Savages (Oliver Stone, USA, 2012)

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It’s a mess of a movie, superficial but attractive in an oversaturated way and with the driving energy of pulp. There’s a superb cast, all at or near their best (John Travolta, Benicio del Toro) or a delight to the eye (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively). I’ve never seen Selma Hayek better than she is here as a Mexican drug-cartel Queen. The beginning is a complete cock-up, with a badly spoken narration that could come straight out of a noir parody. The end is such a muddle we’re in fact offered two (the one the film would like to have and the one it was probably made to have, neither very original). In between nothing is believable but all is sexy, glamorous, violent and fun if ultimately also somewhat unsatisfying and rather cheapening.

José Arroyo

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, USA, 2011)

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Michael Shannon is Curtis, the small-town construction worker who begins to have visions of a gathering storm. His wife, Samantha, is played by Jessica Chastain; an actress with the great gift, a star’s gift, of embodying ordinariness whilst looking exceedingly beautiful. They have a deaf daughter, Hannah, whom they both love. Money’s tight; the cost of providing Hannah with the special needs education and treatment she needs is a strain; but they are a happy family.

When Curtis’ visions begin, the good life that was once the envy of their friends starts to unravel. Because he sees a gathering storm, he begins to build a shelter his family. But in the process of building a physical refuge against what the future might hold, he threatens the security of his present home, not only the house but also that emotive and affective idea of home that anchors Curtis’ sense of self and gives his life meaning.

Curtis’ source of income, his place in the community and his hold on the affections of those he love, all come under threat. In order to build the shelter he first takes out an expensive loan that puts the family home at risk; then he ‘borrows’ equipment without permission from his work which results in his losing his job; later, he even begins to have visions that the wife he loves and who we are shown loves him is going to carve him with a knife.

Are his visions real or are they due to the mental illness his mother suffered from? Curtis’ mother left him and his brother in a car when he was ten and was later found scavenging for food in a garbage dump in another state. She was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and is now living in assisted accommodation. Curtis is worried the same thing might happen to him and it’s shattering his nerves because, in the light of his past, his vow and lodestar has been to never abandon his own family.

Is he going crazy? The film renders the ambiguous relation of his visions to reality beautifully through use of point-of-view and almost biblical imagery of the apocalypse: birds dying, clouds gathering, strong winds gathering force, storms approaching. But is it really all in his mind? The agony of Michael Shannon’s face as he ponders this question, and of Chastain’s looks at Shannon whilst he undergoes doubt, are very evocative and seem immediately understandable.  But these scenes also lend themselves to different  interpretations and thus different answers to the question. It’s a richly textured film.

The ending is a weakness; it makes some of the earlier plot befuddling. The film might have been truly great had it had the strength of its convictions and remained a study of schizophrenia rather than end up on the edges of a sci-fi apocalypse; it raises many interesting questions but perhaps need not have raised so many or at least provided more answers to at least some.

Taking Shelter nonetheless reveals a director with insight into the relations amongst men and between men and women; and one with a great feel for small-town life, for character interiority and for poetic imagery. I found it touching and beautiful.

José Arroyo

Last Night (Massy Tadjedin, USA, 2010)

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Kiera Knightley and Sam Worthington play a well-to-do couple tempted into adultery. She’s a journalist. He works for a property company. His rival is Gullaume Canet, a writer. Eva Mendes is the alluring femme fatale who does indeed  lure. The film aims for maturity and complexity but fails and feels rather inept. Worthington is charmless. Knightley is almost good but not quite. The film seems prudish both in what it shows physically and what it depicts psychologically and verges on the dishonest. It doesn’t look good enough either and Mendes and Knightley are sometimes shot in what seem to be their worst angles: Mendes with a bottom-heavy face, all round cheeks; and Knightley with an almost masculine, heavily delineated jaw-bone. Last Night aims for louche glamour but just feels a bit cheap.

