Month: February 2017

A Brief Note on The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou, China, 2016)

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A note on the much maligned The Great Wall, which I saw on the weekend: there is no characterisation to speak of, the plot is merely a serviceable monster story, and the theme would please China’s governing central committee. But…It is from the director of Ju Dou, (1990) and Hero (2002) and The House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). It has the most astonishingly beautiful use of colour I’ve seen in recent cinema. Yang and cinematographers Stuart  Dreyburgh and Xiaoding Zhao, plus the set and design people, have created colours so beautiful and so rarely seen in cinema, and then the way they put those colours together in a frame, make them work alongside each other not only to keep the eye on the action but also to please it, is quite exceptional. There’s a scene in a tower in the last great set-piece where the imperial palace is over-run by monsters, the tower is slowly falling apart, and every colour if the rainbow seems to break through — orchestrated and choreographed — in an extraordinary cacophony of colour that is just breathtakingly beautiful: how could so much be arranged to rest so easy and simply on the eye?  This use of colour is conveyed in gorgeous compositions and truly inventive use of camera. Visually, the film is like a Renaissance Masterpiece. As usual with Zhang, the acrobatics are wonderful to watch and there are scenes with women warriors diving into a sea of monsters with spears that is just dazzling to see. And though the characters are archetypes and not fully fleshed out, Andy Lau and Willelm Dafoe and Tian Jing are still worth looking at — if for different reasons — and Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal have great chemistry. It’s out now and if cinephiles aren’t bothered to see it on a big screen they’re not worthy of the name.

José Arroyo

Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, USA, 2016)

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Hidden Figures is the kind of film Hollywood has been praying for since #OscarsSoWhite, #BlackLivesMatter and Bechdel Tests. It’s also the kind of movie that Hollywood’s been making since forever but usually with men. It’s rosy and feel-feel good. Things might be difficult but if you have courage, wit and the work ethic of a Calvinist believer, you will end up in the best of all possible worlds, your world….but better. It could have been made in the forties if you cobbled together some of the plots of Greer Garson, Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn movies.

The only difference between Hidden Figures and that type of movie is that these women are black: three brilliant women held back by patriarchy overcome insurmountable odds and manage to help send a man to the moon. They end up becoming bosses, getting married to gorgeous men and having beautiful families, all the while being saintly to the nasty white people, male and female (James Parsons and Kirsten Dunst), who get in their way, just like Sidney Poitier in Lillies of the Field (Ralph Nelson, USA, 1963) and most of his other movies. It’s not the fault of the poor sinners: they’ve yet to be enlightened. Kevin Costner is the big white daddy who resolves most problems.

The protagonists being black is a major difference to past films of this type. The title is no accident. It’s all about re-claiming that which is lost or risks being lost to an #ohsowhite and #ohsomale history. I feel churlish not liking it more. The audience I saw it with responded to everything and applauded at the end in a way I’ve not quite seen since I saw Waiting to Exhale (Forest Whitaker, USA, 1995) with a mostly black, mostly female audience when it first came out. Maybe I’m too old. The audience’s response is proof such a film needs to be made now. Yet, I feel I’ve seen it all before. And after seeing Fences (Denzel Washington, USA, 2017) and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, USA, 1917) Hidden Figures feels particularly safe, sitcom-y, predictable and phony. I was dying for Taraji P. Henson to explode and slap somebody, even if only verbally, like she did all of the first great season of Empire (Lee Daniels/Daniel Strong, USA 2015 -).

The actors are the best thing about Hidden Figures. I love Octavia Spencer’s face, wonky and slightly crushed-in; suspicious and full of mischief; and capable of expressing all there is. I also loved Kirsten Dunst’s stuffy and repressed supervisor: she’s closed in and angry at life, feels asphyxiated by it. It was also good to see Mahershala Ali, even as the perfect man. Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monaé are clearly stars and one loves looking at them as such whilst wishing they wouldn’t quite project the smug self-satisfaction their roles demand of them. I wished instead they’d get angry and smash things and that the film would make people fell the same way. Instead, Hidden Figures feels like an ideological project designed to keep everything in its place whilst moving people up a few notches. The audience applauded. And it’s turning into a landmark box office success. But….

 

José Arroyo

John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelki, USA, 2017)

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A highly-saturated neon-noir. John Wick: Chapter 2 is all Keanu Reeves, action-set pieces in exotic locations and attitude. Keanu has the face of an oriental sage, a body that’s imposingly lean and athletic, and the stance of a surfer dude who’s acquired sophistication along the way but still doesn’t get wit: He tries, and the camera helps him along. But who cares? He’s got a marvellous stillness, a face so full of architectural planes it refract enough shadow to sculpt darkness out of light: you can project anything you want onto it, onto him, and it projects something back, maybe something different for each of us but maybe also something sad and broody that’s unique to you.

