertson (McAvoy) to lie, cheat, fuck and blackmail his way into a promotion and the internal state of mind of someone who’s drinking too much and taking too many drugs as a way of mourning a relationship. The film is structured so that the first part seems more about the scheming to get a promotion, with all the attendant shenanigans, whilst the latter part unfolds seamlessly into an investigation into Robertson’s state of mind; but with the process of solving the problem leading to surprise twist, where the ‘solution’ to the conundrum is revealed as interiority externalised. It’s all very cleverly done and rather thrilling.
The film does make a nasty character doing nasty things seem very funny. However, It is not very appealing to look at nor is it very expressive with its look; the image has too much white which makes what I’m sure is a deliberate graininess unappealing in spite of the film’s full use of colour (someone’s been experimenting a tad too much during the colour-correction stage of the process). There’s clearly been an attempt to make interesting images, although in a very theatrical way that can tend towards the artificial: all the imagined pigs and beasts etc. might have been designed for a student production. Yet Filth is also very witty and unafraid . It dares to wink at us directly through McAvoy and indirectly through all kinds of quotations. The viewer will immediately compare Filth to Trainspotting; the film asks us to do the same in relation to A Clockwork Orange: neither comparison flatters Filth.
McAvoy recently seems to be specializing in interesting projects that don’t quite come off: Filth is his third such this year after Welcome to the Punch and Trance. But it is also the best and most enjoyable of the bunch. The acting throughout is superb with Eddie Marson and Shirley Henderson almost stealing the show as a shy henpecked accountant and his baby-voiced bully of a wife. Jamie Bell also stands out in his first portrayal as a man rather than a boy. He’s always interesting in what on the surface might, at least initially, seem a bland role; and he gets even more interesting as he’s given more to play with later in the film. It’s also a brave choice of a role for Bell if he’s still hoping for a star’s career as it’s a one that might be dredged up for a poke and a smear in the future.
I’m not sure Filth will satisfy fans of Irvine Welsh or even fans of Trainspotting. But it’s a very clever film with brilliant and daring performances. It moves quickly and thrillingly and succeeds in getting laughs with very dark material. Filth is also clearly a must for anyone interested in Scotland or Scottish culture; but then I think Filth should be of interest to practically everyone.
Gurupada Mitter (Prasad Mukherjee), an elderly advocate who’s mourning his recently deceased wife, meets Brinchi Baba (Charuprakash Ghosh), a holy man, on a train while he’s travelling with his daughter Buchki (Gitali Roy) and falls under his spell. Brinchi Baba claims to have lived since the beginning of time; he tells of his encounters with Buddah, his dialogues with Plato, his witnessing of the Crucifixion (‘It’s a cruci-fact!) and how he taught Einstein that E=mc2. Buchki also becomes enthralled to the Holy Man; or is she merely pretending to be? The young man she’d been seeing, and who’d been hoping to propose but not quick enough with it, sees his beloved slipping away from him and decides to do something about it.
The Holy Man is a wise and witty film, with all the humour of a vaudeville sketch but with all the wisdom regarding human beings, their foibles and their failures, that Ray is justly celebrated for. Generous and open-hearted, the film is also very satirical and very funny without being cutting or mean. The actors play together beautifully, and to our delight are not above mugging or double-takes. Charuprakash Ghosh, looking like a big fat baby surprised by middle-age and unable to keep off the sweets, is superb as The Holy Man.
The film feels very sixties. It has, for example, a time-motion display of the relationships between people (how our hero got to meet our heroine) that could have come straight out of any trendy Pop film of the period. Yet, The Holy Man also demonstrates a much greater and more subtle command of the medium than one generally sees, say, in the films of the period by Richard Lester (Help! A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), whilst being just as much fun. A lovely, funny and wise film.
