Month: August 2015

Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, USA, 2015)

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Trainwreck is hit and miss. But when it hits, it hits big; and it does hit often: I love Amy Schumer, who I’d never heard of before, and who gets at something painful and real through the comedy, which is often laugh-out-loud. The story is as simple as it is questionable: is Amy going to grow up to be a female version of the arsehole father of hers, Gordon (Colin Quinn)– sex mad, liquor-swilling, drug taking, incapable of commitment – or is she going to grow up, like her sister KIm (Brie Larson)?

The ‘growing up’ in this movie takes the form of having Amy fall in love, change her ways, and win the man she’s been so careless with, Aaron (Bill Hader); wealthy, humanitarian and highly-skilled sports surgeon to the rich and famous; and who, to this member of the audience at least, still doesn’t seem worth the bother.  Amy’s ‘growing up’ may also be read as a way of clipping her wings, containing her, reducing her to a more traditional, conservative and conformist model of femininity. Her father could be an arsehole and be loveable. For a woman to continue to be the same past Amy’s age is too horrifying a thought for a movie and its audience to contemplate. Both lose out.

But how can we quibble? Most comedies are imperfect, few have as many jokes that hit as big, almost none centre on a woman and even fewer demonstrate a detectable address to a female audience. I loved it.

Lots of sports stars I don’t know make cameos you probably will enjoy more than I. John Cena, the wrestler, is very funny as an early, too-stiff boyfriend with a body of steel, the emotional life of a tween girl and the sexual imaginary of a homosexual weaned on porn. An almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton makes an unforgettable appearance as a too-tanned, hard-nosed ‘Essex Girl’ editor of a New York lads mag and steals the few scenes she’s in. Fab.

José Arroyo

The Man From U.N.C.L.E (Guy Ritchie, USA, 2015)

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The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is unexceptional but rather fun, in a slightly leaden way. Guy Ritchie directs the action well, attempts a cheeky ironic tone for the film  he doesn’t always succeed in achieving, and is not very good with those actors who need his help: Armie Hammer is completely inexpressive physically though does a great accent and can find comic timing vocally that somehow eludes other aspects of his performance; Henry Cavill does better and is better looking doing it but he’s done so much weightlifting his body strains at his suits, evoking a kind of physical boxiness that works against that nonchalant physical elegance the character is meant to exude; a rare instance in which a great body works against the role (though his performance is also sabotaged by the cinematography); Alicia Vikander is pretty but can’t find a rhythm  for her performance and seems wasted; Elizabeth Debicki fares better as the villainess and her long leggy frame, elegant way of wearing clothes, and understated ironic way with a line makes her very enjoyable to watch. But it is Hugh Grant —  only in the film for what seems like two minutes — who steals the show. A trifle, not light or sparkly enough but with some clever action and a great score of 60s tunes. The audience did like it even though either the print or the projection didn’t provide the luminosity the colour palette seemed to require. It is better and more enjoyable than an episode of the old TV show.

José Arroyo

White Nights/ Le Notti Bianche (Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1957)

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Italian Poster
Italian Poster

Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), a young clerk, friendless and far from home, returns to Livorno from a trip to the country where he’s been warmed by feeling of home and family, even if the home and family are his boss’ and he himself has had to maintain the distance and deference required by the difference in their social status. As he leaves them and heads towards home, it’s as if the very lights of the city extinguish with each of his steps, externalising that loneliness and alienation he is feeling inside.

It’s as if the very lights of the city extinguish with each of his steps, externalising that loneliness and alienation he is feeling inside.
It’s as if the very lights of the city extinguish with each of his steps, externalising that loneliness and alienation he is feeling inside.

On a bridge, past the stray dogs, the homeless and the rubble, he meets a girl who he thinks a prostitute. Desperate for human contact and contrary to his norms of behaviour, he tries to pick her up. To the distress of both, he’s made a mistake. She’s Natalia (Maria Schell), daughter of formerly well-to-do carpet merchants, now fallen on hard times. She lives with her grandmother, blind and so anxious not to lose her that she keeps her literally pinned to her apron. They make a living by repairing carpets and taking in lodgers.