José Arroyo

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton, USA, 2012)

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The dullest Tim Burton film I can remember. It is visually handsome but it didn’t seem as sumptuously textured as most of his others films (Edward Scissorhands,  his Batman films); it looks expensive but doesn’t feel it; maybe the projection, or the use of digital, or the new type of effects works against the warmly expensive glow a big-budget production usually suffuses an audience with. You know this cost a fortune but it feels cheap: a creaky adaptation of a not-too-well remembered TV show. It’s interesting in that it somehow seems to signal that the knowing ironic distance that has passed for a kind of charm in America since the 1980s might in itself now be retro. It certainly isn’t enough. The cast is wonderful and provides what pleasure there is to be found. Helena Bonham-Carter and a delicious Eva Green steal the show right from under Johnny Depp’s fangs.

José Arroyo

The Purge (James DeMonaco, USA, 2013)

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The Purge is a B-movie in conception and execution but, as is often the case with B-movies, it is also a timely and entertaining commentary on present-day America.

The film is set in 2022. The economy is booming, unemployment is barely 1% and America seems to have recovered from the violence and unrest of its recent past (i.e. our present). Why is that? Well because once a year Americans are legally allowed to go and kill anyone they feel like for a 12-hour period. This ‘purge’ is seen as a patriotic duty as it gets rid of all the criminals, all who are seen as ‘detritus’ (here black, poor, homeless) and simply anyone who is hated (which could include pretty much everyone, even in, or especially in, a gated community).

This purge is believed to flush out all bad people as well as all bad feeling leading to both social and psychological well being for the rest of the 364 days. Households are allowed to protect themselves against those who want them purged from this world of course…but that takes money. Thus at the heart of this seemingly banal sci-fi horror is a scathing critique of race and class in contemporary America. It’s been released under the title of  American Nightmare  (not Le cauchemar Américain).

The film is rather wonderful at inverting some of the conventions of the genre (What happens to nubile young girls who do naughty things? What’s the cost to the hero of protecting his family?), at re-attributing symbols (what it does here with the Occupy movement masks) and at indicating how close the language of politics, society, identity and community in America now is to that depicted in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  The Purge  is also excellent at communicating a sense of  social hatred for the poor, for the failures, for the different or simply for those that have what you want.

The Purge cops out at the end (it wants to do the moral thing but also  keep the diamond rings), its analysis and critique are a bit muddled  and it is perhaps not as scary as it should be. I note that some message boards find the premise unbelievable because they can’t imagine emergency services not running for 12-hours (though welcome to most of the rest of the world friends!) or, as the film rather underlines, because of the psychological, social and economic cost of those 12-hours of purge.

If  you allow yourself to buy into the film’s premise, however, you’ll find that the film moves well; that Ethan Hawke is rather wonderful as an ordinary, slightly put-upon middle-class father; that he makes a good couple with Lena Hedley (best known for her Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones); that Rhys Wakefield is a superbly chilling villain and that the film is enjoyably scary whilst leaving you with a thing or two to think about.

José Arroyo

Total Recall (Len Wiseman, USA, 2012)

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It sometimes feels cinema today is making the world a muddier, greyer place. That may be why animated films rule the box-office: they’re bright, colourful; they create and convey a world of romance, action and adventure, a cheerful one. All the romance, action and adventure in most other types of cinema take place in a world made grey or yellow/brown by digital. It’s all the colour of steel and smog. This is part of the problem with Total Recall. It has fantastic sets; when you look closely you see how marvelously designed they all are …but they’re so grey and unattractive; and as the original Total Recall from 1990 showed, the depiction of dystopia can go together with a more cheerful colour palette and pleasing design, at least for the world above-ground.  Also, the action here doesn’t quite work. Each individual shot is fine but the architecture of a scene seems arbitrary. One doesn’t know who’s shooting whom and why; or why one has to shoot someone at all; or where one has to go to in order to escape being shot. One ends up simply not caring. Everyone (Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston) is ok in it but no one is really good and there are no audience moments, like the jokes we got in the original; the Paul Verhoeven version included the audience in on the joke and gave them something else (it’s like an existential quest within a cartoon; between Arnie socking people it’s not afraid to ask what is being? what is a person? who am I? how do I know? – it’s a great movie). Here, one asks why was this movie made? Who was it made for? Why am I bothering with it? There was almost no reaction from the audience to any of it.

