Saturday, 22 December 2007

the sacrifice (d. tarkovsky)

I first saw The Sacrifice when I was at university in York, presumably upon its release in 1986 or 87. I used to go to the film club in the large comfortable auditorium, frequently in N's company. The auditorium was built on what was claimed to be the largest artificial lake in Europe, though that now seems doubtful, and word had it that it was sinking, as the direct result of a Boomtown Rats concert the year before I arrived. I vaguely realised that the film I was watching was supposed to be the work of a seminal director, but my memories of that viewing remain vague, and dominated by the spectacular closing scene.

One's reaction to a work of art is always conditioned by the conditions under which one sees it. These conditions might include one's state of mind, the person in whose company one sees or experiences the work, one's age, or countless other factors. It seems pertinent to allude to this earlier watching as the film itself is so self-consciously addressing the issue of ageing. It is the last film Tarkovsky made; it is dedicated to his son; the final scene is of Alexander's young son addressing a question to his father who is being removed in the manner of a modern day Lear. One cannot help but feel that, perhaps like Lear, which it so consciously echoes, this is a film best seen from a reflective perspective, located not so far from the threshold of death; even if that death were merely the starting point for the next round of eternal recurrence (or 'return' in the script's translation) as the mysterious postman, Otto, suggests.

Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche are all name-checked in the opening twenty minutes. The parameters are laid down. But the influence of two other northern artists seems stronger. It's impossible not to feel the shadow of Bergman looming over Alexander's struggles. Alexander is played by Erland Josephon, a long term collaborator of Bergman's. His depiction of an isolated soul, seeking not merely to create but actually to become a work of art, references the filmmaker, as does his character's name, an echo of Bergman's childish incarnation in Fanny and Alexander. The other key influence seems to be Chekhov. In some ways The Sacrifice feels like a dystopian reading of Chekhov (through Beckett). Although two of the characters arrive in a nifty BMW, the women wear dresses that look more like something out of turn of the century Russia than an Abba influenced Sweden.

All these influences are brought to bear and, as one of the key moments of the film shows, they all count. The reason the characters are gathered is to celebrate Alexander's birthday. Otto, the postman who seems more like the boatman at the Styx, brings Alexander a large 16th century map of Europe as a present - a present which is a sacrifice, as all presents, he says, should be. They talk about how Europe has altered, and what those early inhabitants might have made of it. All this precedes the film's central tenet: the occurrence of the fabled nuclear strike. Unless Alexander is prepared to sacrifice himself to redeem time and the world, nuclear winter is upon us. In the lead-up to the moment when the world ends, the film explores what it is that will be lost, and what it might be that has brought us to that point.

At the time the film was made, Europe was still the front line of a potential nuclear war. Now, twenty years later, the terms of the chess match have changed. The fear of a third world war, which clearly haunted Tarkovsky, has receded, to be replaced by other millennial fears. The slow, sepia shots of crowds rushing through a devastated street, which punctuate the movie, seem just as pertinent in this era of ever-more-dramatic Hollywood apocalypse movies; or McCarthy's The Road. Alexander's sacrifice may have staved off one damnation, but it hasn't kept the others at bay.

In a film so steeped in Western culture, (this review hasn't mentioned the influence of Leonardo, Pierro della Francesca or Russian icon painters), the latter stages suggest that Tarkovsky perceived another direction for the world to turn. Alexander listens to Japanese music, and wears an oriental cloak, decorated with the Yin and Yang, as he summons up the courage to take the step of destroying his home in order to save the world. His son tends to the tree he has 'created' in a Japanese manner. He carries water to nurture it. This echoes an idea Alexander expresses at the film's opening, as he 'plants' the tree, that if we were to find one ritual to perform every day, at a set time, even were that just to pour a glass from the tap and then throw that water away, it might create a foundation of meaning in our lives.

This notion, redolent of Zen Buddhism, allied to the restoration of faith (those who fail to believe in God are those who have never been desperate enough to need to, Alexander claims as he prays) offer, so the filmmaker seems to suggest, an escape route from the terminal end that centuries of Western culture have created. In burning his home, Alexander destroys his possessions, books, maps and all. There is a way out, but it requires sacrifice.