The popularity of Scandinavian crime novels has meant that we’re getting a greater opportunity to see films and TV programmes from the region and I for one I’m grateful. Jackpot is a very gruesome, very dark and very funny adaptation of a Jo Nesbo story. The accent is on the humour rather than on the thriller elements. It doesn’t look like much and production values are very inferior. What it lacks in gloss and glitz, however, it makes up in laughs; and one doesn’t often get a chance to see movies from Norway. The ending is not quite surprising though the glee with which some in the audience greeted it makes it very much of its time or, more precisely, an indictment of its time.
This is a movie that seems to shift the ground under and over its own foundation as it progresses. The story begins with a French antiques dealer, never named in the film but played by Juliette Binoche and significantly listed in the credits as ‘Elle’, with all the connotations of the eternal, the archetypal, the ideal ‘She’ which every other woman simply performs, conforms to or deviates from, enacts, but might just be a bad copy of; one which nonetheless, in the act of copying, becomes, and becomes no less real, and potentially even more real, than the ideal.
‘Elle’ goes to listen to a British author, James Miller (William Shimell), give a talk on the relationship between the original and the copy in art with, we eventually find out, her eleven-year-old son. The son suggests she has the hots for the writer as she buys lots of copies of a book she’s already told him she has reservations about. She leaves her number with James who then picks her up at her antique store; they head off to the countryside, visit a museum, and then stop for a coffee. At the cafe, whilst he’s in the toilet, an elderly server ‘mistakes’ them for a couple, and she and ‘Elle’ have a long discussion on relationships, marriage, children and what makes for a good husband. ‘Elle’ talks emotionally about the failures of hers whilst the old lady offers a different, more generous interpretation. Ideals can ruin one’s life, the old lady warns her. When Miller returns, and in spite of the real emotion she’s shown for the husband we thought to be him, ‘Elle’ now tells Miller how funny it is that the old lady thought they were a couple.
As the film progresses, as they copy, enact, and re-enact their coupledom, we begin to first suspect that they really are a married couple, then become more firm in our conviction that they are, and, finally, it’s as if this couple stand in for all couples; even though we can’t quite shake off the doubt that, in spite of all we’ve seen, they might not really be one, or at least not the one we thought they were. Each slight shift in the narrative, in our understanding of the story, is accompanied by a shimmer of emotion, one that shines more truly and deeply as the film progresses.
Out of these shifts a possible story accumulates of a fifteen year-old marriage in which the wife loves her husband but is unsatisfied because he’s never there and she’s left alone to bring up her son. He admits that things weren’t as they had been when they first got married because things change but seems surprised to see her questioning the foundations of their relationship. At first, the divisions between them seem to be due to differences of language and culture as well as of character and feeling; but, as the story unfolds, these break down as well:. While we’re told he only speaks English whereas she speaks French to her son, English to her husband, and Italian to everyone else, over the course of the film we hear him also speak in these three languages, and this at least raises a doubt as to the reliability of her perspective and thus of ours.
As the first part of the film embroiders a narrative and a set of relationships, it also offers a rich, extended and variegated exploration on the nature of art. The film begins with a shot of a table, a microphone and a book, ‘Certified Copy’. The camera lingers on that ‘empty’ shot for a while until the author is introduced. He begins a speech on the relationship between the copy and the original in art and the film thus instigates an even more complex discussion on the nature of art that will be extensively developed throughout the first part of the film.
Certified Copy begins with a discussion of art, on the relationship between the original and the copy; is the original necessarily better? But it proceeds from there onto other topics such as the effects of age on value: can you only tell whether something is art if its value has been acknowledged for a long time? The film also dramatises an exploration of the natural versus the constructed or created in art, the question of form, the question of context to perception and art (does Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol putting a coke bottle in a museum, or a copy of an advertisement for a coke bottle in a museum, make it art?), the relationship of art to authorship (maybe if Jasper Johns puts the coke bottle there it can change our perception of it but would it do so if it was you or I that put the bottle there?) The film also brings up question of functionality, responsibility, affect, effect. What is the relationship of art to politics and ethics?
There’s also a wonderful interlude in a museum where our two protagonists are looking at a copy that was admired as an original for many years, is now acknowledged as a copy but is thought to be better than the original. And the film also offers interesting snippets, little asides that are nonetheless rich points of departure for thought on such issues as the look on the work: subjective, personal, creative, inventive; the place of technical skill or technique in value; and the issue of the reputation of the artist.
