Category Archives: American

A Thought on a Moment in Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1944)

In a lovely note on his memories of seeing Meet Me in St. Louis as a four year old in 1951, critic David Ehrenstein writes, ‘I didn’t understand what was going on in the Halloween sequence. But then neither did (Margaret) O’Brien’s character, ‘Tootie’. She’d elected to ‘kill the Brokoffs (neighbors who lived down the street on the beautifully detailed set) by throwing flour at them as demanded by the other children. Walking away from the bonfire, wind and shadows whipping around her, she’s clearly terrified.’ But she succeeds, runs away from the Brokoff house and to her gang, the community she is now a part of, and is accorded the ultimate accolade of being the most horrible. ‘And indeed she is,’ remembers Ehrenstein,  ‘But that was in 1945. And that was in 1951. And now it’s 1998. And I’m dreaming of MGM’[i] It is now 2014 and MGM musicals in general, Meet Me in St. Louis in particular, and the Halloween sequence most precisely, are still the stuff that dreams are made of.

fig A
fig A

Amongst the many pleasures of watching the very greatest films over and over again is that the remembered pleasures are anticipated but also re-experienced as if for the first time. I remember sitting behind a gaggle of girls at a screening of Titanic and when Kate Winslett and Leonardo Di Caprio are holding onto the ice-flow one of the girls said, ‘Shh, this is the moment were we cry’; and then Di Caprio died and they did, loudly. But one of the joys of re-viewing great films is that whilst re-experiencing remembered pleasures one also discovers new things about the film, new reasons as to why those pleasures occur in the first place. Sometimes, it can just be that you’re at a different point in your life and the films mean something different to you; other times that you see things you’ve not quite registered before (it took a few times for me to delight in the frozen bloomers in Meet Me); other times still, that you notice elements that enhance your understanding of why the film in questions achieves its particular effects. After all, it’s not magic or alchemy; someone arranged, orchestrated, chose.

fig b - Mr. Brokaff by the window as if from Tootie's point-of-view.
fig b – Mr. Brokaff by the window as if from Tootie’s point-of-view.

Seeing Meet Me in St. Louis for the upteempth time earlier this week I had one of those moment of – revelation might be too strong a term – let’s say insight into why the Halloween sequence, a sequence without a ‘number’ in a musical, remains so memorable. Minnelli claimed that that sequence was the principal reason he did the film[ii]. And it’s a sequence justly famous for its formal elegance — the crane shot at the beginning, the long slow travelling shot as Tootie heads towards the Brokaffs, the much more quick rhyming shot heading back to her gang once she’s succeeded in killing Mr. Brokaff – its technical complexity – the orchestration of all of those elements, often within a shot, and which focuses on a child – the achievement of such varied effects –fear, humour, relief, excitement, creepiness, tension – all the while tying in to the theme of a child excluded from her community, sent on a dangerous quest, overcoming her fear, accomplishing her mission, and returning in triumph to be admitted into the group and garlanded as one of its heroes that but foreshadows the threat to the whole Smith family that Mr. Smith will announce at the end of the ‘Autumn’ sequence to the film, just after the Halloween sequence and before its triumphs have been fully savoured, as a ‘move to New York’.

Tootie enters the shot from screen righ
Tootie enters the shot from screen right

The moment I want to point to is but a simple cut; or rather how the elements surrounding that cut are orchestrated. It takes place immediately after the long shot where Tootie is slowly and fearfully heading towards the Brokoff house (see clip above for a view of part of the sequence). Her friends and  the fire they are feeding have completely receded into the background. She’s already passed that horse that has scared her so and has made us laugh. The shot ends with Tootie looking fearfully at the house (see fig. a), we’re then shown the house as if from Tootie’s point of view (see fig. b) but then we’re shown that it couldn’t be Tootie’s point-of-view as we see her enter the shot (fig c).

Now, what’s gained by this? Minnelli could have shown us the house, then returned to Tootie and then showed us Tootie heading towards the house; Or we could have seen Tootie gazing at the house and then cut directly to Tootie heading toward the house. What’s gained by showing us the house first as if from Tootie’s point of view and then having Tootie enter the shot (i.e. it becomes a false point-of-view shot). Watching the film this week I posed myself these questions for the first time;  and of course, the answer is simple: it’s to achieve particular effects, it’s why we feel what we feel when watching that moment.

Tootie’s scared, she looks at the house with fear; we then see what she sees: a massive house shown from a low angle and with a wide lens to make it as imposing as possible. The choice to have Tootie enter that scary image has the effect of showing us that Tootie’s scared, she’s not wrong to be scared but, aware of the dangers, she confronts them and enters into the realm of action. That’s why Tootie is the ‘most horrible’ why it doesn’t matter that she’s a girl or that she’s smaller. That minute difference of where, how and on what to cut makes a huge difference in how we see and evaluate what Tootie does. It makes her seem conscious, aware, courageous. She knows that it’s an arena of danger, chooses and acts in spite of her fears. It’s marvellous. And it’s one of a whole array of minute but decisive choices that makes Meet Me in St. Louis such a great film.

José Arroyo


[i] David Ehrenstein, ‘David Ehrenstein; writer, critic’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 1. (Autumn, 1998), pp. 59-60.

[ii] Gerald Kaufman, Meet Me in St. Louis, London: BBI, 1994, p. 53.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, USA, 2013)

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I love the sound of Casey Affleck’s voice; a high-pitched bass sound, roundly toned, softly uttered, as distinctive as any in the current cinema; and capable of expressing so much; here the strangled murmur of the intensely wished about to be extinguished. It’s got Rooney Mara, very good in it as well; and it’s lovely to see Keith Carradine onscreen at any time. But I didn’t think much of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; and there were moments where Bradford Young’s cinematography was so dark I felt I wasn’t seeing it either.  I suppose I found it sub-Badlands; however, I do understand why others rate the film more highly. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints conveys an acute but flowing sadness that remains in the memory and is difficult to shake off: a sigh for that which is treasured but can no longer be. It feels not only the story of a doomed couple but also a kind of mourning for America.

José Arroyo

Nebraska (Alexander Payne, USA, 2013)

Nebraska poster

Nebraska is very funny, bleakly beautiful, and sad in all the right ways. An elderly man (Bruce Dern) ravaged by a lifetime of drink and with incipient Alzheimer’s is convinced he’s won a million in a sweepstake which everyone else knows is a way of conning elderly people to take out magazine subscriptions. David (Will Forte), the youngest of his two sons, decides to humour his father and drive him to Nebraska as a way of spending time with him, a way of getting closer whilst there’s still time. What the son discovers is what all children no matter how old are shocked to learn about their parents; that they are not defined simply by their relationship to their children; that they are automous beings who have dreams, desires, hopes, histories, and wishes which may predate and extend beyond their offspring; which sometime does not even include them. Nebraska is like a ‘30s Depression movie in its bleak view of America and in some of the wisecracks the mother (June Squibb) gets to utter. It differs in that the wisecracks are sometimes mean-spirited and in that the characters are as bleak, blank and miserable as the conditions of their existence.  It also rather shames itself by having no one on screen as smart as the man behind the camera — the film is spiritually hemmed-in and diminished by a whiff of smugness and self-satisfied superiority towards its subjects . A Cagney, a Davis, a Blondell, any working class prole in front of the camera in the 30s would have punched the highlights right out of Alexander Payne’s hair. But Dern no can do, which is perhaps why, in spite of concerted efforts since the late 60, and no matter how good he is, he’s never become a star. That said, it’s a great performance in an almost great film.

