Month: September 2015
Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, USA, 2015)
One sometimes can’t help but hoot at the notion that method actors created a new, more ‘realistic’ style of acting. One sees them now in old movies – James Dean, whom I love, is the most famous name that comes to mind — flailing about and being ever so ‘intense’ and, when one recovers one’s composure, one reads it, at best, as a style, different but no better, and sometimes a lot more mannered and worse than what preceded and followed it.
There are exceptions to all of this of courses. And Marlon Brando is one such. He’s simply a great actor, a monumental one. There are reasons why he was instantly celebrated, instantly influential, why he changed the course of American acting, first on stage and later on film. It is also worth remembering that in his heyday as a box office film star, his competition consisted of John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Burt Lancaster, William Holden, James Stewart, and Glenn Ford; more traditional film stars who often surpassed him in the box office rankings.
Brando was not only instantly influential but also instantly mythologised. In ‘The Glamour of Delinquency,’ writing not only from another century but from what seems another world, Pauline Kael says, ‘The United States has now achieved what critics of socialism have always posited as the end result of a socialist state: a prosperous, empty, uninspiring uniformity. (If we do not have exactly what Marx meant by a classless society, we do have something so close to it that the term is certainly no longer an alluring goal). What promises does maturity hold for a teenager: a guaranteed annual wage, taxes, social security, hospitalization insurance, and death….It may be because this culture offers nothing that stirs youthful enthusiasm that it has spewed up a negative reaction: for the first time in American history we have a widespread nihilistic movement, so nihilistic it doesn’t even have a program, and, ironically, its only leader is a movie star: Marlon Brando.’
That’s quite a burden to put on anyone, much less young and anguished artist.
I thought I knew all I wanted to know about Marlon Brando. I’d read all the biographies, including his own rambly autobiography, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me; I’d seen the key films, and I felt my interest in Brando had been satiated, exhausted frankly. But Listen to Me Marlon is endlessly fascinating and deeply moving. What the film has to offer that’s new is vast amounts of audiotape that Brando recorded for himself, sometimes to meditate, sometimes because he couldn’t get to sleep, sometimes because he wanted a record, evidence. But the film also edits these mountains of tape into a structure and a narrative and finds excellent images to accompany Marlon’s voice, speaking in his twilight years, in the night, and into the void, as a means of making sense of what’s happened, what he searched for and what he lost, what turned him from a beacon and into an overweight depressive who couldn’t even take care of that which he loved most, his children.
The film begins by Brando telling us that his face has been scanned by a computer, in motion, and whilst conveying different expressions and that, out of these, the computer could then generate much more, i.e. the actor is now unnecessary, even the actor’s job has been taken over by a machine. The film then proceeds to demonstrate why this can never be so, as we hear Brando recite some of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies, interspersed throughout the film, usually spoken to himself from memory — this is a language he loved that expressed something he felt to be true — to make sense of his life, very movingly. The first is from Macbeth:
‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Brando’s career is a metaphor for America in what’s been called ‘The American Century’: so much talent, so much beauty, so much genius, so many gifts bestowed by the gods, so easily corrupted, thrown away, deprecated, debased; an amazing talent to turn the many bounties bestowed by the Gods into nasty, self-aggrandizing ugliness. Yet, the film makes us understand this. The abusive father, the shame and pity incurred by his mother’s being the town drunk, the insecurity engendered by the feeling that he wasn’t very bright, that all he had to offer was his beauty, his escape to New York and the freedom and release he found there. One senses that this rejection of Omaha, middle America, all the Rockwell Saturday Evening Post certainties, also gave him freedom. Impossible to dictate behaviour, norms, societal niceties to a child if one parent’s a wife beater and the other passes out on Main Street.
