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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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’?
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.
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.
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’).
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.
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 filmenwraps 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.