José Arroyo

The Butler (Lee Daniels, USA, 2013)

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A history lesson à la Classics Illustrated – the Scooby-Doo version – on the civil rights of black people in America told through an imaginative depiction of the life of Cecil Gains (Forest Whittaker), a White House butler who worked for eight different presidents, The Butler  is nonetheless at times very moving. Moreover,  the melodramatic story is wittily leavened  by a humor that seems agreeably camp; camp that is enlivening, affirming and all the more pleasurable to see for being unusual in a story that focuses on an African-American family. Whittaker is better at conveying the emotion underneath the mask of blankness when with the presidents than the on-the surface human emotionality when with his family. Oprah Winfrey gets the down-low and sexy dimension of the wife just right, a considerable achievement given who she is and what she represents. There is a pleasure in seeing an all-star cast play these historical characters: when icons impersonate icons does the iconicity  of each combine to jive or jar? I’ll leave it up to you to pick your favorites though I can’t resist mentioning that I was shocked at how Jane Fonda was made up to look, even if she was playing Nancy Reagan. A movie that has nothing to do with the art of cinema but a lot to do with the fulfillment of film’s role as ‘America’s National Theatre’; the way such films make Americans feel they’re taking part in a collective conversation; and the audience’s pleasure in seeing how wigs and costumes are used as a shortcut to period and how an array of actors, many treasured since childhood, are now doing, ‘being’ and enacting.

José Arroyo

Zodiac (David Fincher, USA, 2007)

zodiac

Based on the famed ‘Zodiac Killer’ who operated in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s and whose murders remain unresolved, David Fincher’s film has fantastic set design, marvelous mise-en-scène and complex story-telling. Gyllenhall is adequate as Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist who begins to detect a pattern to the killings. Where the film really breaks down is with Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery, the crime reporter who Graysmith enlists in his quest to solve the murders. Downey Jr. is becoming the ‘Greer Garson Of Our Day’: everything he does is meant to incite a round of applause, he can’t seem to get over the cuteness of each of his actions, and there’s an implicit gracious bow to each part of his performance, like a toreador after each pass of the cape; all  extraordinarily grande-dame-ish and irritating. In spite of Mark Ruffalo, fascinating as always, the casting rather sinks what is otherwise a fantastic movie: gorgeous to look at, marvelously plotted, rather dankly elegant, and with a searing visual intelligence. A film that sadly and ultimately remains unsatisfying but which every film buff should see.

José Arroyo

Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline (Terence Young, USA/West Germany, 1979)

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The credits insist it is Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline so perhaps that is reason enough to blame him for this mess. Sheldon achieved great renown in Hollywood first as a very successful screenwriter (The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer, Easter Parade), then as the creator of hit television shows (I Dream of Jeannie, Hart to Hart) but became a household name as a best-selling author. The L.A. Times called him ‘The King of the Potboilers’. In the 70s, tweens of my generation used to read him in conjunction with Harold Robbins (79 Park Avenue) and Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man) for their melodramatic mix of characters of low origins clawing their way into high living, corporate criminality and purple-y passages of kinky sex. Interestingly many of these bestsellers were turned into highly rated miniseries where the author’s name was usually attached (e.g. Harold Robbins’ 79 Park Avenue). The works of Jacqueline Susann, Jackie Collins and Danielle Steele, at least as popular, are female equivalents, though these have a greater tendency to use showbiz or fashion as background setting.

Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline is directed by Terence Young and the screenplay is credited to Laird Koenig so some of the blame for this failure must go to them. The film feels like a television miniseries of the period but with a very big budget. The locations, the décor, the costumes, not to speak of that extraordinary all-star cast headed by Audrey Hepburn are all top. But the film is a mess right from the beginning.

Romy Schneider's star entrance.
Romy Schneider’s star entrance.

You know a film is in trouble when a secondary character( Romy Schneider) gets a better star entrance than the star, Audrey Hepburn; Romy gets to whizz around a track in a sportscar, win the race, take off her helmet, reveal yet another covering — a beige balaclava — before whipping THAT off and finally bringing into view the wonder that it is ROMY SCHNEIDER guzzling a bottle of  vichy water as if it was overflowing champagne; in contrast, we first see Audrey in a long shot in a museum brushing away at the skeleton of some prehistoric dinosaur looking like an aristocrat playing at housepainter – it’s very Greer Garson-ish grand and a tad embarrassing.

Our first sight glimpse of Audrey.
Our first sight glimpse of Audrey.

You’re convinced the film is heading down the toilet a few minutes later, when it gets  its star and  protagonist to perform the boring but necessary bits of telling the audience what it needs to know about her character. The director doesn’t even bother to get the reaction shots from the person Audrey is telling it to, Ben Gazzara. A better director would have given that exposition to Gazzara, nay a maid or an assistant, and let Hepburn ’emote’ in reaction. Bit players tell, stars do and feel. You can bet Cary Grant wouldn’t have put up with the kind of  treatment Audrey gets here.

I’ve made a point of using the stars’ names rather than the characters’ because the latter remain unknowable to us even after the film ends, and this is only one of the film’s many faults. Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline has a screenplay that tells rather than dramatises. On the one hand, music and direction underline everything for you in case you’re too stupid to get the obvious: on the other, however, smart you are, the film simply doesn’t make sense.

The story is about a super-rich industrialist who gets killed. His daughter (Audrey) inherits a share in the business with her cousins (the characters played by Romy Schneider and Irene Papas; we also know that James Mason is a relation but unsure of what kind). They’re all after money; they’re all suspects in the initial murder; they’re all capable of killing Audrey.

The film plays as a whodunnit, with Gert Fröbe as Inspector Max Hornung, a Poirot-type detective who uses a massive computer instead of his little gray cells to solve crimes. The crime solving takes us  through luxurious locations (Stately Home England, the Paris of Maxim’s and the George V, villas in Sardinia) with a detour via flashback to the Jewish ghetto in  Cracow (where the family business started) and another into the lurid world of pornographic snuff films. It’s all unbelievably trashy but meant to be glamorous and jet-set decadent.

This is a film where most of those involved seem to be at their worst. Terence Young’s direction is a klang of over-statement; the editing has to be amongst the worst in any big-budget production (Bud Molin is credited); the great Freddie Young does no more than make the stars and locations look good (which is not nothing; it’s just not enough); and even Enio Morricone’s contribution is an embarrassing one – a slushy score that a disco beat occasionally pulses into life (as in the drug manufacturing sequence). Also, the movie has that distancing, empty-sounding quality one gets from bad dubbing and the whole film is so poorly put together that Irene Papas, Romy Schneider and Audrey all play cousins but speak in their own accents without any explanation as to why they all sound so different.