A portent of the struggle to come depicted via background poster
A portent of the struggle to come depicted via background poster that is nonetheless foregrounded by being given as much space as Matroianni/Mario

Natalia’s fallen deeply in love with one of them (Jean Marais). He’s courted her, included her grandmother and the rest of the household in the courtship, took them to the opera, pledged his love… but in the end had to leave, abruptly telling her he could not marry her right away but would meet her a year later, on this bridge. She’s been coming there faithfully every day at ten, waiting for he who does not arrive; which is where Natalia meets Mario. After several attempt to avoid him, they begin to talk, to feel less lonely, to connect. All the while she keeps waiting for the man who promised to return.

On the bridge between what is real and on offer (Mario) and the man of her dreams (the unnamed lodger) who might be but a dream and, in both dream and reality, a figure tinged with criminality and a hint of cruelty.
On the bridge between what is real and on offer (Mario) and the man of her dreams (the unnamed lodger) who might be but a dream and, in both dream and reality, a figure tinged with criminality and a hint of cruelty.

Mario falls in love with Natalia; is moved by her purity, her goodness, her faith. He courts her. She welcomes —  might even need —  the attention. But she remains faithful to her ideal. This faith in turn ignites one in Mario; in inspiring his love, she dissolves his sense of alienation even as Mario accepts that Natalia doesn’t love him and might, at best, come to love him later, after sufficient time has passed for her to forget he whom she truly loves now.

The couple seen through windows fogged up by the clash of cold and heat and only partially cleared
The couple seen through windows fogged up by the clash of cold and heat and only partially cleared

Is the stranger a figment of her imagination or someone real? Can such feelings and ideas live amongst the squalor and compromises of every day life? Is there something to believe in and should we have faith? Are we always doomed to be alone? Visconti and Giuseppe Rotuno show us this metaphorically; we see the couple through foggy windows. Natalia’s reality murked up by her dreams; Mario’s options often directly clarified through cleared up windows or the stark directness offered by those stepping out of the shadows. Only for a brief moment does snow purify all, at least before a shiny figure in black comes back into the picture, where Natalia is asked to make a choice, stay on one side, or cross the bridge to another.

A mere and fading reflection on a clear wish
A mere and fading reflection on a clear wish

White Nights/ Le Notti Bianche is film that sets out to be poetry and succeeds. How you feel and experience the film might depend on how you feel about any film with such intentions. Here a bridge, snow, the contrast between rock and opera, the effects of fog on an image as seen from the outside, all act as metaphors that need decipherment. The film succeeds beautifully but are you up to the task?

As is usual with Visconti, Le Notti Bianche is the fruit of the crème-de-la-créme of cinematic collaborators. Suso Cecchi d’Amico worked with Visconti on the screen adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s story. Giuseppe Rotuno creates a world that is luminous, clearly artificial, but lit as if for a deeper truth, with some strikingly beautiful images. It has one of Nino Rota’s most beautiful scores; one of those where a few recurring bars played on different chords capture a range of feeling, and the changes that range undergoes throughout a film. The costumes are by Piero Tossi.

It’s like the very length of his eyelashes are a trap with which to ensnare the innocent.
It’s like the very length of his eyelashes are a trap with which to ensnare the innocent.

The actors have rarely been better. I sometimes find Maria Schell a bit tiresome but as Natalia she’s distraught, nervous, optimistic and polite but slightly hysterical; always focussed one her goal, smiling as if spiritually lit by a divine spirit. It’s a stylised, operatic performance, not unlike Alida Valli’s in Senso’s but here always played in a lower key and with a smile. Marais, already into middle-aged, playing a cipher with potentially a cruel streak, has never seemed to me more handsome or dashing than he is here. In some shots, it’s like the very length of his eyelashes are a trap with which to ensnare the innocent.

As to Mastroianni…one can only sigh with awe. Other women are after him in the film, and not only prostitutes. And unlike the Lodger with his fancy opera, he can only offer her Bill Haley and the Comets. And he can’t even dance! I bet the lodger can dance. But Mastrioanni can feel and weep and communicate all of it clearly with a masculine goofeyness that doesn’t mask that his muddling up the steps is a clear offer of his heart, that there’s a joy in his daring to dance without skill, a trust, and a confidence. That he’s the salt of the earth (and is perhaps why he must cry). To me, his dance, is one of the treasures of cinema.