Tarkovsky's film is no easier to watch twenty years on. It is still a long haul of a movie, demanding the viewer's exhaustive attention. The underlying themes the film explores seem no less pertinent today than they did twenty years ago. The notion of sacrifice, personal, societal and cultural, in the quest for nothing more than survival, seems even more relevant. The conditions under which the film is watched have altered less than time might have lead one to expect.

The lake still may or may not be the largest artificial lake in Europe, (this remains debatable), but the auditorium would still appear to be sinking.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

silent light (dir. reygadas)

In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, after a night on the Tren del Muerte, there were Mennonites wandering the streets, looking like something out of an Edward Hopper painting, with their dungarees and wispy beards. They seemed exotic within the context of their exotic locale, and oblivious to this exoticism, as they presumably were.

Silent Light deals with a husband in a Mennonite community who's conducting an affair, and grappling with the consequences of this. It's a film set in Mexico, even though almost all of the dialogue is in the curious German spoken by the community. There's a remarkable moment when Johan, the adulterous husband (a dead ringer for the art critic Robert Hughes), hears a song being played in Spanish on the radio, and starts singing along. At another point his wife brings tacos to the workers in the field. When his wife collapses at the road side a couple of Mexican truckers stop to help. But by and large the film is set in a world of its own, beneath the great rolling sky and the starry night.

This sense of an isolated world within the world must have appealed to Reygadas. The film opens and closes with time lapse sequences of dawn and dusk. It wells up out of the darkness of night, before retreating back there at the close. This gives the film a biblical, elemental quality, which frames the devout Mennonite community Johan belongs to. He has been lead astray, but he is also genuinely in love with Marianne (played with remarkable placidity by Maria Pankratz). He doesn't know if this development in his life has been brought about by God or the devil. Reygadas presents him as a good man in the thrall of greater powers. His father, a preacher, tells him that he would not be in his shoes for anything in the world, and yet he is also envious of him. Later, when the consequences of his actions become clear, Johan's father tells him he cannot hold himself responsible - this has all been ordained.

Underpinning the film's narrative is a latent humanism. None of the characters are unsympathetic, neither the adulterer, his mistress, nor the wife. The film resolutely avoids melodramatic plot developments. (At one point Johan and Marianne sleep together. Johan has left his children with a man in a van. As he approaches the van, looking for them, we fear the worst. But they are fine, laughing in the van, listening to Jacques Brel.) In the end, the plot finds its resolution in an other-worldly twist, which could be seen as evangelical, or magic realism, or both. People are likely to find themselves in situations which are beyond their expectation or rational understanding. And there's not much one can do in that case but trust in God, or fate.

The film's relentlessly slow pace re-affirms this message. Reygadas is never afraid to let the camera linger. He will film an open doorway, with the interior nothing but blackness, and slowly pan in until an image is revealed beyond the darkness. There are things there to be seen, but we need to learn to have the patience to observe them. Our expectations of rapid solutions to vast problems (such as the reason for an affair, or the cause of death, or the existence of God) is presented as naive. Reygadas appears to be encouraging us how to learn how to see oncemore, with new eyes. We stare at a screen and see only darkness. Slowly glimmers of light appear. These give way to the subtle forms of the world, revealed with the rising of the sun. Finally we, the audience, know what we're looking at, and everything is clear.

Cinema, the exercise of training our eyes on a screen lit by silent light, gives us the opportunity to do this. To learn how to look at the world as though it has been made anew.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

the assassination of jesse james by the coward robert ford (d. andrew dominik)

There's an odd moment well over half way through the film when Robert Ford meets a senior politician. Played by a bald-headed man who's recognisable but hard to pin a name on. It turns out to be James Carville, the former Clinton campaign manager. Someone who knows the workings of power inside out. Former figures from the world of politics playing at acting usually look foolish and make the film they've been placed in look foolish too, but Carville doesn't and neither does Dominik's movie. Somehow, in the breadth and weight of it's study of power, fame and destiny, his presence seems appropriate.