Audrey dresses daringly for Ben at Maxim's
Audrey dresses daringly for Ben at Maxim’s

Still even a film as trashy as this has its compensations. Audrey Hepburn looks her age but still beautiful and ever chic, wearing those enormous glasses fashionable in the 70s that in America continue to be associated with Jackie O.

Romy Schneider doesn’t get to do much as the cousin married to a man who likes to stab beetles with pins and watch them slowly die (Maurice Ronet) but she looks stunning, is given a great entrance, and has the most interesting character to play. And of course, there are also James Mason, Irene Paps, Omar Shariff, even Ben Gazzara (though his part calls for a star rather than a very good dynamic actor). This is the type of production where one would expect the likes of Michelle Phillips, who is well cast here. The question is why did the others get involved? I suppose if Sir Laurence Olivier wasn’t too grand to star in Harold Robbins trash like The Betsy (Daniel Petrie, USA, 1978), only the year before this….

Bloodline really is as bad as everyone says and is only for fans of Audrey Hepburn, Romy Schneider or James Mason who, like I, are compulsed to be completists.

José Arroyo

What’s New Pussycat? (Clive Donner, USA, 1965)

Romy Schneider in a Blue Angel Hat but evoking a sweetness and innocence forever outside Dietrich's powers.
Romy Schneider in a Blue Angel hat but evoking a sweetness and innocence forever outside Dietrich’s powers.

Coarse, stupid, vulgar: What’s New Pussycat is a film that speaks its time — a culture on the cusp of a sexual revolution made possible by easily available contraception — and vomits up the most misogynist aspects of it. The film gets its title from Warren Beatty’s customary greeting to the women who phoned him. Beatty was initially set to play the protagonist,  Michael James, a playboy in love with his girlfriend but unable to resist the lure of other women and seeking help for this from a psychiatrist (a role initially set for Groucho Marx but here played by Peter Sellers) who’s got problems of his own.

O'Toole in a dream sequence, whipping away all the women who are after his body
O’Toole in a dream sequence, whipping away all the women who are after his body

In his brilliant biography of Beatty, Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, Peter Biskind writes of how Beatty had three reservations about the project as it was being developed: Woody Allen, who was writing the film, kept enlarging his part, initially just a few lines, at the expense of the protagonist’s; the casting of Capucine, who was then producer Charles K. Feldman’s girlfriend; and lastly, in his own words, that ‘My character had turned into some neo-Nazi Ubermensch who was unkind to women’.

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This is the body Capucine, Paula Prentiss, Ursula Andress and Romy Schneider can’t resist?

Beatty threatened to walk out of the project unless these problems were resolved. Feldman, who was Beatty’s great friend and mentor, shocked him by using Beatty’s threat as an opportunity to re-cast in favour of Peter O’Toole, fresh from Lawrence of Arabia and Becket and then much bigger box-office. But Beatty was right: Woody Allen’s part adds nothing to the story; Capucine is beautiful to look at but painful to watch; and the character of Michael James, even as played by Peter O’Toole, is indeed unkind to women, though not as hatefully as the film itself.

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The kind of film where Ursula Andress parachutes directly into O’Toole’s passenger seat.

The women in the film aren’t people, they’re dolls, some of them barely sentient, designed to fulfill different male fears or desires: there’s the fat Brünhilde (Edra Gale) who sings Wagner as she charges after her husband, Dr. Fritz Fassbender (Peter Sellers); the frigid ‘poetess’ who’s a virgin but only on one side of the Atlantic (Paula Prentiss, redeemed by her expressive low voice, a hoarseness that expresses more humanity than any of the shit she’s made to utter); the nympho with sadistic impulses (Capucine); the dangerous dream with leopard-skin mittens and a shark-skin body-suit who parachutes right onto the hero’s 1936-7 Singer 9 Le Mans racing car (Ursula Andress); and the lusciously pretty hausfrau girlfriend, who suffers, waits, and thinks only of getting a fixed date for her wedding (Romy Schneider, who against all odds, succeeds in making her character into a human being).

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The film loves O’Toole’s blue eyes more than its female stars.

Peter Sellers gets top billing but is an unfunny blank. A young, even boyish, Woody Allen, whose film debut this is, does his usual lascivious schtick. These two comic ‘geniuses’ can barely get a laugh between them, and certainly not one that doesn’t make at least this viewer feel diminished as a human being. The film is more in love with Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes than it is with any of its female stars. We’re meant to find him adorable even when he takes his shirt off to reveal a chest that is both droopy and scrawny or when he dances like a shaky stick howling at the moon begging for rhythm. O’Toole, however, also brings a lovely stillness juxtaposed with bursts of theatricality that both centres and sparks the film and makes it bearable.

Paula Prentiss in paisley
Paula Prentiss in paisley

 

What’s Up Pussycat? was a top-ten box-office success in 1965, the year that The Sound of Music topped the list. Although it is set in France, it very much evokes the look and attitudes of ‘Swinging London’ not only in its inventive visuals (the animated sequence at the beginning) but also formally (the self-reflexive pop elements of the speech purporting to be a vehicle for the author’s thought indicated through a flashing title; the dream sequence). Today it is probably best remembered for Tom Jones’s singing of the title tune. Fans of the Bacharach-David songbook will also enjoy an early version of ‘Little Red Book’ and the great Dionne Warwick singing ‘Here I Am’. Pop fans of the period may also delight in seeing Françoise Hardy crop up as the Mayor’s assistant. Those interested in film history might also see in this producer’s package an early antecedent to the Simpson-Bruckheimer High Concept cinema of the 1980.

In spite of the above, it is very difficult to see What’s Up Pussycat? today except as an exercise in a male privilege so entrenched it is oblivious to its own ugliness.

José Arroyo

Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, USA, 2013)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

José Arroyo

Humpday (Lynn Shelton, USA, 2009)

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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.

José Arroyo

The House at the End of the Street (Max Tonderai, USA, 2012)

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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).

 

José Arroyo

A Note on Woody Allen arising from the reception of Blue Jasmine

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).
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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.

José Arroyo

Upstream Color, A Note on (Shane Carruth, USA, 2013)

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This is what I remember: Young kids drink a brown liquid that seems to give them extra reflexes. A man works from home at his desk scraping blue dust from flowers. He de-roots those flowers to dig up worms: some of them go in one jar, some in the other. The choices seem to be made on the basis that atoms of some break up and turn blue. The scientist then takes those blue worms and puts them into pill casings as if each were a drug. He then forces that drug onto a young woman, hypnotizes her, and when she wakes up from that nightmare induced by the drug/worm is left without a home, a job, a life; she also doesn’t remember why it happened. There’s a sound man, and there are pigs and there are flowers and there are copies of Thoreau’s Walden. Something connects them but I don’t know what that is.