José Arroyo

Great Expectations: (Mike Newell, UK, 2012)

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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

Fast and Furious (Justin Lin, USA, 2013)

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The chase sequences in Fast and Furious 6 weren’t good enough to warrant hearing Vin Diesel’s voice and I walked out. But that wasn’t the only reason. The film seems to be an index of all that’s wrong with America at the moment and it made me wonder if Americans realize what their country looks like when films like this circulate in the rest of the world: it’s an ugliness not on only of sights and sounds but of culture, thought and spirit. If anyone involved with this film has any concept of shame, I hope they’re feeling its sting.

 

José Arroyo

Popularie (Régis Roinsard, France, 2012)

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If you like Almodóvar circa Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the ‘Think Pink’ number in Funny Face, 1950s clothes, cha-cha music, the look of Doris Day/ Rock Hudson movies, or ironic romances laced with a dash of camp, you’re likely to find Populaire charming .

It’s a relief to see a pretty romantic comedy that doesn’t assume its audience is moronic. However, this is a film where the heroine’s idea of romance and adventure is to simply find Mr. Right; so the sexual politics of the film can at times seem as retro as its chic. It might be best to approach Populaire with the same amused, affectionate and ironic sense of wonder with which the film itself presents its characters and its world.

That said, Populaire  is a sustained achievement in that most difficult of elements to get right – tone: light, buoyant, gurgling with glamour but morally girdled. The effect is as if Samantha from Bewitched had twinkled her little nose at Don Draper, squeezed all the sourness out of him, and found him a princess who could type.

Romain Duris and Déborah François play the couple as if the only thing blocking their waft towards a billowy nest of love is their  (gentle) butting of heads. The typing contest, filmed like a gunfight at the ok corral if the ok corral were a gleaming art deco hall, is a joy. The whole lovely confection is directed  with great precision and crack timing by Régis Roinsard.

José Arroyo

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W.E. (Madonna, USA, 2011)

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As a director, Madonna’s wonderful with sound and image; she’s got a lovely eye for detail; and the use of objects, décor and costuming here is that of a consummate connoisseur. She can use, draw upon, and create iconic images. A lot of W.E  is shot like video-clips strung together into story. But based on what we can see in W.E,  Madonna has yet to master narrative.

Here she has trouble telling even one of the most famous and oft-repeated stories of the 20th Century; which is to say she has trouble telling even the pre-told: how Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) renounced his throne to marry Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), a smart American woman, already twice divorced, who was too thin, not rich enough, and way too old. What Madonna has to say on Wallis, on the period, even on the wish to be a mother etc. is too trite. And even that triteness is not well-conveyed or shown or told. Why the story of a modern-day Manhattanite (Abbie Cornish) needs to be set up as our conduit into this is so unnecessary it seems baffling; and this attempt at complex dual sotry-telling over-relies on montage and voice-over to such an extent it sinks the film.

Madonna is her own drama, a spectacular one that fascinates millions, but she cannot dramatise the stories of others so as to hold interest much less enchant; she’s able to show but not tell; and her showing is more of an act of hiding than of revelation (it has ever been so with her, even when she took her clothes off, even with Sex). However, W.E. is interesting in that it focuses on the foreigner, the outsider, the woman. Andrea Riseborough was rightfully praised for her performance as Wallis; she convey the nervy, edgy, jazz-age energy and smarts that one associates with Wallis, though her feature are softer than those we see in old photographs and she is perhaps too beautiful for the part. The film is not good but was too severely and unjustly damned. The jewels and costumes alone are worth seeing.

José Arroyo

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2008)

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The work of Kelly Reichardt was until recently new to me. I’ve now seen Wendy and Lucy three times and it continues to be a revelation: it gets richer each time. In Film Comment, James Naremore called Wendy and Lucy  ‘one of the most tense and moving treatments of the thin line between poverty and chaos since The Bicycle Thief ‘(Vittorio Da Sica, Italy, 1948). It’s high praise indeed but the film earns it. Wendy and Lucy is a poetic, heartbreaking movie about a young girl on her way to Alaska to get a job. Wendy (Michelle Williams) leaves her dog tied up outside a rural supermarket whilst she goes in to get some things but gets arrested for leaving the shop without paying for a small amount of dog food.

