UK

The Lady in the Van (Nicholas Hytner, UK, 2015)

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the lady in the van

It seems a sin that Maggie Smith’s performance in Lady in the Van — surely one of the very greatest in living memory — be showcased in as drab-looking, poorly directed, and stagily-structured film. Alan Bennett — Mr. Modest, Mr. Timid and Mr. Professional Yorkshireman — also turns out to have an ego the size of the Twin Towers, appearing in four different guises throughout the film, two as himself doubled by excellent impersonations from Alex Jennings, one as one of the Alex Jennings Bennetts appearing in ‘Talking Heads’ at The National, and yet one more time, as the real Alan Bennett coming to greet the fictional Alan Bennett as he’s shooting a film about Alan Bennett, like the coy milking of applause by an ageing diva, half-hiding behind the fan of her previous celebrity, saying ‘no, please, little old me?’ with one hand and urging the audience to amp up the applause with the other. It’s shameless.

There are lots of laughs, almost all from Smith, and lots that is unspeakably bad, almost all due to Hytner, who doesn’t seem to know the basics of using a camera, or lights or sound or editing; and who uses the device of the two Alan Bennetts speaking to each other – an old trick that is hoary now even on stage – without any imagination as to sight or sound on film and is a device that holds up the narrative. Also, there’s so much reading of narration (all timid Bennett’s of course as read by modest Bennett) you sometimes wonder whether the filmmakers remembered they were making a movie. Maggie Smith, star that she is, survives, rises above all this naff incompetence, and in my humble view gives the finest comic performance on film since Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin, in spite of the director who doesn’t know how to showcase her, and in spite of a writer who tries to push her out of the picture to make room for himself.

The film rewards viewing as an embodiment and prime exemplar of the many negative qualities historically ascribed to British cinema and as a lesson to future filmmakers in what to avoid.

José Arroyo

 

 

The Class of ‘92 (Benjamin Turner, Gabe Turner, UK, 2013)

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The Class of 92

For the few who might not know, The Class of ’92 was a group of kids who loved football, were recruited by Manchester United at an early age, rose up the ranks of the youth teams, and finally made the first team. In 1992, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville won the FA Youth Cup. Paul Scholes was an FA Youth Cup finalist in 1993 and Phil Neville, Gary’s brother, captained the team to the FA Youth Cup in 1995. Collectively they’re referred to in this film as the Class of ’92 that went on to win the Double (FA Cup and the League Title) in 1996 and the Treble (the double plus the Champions League ) in 1999. The central narrative is to prove how wrong Alan Hansen was when he asserted that ‘You can’t win anything  with kids’ and to show what good friends these kids were and continue to be.

 

The film is an unabashed exercise in nostalgia and mythmaking. Tony Blair appears to praise the achievements of the players but also to big up the Blair Years in which those achievements took place. Danny Boyle who know a thing or two about legends, iconicity and the mobilizing of imagery into myth-making, speaks here about what Man U meant to his family and what the success of the club meant to the city. Mani of The Stone Roses and Primal Scream waxes nostalgic about Manchester in those times and lyrical about the players’ achievements. It’s like mixing Louis VIX’s search for ‘la gloire’ with some ‘I was born in a schack’ US narrative of success brought about by will and work and discipline.

 

As a movie, it’s not much. As an analysis, it’s pretty basic – we don’t understand anything any better than we did at the beginning of the film. Plus I’m pretty sick of all the bloody nostalgia for the ‘Hacienda’ days which to me is just old men kidding themselves that their youth was better than anybody else’s. However, it’s a very enjoyable watch for football fans. These icons speak to each other like the friends they are and seem human and knowable in their interactions.  Moreover, we get to see some of the great moments in football of the last two decades and get the perspective of those who created them. Cantona, who’s now acting in movies, appears in order to praise. Zinédine Zidane, more glamorous and charismatic than all the rest of them put together, also pops up to eulogize. As a movie, it’s something one might have expected Sky Sports to quickly paste up for endless replay. But it must be said that the reason these types of films re-play is because we simply can’t get enough of them.