The Assassination... comes in at 16o minutes. It's not a jaunty ride. A lot of the most interesting material takes place in the final 15, after Jesse James' death. In the subsequent fate of his killer, Robert Ford, there's a whole other movie lurking. There might be legitimate questions about the conservatism of the script's reluctance to play around with time frames, using a voiceover which feels like the film's weakest link instead. Ford's destiny is inextricably linked to that of the gunslinger he grew up admiring. This instigates a wonderful circularity to the narrative, which could have been explored in a less teleological fashion.

That's about the only criticism that can be levelled at Dominik's epic. Like many non-native directors filming in North America (most of the film was shot in Canada) - Dominik seems to have fallen in love with a vast attritional landscape. The space that's given to the landscape by the cinematography is redolent of Malick, snowy wastes deputising for rippling corn fields. The voiceover is also, perhaps, a nod in the old master's direction. The other spirit hovering over the slow-burning narrative is that of Leone. The creation of atmosphere requires time; language needs to be allowed its richness; tension mounts the longer the note is held.

At it's heart, as the title implies, this is a film about a relationship between two men. Accordingly the film sinks or swims on the strength of the twin lead performances. Pitt's job is the harder. He has to play not merely a posthumous myth, but a living one. Jesse James, as depicted in the film, was a convoluted idol. Ruthless killer and loving family man. It's not easy to pull off these masculine contradictions, but Pitt manages it. And he conveys something more (with its own echoes of Eastwood in Leone's films) - which is that the gunslinger does not excel through speed or courage, but through a knowledge of his fellow man, an ability to read what his enemy is thinking behind the eyes. Jesse James, in Pitt's portrayal, doesn't look like he's ever read a book; but he knows the workings of a man's mind.

However, the film requires more than just a fine performance from Pitt. Casey Affleck as Ford needs to match him. From the moment he first appears, to be scolded by Sam Shepherd, Affleck captures the wistful blend of dreamer and wannabe that Ford may well have been. The performance builds through the film, with the parentless Affleck conveying in the sullen twitch of an eye everything you need to know about the adolescent's reaction to the thing he's grown up loving. The final 15 minutes, after the deed has been done, gives a glimpse of how he could have mastered the more subtle psychological genesis of the child becoming a man damned by his youthful hubris.

Dominik's film rides its ambitions. In a way it shows that what a filmmaker needs to do is attend to the details. Nick Cave's score is suitably powerful, Roger Deakins' cinematography acquires the epic touch that the tale requires. The dialogue is artful, yet convincing. The words smell of damp nights camped out in the woods; or the slip of the tongue that can prove a death sentence. The performances across the board stand up to the presence of the two leads. Once all these and the thousand and one other details are in place, the narrative of how power attracts and corrupts can unfold. In the manner of a 19th century Russian novel, Dominik allows the intranigence of fate to play itself out in the twinned destinies of the idol and the worshipper who becomes a Judas.

Monday, 3 December 2007

the darjeeling limited (dir Wes Anderson)

The camerawork in Anderson's mordant railway road trip ranges from the frenetic to the measured. Robert Yeoman, the DOP, is not scared to use his zoom, and the camera frequently chases a scene around, veering from one point of interest to the next. On the other hand, the film sets up stately set pieces, such as the sequence where the 'mythical' Darjeeling Express, carrying all the movie's characters, trundles past the camera; or within the opening short, where the camera glides around Jason Schwartzman's suite in the Hotel Chevalier in an uninterrupted take; or finally when the three brothers leave a hut in slow motion during the funeral and make their way to a rickshaw.

These variations in style can be interpreted in two closely connected ways. On the one hand as evidence of a playful willingness to experiment. On the other as 'kid in the sweet shop' syndrome.

Anderson's film is dealing with the notion of adults still trying to grow up. The three brothers at the heart of his film live in the shadow of their late father, whose funeral is alluded to in a flashback. Their quest is to find their mother, which they do. She is living in the tiger-infested foothills of the Himalayas, and tells her children that the people there need her more than they do. The children come to some kind of acceptance of this, and end their trip having gained some kind of collective understanding of each other's peculiarities.