I remember being very moved when the girl, Kris(Amy Seimetz), finds someone like her, Jeff (Carruth), the hesitancy with which they begin to interact, how closed-off they are and needful; how they connect in spite of being scared; how they keep trying to keep the other at bay whilst simultaneously unable to keep themselves from wooing; they share to such an extent they accuse the other of stealing their memories/identities;  how they seem to live in a vacuum of empty hotels and sad motels, each being the only other human connection to the other. This whole part is told in fragments, associative, metaphorical, symbolic but of what I’m not clear on. There are beautiful images of flocks of birds and a repeating phrase – ‘they could be starlings’ that I find oddly haunting.

Thoreau’s Walden seems to be something to figure out and something that links and connects our two protagonists to many other strangers. What does it signify? Have they also been dispossessed of their former selves? The colours white, blue, yellow seem to be important but what of?

I was quite moved but I also remember asking ‘where do the pigs and the sound man and the wild orchids turning blue, and the worm that’s really a drug fit into it?’ yet not wanting to take the trouble to find out.

But then I felt a need to. I looked up The Guardian  but the review was overly literal and I thought the comparisons to Malick, understandable though they are, didn’t quite give me the key into the film that I sought.  David Gritten in The Telegraph writes that he’s now seen it twice, finds it dense, visually gorgeous, poetic but ultimately  finds the film irritating and hard to write about . I know what he means but he did end up writing on it so should have taken greater trouble. The best written review I found to be Richard Brody’sin The New Yorker: ‘Skittering, fragmented editing and glowing images suggest a tenuous hold on reason, and also abysses of irreparable loss; subplots of a sound recordist in search of effects, a pig farm with a special allure for the victims, and recurring phrases from Thoreau’s “Walden” intertwine to yield a vision as vast and as natural as it is reflexively cinematic and fiercely compassionate’. That jives with my experience of the film.

I found the most  informative review to be  Michael Atkinson’s in Sight and Sound. However,  he still warns us that the film he describes, ‘may not resemble the film you yourself see, of course. No film may be quite as contingent on cryptic intimation as Carruth’s, and certainly no film since Eisenstein’s October has relied so categorically on associative editing. You sense that a thoroughgoing metaphysics lies just behind the secretive passage of impressions – which is where, you equally sense, it should remain. Clearly, the film is intended as a tactile experience of poetic ideas, of modern disconnection and biophysical insecurity and existential doubt, and the clarity of these anxieties is bruising and stunning.’

None of these reviewers claim to be able to describe the film they saw as the film you or I might see. All find the film beautiful, poetic, somehow meaningful to them. Not all events or states of mind much less feelings about those events or states of mind are explainable. But Upstream Colour somehow seems to convey them in such a way that it incites the audience to connect them to their own life. It’s quite something when a film can do that. It’s why, without quite feeling I’ve understood Upstream Color, I’ve already had so many interesting conversations about it. I suggest you see it if you can though, if you’re like me, it has to be in a cinema. I would have turned the TV off in ten minutes had I been watching it at home. The cinema context forces your attention and then rewards it. It’s worth taking the trouble.

José Arroyo

Rush (Ron Howard, USA, 2013)

Rush

The film begins almost like a Bond film, Thunderball to be precise: race car driver James Hunt ( Chris Hemsworth) comes into the hospital after being thrashed by an aggrieved cuckold and, before the blood has been cleared from his face,  he’s got his clothes off and he’s got the nurse begging him to do to her what landed him in the hospital in the first place. It’s a playful, cheeky scene where Hunt/Hemsworth, or more precisely that extraordinary body of his,  is positioned by the camera as the nurse’s object of desire whilst the narrative itself positions Hunt/Hemsworth as subject and locus of audience  identification, however aspirational.

Most of the film is set in the 1976 Formula One season and focuses on the competition between Hunt and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) to win the  Formula 1 World Championship. Hunt is handsome, charismatic, impulsive; catnip to women but a real man’s man. Hunt loves the romance of the race, of putting his life on the line purely for the glory and because the adrenaline  cranks up his sex life and makes him feel alive.. Lauda is plain (he’s called ‘rat-face’ in the movie), a loner, careful, methodical. He’s in it because racing is what he sees himself being most successful at; he plays the odds but systematically; he’s warned not to follow Hunt in the sack as he’s told no one can compete but such warnings are wasted as Lauda is really more interested in a home life. The film also shows us that they have more in common than they think; not only their background or talent or the type of women they are attracted to, but the competitiveness and the way each spurs the other on.

In the film’s terms what’s at stake in the contest is symbolized by who will win it. Will it be business or will it be romance? Is it ‘Knights in Shining Armour’ or nuts, bolts and numbers? It’s a neck-and-neck race that does credit to each whilst underlining the necessary interconnection  of both. Even the two very good central performances have a ying/yang dimension: Hemsworth’s star is the one that shines brightest but it is Brühl’s performance that earns our admiration and will undoubtedly get the honours.

The film has a wonderful, distinctive look: slightly grainy, over-saturated with some carefully composed images (some of people sitting on signs) and shots that are thrilling to see almost on their own (e.g. some shots filmed through the inside of a helmet with the visor being drilled on the outside and the actors eye occupying most of one side of the frame).  I initially suspected that it was done that way so as to be able to mix actual footage from the original races into the narrative and, whilst I can’t vouch for that, the effect is to make us think that it could have been. The film evokes the rush, the speed, the fumes and the danger of that time where technological developments in the cars had dangerously begun to overtake the safety mechanisms of the track at the cost, sometimes mortal, of twenty percent of the drivers each year.

Rush is very glamorous. The clothes look wonderful both on the men and particularly on those sleek, long legged women that could have come out of a Roxy Music album from the period (the soundtrack features Jimmy Cliff, Bowie and many other treats). The clothes look different than what I remember people wearing but exactly as the magazines and movies of the period made us wish we could look like, which I suppose is always the gap between street clothes and high-end fashion or,  perhaps more accurately, the gap between how we do in fact end up looking and the promise of how we could, in the best of all worlds and with the very best of budgets, possibly look; Alexandra Maria Lara and especially Olivia Cole fulfil anyone’s dreams and look sublime.

The film works both as a serious drama and also as a sexy action film. The race is a thrilling photo finish in which what’s at stake is not only the win but also a romantic ideal and a set of values. It is slightly marred by an overly sentimental ending. It wouldn’t be a Ron Howard film without at least a small dose of saccharine; but the rest of the film wouldn’t be as good without Ron Howard’s tremendous skill and guiding intelligence either. It’s the kind of movie that used to be made by the  big studios, though they would have considered themselves lucky to produce one of this quality more than once a year. Now, according to the September 13th issue of The Hollywood Reporter, it’s a film that even Ron Howard had to make independently because the big studios wouldn’t touch a mid-budget spectacular chase movie that’s fundamentally character-driven. It’s their loss and, at least in this instance, our gain. Rush is a film to see and experience, and maybe even more than once.