 

Zidane on Paul Scholes
Zidane on Paul Scholes

José Arroyo

The Woman in Black (James Watkins, UK, 2012)

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The Woman in Black

*Major Spoiler*

Daniel Radcliffe is surprisingly good as Arthur Kipps, the young solicitor whose life is unraveling due to the death of his wife in childbirth. He goes up North and into a haunted house. Every time ‘The Woman in Black’ is seen, a child dies. Radcliffe finds the reasons for this and hopes to put an end to it by reuniting ‘The Woman in Black’ with the child that was taken away from her (her revenge for her child being taken away from her is to take other people’s children). However, it doesn’t work and at the end Radcliff dies with his child. There is some very good direction by James Watkins. I particularly like the device that Radcliffe’s p.o.v doesn’t see exactly what we do until the end. Those initial moments where we see what he doesn’t are what begin the suspense and scariness in a film that barely throws a chill during the first half. The cinematography by Tim Maurice Jones is lovely, particularly the helicopter shots where you see them kind of imprisoned in this desolately beautiful landscape.  Screenplay is credited to Jane Goldman and is based on Susan Hill’s famous novel. I liked it but not as much as my friends did.

José Arroyo

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (Sophie Fiennes, UK/ Ireland, 2012)

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A  clever and funny film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology  basically amounts to an illustrated lecture on ideology taking excerpts from a wide variety of films (The Sound of Music, The Searchers, They Live, If, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket by Kubrick, also two from Forman, Loves of a Blonde and Fireman’s Ball) as case studies with which to illustrate aspects of Slavoj Žižek’s thinking on the subject.

The readings of the films are always entertaining but unsubstantiated and he could easily have said the exact opposite had he chosen to —  he offers no proof either way. One can imagine him adding to the ‘perversity’ of it all by saying something completely different about the films and being just as funny, just as provoking and just as clear on his own thinking; the choice of films is amusing but so personal and idiosyncratic as to seem ad-hoc.

The exposition of the thinking, however, is always stimulating and almost too Cartesian, beginning with a central idea, breaking it down, juxtaposing it with its opposite and then guiding one through a dialectic that sees no contradiction in bringing together desire and historical materialism, the self and the social, the unconscious, the repressed and the other invisible forces that act on us, materially, such as forces and relations of production, and us once more, this time via the social, through the circulation of value in commodity culture.

And why would Žižek of all people seek, much less find, such contradiction? As far back as 1989, in The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek was already writing that, ‘there is a fundamental homology between the interpretative procedure of Marx and Freud – more precisely between their analysis of commodity and of dreams.(p. 11).’ They’re both attempting to make manifest what is otherwise invisible and which not only act on us but in effect create the us we think we are. Movies are almost an embodiment of such issues and concerns: the dream commodity, the viewing machine that commodifies our dreams, the dreams that commodify our desires.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology has a really interesting exposition of how the first part of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ has been used as a unifying anthem throughout the political spectrum, internationally, and across the twentieth century. At the end of the film, there’s an equal interesting speculation on the notion that ‘without God, everything is permitted’. Žižek claims that the debate prompted by the notion was begun by Sartre in the 40s (in Existentialism is a Humanism) as a central question on Existentialism from a misquoting of Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. One can understand why Existentialism with its focus on individual responsibility in relation to ethical action would have to address the issues that religion had previously provided a framework for. However, Andrei I. Volkov disputes that Sartre misquoted Dostoyevsky and makes a very persuasive argument that Dostoevsky did in fact say what Sartre attributed to him  though it shouldn’t be taken as an axiom or even as a hypothesis.

The point here is not to discuss Sartre or Dostoyevsky but merely to note that Žižek is not to be relied upon for facts and rigour. However, as a polemicist, he reigns supreme and the film is funny and thought-provoking.  The way he looks, all crumpled up, as if he fell asleep in his clothes last night and has just awoken, and with huge black circles under his eyes, like he’s read so much his mind is a whirl of almost coherent ideas, is funny; as is the emphatic harshness with which that low and somewhat raspy voice of his enunciates.

I’m also glad that ideology as a concept is once again being discussed after all these years of postmodernist emphasis on the partial, the instertitial, the liminal etc.all of which have a narrower focus and whose purpose is of course decimating grand narratives. He shows how those grand narratives nonetheless persist and affect. He doesn’t do a good job of explaining it all and it’s more the work of a provocateur than a thinker. But I liked the provocation very much.