The script includes a moment where Owen Wilson's brother responds to an Indian man's question: What are you doing here? With the line - We came on a spiritual journey but it hasn't quite worked out. Anderson and Co are conscious of the issues that their movie generates: the wealthy westerners frolicking in search of their karma in the impoverished backwoods. It's possible that the juxtaposition with the opening short's opulent Paris hotel room is a kind of nose-thumbing to the whole notion of political correctness. In the quest for the self, all rules, including those of cinematography, are there to be broken. The boys get thrown off the train for breaking the rules, but the journey keeps going and in the end they find themselves catching...another train. There will always be more trains.

It is tempting to say that there's something Fitzgeraldian about Anderson. The creation of idealised, flawed icons of americana, with their jazzy clothes, outrageous manners and idiosyncratic wit. But in the end, The Darjeeling Limited feels more like a Waugh novel without the narrative tautness. The self-indulgent emissaries of the latest great power using the exoticism of an alien background to explore their foibles.

In the film's final sequence, the brothers run to catch another train. In their rush to make it, they fling their baggage away in wonderful slow motion. This literal metaphor suggests that they will proceed on their journey lighter in soul and possessions. The scene is a mirror image to the opening sequence of the film, where Bill Murray's hapless businessman runs for the train and is overtaken by the more athletic Adrien Brody, who leaves him standing. In that opening sequence, which uses the slow motion trick for the first time, I felt exhilarated. It felt as though we were about to be taken on a remarkable, revelatory journey. By the time of the closing sequence, my engagement had dwindled. That baggage should have been ditched weeks ago. The slow-motion running still looks pretty, but like a kid in a sweet shop, I'd had one too many liquorice allsorts and the sweetness was starting to pale.

Friday, 30 November 2007

eastern promises (dir. cronenberg)

The film opens with a scene of dramatic violence. A barber tries to convince his son to cut his customer's throat. The son doesn't want to. The barber does it. The director shows the blood emanating from the great tear in the throat. The victim convulses and the audience flinches.

Cronenberg opens his movie with a scene of high drama. By the end, the drama has been extinguished. A child plays with its adopted family. A man sits in the restaurant he now controls. Their stories are far from over, but the film is moving on, and the credits roll.

This contrast between the implied dramatic weight of the film and the actual dramatic weight is curious. It could be interpreted as the director running out of steam, editing together a short cut ending because he wasn't sure how to finish it. However, the pace and the tone feel in keeping with the rest of the film, so it may be something else.

Increasingly, Cronenberg's films come to feel like fables. He has lost interest, if he ever had it, in the mechanics of plot. He creates characters who have a timlessness, belonging to timeless societies. The villains who arrive at the beginning of History of Violence could be from any stage of US history. They arrive like something out of a Western. The Russians from Eastern Promises belong to a secret criminal society that has a mythical, preternatural aura.

Cronenberg doesn't seem interested in the details of the drug smuggling the criminals are involved with. The revelation that Mortensen's character, Nikolai, is an undercover cop, seems incidental. He doesn't even seem interested in the brewing love affair between Mortensen and the fragrant Naomi Watts. What seems to fascinate him nowadays is the notion of how close the forces of anti-sociality, the secret codes of violence, are to our own society. How they are closer than we think, and when they arrive, they have no connection with the world as we see it, and their destructive power is incalculable.

Eastern Promises consciously pulls its punches. The audience knows this because we know how hard it can punch. The scenes of violence establish this - the throat cutting and the bath-house bloodbath. But just as we're anticipating the mother of all finales - it doesn't happen. The child survives and Naomi Watts sits in the garden wearing a pretty dress. Nickolai's takeover of his wing of the Russian mafia is painless, his mentor, Semyon, simply vanishes. It's like the Godfather with the ruthlessness implied but not demonstrated.

Cronenberg's movies no longer have the snap, crackle and pop of his earlier frightners. They are meditative works, where the violence has become a part of the scenery, rather than a means to a dramatic end. London is a grey, damp world in his movie, a land of no promise, and the forces of darkness are lurking, just around the corner.

Friday, 16 November 2007

the band's visit (dir Eran Kolirin)

Kolirin knows how to frame an image. The opening shot shows a man trying to fit a yellow balloon into the front seat of a camper van. We don't know why the man is doing this, nor will we ever learn. The man gets in the van, drives off, and is never seen again. What lies behind the van is a group of eight policemen, members of the police band who have arrived in Israel to perform. They stand there, puzzled, immobile in the their faintly comical powder blue uniforms. The camera has never moved.