Visconti’s virtuosic display of cinematic skills in White Nights/ Le Notti Bianche is truly dazzling. I’ll point you to one simple example, which you can see in the clip below. It’s the moment where Natalia has been telling Mario about the lodger and it’s the one moment in the film where we enter her head. She’s narrating the experience and we’re seeing it as she felt it. Note how seamlessly Visconti moves from the past to the present. See particularly the last ten seconds of the clip, the moment where Maria Schell says, ‘I’ll be yours, yours forever’ and note how seamlessly Visconti takes us from Natalia’s past and her imagination, as she recounts to us how she feels about what happened, to the present and Mario. When the camera cuts from Jean Marais to Maria Schell only to have her embrace Mastroianni. He’s made this move from past to present and a shift in point-of-view, without changing the tone and without even a cut. It’s dazzling.

French Poster
French Poster

In spite of being awarded a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the film was not a success when it first came out. I find the posters for the various countries it was released in interesting in its display of different attractions for each culture. Maria Schell gets top billing in all of them but in the Italian poster, the lodger is a faceless figure in the background. The French poster gives second billing to Marais, gives the impression of a romance between Schell and Marais and turns the Mastroianni character into the faceless figure in the bridge. The Danish poster highlights Schell’s whiteness, places Marais and Schell in large size on the left of the poster but places the character on the bridge prominently on the top right of the poster. Each is selling a different thing.

A clear come-on.
A clear come-on.

What the film is selling are the concerns of sociology and history. How it feels like to see and what it might yet mean are ongoing concerns. The reason for viewing it now —  in spite of protestations from some critics that it’s not amongst the great works of Visconti —  is that it is still a great work of a great director, one that requires much of the audience but offers much in return, should the audience be willing to give to and receive from it that which a very great work of this kind requires.

José Arroyo

Danish poster
Danish poster

Senso (Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1954)

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A Venetian Countess (Alida Valli) loses her reason in succumbing to her senses and to Lieutenant Franz Mahler (Farley Granger) of the invading Austrian Army. She gives up money and position; even betrays her family, her country and her highest ideals; all for a feckless sensualist, a gigolo from the first and one who’ll show himself a quivering coward by the end. That’s where love and desire will take you in the world of Visconti and of Senso.

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It’s a beautiful film, gorgeous to look at. Valli seems to float from canal to piazza, in large hooped skirt, in a wind-blown veil, as she suffers, desires, trembles, and looks for and at her lover; whilst refusing to see what is at all times clear to the audience: that he’s a cheap hustler unworthy of such sacrifices. The film is set at the time Garibaldi was uniting Italy and there are clearly points being made about European and Italian history that are beyond my present reach.

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But the central story is entirely accessible; and the cinematic means through which to convey that story are the work of a giant of cinema; from the tour de force opening at the opera house to the tragic battle sequences at the end; from the grandeur of the houses right down to the exquisiteness of the pattern of a scarf that Valli holds to her face: everything is perfection. Even Granger, giving an awkward, unskilled performance is to the film’s advantage, as the looks-without-substance characteristic of the actor is so well used to convey that of the character.

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A film of faded colours, set at a key historical moment, but focussing rather on the depths to which desire might drive one. A great film.

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José Arroyo

In Praise of Francis Ford Coppola

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At the NaFilM exhibit at the Museum Montanelli in Prague I was struck by a display of wine of various kinds from Francis Ford Coppola in his capacity as grape grower and vintner: there was the Claret and the Pinot Grigio, the ‘Director’s Cut’ Cabernet Sauvignon, and the ‘Sofia’ Chardonnay. All for sale and all with ten per cent of the proceeds going to NaFilM in aid of the project to found a National Film Museum in the Czech Republic.

cooking for students at EICTV
Cooking for students at EICTV

Earlier in the month, excited students at EICTV, the Film and Television School of ‘All the Worlds’, based in San Antonio de los Baños in Cuba, informed me that Coppola had arrived with cases and cases of pasta, tomato sauce and wine. He’d cooked them a meal, eaten it with them, shared his knowledge and answered their questions. EICTV is often ranked one of the top film schools and I personally have never found it less than inspiring. But it is undergoing financial difficulties at the moment and Coppola’s visit gave everyone there a boost, particularly since it consisted of giving AND receiving, of sharing, of various kinds of communing.