As an added treat, the film places him within the setting of those movies he discusses, Travis Bickle’s bedroom from Taxi Driver say or the military barrack from Full Metal Jacket, which is a way of setting him in the midst of the desires those films enflamed and the ideas they propagated and is a stroke of genius. Another excellent byproduct of the film is that it makes you want to see the films he’s discussing, some of them again, some for the first time (in my case I’m now desperate to see Seconds, the early Forman films and They Live). So all in all, it’s funny, it makes you think, and it makes you want to see more movies — a successful use of 2 and  a 1/2 hours for me.

José Arroyo

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Sunshine on Leith (Dexter Fletcher, UK, 2013)

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Sunshine on Leith is all ‘rah-rah Scotland’, tartanry, and views of Edinburgh so pretty they wouldn’t be out of place on shortbread tins. It’s got men being ‘macho’ in a ‘trying-too-hard’ kind of way, rather like Gene Kelly in Brigadoon, but with military accoutrements and beer to add to the posturing. It’s also got communal singing in pubs; and Scottish dancing in social clubs and inside the National Gallery of Scotland; and outside of  it, on Princess Street by Waverley Station; in fact it’s got quite good singing and quite bad dancing from beginning to end, punctuated by fistfights , melodrama and romance.

Whether you like  the film or not will depend on how you feel about the music of The Proclaimers (meh for me) and on how well you tolerate melodrama (I generally love it). Peter Mullan is great as the father and he’s got a very moving solo singing ‘Oh Jean’ in a deep gruff voice. Jane Horrocks with her pinched face and high voice is less offensive than usual though the plot attributes all kinds of unreasonableness to her. Paul Brannigan, first seen by me inThe Angel’s Share  and already something of a symbol of Scottishness, has a nice cameo as a former squaddie who’s now a paraplegic and whose sole purpose in the film is to act as a  ‘There but for the grace of God…’ figure to the rest of the boys. The film has a very appealing young cast who can sing (but it’s those songs). They can’t dance , even though the film calls on them to do so quite often, but  they move well and a good flash mob hides a multitude of sins.

There’s none of the visual expressiveness one expects of musicals .Yet the feeling of communal utopia is laid on thick and shamelessly, though not without charm. There’s bound to be lots written on it, maybe just as much as there was on Gregory’s Girl or Trainspotting. The current Scottish films (and this includes Filth) aren’t as good but the politics of the moment and what these films express about them are perhaps more interesting. What problems is ‘Sunshine on Leith’ providing imaginary resolutions to? Well, Scottish Independence seems to figure centrally if not overtly. The film seems to be saying that you can go out for adventure but home is best, even if you work in a call centre. England is visualized as a lovely girl of Asian descent who gets together with strong and proud Scotland. But though he would walk 500 miles, and he would walk 500 more, the door he’s planning to fall on is high up, by Leith, near Edinburgh Castle and not too far from the Highlands, and according to Sunshine on Leith, the best, and certainly the prettiest, of all possible worlds.

In spite of the corn of it all, the patriotism, and some degree of …perhaps not ineptitude…more like a lack flair and imagination, it’s nice to see a British musical. I don’t remember ever seeing a Scottish one.  And you do leave the cinema humming, even if what you’re humming is rather clod-hoppy and crude.

José Arroyo

 

Filth (John S. Baird, UK, 2013)

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I really liked Filth though I’m not sure it works. James McAvoy is at each instance both believable and extraordinary as a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But the arc of the performance doesn’t cohere: he keeps the audience onside whilst he does the most heinous things but he doesn’t make us feel for nor empathise with his character. Filth does have a very interesting structure, however, alternating between the  external manipulations of Detective Sargeant Robertson (McAvoy) to lie, cheat, fuck and blackmail his way into a promotion and the internal state of mind of someone who’s drinking too much and taking too many drugs as a way of mourning a relationship. The film is structured so that the first part seems more about the scheming to get a promotion, with all the attendant shenanigans,  whilst the latter part unfolds seamlessly into an investigation into Robertson’s state of mind; but with the process of solving the problem leading to surprise twist, where the ‘solution’ to the conundrum  is revealed as interiority externalised. It’s all very cleverly done and rather thrilling.