****

It’s been mooted in the internet that American distributors don’t have high expectations for Rush because it’s about Formula 1 racing rather than NASCAR and because it’s about the rivalry between an Englishman and a German (the implicit assumption being that Americans have no interest in anything that doesn’t directly concern them); another view, mine, is that if they can’t drum up business for a sexy, glamorous movie featuring a hot young star  (Chris Hemsworth) coming off a roll of hits (ThorThe AvengersSnow White and the HuntsmanCabin in the Woods); a movie that is choc-a-bloc with car chases as exciting as anything in Fast and Furious films, they should all be fired.

José Arroyo

Any Day Now (Travis Fine, USA, 2012)

Any Day Now

Spoilers Ahead

‘ Love me! I’m such a victim and suffered so much but I won’t take it any longer, I am gay, and I am worthy and I love myself and I will be brave and I shall be released and I will throw in a child with Down’s syndrome and I will make you laugh and cry or kill you with sanctimoniousness’. Any Day Now is THAT kind of movie.

The film is set in 1979, based on a true story and gets its title from the Bob Dylan song, (Any Day Now) ‘I Shall be Released’ . It tells the tale of Rudy Donatello (Alan Cummings), a drag queen who lives next to Marianne Delson (Jamie Anne Allman), a heroin addict and the mother of Marco, a young child with Down’s syndrome. Rudy meets and falls in love with Paul Fliger (Garret Dillahunt), a D.A., just at the moment when Marianne gets arrested. Rudy decides to care for Marco rather than have the child go into social services and gets Paul to help as their own relationship deepens. The rest of the film is a demonstration of how the US justice system valued the maintenance of homophobia over the well-being of a young child with special needs.

Any Day Now is everything I hate in gay movies: smug, superior, like a little moral lesson to a wayward child by a bunch of Miss Know-it-Alls. Alan Cummings has some good bravura moments and a convincing accent. But it also looks like he’s been taking lessons on New York humour from Liza Minnelli, faux-cynical but with a silent drum-roll of a twist, and he can’t stop bloody twinkling and wanting to be loved, even when he’s lip-synching as a drag queen in full Carmen Miranda gear. He even sings a series of numbers (‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’, ‘I Shall Be Released), interspersed throughout the film and meant to evoke the state of feeling of the characters but so trite in choice and in execution that it gives kitsch a bad name.

Travis Fine is very good with actors. In spite of the above, Alan Cummings is at all times riveting, even when he doesn’t need to be. Garret Dillahunt looks like Glen Campbell did in the period and he does evoke a WASP up-tight gaucheness rooted in a settler sense of justice that is in keeping with the character and the time. It was lovely to see the great Frances Fisher back on the screen as the judge as well; and Chris Mulkey is convincingly oily as Paul’s homophobic colleague. There’s also a great performance from Jamie Anne Allman as the mother: she’s very good at conveying different emotions simultaneously and gives off an air of resentment at the injustice of having to take care of a kid like that when she could be getting stoned that reminds me of Jennifer Jason Leigh at her best. And of course, I don’t know if you can call it a performance, but what Fine was able to get from and do with the young Isaac Leyva as the child with Down’s syndrome is quite extraordinary.

The film looks 1979 and, when Cummings isn’t singing, has a wonderful Disco soundtrack. But though the film looks and sounds 1979 and is ostensibly based on real events, it has no idea what being gay in 1979 felt like much less how to convey it. Sometimes when people think they have all the answers, they reveal their ignorance of the questions and this is true of this film.  There’s a moment where Paul isn’t taking Rudy’s phone calls and Rudy goes into the DA’s office, his drag make-up not fully off his face, screaming his name. There’s a reason why the fear of blackmail was so potent in pre-Liberation days. A 1979 Rudy would not have risked the job of someone he ostensibly cares about and someone who is in a position to help him by behaving like that. But here the film asks the viewer to side with Rudy; as if being in the closet in 1979 was the stuff of cowards rather than a way of coping in a homophobic society where discovery often led to jail, loss of livelihood and social ostracism. The film does show Paul losing his job later but the point is that a 1979 Rudy should have known that. And really a 2013 Travis Fine should know that and get us to side with Paul rather Rudy.

The film lacks a historical perspective, a real understanding of people, the choices they had in the period and why and how they might have behaved as they did. It is also extraordinarily manipulative. All it needed was to throw the kid under a bus and the coercion to cry would have been complete, though the filmmakers come close: they tell us the child died under a bridge after four days of wondering alone, in the cold, unattended, and presumably facing every conceivable kind of danger, like Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm. Thankfully they show that off-screen. But just as you’re about to exhale with relief at the small mercy, the film throws in a montage of a letter Paul sends to everyone who prevented the child from having a home, basically blaming them for having killed him: clunky, crude, shameless, disgusting filmmaking.

José Arroyo

What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee/ David Siegel, USA, 2013)

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I have not read Henry James’ novel from which the film is adapted so I’m in no position to evaluate how faithful or true it is to the original novel or how well it is updated. On its own terms, the film is well-intentioned, serious, worthy. If effort were all, it would be wonderful.

The structure is classically symmetrical: Four adults, two younger, two older; four couplings; one dissolves at the beginning, the other begins at the end. One child to be tossed around amongst them.

The structure is filled out by a straightforward story. Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a rock star. Her husband, Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer. The milieu is well-to-do but bohemian Manhattan. The film begins with the end of their relationship and the beginning of their brutal, acrimonious and selfish custody battle over their daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile). Margo (Joanna Vanderham), the nanny, is at all times concerned with Maisie’s feelings and need. She initially offers stability but then gets married to Maisie’s father and becomes caught in the crossfire of Susanna and Beale’s selfish hatred. Susanna also marries someone, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgärd), a tender-hearted hunk of a bartender and, like Margo, considerably younger. By the end of the film, it is Lincoln and Margo, now a couple, who are de facto doing the parenting the biological parents are too self-involved to provide.

How divorce affects a child is not a new theme in American Cinema: Mildred Pearce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), The Parent Trap (David Swift, 1961 and Mancy Meyer, 1998), Kramer vs Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979), Stepmom (Chris Columbus, 1998) and many others have in different ways touched on the theme. But cinema has rarely explored the theme as intricately as What Maisie Knew does. Susanna and Beale profess love for Maisie, and the film is complex enough to show us that they do indeed love their child. However, it also shows us how they see that child mainly in relation to themselves, as an extension, rather than as a separate consciousness and then only in the odd moments they do in fact happen to think of her. Neither acknowledges the child as having needs and indeed feelings outside their own presence or perception.

Susanna and Beale constantly declare their love for Maisie, indeed violently fight with each other for her possession, but the violence of their struggle with each other is itself a demonstration of their lack of duty and responsibility towards the child and of their own egocentrism.  Is love pure feeling or is it feeling made manifest in actions; do you still love your child if you neglect it? How much do you love your child if the fulfillment of your needs is at the expense of theirs? I’m sure Maisie’s father thinks he doesn’t love her less when he decides that his business will go better if he moves back to England and thus really can’t be part of her life, at least not on a regular basis any more. I’m sure Susanna’s career requires that she go on tour. Both parents ‘love’ their child but see themselves in difficult situations in which they think they’re doing the best they can. However, the film shows us they can indeed do much better. And little Maisie knows it.