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When six dollars is all one can spare to help

The scene in the supermarket demonstrates the moral complexity this great film is capable of conveying. We know Lucy stole the dog food because we see her very deliberately put a donut in her pocket whilst looking both ways down the aisle. The young man who catches her in the act is self-righteous and pompous and about the same age as her. Nothing much divides them — he’s clearly a working class kid; his mother picks him up after work — except he’s got a job. But in the world of Wendy and Lucy having a job makes for a world of difference, as does being caught stealing a can of dog food. She denies everything. But when they reach into her pocket the find the dog food. The manager is hesitant to call the police on a can of dog food. The young man embodying all the traits of a young Republican, insists on following company policy, under the mantra that the rules apply to everybody. But an application of the rules means that this young, vulnerable woman, goes to jail, gets a criminal record which will inhibit her abilities to get an income in future, the small fine is ten per cent of her worldly wealth, and she’s got a long way to go before she finds herself in a position of gaining any income at all. And when she returns from jail, her dog, which she’d left outside the supermarket, has disappeared. All for a can of dogfood. The gap between following the rules — the law- and any sense of justice is vast in the America of Wendy and Lucy.

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     When Wendy comes out of jail, her dog is gone. Her car breaks down; it’s not worth fixing. A man robs her in the night whilst she’s sleeping rough; her family can’t help her. All she loves in this world is that dog and now Lucy’s lost. Wendy needs every penny to get to Alaska, seemingly the only place offering work, and now she’s got no car, her savings are leaking away and she has to find her dog. Like in melodramas of the 1930s, at the end of the film Wendy finds the dog but leaves her where she found her because Lucy’s now in a better home than Wendy can offer: Wendy sacrifices her wants for the dog’s good and hops on a freight train to try and get some work. Replace child with dog and you have a modern-day Depression melodrama but without the excesses.

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     In an interview with Kelly Reichardt, Gus Van Sant writes on the film, ‘Oh, is it going to happen like that? Where you get a parking ticket and that leads to lifetime imprisonment if you make the wrong move. And that comments on our society, how society is able or not to take care of its people. Wendy and Lucy for me was about our materialistic society. If you don’t have a few bucks, you’re going to have to live in the woods, because Wendy sort of is in the woods.’ In response to this observation, Reichardt tells us that, ‘The seeds of Wendy and Lucy happened shortly after Hurricane Katrina, after hearing talk about people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and hearing the presumption that people’s lives were so precarious due to some laziness on their part. Jon (Raymond, novelist and screenwriter) and I were musing on the idea of having no net—let’s say your bootstraps floated away—how do you get out of your situation totally on your own without help from the government? We were watching a lot of Italian neorealism and thinking the themes of those films seem to ring true for life in America in the Bush years. There’s a certain kind of help that society will give and a certain help it won’t give. So we imagined Wendy as a renter; no insurance, just making ends meet, and a fire occurs due to no fault of her own and she loses her place to live. We don’t know her backstory in the film but we imagined Wendy was in that kind of predicament.’

Michelle Williams, slight body curled up inward, is like a grief-stricken waif — vulnerable to all the elements but with inner composure; and she makes the audience understand every emotion that Wendy feels; the audience is put in the position of offering this lonely, vulnerable but hard-working and determined girl the empathy her world denies here.

Screen Shot 2012-06-01 at 19.02.32      Reichardt’s sober, handsome and evocative imagery — which I understand has been influenced by the photographs of Joe Deal and Robert Adams — does not spare the viewer. The film abounds in stark, striking images of rural alienation, poverty and want; there’s now a very thin line between poverty and total destitution in the land of plenty.  It’s a world where a little gesture of kindness (here only six dollars) can means so much. The long shots are wide so that you see Wendy traverse the shot, a vulnerable figure amongst broken down houses, tract malls, derelict factories, railway tracks and highways that merely traverse this place people are merely stuck in. The film often places Wendy behind glass so that we see both what’s behind her and what’s reflected in front of her, a corroded unworkable America. The editing often stays on the background a beat after Wendy has passed through it as if to emphasise the emptiness, degradation and isolation. Sheer loneliness lived amongst industrial ruins

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At the end, Wendy ends up where she started but minus dog and car. It’s a heartbreaking story, delicately told, and with an acuity and expressiveness that reverberates like a good haiku. ‘After watching Wendy and Lucy’, says Gus Van Sant, the sense of people being of no use to society..of being a blight like stray dogs, ‘was just palpable. It was so omnipresent. I was part of the film, but the film had stopped. I was actually now in my own version of it, just dealing with my life. It had infused me with its own story. I was still living it, which is a great achievement, and really hard to do. It’s a delicate thing to get somebody into a feeling that they can’t actually get rid of right away’. It’s what art does and art is what Wendy and Lucy is.