This eye for a set-up continues throughout The Band's Visit, lending the film a crafted, dispassionate aesthetic. A military band carrying instruments of various sizes through a dusty desert is a visual treat, and the director is not afraid to spoil us, lingering over their haphazard progress. However, there is more to this dispassionate eye than mere pretty pictures. The danger that the film's narrative runs is that it will become too sachirine. Kolirin resists this with his pared back script and the cast's understated performances.

The film tells the story of a military band who get on the wrong bus and end up in the middle of deepest Israel. They are befriended by Dina, a free-spirited and bored cafe owner, with a curious history, never revealed. There are no more buses, so the band is forced to accept the hospitality she and a friend offer. The next day they leave for the concert. That's it. The drama is all in the culture clash, the coming together of old enemies. In Dina's cafe, one of the policeman hangs his blue hat over a picture of an Israeli tank.

Any hint of sentimentality would undercut the film, and leave it open to charges of implausibility. Wisely, Kolirin's script is as carefully composed, and restrained, as his shot composition. There's no Hollywood ending. The characters don't find it easy to get on with the enemy. They have to negotiate for common ground, scrabble around for moments where they can trust and alight upon the field of their common humanity.

Music helps, nowhere more so than in the scene where three bandsmen sing Summertime lugubriously, in the company of an awkward Israeli family. Perhaps oddly, the other thing that assists them is their lack of a common language. They are forced to resort to English, and in their mutual uncertainty with the second language they find common ground.

You can see why The Band's Visit has been so successful on the international festival circuit. The band finally find their way to the site of their performance, and the film concludes with Tawfiq, the weather-beaten bandleader, singing a traditional Arabic tune. Israeli and Egyptian flags flutter in the background. The hope is tangible: culture alone gives a framework for the possibility of understanding. The most intractable of divisions can be overcome.

However, The Band's Visit's restraint, and gentle pacing, alludes to another truth: that these divisions will not heal in a rapidly edited hurry. They healing must be allowed to proceed at its own pace. It must be handled with due care, and great consideration.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

into the wild (dir. Sean Penn)

A lot happens in the final few minutes of Into The Wild. The hero, Christopher McCandless dies an excrutiating death and communes with his parents. Most of the characters he's met along the way are shown in flashes, having some kind of positive experience. A helicopter shot pulls away from the Magic Bus, last resting place of McCandless, and spins off into the sky. Finally, a still of the real McCandless is shown, looking uncannily like the one we've been watching for the past two hours and twenty minutes, played by Emile Hirsch.

For a slow moving film, it's a busy ending, and in many ways it seems to undercut the pathos of McCandless' sad demise. It's practically screaming at its audience: He Didn't Die in Vain!

Which brings us on to the God question. Rainey, the hippie who befriends the hero early on, asks him playfully if he's not Jesus - and suggests he might like to walk on water. At this point we know he's just a mixed up kid who's got the wandering bug, so the remark's a joke. But it's a joke which seems to take over the film. McCandless wanders like a saint through the city, rejecting the way it corrupts the soul. He displays a strong asexuality, refusing the advances of a beautiful soul mate either because she's only sixteen (an unlikely prohibition for this free spirit) or because he's truly so unworldly that he doesn't do sex. He preaches on the mount, talking to the old timer who's befriended him about how God is in everything. And, the final sequence seems to be suggesting, in the end he comes face to face with God, and his quest, which has now become spiritual, has blessed the lives of all he's touched.

The God undercurrents running through Into The Wild lend Penn's story a portentousness which obscures its charm. (The scene where McCandless climbs a mountain and screams in unison with nature is oddly reminiscent of DeCaprio's King of the World moment). The story is interesting enough without the need for the syrup.

