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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
Dead Man Down doesn’t quite work: not-so-deep in its not-so-rotten core is a romance that’s not rendered romantically; and the action isn’t good enough to stand out on its own (as in the District 13 films say). Visually, the film is serviceable but doesn’t dazzle; and there’s something off and perhaps off-putting, at least to American audiences, in having all these Europeans in what is essentially a New York movie. Yet, what actors they are!
Colin Farrell is getting more handsome as he ages, and he’s got gravitas now; when he was younger, his charm was that he evoked a sense of life as a whiz on whiz; that everything was fun with the right drugs. Now he conveys the feeling of a man who’s lived, who’s had troubles, who thinks, and a lot of that thinking is about what’s made him unhappy. Of course, that’s the role; but he seems to inhabit that brooding presence; he kind of evokes a melancholy menace just with his stillness.
Noomi Rapace is harder to watch. She’s got an unusual and unsettling presence (you can understand why she was cast in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). She’s got a face with wide, flat, rounded cheekbones that can come across as plain; and in some scenes here she seems kind of stumpy in her too-high heels; but suddenly she can also unfurl a stream of fury, or evoke a kind of ease with skill, or make herself seem an original and startling beauty.
It’s a role and a story that seem to have confused some critics but that make perfect sense to me: a girl who’s been damaged unconsciously sees her life ruined whilst the cause of it gets off scot free and wants revenge. She meets a man, also, hell-bent on revenge. They’re opposites, she claims to be talkative though we never see her in quite that way; he claims to be reticent; though we never quite see him that way with her. They’re clearly made for each other. The film offers excellent reasons why she’s one way in the beginning and quite different at the end (Farrell changes with her, though less mercurially, as befits the plot).
Terence Howard is in it, slimmer and more handsome than previously though never quiet as threatening as he should be. F. Murray Abraham also appears (and it feels odd that he’s the only one in the whole film, including Howard, who really seems to belong in NYC). Poor Dominic Cooper is given the role that redeems the hero. The person who makes the greatest impression in the shortest time is Isabelle Huppert: like very few actors on film, Vanessa Redgrave is one of the few examples that come to mind, she can conjure a role into existence out of mere line readings and minimal gestures. and delight the audience with a non-existent part; it’s a lovely kind of witchcraft.
Dead Mand Down is not for purists; those who like action will be pleased without being thrilled; those who like noir will have seen darker examples; it’s a romance that’s not a comedy and that lingers longer on loneliness than is comfortable. But people who like an interesting and intriguing combination of all of the above, with superb actors who seem to be growing in skill right in front of your eyes, will find a lot to look at and like.
With its sharp images, clear light and airy, uncluttered compositions, Away From Her looks and feels Canadian, truly Canadian and it’s beautiful. Julie Christie won all the awards, and she is marvellous, managing to make virtue and integrity seem multi-faceted and sensual; but the revelation for me is Gordon Pinsent; that sad, healthy face, the face of Canada, weary, trying to do the right thing, not always succeeding and feeling guilty about it all because he senses it all springs from privilege. Pinsent has a kind and loving face, one that still gazes at Julie Christie with longing after forty five years of marriage, even after, especially after, she re-discovers an old beau at the retirement home.
Let’s go back to the plot. It’s simple. Fiona Anderson (Julie Christie) is getting forgetful, is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and makes the decision to go into a home. Her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) protests, tries to change her mind but bows to the inevitable. In the home, she slowly begins to lose her mind. Worse, she meets Aubrey (Michael Murphy), an old beau. Grant begins to question Fiona’s feelings for him during the course of their marriage, even though he was the one who had strayed, often and happily; yet, even in those moments of doubt, he loves her and tries to make her life as easy as it can be under the circumstances. When Aubrey is removed from the home because it’s gotten too expensive for his wife to keep up the payments, Grant does his best to get him to return. This is how he meets Marian (Olympia Dukakis), Aubrey’s wife. She gets him to pretend that he cares for her, even though she knows his true objective is to re-unite her husband with his wife, a prospect she initially finds shocking. In the end, by doing the selfless thing, Grant in turn gets the prospect of some joy and happiness himself.
The film is based Alice Munro’s great short story, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’. In ‘What Makes You So Sure You’re Not the Evil One Yourself’, Jonathan Franzen’s fascinating essay on Munro, he uses that very short story as an example of why Munro is such a great writer. After a lengthy quote from the passage recounting the meeting between Grant and Marian, he writes: ‘I want to keep quoting, and not just little bits but whole passages, because it turns out that what my capsule summary requires, at a minimum, in order to do justice to the story – the “things within things,” the interplay of class and morality, of desire and fidelity, of characters and fate – is exactly what Munro herself has already written on the page. The only adequate summary of the text is the text itself’. The film makes you feel a little bit like that as well.
Away From Her is directed with great restraint, simplicity and skill by Sarah Polley. It looks like a TV movie but conveys the depth and complexity of feeling of a great work. I found it very moving.