The film is an updated notion of dumb fun. The plot merely an excuse for staging exciting action in glamorous places. The fights are indeed exciting: they’re well-choreographed against museums, art installations, subways (Montrealers might recognise the Place des Arts metro), Iconic monuments – this time mainly in Rome and New York.

In between fights, treasured character actors are given a chance to conjure some laughs and shine: some succeed (Lance Reddick, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishbourne), some don’t (John Leguizamo, Franco Nero, Peter Stormare). In a sense, the film reminds me of Speed (Jan De Bont, 1994): everything in the movie is designed as pace-in-time, to showcase action; it’s all move along, move fast, and bang bang against a series of distinctive images. But Keanu has a very particular and distinctively pleasurable way of holding a gun: elbow in, eye on the trigger. And Chad Stahelski knows how to stage action so that one sees the complete movement, is aware of the geography of characters and bodies, and in backgrounds that add visual pleasure and thematic density (the mirrored ‘Souls’ installation near the end). It’s a great-looking film (shot by Dan Laustsen) , a brightly hued noir that adds a sharp if artificial light to a series of explosive actions amidst an encroaching darkness. All of that plus Dog. Great fun. Even better than the original.

PS Since writing the above I’ve come across a really interesting analysis of Keanu Reeves by Angelica Jade Bastién for ‘Bright Wall/Dark Room’ that you can find here.

José Arroyo

Ballet First Dates

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Are you interested in ballet but don’t know your first position from your fifth, your cambré from your relevé? Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Ballet First Dates is designed to introduce new audiences to ballet or to deepen the understanding of the casual fan. Ballet Master Dominic Antonucci — informal and charismatic — takes us through the basic positions, movements, jumps and how these are all assembled together into ballet moves in a narrative ballet. With the help of Karla Doorbar and and Lachlan Monaghan — both First Artists with the Birmingham Royal – and an excellent rehearsal pianist whose name I’ve sadly forgotten, Antonucci gets the dancers to show us barre exercises, then move on to demonstrate balance, jumps, dance steps, and finally an excerpt of Coppélia with full-blown costumes and even the odd prop.

It was educational. Antonocci passed around satin point shoes so one can feel them, see their insoles, and even put one’s hand in the shoe and feel the support ballerinas get on their toes (not much). Costumes were also brought out at the end so one could look close up and three-dimensionally. One did learn. More importantly, it was thrilling to see the dancers complete their moves so well and so close-up. The audience was filled with children, who clearly adored the whole show and queued up to take a selfie with the dancers at the end. It was a lovely hour, all for a fiver. I can’t encourage the Birmingham Royal Ballet to do more of these. It’s on once more tomorrow at the Hippodrome at 6.30.

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The setting for the barre exercises
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Stepping in and out of the stage
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Selfie Time
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Admiring the Costumes

José Arroyo

Jackie (Pablo Larrain, Chile/France/ USA, 2016)

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A complex story about story-telling, about the relationship between truth and legend, about the imaging of history, the shaping it through the construction of particular images to render them iconic, so memorable that history is not only read through them but actually reifies into those images themselves. In a way Jackie can be understood  as a continuation and development of some of the themes first explored in No, Larrain’s 2012 film about the development of an ad campaign to defeat Chilean Dictator Agusto Pinochet in a national referendum. Natalie Portman is extraordinary. I can’t think of any other actress who’s had so many demands made on her by one movie in the last year; on a surface level — in terms of what one likes — she carries the whole thing (though I also perked up at the first sounds of Richard Burton singing ‘Camelot’). Portman and her work are what emotionally engage. The achievements of the film itself — like with Larrain’s other work — Tony Manero and Post Mortem come to mind — are too intellectual, too distancing to be encompassed or warmed through a word such as ‘like’. One ends up cooly admiring, rather dispassionately, and perhaps as a result, the mind doesn’t linger over the ideas too long either. One knows it’s extraordinary but one wants to move on, quickly, to something warmer and more instantly gratifying…and yet the story and its telling won’t quite let you and pull you back to thought.