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Focus on the eyes amidst the darkness

It’s also worth mentioning how palpable the gender of its director is in the story-telling. Wendy dresses and undresses in the gas station, she changes panties, and the focus is on Michelle Williams thin legs, accenting her deprivation and vulnerability. When Wendy is forced to sleep on the woods and a threatening male approaches her, the threat of sexual danger is palpable, but the camera focusses on Michelle Williams’ face, half-covered by a blanket, so that the accent is entirely on her eyes. I can’t imagine a heterosexual male director de-sexualising the scenes in this way, putting the accent so firmly on dramatising Wendy’s fears and vulnerability.

That actors like Michelle Williams continue to support the making of art in American cinema (not least with their performances) is a great credit to them; that such films are not finding the audience they deserve is a great shame and a kind of indictment of us all.

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A carefully thought-through and consistent look

José Arroyo

Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, USA, 2009),

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All movies are, in some way or another, a reflection of their times. Horror movies, preying as they do on collective fears in order to scare us, are perhaps a more self-conscious commentary on the time in which they are made than other genres. In 30s horror films such as  Frankenstein (James Whale, USA, 1931) and The Mummy (Karl Freund, USA, 1932),  all those experts who didn’t know what they  were doing and ended up bringing forth monsters, all those weak and ineffectual men, and all the women those men were unable to prevent from being preyed upon sexually and psychology, were thought to be a reflection of, and  commentary on, The Great Depression. Today, we’re living through another Economic Disaster and contemporary horror is telling us equally interesting, if different things, about the world we live in. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, USA, 2009) is a case in point.

Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) former fat girl still fresh from the farm, is a loan officer with a bank. She’s going out with a Clay Dalton (Justin Long), a young university professor from a rich family. Christine wants to move up in life. She’s working hard on herself, learning ‘proper’ diction from audio-tapes, and also working hard at her job. She’s up for a promotion but has a competitor in Stan Rubin (Reggie Lee) who, in spite of being Chinese-American, benefits from being a man and having Lakers tickets to give to the boss, Mr. Jacks (David Payman). The boss worries that, in spite of her excellent qualifications and her work ethic, Christine won’t be able to make the tough decisions necessary to be Assistant Bank Manager. However, he offers her a chance to prove him wrong. Unfortunately for Christine, that chance comes when an old gypsy woman, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), comes to ask for a third extension on her mortgage. Mr. Jacks leaves the decision entirely up to Christine, and though it is in her power to help Mrs. Ganush, Christine opts instead to show she’s got the right mentality to climb up the corporate ladder. Big Mistake. Christine makes it worse when Mrs. Ganush gets on her knees to beg and instead of helping her up, she calls security, thus not only depriving her of her home but also of her pride. The audience fully understands why Christine turns the old lady down. But it is with the old gypsy when she visits the curse of the Lamia on her: a loan officer, Christine,  will suffer horribly for three days after which she will be dragged straight to Hell. Hooray!

Drag Me to Hell is a wonderful movie. It’s got a thrilling pre-amble, a flashback to forty years ago that opens the film in an exciting manner whilst setting the context for the subsequent narrative. The Lamia Curse’s three-day deadline is a most effective structuring device for the story and one’s mind is constantly trying to work out the next turn. The heroine and the villainess are both nicely balanced, one understand the motivations of both and the film benefits from two powerful and witty central performances from Alison Lohman as Christine and Lorna Raver as Mrs. Ganush. Director Sam Raimi, lately director of the Spider-Man films, here returns to his roots and achieves a complex mix of expertly-judged tone, sometimes simultaneously making the audience laugh whilst feeling both scared and disgusted. It’s a film that’s made for the audience, much rarer than one would think, and the audience appreciates it. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a cinema where the audience has been so vocal in demonstrating unequivocal enjoyment of the variety of pleasures the film offers.