The freedom is what enabled him to search and to express that which he found, that which he found lacking, and that which he was searching for but couldn’t find. The film demonstrates what a great, versatile and original actor Brando was through a whole series of clips of his most celebrated performances: The Men, The Wild One, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Guys and Dolls, Last Tango in Paris and many of his most infamous flops, including Chaplin’s The Millionairess and Mutiny on the Bounty. The one that struck me most is the moment in The Godfather where he’s told of his son Sonny’s death, acknowledges it, clearly tries to restrain the emotion that he’s feeling, but then he exhales from one side of his nose and half his face seems to collapse, indicating the depths of his grief thought an uncontrollable moment of breath. It’s such an original and beautiful acting choice: so right. One can’t imagine anyone else doing it and one can’t imagine Don Corleone feeling anything less.
Near the beginning of the film, when Brando’s describing his first days in New York, how kind Stella Adler had been to him and how much she taught him, the revelling in his triumph in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the film evokes the same kind of nocturnal, alcohol fuelled, sexual freedom Gore Vidal so well describes in Palimpsest as being characteristic of New York in the late 40s. It was the ‘American Century’ but Americans had come back changed from the war and didn’t believe the old verities. Everything was possible.
Much of the film is devoted to showing the descent into tragedy; but the film very cleverly interweaves the triumphs with disaster; the great performances with the failed relationships; what his island in Tahiti meant to him with the fact that even an island couldn’t protect his children from misfortune; the box-office success wit the relationship with his father; his fight for civil rights and the rights of indigenous people with his own inability to keep his own home together. It’s a messy life the film presents, a complex one, riveting and moving
When he begins reciting Sonnet 29 into his tape:
‘When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising’
We don’t miss the last few lines of the sonnet:
‘Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.’
The film makes us understand and feel his loneliness, his sense of failure; we regret that he gave up on acting around the time of Apocalypse Now. Decline was perhaps inevitable but Brando’s fall and the way he fell…it’s not only that he turned into a joke — the great beauty and sex symbol now so fat he could barely move, though even as a joke he never lost his popularly acknowledged title as ‘the greatest film actor of his generation, but that decline turned to tragedy: a son jailed for murder, a daughter committing suicide, nothing but fast food for comfort and only audiotape to talk through and make sense of his life.
It’s a great film; and though I’ve focussed here on the audiotape, there is also fantastic footage, not only from the films but from press conferences – Brando flirting with a journalist in the early sixties is something to behold – old tv shows showing him interviewed at home with his father, his marching with Dr. King and his speaking on behalf of Native Americans on Cavett. It’s a complex weave of a life with a central insight – that Brando overvalued sex and couldn’t understand or accept love, presumably until he had his own children. And there’s an interesting tension that the film provokes between how he saw himself, a small-town boy, abused and mistrustful, fundamentally decent, not too bright and what the world saw; a beautiful, explosive actor, seemingly capable of understanding and expressing all that people are capable of feeling.
Listen to Me Marlon is a film to see. In a superb recent interview with the director and some of his children in The Guardian, one of them, Miko Brando says, ‘This film is about as close as you get to knowing him without ever meeting him’. One senses that, even as it makes one want to know more.
 Pauline Kael, ‘The Glamour of Delinquency’, I Lost It At The Movies, New York, An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little, Brown and Company, 1965, p. 45
Straight Out of Compton (USA, F. Gary Gray, 2015)
It’s not quite good but I liked it very much and it’s very affecting. The film depicts the rationale for the foundation of Niggaz With Attitude ‘N.W.A.’ – social oppression and police brutality of apartheid-like proportions – their subsequent career as recording stars, the various ways they broke up into solo careers, how they were cheated by their management, and the death of one of its founding members due to AIDS. The music is exciting, even if I can’t understand half of it, and the film brims with energy; it’s a great protest musical, though one in which women don’t figure except as sex things with guns. There are some excellent charismatic performances, particularly from Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre and O’Shea Jackson Jr, as Ice Cube. Paul Giametti as Jerry Heller is outstanding in a complex portrayal of a manager who believes, witnesses, supports but can’t stop his hand from dipping into the till. The Rodney King beating and subsequent riots figure centrally and will resonate strongly with contemporary viewers. Plus ça change….My over-riding feeling upon seeing this was one of sadness. Musicals were once all about joy, utopia, community, energy. This one is a weeping cry of fury and rage at what America’s become for black people; and it’s very affecting.