One event, the robbery of a jewelry shop, bookends the beginning and end of the film; but by the time we are shown it the second time, our views and our sympathies have been altered. Hussain (Hossain Emadeddin) is a war vet, currently on cortisone as a result of being wounded during his service, and his body has ballooned and is unrecognizable even to himself. Once in charge of electronic communications in the army, he now delivers pizzas for a living; even his old army mates don’t want to be seen with him, as if he’s contagious.
Hussein’s deliveries take him all over the city, and all over the city we see an enormous economic divide and institutionalized social distinctions. We witness assorted injustices, many mere exercises in power but no less potent for being petty. The camera follows Hussein on his scooter through Tehran leaving enough room in the frame so that we see people going about their daily lives in those bustling, dirty streets. Thus the film places Hussein in his particular context and thus a whole way of life is revealed, sometimes by indirection, some aspects only hinted at, others allegorised: Hussein remembers when women didn’t have to wear a veil; his fiancé is concerned that her having removed hers might have offended him; drinking and dancing aren’t allowed yet some of them can do it with impunity; the police likes to harangue the liberal middle-class; a lowly soldier can’t afford to alienate his superior; dust and dirt are everywhere except in the jewelry shop and the rich boy’s flat. It’s a divided, repressed country with an enormous gap between rich and poor that is shown to be amongst the worst of injustices: all gold is metaphorically shrouded crimson in this film.
By the end, Hussein’s story, which we at first thought to be a crime drama about a thug, is shown to be a tragedy about a person who does his duty, one so humane he goes to great lengths to ensure a young soldier may eat without reprisals. Jafar Panahi’s achievement in showing us the humanity of these people in that culture is a triumph of art, emotional tact and political courage. American directors should see Crimson Gold. There are many forms of censorship; Iranian artists suffer under an authoritarian regime; American ones from an enslavement to Mammon that is just as effective a censor. It does anyone good to see what a filmmaker with insight, art and humanity is able to convey even with few means and in a society with fewer freedoms.
Is Les Misérables the ugliest musical ever? It certainly feels like it: pause the film at any point and you get a grey, de-centred close-up composition of a face, slightly canted and in shallow focus. The camera moves relentlessly with no detectable purpose except to a kind of beat. This whirling affront to eyes and intelligence nonetheless got a big round of applause. I think it might be due to the actors, all of whom are wonderful here and alchemise light, grace and humour out of crap (one whole scene takes place in the sewers).
In Harmony Korine’s new film, Spring Break becomes a metaphor for an America jacked-up on Jesus, hell-bent on drugs of all kind, with gangsta dreams of porn-star fucking and Kardashian-levels of consumption. The image is high contrast and in radioactive kool-aid colours that sometimes seem to break-up and melt like the verge of an over-dose. James Franco is great as the dangerous, sleazy, rapper with the romantic under-girding the video-game of a culture can’t find a level for.
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..
Zac Efron’s ripe and in heat. Nicole Kidman slouches around him like a depraved Barbie until she lazily consents to pluck him; but really she’s more interested in John Cusack: rough, ready and on death row for murder. Mathew McConaughey is Zac’s brother and is the kinkiest of the lot. Macy Gray’s does the noir voice-over in her thrilling Minnie Mouse speaking voice. The Paperboy is trashy, uneven and a bit long but its trawl through the underbelly of Florida’s swampland is great oversaturated fun.
Hair is clearly the most important element of The Vow and Channing Tatum’s must have required a whole retinue of hairdressers. I have seen films that are phonier and dumber but not by much. Rachel McAdams gets top billing and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Is this sad and impoverished ideal what passes for romance in America now?
I really hated One Mile Away. At the Q&A session after the film, Penny Woodcock, the director, said something like, ‘I wanted to show how there are invisible lines that you or I might not see but that are real to other people living in the same neighbourhood. To them, a street is a barrier and a danger and they could get killed if they cross it. And the problem is not just in Birmingham, but London, Liverpool and internationally. And it’s not just an issue of race; in Liverpool it could be white gangs’. She went on, but really, that’s not how the film comes across. One Mile Away is about the rivalry, one so long-standing no one seems to remember how it started, between the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew, two gangs whose postcodes – B21 and B6, are just one mile apart.
The film shows Birmingham as a sort of cross between a British Hell’s Kitchen and a banana republic, with everything ugly, dangerous, lawless; which I think outrageous if one compares crime statistics or criminal justice systems. Also, the film is exploitative: very charismatic leads show up on camera really because they want to be rap stars, they do their little number in exchange for telling something about their lives. And they don’t tell us very much, one cliché after another about not having a father, and being poor, and the system being racist; but then again, I’m not sure they’ll get very much in exchange either.
The film offers very little analysis. Is there so much drugs and crime in that particular community compared to other ethnic or racial communities and if so why? Is the system unfair to them in comparison to Pakistanis or Poles or members of other ethnic or racial communities? Are there internal problems these communities should be addressing? The film avoids these issues. Its treatment of the police I found particularly disgraceful: as if there weren’t people behind those masks.