The film depicts the situation from Maisie’s vantage point literally and figuratively: her point of view is privileged and the camera is often placed at her eye-level to show us the action. Maisie is a warm, open, trusting and intelligent child. She watches and she sees, and slowly we see that she understands much more than a child should, and finally, we realise that she might even know and understand more than her parents. Onata Abrile, big eyes on that baby face, brings to mind Ana Torrent in Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, Spain, 1963), and seeing her is one of the film’s pleasures; her little arms reaching out for whoever’s handy for a hug, the eyes watching and weighed-down by the burden of knowing, and her little hand encased in Skarsgärd massive paw are moments that stay and resonate.

The rest of the performances are variable. Julianne Moore is never for one moment believable as a rock star, and the bit where we see her singing at the studio with what sounds like her voice, is pretty terrible (though of course that hasn’t stopped rock stars from being rock stars in the past); however, that aside, she’s not afraid of playing unlikeable and she screeches at her husband, cheats on her lover, and goes on tour with an abandon that always seems true to the character whilst also enjoyable to watch. She’s also very gentle and affectionate when she’s alone with her girl, and has a truly great moment where she goes to pick up her child from her former nanny and Lincoln and realizes with horror that she now makes Maisie afraid.

Skarsgärd is a pleasure to watch as well. I’ve never seen him this boyish on screen. Graphically, his enormous height contrasts well with tiny Abrile, and both are at their most appealing and vulnerable when shown together. Tender, sweet, responsible; he’s the man Susanna really doesn’t deserve. Joanna Vanderham is technically proficient, very nurturing with Maisie and a good match for Lincoln (what is incomprehensible is why someone so responsible and sensible would take up with Beale). Steve Coogan has been getting good reviews for his playing of Beale but I find him opaque in the part; Coogan traffics, and succeeds in irony, detachment, distanciation. He does technically convey the emotions his character’s supposed to feel but always at a distance; he never lets you in and, perhaps because of that,  you never feel that that character is a person rather than Coogan acting out a set of character traits.

The film has many virtues. It does makes one think about love, relationships, parenting, responsibility and it treats those themes complexly. It has some good performances. Though not visually dazzling, it has some memorable images. The main problem I think is that it is too restrained. It’s dealing with material that borders on the melodramatic and doesn’t want to go there. But restraint in a film such as this should mean not to manipulate the audience falsely into emotion rather than simply abstaining from the attempt altogether. It is often through feeling that films get us to think. The main characters in What Maisie Knew deserve a tear. The film’s unwillingness to grant it feels overly detached and rather cold. A pity.

José Arroyo

We’re The Millers (Rawson Marshall Thurber, USA, 2013)

We're-The-Millers-Poster

Comedy’s a wonderful thing. It can cut the rich and powerful down to size, deflate the pompous, make us question our institutions, our relationships and even ourselves. Nothing is outside its scope; and everyone is always grateful for a laugh; but who or what a work asks us to laugh at, what it asks us to laugh about; and how it makes us laugh can all vary enormously and are grounds on which it may be evaluated.

By such criteria, American movie comedy is in terrible shape. I thought The Heat earned its laughs but trafficked way too much in the crude, the base and the cheap. The level’s just as low in We’re The Millers but the laughs don’t come as quickly or as heartily: it’s all stupid Mexican drug dealers, big black dicks, anal penetration, gay jokes and making fun of lower-middle-class squares who ride in camper vans and pray. Fart jokes are about the only thing missing.

The premise is sitcom-y but serviceable; drug dealer David Clark (Jason Sudelkis), Rose O’Reilly (Jennifer Aniston) the stripper next door,  Kenny (Will Poulter), a latch-key kid who also lives in the building but whose mom has run off, and Casey (Emma Robets) the local homeless girl, pretend to be a family in order to smuggle drugs from Mexico into the US. Of course, as they pretend to be a family so they become one; and the film serves a stodgy mix of sentimentality, shoot-outs, and car-chases all stirred with a barrage of jokes and gags: some of them hit.

We’re the Millers never raises itself above the gutter. Though the audience I saw it with couldn’t help but chuckle; indeed, we’re so hungry for a laugh, we may be grateful for anything that approximates it, watching the film is a sad affair.

Jennifer Aniston’s very fit, but all her mannerisms are known to us from Friends, a connection Anniston’s been trying to run away from for the last twenty years but which the film exploits in the gag reel at the end. Rose is not a character; she’s simply Rachel, twenty-years later, reduced to stripping, smuggling, worse jokes and cheaper gags.

Sudelkis and Poulter are new to me and a bright spot in the film; Sudelkis has an intelligent, emotionally open face that can look straight at the audience right through the camera and then go right back into the situation (accent on situation — there’s nothing dramatically believable here) without missing a beat; and he’s got an ear for speaking that beat: his timing’s ace. Will Poulter is an even happier discovery; the audience I saw the film embraced everything he did; he’s emotionally transparent, and though he’s got the gauche, thin physique of an adolescent, he moves gracefully and manages to maintains his and the character’s dignity even when a director sends a tarantula up his trousers. He’s a real find and could become a big new star if judiciously cast.

Director Rawson Marshall Thurber has a good ear for a joke and a good eye for a gag but I wish he’d use that eye and that ear to better ends than We’re the Millers.  American cinema used to make us laugh whilst also making us want to be like the people we were laughing at and with; it satirized the culture whilst making us yearn to be a part of it. You’ll laugh at the Millers and their world; but you wouldn’t want be them and you certainly wouldn’t like to live as and where they do.

José Arroyo

Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, USA, 2013)

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In Elysium, rich people have extracted everything they can from earth and made it so dirty, dangerous, ugly and poor in the process that they refuse to live in it. They’ve created a satellite colony, Elysium, where only they can live. It’s like Earth is East LA and Elysium is a super-rich gated community like Beverly Hills. We are introduced to our protagonist Max de Costa (Matt Damon) as a boy, an orphan brought up by nuns in a slum along with Frey (Alice Braga). He’s very intelligent but he’s always in trouble with the law.  His dream is to get to Elysium. As the film gets underway in 2154, he’s on probation, a sentence which gets extended because, in his time like in ours, a poor man can’t even get sarcastic with a law enforcer without paying for it, even if the officer is a machine.

Max has got a shit job, no guaranteed shifts, and he’s made to do hazardous work at the risk of getting fired. As a result, he gets radiation poisoning; but the machines that can cure everything are only available to the 1% living in Elysium. Frey, his childhood companion and not-quite-requited love, is now a nurse. She has a daughter with leukemia who also needs urgent access to those cure-all machines. Max has five days to live, five days to act and try and save himself and the child of his childhood love.