Legend (Brian Helgeland, UK, 2015)
The film’s not bad; it’s great to see those early 60s costumes and sets; it’s interesting to revisit the Krays; the storytelling sometimes ignites with black humour….But it’s just not good enough: it doesn’t tell us anything new about the Krays, doesn’t offer any new insights into the period or even fraternal bonds or what might make one a criminal or indeed even the pleasures derived from that criminality. Also, I can’t imagine a bigger fan of Tom Hardy’s than I; and he does get two showy roles here; and he definitely makes Ronnie and Reg distinct; but I also think the conceptualisation of the character of Reg is misguided; stiff, unemotional, without humour, seemingly inhuman and kind of wearing a Shrek-lite mask. It’s a risk a great actor takes but one in which he here fails; particularly in comparison with Jesse Eisenberg’s turn in The Double, where each of the characters seem to be human, to breathe. Emily Browning as Frances Shea, streetsmart but doe-like and fragile, is the character that comes off best. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to be said about the depiction of a homosexual milieu in early sixties London but that will have to wait for another time.
American Ultra (Nima Nourizadhe, USA, 2015):
Everything Jesse Eisenberg does in American Ultra is interesting; and he and Kristen Stewart are so endearing together — the ideal small-town stoner couple — that one hopes they’ll be teamed up again in a better film than this very interesting failure: the film is ok; it’s not offensive; and people were laughing in all the right places: it just didn’t soar (though it has its moments).
Irrational Man (Woody Allen, USA, 2015):
Irrational Man is a total bore, old hat and lazy, Joachin Phoenix is a blank onscreen for the first time even as he demonstrates he’s the least vain actor currently working in American by flaunting his endearingly big belly: the gut tells us more and better than his face. Woody Allen seems to have read no philosopher that wasn’t fashionable in the 1960s and his professors seem to live in houses that might be every adjunct’s dream but the reality of no one I know working in academia. Emma Stone is brilliant and the only reason to see the film. I’ve defended even Allen’s most uneven films in the past; and I do think he’s still one of the most interesting and formally daring filmmakers currently working. But you wouldn’t know it from watching this. Irrational Man feels like an illustrated short story he dictated to an underling; and it definitely feels phoned in. Also, I don’t know if it’s the film or the print I saw, but visually nothing was as pretty or as bright as the material demanded.
The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (Wes Ball, USA, 2015)
Who is Wes Ball and how did he get to direct a movie? The characters in the Maze Runner: Scorch Trials run and run but you don’t know where, and you have no clue what might save them, and eventually you don’t care. Lily Taylor, Patricia Clarkson and especially Aiden Gillen do bring a bit of zip and are all that prevents one from sleeping through the forthcoming apocalypse.
Transporter Refuelled (Camille Delamarre, France, 2015)
Transporter Refuelled is great fun: no dumber than the rest of the films in the series; just as stylish; great action sequences that make sense; and Ed Skrein is so handsome and moves so well he almost makes one forget Jason Statham. Plus it’s directed, very well, by a woman: Camille Delamarre. It’s a reboot that’s definitely ignited and I hope more will follow.
The film tells the story of Andreas Marquadt, a handsome karate champ, violent gangster and ex-con. Marquadt’s father tried to kill him as a toddler, his mother sexually abused him from pre-pubescence to the time he left home. Von Praunheim too easily ‘explains’ Marquadt’s career as a brutal, manipulative pimp in the light of this past. Certainly Marquadt himself, now married to the one girl he exploited who still stuck by him in jail, finds an excuse for his subsequent brutality to others in his childhood experiences. These, however, are the worst aspects of the film.