There’s another marvelous moment, this one in a piazza, where they get into an argument on the interpretation of a statue of a couple and they rope in another couple , more elderly and perhaps wiser, to offer their views as proof of their own interpretation. I love it that that couple is played by Agathe Natanson and the legendary Jean-Claude Carrière, the screenwriter not only of Buñuel’s late great works (Belle de Jour, The Milky Way, The Phantom of Liberty, Discrete Charm of the Bourgoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire) but also of The Tin Drum, The Return of Martin Guèrre, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and clearly someone who has a thought or two on art worth listening to. Our listening, however, is qualified by the film bringing to our attention that our perception is not always reliable: when we first see this couple he seems to be angrily berating his wife and as if about to hit her; whereas, as they move on, we see that he’s been merely talking to someone on his phone. Things are not always as they seem. There’s a gaze that frames our perception. That gaze can shift.
Carrière’s presence is a reminder that the film is offering not only a discussion on art, on relationships, on the real and on their inter-relationship but that it’s doing so through a dialogue with film history in general (all those long takes beloved of Bazin, that staging in depth Bazin so praised in Welles and Wyler, the use of mirrors to frame, focus and re-compose so beloved of Sirk) but with Rossellini’s Journey to Italy in particular. The dramatization of a relationship in crisis through a journey within Italy is a theme they both share; the scene of Bergman in the museum being told about the cultural legacy of ancient times and trying to put it into her own context (see clip above) is extrapolated as a dominant theme in Certified Copy. There are more concrete echoes such as the reflections of the streets onto the windshield of the vehicle each couple is driving when they discourse on their own internal concerns whilst a whole world is visible in the background behind the rear window of the car (see frame grabs below).
The scene in Journey to Italy with the discovery of the lovers extinguished in a final embrace is a turning point in that film not unlike the couple in Certified Copy discussing the statue of that other couple in the piazza. Kiarostami’s film doesn’t place as much direct emphasis on faith, and certainly ‘She’/Binoche doesn’t get swept up by the faithful the way Bergman does in Rossellini’s film, and James/Shimell doesn’t seem to be one to rescue her if she were. But he might, just as his might be the shoulder ‘She’ needs to rest her head on. However, Kiarostami does offer a different kind of faith: that in the enactment, in the everyday copying of the ideal, one comes closer to fulfilling it; the daily enactment of duty, of performing what one promised to do, of conforming to a code, does not necessarily result in mere copy, it’s a copie conforme, a ‘Certified Copy’ so good that it might be mistaken for the real thing, certainly stand in for, and fulfil the same function as the real thing. And who’s to say that it’s not?
The richness of theme, and the complexity with which the film dramatises and explores it, is one of the film’s great pleasures. Another, just as deserving of praise, and perhaps even more pleasurable, is Juliette Binoche’s performance of ‘She’: all the emotions of that ‘femme eternelle’ who is particularized as a frazzled working mom, emotions that sometimes seem in contradiction with each other, are visible in her face: she’s harried, seductive, worried, pleading, beautiful, middle-aged, all at once. It’s an extraordinary performance. He is the uninspiring unemotional blank; you can hear what he says but you don’t know what he thinks. It’s obviously in character and might be the very reason for Shimmell’s casting but it does detract from the movie, though not to the point were it prevents it from achieving greatness.
The other, and as regards this account, last of the film’s great pleasures, one which took me a while to awaken to, is the mise-en-scene. It initially seems so simple that one doesn’t notice anything, than gradually one sees ‘She’ reflected in mirrors alongside statues of naked women in Roman Art (see frame grab above) or James surrounded by brides he doesn’t want to talk to or be made to remember but once again in mirrors, in the background, as barely discernible reflections (see more frame grabs above), like a faint echo of a memory slowly rising to consciousness but, repressed by the protagonist, evoked by the staging, lighting and camerawork.
It’s a film that gets richer with each viewing.