In another way, Into The Wild is Penn doing a Herzog movie. McCandless is stepbrother to Timothy Tredwell. At one point a bear saunters past him, perhaps on its way to devouring Tim, passing up the tramp's skin and bones. At another, McCandless drags a boat, in this case a canoe, up a mountain, a la Fitzcarraldo. Penn appears to be aspiring to the purism of a Herzog epic. The film has the same scale, the same episodic narrative structure as a grand Herzog opus. And yet - it never has the roughness. It looks pretty. Hirsch is no Kinski. He's a puppy of a saint, all gentle love and good vibes. Even in his death throes he looks like he could have been the Ralph Lauren model that his alter-ego, spotted in an LA bar, might be.

These contradictions swim around Penn's enjoyable movie. In spite of the film and its hero's love of solitude, expressed through a rousing soundtrack and some sweeping Alaskan cinematography by Eric Gautier, it's Alexander Supertramp's encounters with the William Carlos William's underbelly of American society that bring the film to life and lend meaning to his experiences, something the narrative suggests he belatedly came to understand. For all its inclinations to be a serious investigation (in the shadow of Tolstoy and Thoreau), of the meaning of man in modern society, the tension between nature and civilisation - in the end Into The Wild works most effectively as a gently comedic character piece, in the vein of Fielding or Cervantes. Penn has an actor's eye for characterisation, from the crazy Danes to the police ranger on the phone who tells the hero he can't paddle his canoe.

The final sequence pays homage to these characters, acknowledging their importance within the hero's life but also within the narrative. The dilemma between the societal impulse and the quest to find the natural man is apparent in both film and character. Is it appropriate to end a film which has been exploring the values of nature and solitude with a gargantuan helicopter shot, redolent of the extremes of societal technology? Whilst one's instinct might be to say - no way - in practice it has a peculiar effectiveness. The film wants to have its cake and eat it, and maybe that works. Like McCandless, it critiques American society for its venal divisions and destructive urge to wealth; but also praises it for its family values and can-do freedoms. Perhaps this is the true contradiction at the heart of McCandless's twin journeys to Alaska and death. In which case Penn has done a fine job in rendering its authenticity: helicopter shots, god complex and all.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Cargo 200 (dir Aleksei Balabanov)

How does a film capture a time and a place? All too often, film fails where literature succeeds, in spite of film’s ability to physically recreate the circumstances of the past. However, there’s more to capturing the past than merely painting a picture. The filmmaker needs to capture the rhythms of speech, the frames of mind, and something more – the poetic reality of the period. Because a film is not a slice of life – it is a story, manufactured with artificial constraints, and these constraints have to convince the watcher that they are valid, even if they’re not. Scorsese’s work is a prime example of how this can be achieved and how it can’t be. Gangs of New York exemplifying the latter, Goodfellas, to pick one from a bunch, the former.

All of which is preamble to an outrageous Russian film, which sets out to capture the demented period that preceded the fall of the Soviet Union. Its based on a true story of the abduction of the daughter of a Communist official. The film uses clips on TV to identify the period: Gorbachov sitting with one of the last politburos; various song and dance acts. Set-piece scenes depicting a kind of primitive illegal rave add to the sense of a society on the point of breaking out of the Soviet grip.

Within this world, the viewer is introduced to various characters, including a brash young Ukrainian who drives his own car, boyfriend to the daughter of a minor Soviet official; the devoutly Communist professor of Scientific Atheism at Leninsk University; and the owner of an illegal vodka distillery, who lives in his own private fiefdom in the middle of nowhere. The professor’s car breaks down near the distillery and he discusses God with the seemingly psychopathic owner. Later, the student picks up a girl and heads there to drink.

All of which devours an hour or so of screen time, with the pivotal characters yet to appear. Balabanov seems more concerned with describing this bizarre, edgy culture than telling their narrative. Until the moment when the apparent drifter at the distillery shoots a worker and kidnaps the girl the Ukrainian brought with him, driving her to Leninsk and handcuffing her to a brass bed in his near-senile mother’s apartment.

The drifter, it emerges, isn’t a drifter, but the genuinely psychopathic Captain Zhurov, head of Leninsk police. Leninsk police isn’t really a police force, but a mafia paramilitary defence unit. The Communists think they’re in charge, but they’re not. The girl says her boyfriend, a paratrooper due back from Afghanistan, will avenge her, but her boyfriend comes back in a coffin (the Cargo 200 of the title), the policeman takes possession of the coffin and throws the dead paratrooper in bed with the girl.