At the same time, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the Secretary of Defense for Elysium is planning a re-boot of the whole system to stage a coup and accede to total power. Max allows himself to be turned into a cyborg so that a hard drive can be fitted into his brain and an exoskeleton grafted onto his body to give himself enough strength to fight for his life.  Can Max steal this programme, reboot the system so that everyone on earth gets re-enfranchised as citizens and get free healthcare for all, including himself and Frey’s daughter? That’s the film’s plot, a good one, and one in dialogue with key works in the genre: the novels of Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson; but also Lang’s Metropolis, the Robocop films, the Terminator Films, Total Recall, Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic.

Although the plot is serviceable, it’s badly structured. We expect Max’s nemesis to be Delacourt but Damon barely gets to exchange a line with Foster. There are three villains in this film: Delacourt, who is motivated by fascist ideals of strength and security at any cost: John Carlyle, the super-rich industrialist who invented and designed Elysium’s security system and who owns the company that manufactures police robots that Max works for and whose main motivation is mere money; and Kruger, a covert mercenary who Delacourt has on tap to do her dirty work whenever it suits her. Delacourt signifies power though it is illusory in that she relies on others to carry out her commands. Carlyle is rampant capitalism, and his function is to first show his disdain for people and then to have the knowledge that is the basis of his wealth taken from him by Max (William Fichtner gives a superb, very still, dry and funny performance). Max’s true enemy, the one he has to fight throughout the film so that he can achieve his goals, is really Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a covert mercenary, who represents brute and destructive chaos in the service of power.

If Carlyle is a mere plot point, Delacourt is bare symbol. The film could have lost most of her story-line without losing much; and the film is further imbalanced by having Jodie Foster play the character. It’s not that she’s bad, indeed I find her excellent; she doesn’t have much of a character to play with, any in fact; but she makes the most out of the little she’s got with minimal gestures and the kind of accent one imagines in white supremacists. It’s just that she’s Jodie Foster! Everyone under fifty has grown up with her. We know her as the tomboy in the Disney films, the underage prostitute in Taxi Driver, her great Tallullah in Bugsy Malone, the woman for whose attention John Hinckley shot Reagan, and from The Silence of the Lambs until Julia Roberts career picked up again after My Best Friend’s Wedding in 1997, the only female star in Hollywood who could carry a film on her own. When one sees a great actress and a legendary star top-billed in a movie one expects to see more than a cliché making a few phone calls to her minions. Further, I suspect that the nastier aspects of what Delacourt symbolises are drawing on those elements of Foster’s star persona that intersect with the audience’s knowledge of her as a lesbian; and to me, the film’s misuse of Foster feels like a betrayal.

Elysium has a problem in maintaining tone as well. The early child-hood scenes are sappy, and as is illustrated by Sharlto Copley’s performance as Krugor, the film wavers uncomfortably wildly between realism and melodrama. This extends to the whole film. For example, the dystopian world the film depicts is gritty and ‘realistic’. It could be any third-world metropolis (I understand Mexico DF was used a location), or even parts of the US today. The technology is futuristic but the buildings, workplace, lifestyles are all too recognizable. However, the people are not, or not quite, and it should be the other way around.

If who the characters are, what they feel and what they hope for are something we know and can identify with then the external world can be as odd and different as imagination can make it. But here, though the structure of the story is melodramatic, and the tone in which its told also at least touches on the melodramatic, the film itself doesn’t allow for the identification or provide the release essential to melodrama. We know what is at stake in Max’s quest but we’re not able to feel it with him. It seems that Hollywood cinema has given up on trying to make audiences cry and simply retired one of its greatest pleasures and a central element of its art over to television, much to its detriment.

Elysium is a liberal sci-fi film. Let’s not overestimate what that means, sci-fi has been one of the few genres in which Hollywood cinema has allowed any kind of political critique (Oblivion is but the most recent example). It’s as if it’s ok to offer social critique on film so long as it applies to the future and not to the now. But let’s not underestimate what that means either. The less integral American cinema is to American culture, the greater the critique allowed. However, this is as potent a demonstration of de-facto disenfranchisement and as clear an argument for universal health-care as I remember seeing.

Elysium, like the recent 2 Guns, is another example of how race is being re-signified in American cinema. Why is Max’s surname De Costa? Why are most of the supporting characters Latin American (not only Alice Braga but also Walter Moura; and Diego Luna brings a burst of sparkle every time he appears)? Why is there so much dialogue in Spanish (it sometimes feels close to a bilingual film). Why does the film side with those poor people trying to enter Elysium just the same way Hispanics try to cross into the US border from Mexico? It’s like Elysium is Versailles, the Hispanics are the sans-culottes, and the film is showing why storming Versailles and brining on the revolution is a good and necessary thing. That’s quite something in a big-budget American film.

Visually, Elysium is a masterpiece. The first few panoramic shots showing us the contrast between earth and Elysium are extraordinary, you can even see people moving in their lush gardens as the camera circles and moves through the Elysium satellite. There are also some shots of Jodie Foster seated in her control console that are breathtaking achievements in shot composition. Matt Damon’s transformation into a cyborg (indeed the whole design of his look for the film), a shot of a robot exploding in slow motion and the villain’s face being re-composed after its been blown off are also indelible visual moments. However, there is also too much hand-held camera throughout the film. I saw it in IMAX and the camera bopping up and down constantly on such a huge screen and in such detail was unpleasant and dizzying. However, that didn’t put me off seeing it twice; it was even more beautiful the second time around; and I suspect it’s a value, a very considerable one, only truly visible on a big screen. Don’t be put off by the reviews (perhaps including mine); it’s very much worth seeing.

José Arroyo

Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2012)

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There’s a complex rich movie to be made about the price men pay when they choose to commodify themselves as sexual objects for money; Magic Mike doesn’t explore the theme with any great depth but it is brilliant at depicting the world of male strippers and what choosing to become one might feel like and lead to. The director is having a good time (all those unusual abrupt endings) but I’m not sure the audience is; I certainly didn’t; though like the majority of the people at the theatre, I was very keen to see the display and, if outright fun is denied us, then a much more complex treatment of the subject would have been appreciated.

People turn themselves into sex objects for easy money and lose their youth and future choices in a sea of drugs and easy sex. Big deal. We’ve seen this before. The only difference is that now it’s men rather than women; and that difference — how men charging for a peek at their package, for their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, affects their masculinity, that which should have been central to the film’s exploration — is largely bypassed.  The film is too much about the phallus as fun and too little about the effect on those reduced to nothing but its symbolizing function (and only the non-threatening aspects). I would have liked to see more about the tension between the lead characters’ merchandising of the phallus and their own awareness of the fragility of the penis.