The reason to see Tough Love is the dexterity with which Von Praunheim tells this story, easily moving from a post-rehab present shot as documentary in colour to a black-and-white re-enactment, compellingly dramatised by Von Praunheim. The sex scenes are clinical, distanced, objective. Sex here is always about something else, usually power, domination, the with-holding of love. Von Praunheim’s great achievement is firstly to get such superb performances from Hanno Koffler as the young Marquadt; Louise Hayer, who looks like Romy Schneider and is very charismatic as Marion Erdmann, the 16 year-old who falls for and is victimised by Marquadt but who ends up staying by him; and Katy Karrenbauer as the loving, abusive and manipulative mom. Von Praunheim and his cast, working with sketchy, fake, indicative, sets, make the people and the past live and breathe; they reveal; with humour, understanding and compassion; where the documentary footage of Marquandt explains, excuses, hides, reveals only in refracted form and only what he wants to present himself as. The real Erdmann, masochistic, romantic, charismatic; a living embodiment of German Romanticism made flesh now, is very enthralling.
Von Praunheim makes films that always seem a slight mish-mash, they’re never perfect, and yet they’re often more compassionate, empathetic, understanding and memorable; more accepting of people’s many failings, and more willing to explore them deeper and in more original forms than many other, more celebrated filmmakers. I was delighted to see Tough Love, recommend it, and am grateful to the Festival des films du monde in Montreal to have created a context in which I could re-encounter the work of such a fascinating filmmakers after so many years. There should be more Von Praunheim shown in Britain. In fact a career retrospective is long overdue.
Seen at the Festival des films du monde, September 2015
I went to see this for Rossy de Palma and it was worth seeing for her. She’s middle-aged now, a bit zaftig. She’s still got the wonky Picasso eyes, which evoke a memory of the strange and marvellous energy her mere presence once catapulted into any film, but can now pass for an ordinary working-class middle-aged Spanish lady, as she does here. The film seems to me a nothing; or to be fair, nothing I understand. It’s a farce in which Michel Leproux (Christian Clavier) is seeking one hour of tranquillity in which to listen to that great jazz album he’s been longing to hear all his life and finally found but gets constantly interrupted: his wife reveals an affair; the son brings in a Phillipino family to stay, the Polish plumber who is really Portuguese bursts the pipes, his mistress comes to reveal their affair to the wife etc. It’s very French and very sitcommy. I did not find it funny though the audience I saw it with could not stop laughing in ways that I simply didn’t get: offering guests at the neighbourhood party expensive wine got howls of laughter. I found the representation of Rossy de Palma as the Spanish maid, the jokes about the Portuguese/Polish plumber and the whole bit with the Phillipinos a bit crude and slightly racist. What it did make me think of is how certain people can just lift a film out of ordinariness and make it worthwhile to see and think about, like some expensive and exotic ingredient in a store-bought trifle. In this film it’s Rossy of course, who seems to be acting in a coarser, better film than this one — she feels slightly out of place; and Carole Bouquet as the wife, who doesn’t get to do very much but manages to express quite a bit and is so extremely beautiful one can’t help but be riveted by her mere presence.
‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good is interred with their bones’. So says Shakespeare in Julius Caesar and so shows this film.
Two henchmen, Santiago (Daniel Faraldo) and Benny (Daniel Tarbet), work for a narco kingpin. They run an outfit in the middle of nowhere – but close enough to a taco stand and a Christian revival tent — where they torture and kill their victims. They’re housed in an armed warehouse full of the heads of rivals they’ve captured and murdered, which they occasionally send as messages to the competition. It has a holding chamber reachable only by a portable staircase where they can keep kidnap victims and torture them at leisure. There’s an industrial freezer where corpses in various states of dismemberment can be kept on hold with various body parts defrosted at various times to suit every type of communication. There’s also a surgery fitted out for torture and even an industrial furnace where corpses of those nameless, unloved and thus of no use in this particular kind of communication can be easily cremated. They’re professional and have no qualms about doing their job though Salvador is better at it, more ruthless, whilst Benny is American and can’t quite get rid of his namby-pamby qualities. However, how will they act when the next package they receive is the very lively, spoiled and manipulative 12 year-old daughter of a rival narco honcho.