The response to Drag Me to Hell whilst watching it is physical. But like the very best Horror,  later on, whilst mulling it over, the film also offers something to think about. Drag Me to Hell is an interesting commentary on how things have changed in America. Firstly, we get an interesting depiction of who America is now considered to be made up of. The whole preamble to the film is in Spanish with sub-titles, perhaps a nod to the growing percentage of the American population that is of Hispanic origin. Christine’s rival in the bank is called Stu Rubin but is played by Jackie Lee so either he was cast blind or given that name to alleviate Chinese-American stereotyping. Interestingly, the only non-white or Asian (in the American sense of the term) amongst the principals is Dileep Rao as Rham Jas, the fortune teller. With Obama President, it would hardly do to cast an African American in the mystic hocus pocus role; but clearly things have not yet progressed to the point where they’d cast a black man as Christine’s love interest either. It might also be worth pointing out that the only social group tinged with villainy is the gypsies, presumably the only one without a sufficiently strong lobby group in Washington. So this film’s America has a poor nice blond girl from the heartland at its centre, a nice weak white middle-class professional (with an in-built joke as the Psychology professor who doesn’t believe in mumbo jumbo) entrenched, if ineffectual, at  the periphery. Hispanics, East Asians and Chinese, the film tells us, are very much at the heart of this America if not yet representative of it. These nasty new immigrants from Eastern Europe, however, are clearly a curse.

Class is a recurring issue in the film. Christine is poor and embarrassed by her origin. We are introduced to her practicing ‘correct’ diction whilst listening to audio-tapes in her car, something I don’t remember ever seeing in an American film before. It’s rare for American films to make distinctions between class and money, and certainly accent has rarely been an indicator of bank balance. Moreover, I’ve not recently seen rich people portrayed as negatively as they are in this movie; the father, ugly and ineffectual; the mother a thin, drawn, dragon-lady, her flesh clearly a sacrifice to her ambition; their house, a picture of soul-less minimalism; their values ones sure to make the audience wish the curse of the Lamia on them.

Christine is made to be very sympathetic. She’s a good girl, with a nice nerdy professional boyfriend. She used to be fat (Pork Queen in fact) and now isn’t, which in recent American culture has sometimes been depicted as akin to overcoming the affects of both thalidomide and drug addiction. Her mother is an alcoholic, which in a nation in which, until recently, people have competed amongst themselves to claim victimhood, has usually been enough to milk sympathy for practically anything, working effectively as a rationale and excuse for countless nasty actions. However, that was then and this is now. Christine is a loan officer. She’s effectively turned someone from her home and repossessed their house when she didn’t need to. In the current climate, and if the audience is any indication, that’s enough to get anyone dragged to hell. We like Christine, we understand her. However, when she need to get ahead she chucks an old lady on the street; when it comes to the crunch, she’s willing  to sacrifice her cherished and helpless kitty to save her own ass. She’s nice yes. We understand her. We like her. But she’s done wrong and bankers have run out of excuses. Two years ago she might have lived. In the current climate, does she get dragged straight to hell? Is it a spoiler to say, ‘No Shit Sherlock’?

José Arroyo

Rock of Ages (Adam Shankman, USA, 2012)

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Rock of Ages is really bad, really camp, hugely enjoyable: Alec Baldwin throws himself into a crowd like a happy hippo into a mud pool and ends up in Russell Brand’s arms; Mary J. Blige gets a head-to-toe makeover for each shot she’s in (and plays the ‘manageress’ of a strip joint, of course); Bryan Cranston enjoys a caning from his stenographer; and Tom Cruise and Catherine Zeta-Jones go completely OTT as the slithering sex god and the mayor’s wife trying to ban heavy metal. The film is very poorly directed, visually and rhythmically, but the actors are great. This is what people who don’t like musicals think musicals are like but no less enjoyable for that. Julianne Hough wastes her second chance at stardom.

José Arroyo

Heller in Pink Tights (George Cukor, USA, 1960)

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Has any director loved actors more than George Cukor or done better by them? Heller in Pink Tights is his ode to performers and performing. The story takes place in a Western setting. There are places called Bonanza, and covered wagons, and Indians and shoot-outs but it would be a stretch to call it a Western; none are as light or as pretty; and the only sensation this film wants to elicit is a sigh at the gorgeousness of costume against landscape, at the romance, at the delicacy of feeling even vaunting ambition can’t spoil.