Sharing knowledge
Sharing knowledge

These two experiences to me indicate not only a praiseworthy philanthropy or an admirable degree of personal kindness but an on-going engagement and concern with film in all its aspects that one can trace pre film school at UCLA and post the various industrial and technological experimentation at Zoetrope. Moreover it’s a cinephilic desire to cultivate the culture of cinema that includes but – as I personally have witnessed – also extends beyond the borders of his own country. I tip my hat off to him.

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José Arroyo

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The NaFilM exhibit at the Montanelli Museum in Prague.

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As a teacher, I sometimes wonder if one spends too much time thinking of doing things for students rather than with them; or even better, with them and for others. This point was brought home to me when Nicky Smith and I visited the NaFilM exhibit at the Montanelli Museum in Prague. NaFilM is a project that was begun three years ago amongst students and friends of the Department of Film Studies at Charles University in Prague with the aim of setting up a Museum of Czech Cinema. Whilst researching the best way of exhibiting film and its history, the project grew to encompass staff and students from other universities in the Czech Republic as well as critics and other interested individuals. The current exhibition is designed as a ‘trailer’ for what a possible National Film Museum could be like. I found it thrilling and inspirational.

Interactive Sound Effects
Interactive Sound Effects

The first part of the exhibit deals with sound in cinema in all its aspects and right up to the 50s but begins by countering the widely held notion that early films were silent. Thus, we are shown an exciting clip of a chase sequence and then guided through the various ways in which sound effects were created as well as given the appropriate ‘noise props’ through which to supply them: the sounds of horses’ hooves created with sticks, a machine that gives the sound of wind, etc. These instruments, as well as a ‘noise walkway’ made of various materials, thus help the visitor create a diversity of sounds such as wind, storm, the rustling of leaves, a galloping horse, a moving train etc. It was clear that kids and the curious of all ages delighted in the interactive dimension of this and the museum gave ample opportunity to participate and to witness the results.

The film is full of exciting gadgetry: you can see how the sound of your voice gets visualised and added to celluloid; there’s a room where you can try out different types of lighting effects on a moving train; another one has a gadget where you encase your head in darkness as you’re told aurally of a script which you’re asked to imagine visaully; and so on. The idea is to get the visitor to think about all the different aspects that have historically gone into and comprised filmmaking and learn from the various exercises whilst having fun. It is an unqualified success.

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The other areas of the exhibit focus more tightly on Czech cinema. The second part of the exhibition highlighted the role of the avant-garde in the national culture and is shown by a selection of key short films, including documentaries —  often shot in Prague —  that were delightful and thought-provoking. The exhibit also explains the role of the Dev˘etsil literary club in propagating ideas from French Surrealism into the Czech avant-garde movement known as poetism. The poetists used the principles of collages and free association to create unexpected meanings. Thus the poetists made a very marked contribution to the Czech national film culture and to European avant-garde cultures even though they themselves did not make a single film. It’s a fascinating aspect of the exhibit.

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Also on display were a set of gorgeous posters from home and abroad, of which the one that meant the most to me was the beautiful poster for Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (USA, 1929) advertising that it was showing in what surely must be one of the most beautiful cinemas in all of the world, the Lucerna.

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The third and last section of the exhibit dealt with the events of 1968 and beyond; how they affected cinema and in turn how cinema dealt, narrated, imaged and reflected the effects of the Soviet Invasion on the national culture. On exhibit are a series of very beautiful short films as well as a series of ‘imagined’ postcards from some of the most celebrated Czech filmmakers in exile.

Focus on Czech cinema.
Focus on Czech cinema.

The exhibit is selective, a teaser or trailer for the potential National Film Museum. It’s not only interactive in terms of the visitor and the curators, but will be interactive at each stage, including consultation on site and design of the potential museum. It makes the strongest case possible for the construction of such a museum. It’s a model of a pedagogic exercise; generating, exchanging, accruing and distributing knowledge; which,through preservation and exhibition, in turn instigates a dialogue with the visitor to the museum that potentially generates and begins the whole cycle again; and it does this with a focus on the local and the national. This is what this great exhibit does and why it so forcefully makes a case for a future National Museum of Film in the Czech Republic.

José Arroyo

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My voice as imaged through an optical sound device