The film does make a nasty character doing nasty things seem very funny.  However, It is  not very appealing to look at nor is it very expressive with its look; the image has  too much white which makes what I’m sure is a deliberate graininess unappealing in spite of the film’s full use of  colour (someone’s been experimenting a tad too much during the colour-correction stage of the process).  There’s clearly been an attempt to make interesting images, although in a very theatrical way that can tend towards the artificial: all the imagined pigs and beasts etc. might have been designed for a student production. Yet Filth is also very witty and unafraid . It dares to wink at us directly through McAvoy and indirectly through all kinds of quotations. The viewer will immediately compare Filth to Trainspotting; the film asks us to do the same in relation to A Clockwork Orange: neither comparison flatters Filth.

McAvoy recently seems to be specializing in interesting projects that don’t quite come off: Filth is his third such this year after Welcome to the Punch and Trance. But it is also the best and most enjoyable of the bunch.  The acting throughout is superb with Eddie Marson and Shirley Henderson almost stealing the show as a shy henpecked accountant and his baby-voiced bully of a wife.  Jamie Bell also stands out in his first portrayal as a man rather than a boy. He’s always interesting in what on the surface might, at least initially, seem a bland role; and he gets even more interesting as he’s given more to play with later in the film. It’s also a brave choice of a role for Bell if  he’s still hoping for a star’s career as it’s a one that might be dredged up for a poke and a smear in the future.

I’m not sure Filth will satisfy fans of Irvine Welsh or even fans of Trainspotting. But it’s a very clever film with brilliant and daring performances. It moves quickly and thrillingly and succeeds in getting laughs with very dark material. Filth is also clearly a must for anyone interested in Scotland or Scottish culture; but then I think Filth should be of interest to practically everyone.

José Arroyo

Great Expectations: (Mike Newell, UK, 2012)

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Great Expectations

The story is still enthralling and affecting but David Lean’s 1946 film with John Mills, Jean Simmons and Martita Hunt remains the cinematic benchmark. This version renders the Gothic dimension of the story  well and it’s visually interesting. However, director Mike Newell has no feel for melodrama. His version of Dickensian London is all grimness; the delights of the era are shown to us as merely gross, excessive, and yet somehow not up to current standards. As is to now to be expected, the cast is stellar (Helena Bonham-Carter, Ralph Fiennes Jason Flemyng amongst many others); and it’s wonderful to see this bunch of actors tackling classic roles — all do well with the exception of Helena Bonham-Carter: asking her to do Gothic is like asking Carmen Miranda to put a little more oomph in her cha cha. Her Miss Havesham is a camp caricature and her failure in that part becomes the film’s; for if one can’t understand, empathise and feel something for Miss Havesham at the end, the drama loses an important dimension (though Ralph Fienne’s  Magwitch somewhat compensates). Robbie Coltrane, however, is absolutely great — the very best Mr. Jaggers I’ve ever seen; so good that his cool pragmatic heartlessness comes to dominate our memory of the film and is thus also emblematic of how and why it fails. A cool, academic, rather heartless exercise.

José Arroyo

Byzantium (Neil Jordan, UK/USA/ Ireland, 2012)

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A vampire movie that doesn’t scare, doesn’t thrill, doesn’t arouse and isn’t romantic cannot be counted a success. And yet, I feel I wouldn’t mind seeing Byzantium again. First of all, there’s a really interesting and attractive cast that brings something quirky and off-center to the material: the preternatural stillness of Saoirse Ronan, the way Jonny Lee Miller can turn his face to a profile shot and all of a sudden go from syphilitic middle-aged man to everyone’s idea of a cruelly sadistic ‘Mills and Boon’ archetype, or the way Gemma Arterton’s cheekbones and accent permit her to get away with a line like ‘let’s kiss in celebration of my wickedness’; or simply the sound of Sam Riley’s voice. And those are just the leads: there’s also Daniel Mays and Thure Lindhart and Caleb Landry Jones; all doing rare and  interesting things with their body language and line-readings. The acting in the film is a fascinating  ‘Experiment in Performing Gothic Now’. Lots of risks are taken and not all of them pay off but it’s riveting.