 

José Arroyo

Fences

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Fences is stagey and heavy-haded: Denzel is not much of a director. But he’s a great actor and this is a great role in one of *the* great American plays of the second half of the twentieth century. He and Viola Davis are something to see, together and individually and they overcome every other fault. Watching it reminded me of seeing Sidney Poitier as a child or reading James Baldwin as a teenager: it’s beautiful, so charming as to diffuse but not hide the underlying anger, and with a dash of low-down sexyness, here all the more praiseworthy given the protagonists’ ages. One feels elevated by the experience. I didn’t care that it’s not ‘cinematic’. What it does offer is great.

 

José Arroyo

An early plug for two bios: Barthes and Renoir

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The English have excelled at biography for so long that it’s even been spoken of as an English genre or at least an English-language one. And this to such an extent that the Spanish, to their shame, often don’t even bother writing biographies of their most famous personages and simply translate the most famous ones (Paul Preston on King Juan Carlos and Franco, Ian Gibson on  García Lorca and Machado etc) from English into Spanish. However, the two best recent biographies I have read are French (in English translation) Tiphain Simoyault’s exhaustingly fascinating brick on Barthes and Pascal Mérigeau’s fantastic book on Renoir, deserving of the Prix Goncourt, the Grand Prix de l’Essai and all the other prizes its’s won.

 

Bad reader that I am. I began the Renoir with the move to America. I’m now almost at the end of filming of Elena et les hommes and plan to return to the beginning at the end.The research is gobsmacking, incredibly detailed in all areas, yet beautifully synthesised. It adds to your knowledge of his work, changes your views of him as a person, and only makes you admire both more.Nothing I’ve read from England or America this year comes near to touching the achievements of either book and I highly recommend  them.

 

José Arroyo

A Note on Brief Encounter (David Lean, UK, 1945)

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Brief Encounter is woven through and through with loss, sadness, the stifling of desire, the structuration of forces of repression — the state, the police, the institution of marriage: all that is so beautifully expressed in the scene where we see Laura (Celia Johnson) going to have a smoke under the the War Memorial, the park bench still wet from the rain, after her failed attempt at the assignation with Alec (Trevor Howard) that had exercised her so — interpellated as personal lacks and individual moral failings.

It was only on my last viewing that it became clear how the film is actually structured around the moment of loss, a moment which bookends the film, and which we first see narrated objectively and then come back to subjectively at the film’s end (and Catherine Grant’s marvellous video essay, Dissolves of Passion, take on an even richer resonance when seen through the lens of loss, of Dolly Messiter robbing the couple of their last minutes but also the loss of a love that is desired but cannot be).

The film begins to tell us a story, one that doesn’t start of as but then becomes Laura’s story told in flashback, and the end returns us to to the beginning but now fleshed out as Laura subjectively experiences– and by this I mean something different than told through her point of view — those last moments with Alec, the loss, the despair, the world infringing on and robbing her of that which is so important to her but which she cannot speak of, except to us, the audience.

As we can see in the clip above, the film begins with a train, engine steaming streams of smoke, heading towards us and slicing through the frame. We then begin with a medium close-up of Mr. Godby (Stanley Holloway). The camera cuts to passing trains once again, before again picking up Mr. Godby, crossing the track on foot. Why begin here and with Mr. Godby? Clearly the passing trains, the platform where people linger only momentarily before heading elsewhere, the steam; all help create an emotional as well as physical setting for the drama that will be played out. But look also at the formal elegance, at the beauty of the compositions. This dangerous speed, the transient and furtive meetings, the steaming desire the film will dramatise, all will be contained by the same order, hierarchy, symmetry, the elegant manner that also characterise framing and composition (and in a different way, Mr. Godby’s uniform).

I was struck also by how in the shot in the station café, the focus is entirely on Mr. Godby and Mrs. Bagot (Joyce Carey), flirting away, in their own way negotiating and making possible the fulfilment of the desires denied the more middle class Lauras and Alecs. You might note that the camera pans from Mr. Godby and Mrs Bagot to Laura and Alec, that significantly they remain at a distance. We don’t yet know who they are and we don’t yet hear a word they say. Mr. Godby’s voice is still carrying, now off-screeen, now speaking of police, whilst the camera lingers at a distance is on this new couple we will later get to know so well. So from the very first images, we get speed, steam, the sense of transit and indeterminacy but also of order and containment, all whilst being brought to notice regarding forces of repression. And the film tells us this whilst making a homology between two couples characterised as belonging to two different classes, one the servants; the other those being served, even if only in a cafe.

I will write  about the two ways we’re shown Dolly Messiter’s intrusion into the last moments the couple have together –the one objective at the beginning, the other subjectively near the end —  in my next post.

José Arroyo