Channing Tatum’s  got a sculpted body, very lean and lithe, and he moves energetically, but he looks and moves as if enshrouded in a cloud of depression: ‘bitchy-resting face’ on him would seem sparkly. Either he’s never heard of fun or he’s had so much of it already the serotonin has been all used up. Mathew McConaughey is playing the equivalent of the wise-old-whorehouse-madam roles Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford were reduced to near the end of their careers and his success in this part  started a career revival that seems in no danger of abating. Alex Pettyfer is lovely to look at and very good; he looks like a model from Attitude but walks like the guy in the pub who’s always yelling ‘oy, mate!’ just before barfing. I felt sorry for Joe Mangianello who reportedly cut his price in order to work with such a distinguished director only to be asked to take off his clothes, oil himself up and get in the background just in front of the extras.

Magic Mike was a big box-office hit and made many critics’ top-ten list at the end of the year. I wished I’d liked it more or at least only a little less than friends I respect who are positively rabid about the film. Perhaps its mysteries will reveal themselves once I see it again on DVD.

José Arroyo

2 Guns (Baltasar Kormákur, USA, 2013)

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If film-going were still a simple leisure activity –easy, cheap, the kind of thing one did to while away a Saturday afternoon in between shopping; or as I did as a kid, the place you went to for a bit of fantasy and glamour whenever you felt like it — you’d walk in in the middle of the film and stay until the film re-started again and took you to where you came in; and then, if you liked it, you sat some more and saw it again — if film-going were still like that, rather than the expensive, troublesome, special event its become, then I’d recommend 2 Guns.

The film clearly set out to be an A-minus genre piece. You can imagine someone pitching the concept: a heist movie crossed with a buddy film but with a twist:  the crooks who pull the job, Bobby(Denzel Washington) and Stig (Mark Wahlberg) are really DEA and Navy, and the money they steal is not the Mexican mob’s but the CIA’s.

In 2 Guns no one is who they claim or who they seem to be –Deb (Paula Patton), that beautiful girl Bobby meant to like is double-crossing him with Stig’s prettier boss, Quince (James Marsden). In fact everyone will double-cross everyone. Each betrayal allows the plot a shoot-out, a car chase or both. At the end, the two stars will walk arm-in-arm into the sunset but not before one shoots the other in the leg, partly to even out something that happened earlier but also to eliminate any funny ideas people might have.

I experienced the film as an enjoyable trifle: as befits a comic-book adaptation, it has a handsome, mindfully sparse look; the compositions of a noir but the colour palette of a comic book influenced by noir (browns, blacks, grainy bright yellows); it has Denzel Washington, the most charismatic of contemporary stars (of the other contenders, Will Smith tries too hard — you’re frightened he’ll hip-hop onto your living room ceiling if he got even the slightest whiff it might please you; and there’s something oleaginous and slightly dishonest about George Clooney’s charm – like he’s trying to trick you into liking the he that he is not).

It also has Mark Wahlberg, looking like an inflated galumph; as if he were an ordinary Joe trying to get fit but instead getting fat on the wrong protein shakes;  but with those sad, knowing, little eyes of his telegraphing that he’s not as dumb as he sounds. His voice, gentle, low but thin, an expressive counterpoint to the power implied by his body, always hits the right note when he’s got a joke to put across.

Washington and Wahlberg, play off each other with rhythmic ease; they give and take on the lines, battle it out for the camera’s focus on the two-shots. You never get the sense they’re playing real people, they’re big stars trying to outdo each other and trying to entertain us; they’re both slightly past their prime physically which perhaps makes one even more aware of just how good they are and how rare their skill.

The film delivers on what the advertising promises. In fact it does better than that. Edward James Olmos is terrific as the Mexican gang-Lord: greying, measured, gravitas backed up by weaponry, and with principles, the only ones the film has on offer. Bill Patton is just as good, all southern charm laced with sadism. Lovely to see Fred Ward also, as the Admiral who plays by a set of rules different to Stig’s. And James Marsden seems to have found his calling as the bad guy. He’s the type of star who’s so good looking and so pleased with himself you always wish someone would smack him; when he plays the bad guy, somebody does! He should play bad guys more often.

As I was walking home after the movie, I thought, ‘it’s ok’; and then I began mulling on how interesting the film was ideologically; it criticizes all the institutions, CIA, DEA etc. It’s a corrupt world through and through; where the only relationships are instrumental, where people mean to love but end up betraying or marrying up and for money. The film’s message is clear: the only thing that matters is taking care of the guy next to you. Moreover, 2 Guns felt like the first of these interracial buddy films were race didn’t really seem to figure as an issue  (compare to the 48hr films) and I don’t think it’s only because Bobby is white in the original comic book.  Race is currently being re-signified in American cinema and this is a good example of how it’s happening. I haven’t quite worked through these ideological implications; I’m not even sure they’re worth working through; but by the time I’d got home the film seemed richer, more suggestive, at least worth a think.

And then, by the time I started writing this, I thought, people might not go to the pictures as they used to but maybe the way we consume films might not be that different: Pop the DVD in, see a bit of it, if you like it see it several times. And really, the real test is that unlike most films, some whom I initially thought more highly of, I would see 2 Guns again when it comes out on DVD: It looks good, moves well, the actions scenes are competent, and it delights with expertly exchanged banter, a few good jokes, and two stars showing each other and the audience why they’re stars. Moreover, the supporting cast is made-up of people who normally headline and are here at their best. Plus it seems to have interesting things to say. When did I get so picky?

2Guns_2ndShot_CVRJosé Arroyo

The Wolverine (James Mangold, USA, 2013)

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You gift filmmakers a fantastic imaginary world, characters that are mythic yet three-dimensional, wonderful actors who can play them; and you get…. The Wolverine? It doesn’t seem a fair exchange. The story is good if predictable but structured around dream sequences with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) that don’t quite work; the set-pieces are sometimes very imaginative (I love the tactile bed we see in the trailer) and there is a truly superb villain in The Viper (a magnificent Svetlana Khodchenkova). For fans of the comic book, the fact that the story is set in Japan, will also have special resonance (and the way Japan is designed for this film makes for a joyous setting). The film seems to have all the ingredients for a great film but everything seems slack, even the humour seems off-rhythm and badly timed, the punch-line arriving after the audience’s already got the joke.

It’s a proficient movie but I didn’t feel moved or thrilled; and the film never once made me feel part of a somewhat embittered community of the alienated and disaffected who shared higher morals and ideals than the world depicted, the way the various x-men comic books at their best did. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about declining audiences and the industry trying to figure out whether it’s changing ways of viewing, or marketing, or delivery platforms. But really they should look at the films; all the big-budget ones seem to be made by a transnational committee and by-the-book but also by-passing feeling altogether; and if films don’t engage with dreams, hopes, aspiration, conditions of existence or the way people think and feel, see and/or experience, what’s the point of them (other than to make one feel a feeder for some corporation’s bank-balance)? And I suppose that’s the problem with this film; it’s ok but so what? And that in itself is a condemnation of the present industry because these are great characters in a superb imaginary world that audiences have loved and identified with for decades and the filmmakers have been given a lot of money to turn it all into a movie. If ok but so what is the response you get, you didn’t deserve to get to make the movie.

José Arroyo