The film depicts a once grand, now seedy, seaside town in the Regency period and in the present, above and below ground. It also comments on the roles of men and women; then and now; in daytime and at night; in the seaside, in the town, and beyond; when they’re got souls and when they haven’t.  Women then and now are shown to be at the mercy of men. We see them soliciting under the docks or fucked to exhaustion on billiard tables; we see them in Jane Austen gowns and in fuck me pumps; We see them giving birth in dirty beds or being born in streaming waterfalls, and it is significant that both types of birth are bathed in blood. Everything is shown at an oblique angle, through skylights or through the bars of windows and lifts, partially and at odd angles, that shows us intensely and richly coloured areas of a world obscured in darkness, and blurred by motion. Visually, the film dazzles and earns its name: it’s deeply coloured, there’s an orientalism to its conception (as there is to Dracula’s), and one is only shown things  partly, tangentially, obliquely because they’re mysterious, unknown and perhaps unknowable.

The film is tautly structured as a process of revelation.  Two women: one a whore, the other a prissy young girl who was bred for other things; one an angel bent on vengeance, the other an angel of mercy; one who wants to keep her secrets, the other who wants to write hers out. One a mother, the other a daughter; both raped by the same man: both chased by an order which wants to deny women the right of giving life. Moira Buffini’s screenplay, based on her play, is really a model of structure. Two thirds of the way through, the film seems to run out of steam, as if the marvelously structured screenplay and its dazzling telling, seemingly perfectly aligned initially, had each leapt into different and discordant dimensions.

The film directly references Hammer films but is too serious to offer the same pleasures (though it does have Arterton glorying in a waterfall of blood, an image worthy of any Hammer Horror). But the film’s very seriousness, which in some ways is a shortcoming, is also what makes it rich. Byzantium is a quasi feminist film that has very interesting and evocative things to say not only about gender politics but also about loneliness which is perhaps its central theme. You can see why the director of Mona Lisa (1986) and Interview with the Vampire (1994) would be drawn to this material and why he succeeds in extracting  so much depth and beauty from it. Byzantium doesn’t quite work but it’s richer and more interesting, visually and thematically, than other films that on the surface seem to work better.

José Arroyo

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, UK, 2012)

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Anna Karenina

Keira Knightley reveals herself as a Film Goddess in this film. Some of her close-ups have to be amongst the most beautiful ever filmed and she is the film’s core strength; she carries the movie, and not only with her beauty. The film might be a tad too exquisite; the sets, costumes, jewels and décor are so dazzling one can’t help but be distracted. However, the film is also formally daring, extremely stylized, all shot as if it were on stage; and this adds an intellectual dimension to what’s on display; forces us to try to figure it out. I understand the original funding for the film fell through at the last minute and the filmmakers had to mother some invention presto. They’ve done a good job.

Of the cast, it is Jude Law as Anna’s cuckolded husband, Karenin, who finally allows the audience to discover him as a great actor. Of the protagonists, he’s really the only one who conveys a recognizable person and a way of life. It’s interesting because the role is historically a dud (few actors win kudos for playing middle-aged, dull, and respectable). Yet, Law makes us believe him in the part, quite an achievement when one considers his career and persona He also helps us to understand why Karenin acts the way he does and, if we never quite empathise, we certainly feel for him.

 

I was beginning to find the film quite moving near the end, though it was in relation to Law’s Karenin rather than Knightley’s Karenina, which is partly the film’s main problem. Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronksy looks like a Boucher drawing, one doesn’t know whether to admire or lick him; worse, one doesn’t understand or feel for him; and one should also feel more for Anna Karenina than this film or Knightley allow for.

Aside from Angelina Jolie, Knightley is the only person in current cinema who may be called a Goddess in the sense Dietrich and Garbo were; beautiful, remote, too divine to be quite human. This is the film’s flaw (it was a major one in the Garbo version as well; Vivien Leigh’s Karenina was not remote but her vehicle had other, even more considerable, flaws). This version, directed by Joe Wright, whilst not a masterpiece, is my favourite: intelligent, imaginative, sumptuous and with a cast that, with all its limitations, is a joy to behold..

José Arroyo