There’s a plot about gambling and Sofia’s virtue  but who cares about plot when you can look at Sofia at her most glamorous or at Anthony Quinn, very touching in a rare restrained performance. Cukor not only directs his actors to advantage but presents them beautifully. Loren gets a magnificent star entrance  (see clip above); and Quinn, finally filmed by a connoisseur of male beauty, is shown to to have  eyelashes that in their own way are as luscious and startling as Gary Cooper’s. The mise-en-scene here is not only the orquestration of cinematic elements around actors with the goal of exploring performance  but  is itself a tour-de-force of gorgeous performativity.  George Hoyningen-Huene is credited with the marvellous use of colour. It’s a joy to see Eileen Heckart in her prime, a declining Ramon Novarro as an ageing villain, and an attempt at an adult role by Margaret O’Brien.  A minor gem.

José Arroyo

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Gayby (Jonathan Lisecki, USA, 2012)

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Gayby is overly sitcom-y, rather stereotypical and quite funny. The director, Jonathan Lisecki, is good with actors but not with situations and doesn’t have a visual bone in his body (except perhaps that one needed to appreciate the lead actor, Matthew Wilkas, who looks like a younger ‘Dexter’).

José Arroyo

Born and Bred/ Nacido y criado (Pablo Trapero, Argentina, 2006)

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A man seems to have a perfect life with a lovely wife and child. His only fear is that she might leave him. Instead, they have a car crash whilst he’s driving. No one will answer his questions about his family, and he, overtaken with grief, tears out his IV and escapes. He ends up in the remotest part of the country, working in an airport landing strip, scraping a living, impotent with grief, scarred inside and out. He tries to shoot himself but can’t. He then finds out that his grief has done nothing but cause further pain, as his wife is alive, like him mourning his daughter, but also trying to understand why her man left her at her time of greatest need. Born and Bred reminds me of Historias Minimas: the stark landscape, the spare style, the microscopic focus on feeling that magnifies audience understanding. Stories of men loving and suffering are still relatively rare and this one is very romantic in a very understated, masculine way. A very beautiful film. With Fernanda Almeida, Federico Esquerro, Martina Gusman.

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About Elly/ Darbareye Elly (Asghar Farhadi, Iran, 2009)

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An old proverb, repeatedly refrained in About Elly,  warns that  ‘a bitter ending is better than an endless bitterness’. But is it? That’s one of the questions this lovely, wise and moving film engages us with and explores. In About Elly,  beautiful people are glamorously filmed living through recognizable circumstances in real settings. The drama involves slight events that get out of control and become forcefully dramatic: little lies that unravel and become big dilemmas; people who try to do good but end up doing harm because they insist on getting their own way. Life is hard and Farhardi’s films show us this movingly, beautifully. The way Farhardi so easily convey the beauty in people, even when they don’t act on the purest of motives, is a ravishment; it’s a kind of aesthetic ennoblement of ordinary people that is a delight to the eye and a balm to the soul. With Golshifteh Farahani, Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Merila Zare’i.

José Arroyo

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The Last Stand (Kim Ji-woon, USA, 2013)

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The Last Stand is expectedly preposterous and rather grotesque in its gleeful dependence on a loud bang and a patriotic flourish; but it is also unexpectedly smart and funny, cleverly directed by Kim Ji-woon, and it presents an elderly Schwarzenegger with surprising gentleness and wit. The film is  also upheld by a truly magnificent cast: Forest Whittaker, Eduardo Noriega, Johnny Knoxville,  Peter Stormare, the film buff’s delight that is Harry Dean Stanton and the glorious Luis Guzman at his funniest and best. The old ‘condom-stuffed-with-walnuts’, now rather batter and bruised if not quite torn, has never gloried in such superb support.

José Arroyo

The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, USA, 2013)

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Gatsby’s lush to look at: a multitrack film with pretty images of old things shown in a new way; beautiful words that a lot of people remember from school; and syncopated sounds that evoke jazz and the twenties but also the current bling-bling life. The film is pastichy, multi-layered, textured. I love the digitized prettyness of it all; the way the pastel-y romantic images meld into one another in a syncopated flow — it’s the way one imagines a Harper Bazaar or Vanity Fair layout from the twenties would look ‘brought to life’.

Harper's Bazaar brought to life.
Harper’s Bazaar brought to life.