The Evil That Men Do is a very dark and very funny film with very charismatic performances from Faraldo and also from Sergio Peris-Mencheta as the narco kingpin’s nephew. It’s beautifully shot and directed, a delight to see, except for the one moment, a chainsaw scene more brutal even than the one in Scarface, that even I had to close my eyes at. The film is listed as Spanish though it is clearly Mexican and contains and evokes that lawlessness, lack of respect for life, sheer brutality and barbarism that seems to be part of the very fabric of life in that country today. It’s hard to see this as merely a genre film or even to accept the violence as stylised or cartoony and designed to fit an imaginary world. The director has been so successful in creating so much out of very spare means that the film hits close to the bone of a country in chaos. The darkness and brutality here speak a culture; and the laughs that the film very successfully manages to earn from the audience doesn’t wash away the sadness of a culture reduced to this.
Seen at the Festival des films du monde, Montreal, September 2015, where the film received it’s world premiere.
Il segreto di Italia/ The Secret of Italia is a period film based on historical events. It is set in the town of Codevigo at that moment near the end of WWII when Italy is about to be liberated from Fascism by the Allies in conjunction with partisan rebels made up mostly of members of the Communist Party, some of whom once also used to be Fascists.
The secret of adult Italia (Romina Power) is that for many years she’s been burdened with guilt over a secret that the film will reveal (spoilers ahead): as a teenager (played by Gloria Rizzato) she was in love with Faronacci Fontana (Alberto Vetri), the son of the Fascist mayor of Codevigo, who in turn was in love with a widow called Ada (Maria Vittoria Casarotti Todeschini). When Italia finds them messing around in the hayloft, she reveals their hiding place to the ‘liberating’ forces and the left-wingers take their revenge on the scion of the Fascist mayor by brutally murdering anyone suspected of having a fascist affiliation without trial or due process.
The other secret of Italy that the film crudely attempts to ‘reveal’ is that the mainly Communist partisan rebels who helped liberate Italy with the Allies perpetrated horrible atrocities on innocent civilians, many of them undirected revenge killings, and were themselves thuggish murderers. In this film, the fascists are all nice ordinary people who just wore the black shirt occasionally at village feasts to be polite and because it helped with the business of farming but really they didn’t mean anybody any harm.
This is a messed up film, structurally built around flashbacks that seem unnecessary, and with some unpleasantly brutal scenes. I’ve never seen such a scorching a denunciation of ‘liberating forces’ or such a sweet and nostalgic chocolate-box evocation of Fascists. For that reason alone it’s worth seeing. Certainly anybody interested in Italian culture and history will find it rewards a look, if one with a critical eye.
I understand a suit has already been instigated against the film in Italy and that boycotts have occurred at some screenings. Despite some fine performances, Alberto Vetri’s in particular, the film is so crude – Italia’s secret is that of Italy it exclaims! — it’s not really worth the bother of boycotting: it’s unlikely to find much of an audience. But it is precisely because it mounts such a crude attack on the left and such a glowing defence of the right – and because it is seems to be a component of a structure of feeling in Europe that seems to be on a rising tide, that I recommend a viewing.
Seen atthe Festival des films du monde, Montreal, September 2015.
A non-fiction film about organ transplants, almost documenting some of the themes that Pedro Almodóvar dramatised in fictional form in All About My Mother (Spain 1999) and Talk to Her (Spain, 2002).
In La intérprete/The Interpreter, ‘La Crisis’— understood as the social and political crisis which arose out of the 2008 financial meltdown in Spain — is a context through which to understand organ donation; which in turn is itself a particular lens through which to understand contemporary Spain. Unemployment is at 27%; youth unemployment at 58%; over a million families have no one in the family working; over 500,000 homes have been repossessed by the banks
Yet, Spain also leads the world not only in the science of organ transplants — the fairness and efficiency with which they’re distributed — but also in the numbers of organ donations per capita. Whilst the country is suffering from Neo-Liberalism at its worst and most rapacious, here is a social and medical procedure — organ donation and transplant — that relies entirely on human kindness, goodwill, a desire to do good for others, a desire to continue living even in the worst situation, even in death. And as has been demonstrated by recent events in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, one in which the merest whiff of unfairness could destroy the very basis on which the whole edifice rests: people’s willingness to contribute, to commune with the humanity of others, to be willing to donate organs selflessly for the good of others.