I so wanted to like it; it’s a rare film dealing with Birmingham ; but it’s a foreigner’s view of the local; actually a patronizing foreigner’s view of the local; a London ‘artiste’ visits the ‘jungles’ of Aston and Handsworth and, heart bleeding, condescends to objectify and vilify the police only to conclude that really everything would be less ugly and dangerous if people would only talk to each other. The film has already won all kinds of awards, more for its subject matter and its good intentions than for its achievements as cinema I should think. Be that as it may, I didn’t’ find it worth my time and I suspect Birmingham City Council will not be thanking the director.
Sofia Coppola’s first film. The title’s such a turn-off that I avoided it until 2012. I thought it would be depressing but it’s not: I was a fool. It’s an engaging and humorous work with a real feel for teenage female desire and angst. ‘What are you doing here honey’, says a doctor to one of the sisters after a suicide attempt, ‘you’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets’. ‘Obviously Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen-year old girl’. The situation and humour are slightly dark but the story is told with a welcome light touch throughout. The film’s got depth too: the scene where Trip (Josh Hartnett) leaves Lux (Kirsten Dunst) in the football field without being able to quite comprehend it himself is one of many examples. Plus Coppola’s direction allows for other pleasures: the callow attractiveness of Josh, the real beauty and skill of Kirsten, James Wood for once underplaying, and a suddenly aged Kathleen Turner, all marvellous. It’s beautifully directed but still falls apart at the suicide. What leads up to it is not quite conveyed. Surely being treated badly by a boy and not being allowed out for a while by their parents is not sufficient cause for it otherwise so many more of us would be dead. Still, it’s a delight to see a work of such skill and feeling from a first time director.
The story of the tragic queen, a kind of contextual preamble to the French Revolution, shot as a tragic teen film. The film is a sumptuous, lively production, amongst the most beautiful and entertaining films of the last decade, distinguished by its use of music, its beautiful mise-en-scène and its evocation of a long-gone world in a way that makes it timely and relevant. Sets, props, and costumes have to be amongst the loveliest ever. Clearly, a lot of that is due to the period itself, but credit must also be given to the filmmakers in having the wit and knowledge to see the value in conveying it in a way that allows a contemporary audience to understand and appreciate it. The film is wonderful at showing the enervated obsessions with lifestyle, entertainment, shopping and consumption, so similar to that of our own epoch, as a frenzied refusal of unshakeable anomie, one doomed to failure. Everything about the film evokes a delicious dialectic between luxe and loss. Kirsten Dunst, at the peak of her melancholic beauty, is peerless as the tragic queen, doing her dutiful best to please other, and when failing, which is most of the time, at least striving to please herself; but Dunst’s face palpably evokes a foretaste of doom, as if all the palaces, clothes and jewels with which she tries to shoo away boredom and the burden of duty, will not keep her from her fate. Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI is almost as good, though he doesn’t erase the memory of Robert Morley as she does that of Norma Shearer in the 1938 version directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Yet another masterpiece from Sofia Coppola.
Worth noting that as Rosalind Galt in her great Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image (Film and Cutlure Series: New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) rightly points out ‘Sofia Copppola’s Marie Antonette (2006) addresses precisely the relationships among rococo style, radical politics, and gender, but its deconstructive deployment of the Versailles decorative regime prompted critical response to view the films as equally clueless as its protagonist. If we regard the film as something other than a discourse on girly frivolity, it is possible to read its emphasis on the decorative image as precisely the location of its political intervention’ (loc 336 on the Kindle edition).
A time of revolution, a mad King, the dictatorial imposition of Enlightenment values, bosoms heaving across class lines in sumptuous palaces; all laid out neatly, proficiently, worthily into the melancholic dullness of A Royal Affair. What Sofia Coppola could have done with this material!
The performers (Mads Mikkelsen, Trine Dyrholm, Mikel Boe Folsgaard, Cyron Bjorn Melville etc), are good, and I love the plump felinity of Soren Malling’s face, but the overfamiliarity of some, particularly through their exposure on popular Danish crime dramas, diminish their effectiveness here.
I noticed that Jack the Giant Slayer was still playing and finally went to see it because it’s directed by the man who made The Usual Suspects. I should have remembered Bryan Singer is also responsible for Superman Returns. The film is bloated, charmless and dull. Ian McShane and Ewan McGregor twinkle with decreasing success as the film proceeds; and I’m simply beginning to hate the sight of Stanley Tucci; I suspect the reason he keeps getting cast in so many gay roles is because an air of effetely disdainful superiority, all he currently seems to offer as an actor, is all that casting directors expect an actor to exude in such roles.
Love is All You Need is a romantic comedy, one aimed a middle-aged audience which it doesn’t condescend to. It’s interesting because it is a European film, because it’s directed by Susanne Bier and because it’s got wonderful actors one recognises from Danish television and Italian gangster films, actors one loves but can’t quite yet name, actors who can still pass as real people. Pierce Brosnan is the film’s real object of desire, and few 60 year-olds can be as attractive and appealing as Brosnan seen through the haze of so many longing females gazes in front and behind the camera. It’s out now but won’t be for long.