If the film has any depth, it lies in its surfaces; and what surfaces! – a trail of delicate art nouveau flourishes edging into but giving way to gorgeous art deco geometry. The film is set right on the cusp where one style gives way to another: everything is a treat to the eye — the advertisements for Arrow shirts in Times Square, the digitally constructed Long Island Sound, the parquet flooring, the yellow Duisenberg, the clothes, the jewelry and the most beautiful silver tea-service I’ve ever seen.

Multi-layered and multi-track
Multi-layered and multi-track

It’s a dream setting for that moment in American culture where the Edith Wharton-esque East Coast aristocracy, not too far removed from working grime themselves, are trying to keep at bay the too-fresh flash types bootlegging was bringing  into their neighbourhood, the kind wearing raked fedoras and arriving in the shiniest of fast cars — picture James Cagney smashing a grapefruit into  the world of The Age of Innocence. Gatsby evokes this clash between the newly acquired and still chaffing refinement of American ‘old money’ brutes and the natural gallantry and elegance of rich moist-eyed gangsters. The film enwraps Gatsby’s optimism, his sadness and his longing in a glamorous criminality that the film renders as sensational.

The dizzying fall from a skyscraper and onto a smiling Nick Carroway
The dizzying fall from a skyscraper and onto a smiling Nick Carroway

Gatsby is full of delights: the best star entrance any contemporary director has ever staged for a male star as of yet; the dishy first look at Daisy (Carey Mulligan); the dizzying fall of the camera from a skyscraper and right into the smiling face of Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) — a tour de force of joyful filmmaking; the wondrous staging of the first meeting of Gatsby and Daisy; the car accident; the shooting at the pool; our last look at Gatsby; our first sight of Amitabh Bachan; and, not least, the way the film  incorporates words and writing into striking images so that it can then romance the viewer with phrases as well as sights and sounds.

The first meeting of Gatsby and Daisy
The first meeting of Gatsby and Daisy

At the heart of the film, however, is Leonardo DiCaprio, the greatest star of his generation at his most, romantic, glamorous and best. No other male movie star has done masculine yearning as well as he does here; and no other director has pictured DiCaprio more beautifully or glamorously than Luhrmann (remember  Romeo and Juliette?). This is a great pleasure but it may be part of the problem with the film as well — the way Luhrmann gets Gatsby to look at Daisy is the way the film invites us to gaze at DiCaprio; and shouldn’t the film’s gaze be with Gatsby’s on Daisy? But let’s not quibble, it’s a swoony film. I can’t wait to see it again in 3-D.

The introduction of DiCaprio as Gatsby
The introduction of DiCaprio as Gatsby

Note on 3-D

I did go see The Great Gatsby again in 3-D and it’s the best use of it I’ve seen so far. The way it’s deployed at the very beginning,  so as to make us feel as if we’re floating into the centre of the screen and through that golden Art Deco symbol and into the world of the film, is brilliant in terms of concept and in terms of showmanship. The party scenes where all rooms opposite seem to come alive not only with music but also seem to move forward, the equivalent in theatre of breaking the ‘fourth wall, and making us feel that yes, they too can see what’s happening at the party. The way words are used so as to float or hover over the heads of the audience.

words
words

This film springs from, is surrounded by, draws inspiration from those words but, importantly, is also NOT those words, they’re just an element here. And of course the 3-D permits a staging in a kind of depth that would have made Bazin feel that movies had come a bit closer to his idea ot Total Cinema.  3-D is normally used as a stunt to offer a cheap thrill (and almost never succeeds) here the thrill aimed for is more complex and more satisfying. Luhrmann stages operatically, all those rustling leaves and billowing curtains to indicate states of mind could have come straight from Sirk. But the aim  here is to evoke male yearning and the dream world he makes reality as a setting for a love that ends up never being returned. To help show us how, as Fitzgerald writes  ,‘Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further. And one fine morning –’

And how we all ‘beat on, boats against the current, borne back carelessly into the past’.

Images
Images

The 3-D here makes a gorgeous film even more beautiful, a really good one almost great because it embodies, gives metaphorical shape to that green light, that girl that is almost within reach but never within grasp, always and forever tragically unobtainable.. The 3-D is absolutely integral to the aesthetics of this film, it’s in 3-D that this really good film becomes truly great.

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 15.14.53José Arroyo