Certain stories stay in the mind: a man with a Liverpool FC tattoo found dead on the street with his suitcase. He’s brain dead. But who is he? The interpreter chasing up the phone numbers they find in his wallet from nearest to farthest until she find the son in Sweden; and the kindness of the son who goes out on his bicycle in a snowstorm to find a police station with a fax machine so he can fax the necessary authorisation so that his father’s body can save someone else’s life. People’s goodness can be very moving.
La intérprete/The Interpreter has a tripartite interlocking structure. The focus is on the nurse who is a key interpreter but the film is also threaded through the stories of three patients waiting for a transplant; the film is dedicated, in memoriam, to the two who did not receive them. Another narrative device in the film is encased as part of the story through which we are shown students arriving from all over Latin America to do an MA and learn what Spain has to offer on organ donation and transplant. It is implied that what the students end up learning is something the ruling and political classes can also learn from. The film underlines that it’s kind of a crime that those profiting from the many ways Spain is bleeding at the moment aren’t taught the same lessons in community, goodness and selflessness that ordinary Spaniards and even foreigners are shown performing in this film. Another instance in which the people are better than than those who rule them.
Technically the film has a harsh digital look, but rendered beautiful with animated images to the film’s various components.La intérprete/The Interpreter is intelligent, accomplished and moving. A film that’s made with love, as befits its themes and subjects.
Seen at Montreal’s Festival des films du monde, September 2015
A dark and funny thriller that exposes the Argentine upper classes as a more elegant but no less brutal mafia, efficiently and ruthlessly organising their criminal activities for the rapacious enrichment of a few families. Dario Levi is Federal Judge Alberto Franccioni. As the film begins, we’re told his daughter needs to get a new kidney or she will die. He’s willing to pay a million for the kidney and go to Orlando for the transplant so the kid can visit Disneyland during her convalescnence. ‘She wants to go to Disney in Orlando instead of Paris?’ fumes the grandmother, who blames her ex-daughter-in-law, a low class blackmailing junky for the lapse in taste.
As the day progresses Alberto is harassed by all kinds pressing concerns, domestic and professional: someone in his staff has stolen a Serrano ham and he needs to figure out who it is; his daughter’s birthday is coming up and he’s got to make arrangements; his ex is trying to blackmail him; his sister is cheating on her husband with his nephew’s music teacher (‘Oh no’ says the grandmother, when she hears another of her grandchildren has descended into the popular and vulgar by exchanging learning violin on a Stradivarius for a guitar lessons, ‘we’ve become a family of guitarreros); he’s been asked to run for Vice-Governor of the Province but so has his millionaire neighbour – should he accept? And if so how to remove his friend from the candidacy without leaving an imprint and continuing on good terms?
Like Tony Sorprano, Francionni is harangued at home but all ruthless smarts in the workplace; he has the music teacher violently dealt with, finds out about the ham, plots the destruction of his competing political candidate and consults his mother, the true Don of the family, as to whether to accept an offer of Vice Governor of the Province. ‘A Vice-Governor is merely the employee of a more ambitious person. You have to aim for President!’ The film is beautifully directed by Bertini, who is not afraid to hold his shots in lengthy medium close-ups on the faces of his extraordinary actors and depicting a brutal, familial world as sordid as it is elegant with a minimum of means and to maximum effect.
Labia is a very funny, insightful film, held together by an extraordinary central performance by Levi: the humour and suspicion by which he tries to sniff out the information he needs from people too scared to be truthful is fantastically entertaining. The film also boast an an equally great performance by Elena Boggan, who makes of Alberto’s mother a Lady MacBeth of a matriarch, if Lady McBeth could be at equal ease with all of the world’s sophisticated pleasures whilst leaving her conscience unpricked by power’s most brutish necessities. The ending is a cop-out that somewhat spoils what is otherwise an insightful and entertaining film.
Seen at the Festival des films du monde, Montreal, September 2015