Before you realise it, this is not a slow-burning, droll look at the end of an era, but a full-on, gothic extravaganza of violence, fear and lunacy. And this, you start to say yourself, as the old lady watches the flickering images on TV, stepsister to Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream, might be exactly what that time was like.

Cargo 200 would never have got past the film company censors in this country. It’s constructed like a mess of a movie, with the main protagonist taking too long to emerge, the tone veering like a spinning drunkard, the genre beyond description. But when you walk out of the cinema, punchdrunk after 90 minutes which seem much longer, you can’t help thinking that this might by as good a depiction of that time and place as you’re likely to find. This is why empires crumble: not because they’re in coherent, functioning shape, but because they’re in utter, calamitous chaos.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

tick tock lullaby (dir lisa gornick)

This is a low budget independent UK production tackling the serious issue of children. The narrative is constructed around four different women all of whom are contemplating having a baby. Two are sisters, and the other two are in a gay relationship.

Using this clearly signposted thematic, the director (writer, leading lady and cartoonist) assembles a nuanced film which flits effortlessly between light hearted humour and cold hearted pathos. The characters are recognisable London people, and a sense of location permeates the film, with scenes in Soho streets, on London buses, parks, homes.

The film retains a polish which belies its minimal budget. Gornick's own cartoons counterpoint the action deftly, offering a child-like commentary on the complex actions of the adults. Mat Davidson's persistent score works effectively in maintaining the dramatic flow, adding an ironic voice of its own to the events on screen.

The editing is crisp and effective, and the narrative pleasantly complex. But above all else, Tick Tock Lullaby succeeds in creating a relationship of great intimacy between camera and performer. This allows her to capture performances with the degree of nuance the subtle, improvised script requires. Scenes of potential melodramatic weight are given a gossamer lightness. And through this, and the excellence of the cast she's assembled, the weighty and eternal issues of genetics and the maternal/ paternal instinct are explored with subtlety. As a result, more of the truth of our complexity as sentient adults and sexual beings is revealed than most movies even aspire to show.

The hook of this film is the thoroughly modern notion of a lesbian couple wanting a child. Yet to place Tick Tock Lullaby in a box marked 'Gay and Lesbian cinema' would be wrong. Noting her own antecedents, her own genetic imperatives, Gornick touches on the latent parent inside us all. Tick Tock Lullaby seems unlikely to get a large cinema release, but it has a freshness and a sense of purpose that puts much contemporary cinema to shame.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

control (dir. Anton Corbijn)

Control is a great title. It hits all the right buttons. The name of the film, also the name of a Joy Division song, encapsulates all that their music was about. Joy Division’s songs are pressure cookers. Ruled by a relentless rhythm, they contain seething emotion, the lid on the constant point of being blown off.

Control, the film, intimates that it’s aware of this. The beautiful, constrained cinematography buttons down the Mancunian gloom in black and white. The street Curtis lives in with his wife looks like something out of Coronation Street before colour TV. Sam Riley’s performance, as Curtis, is smouldering, restrained, hinting at something going on beneath the amiable blankness. Riley does everything asked of him, and does it with charisma, crucial for the role of an iconic pop star. His problem is that, in the end, not enough is asked of him, neither by script, nor, it would appear, director.

In order to understand why we’re watching a movie about this particular icon, it’s necessary for the script and film to scrape beneath the surface of the music’s sculptural rhythms. To understand the extent of Curtis’ suicidal distress, we need to see something of his power. One scene alone gives a glimpse, when he refuses to go on stage, is replaced for a song by a pale substitute, and then steps in, his performance alone capable of giving meaning to the music and making the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. For a brief moment Curtis’s music, his weakness, his presence, and his epilepsy are welded into a fierce dramatic whole.

But that’s as close as we get. In the following scenes it’s back to the grindstone, his Belgian girlfriend cradling his head before his wife calls and he commits another lie. Rather than elucidating the hero’s mental instability, the protracted mess of his private life is turned into melodrama. Will he go with the winsome Belgian or stick with the homely Samantha Morton? By the end it seems even the writer is past caring; a pivotal scene of supposed significance within the affair (‘What’s your favourite colour?’ ‘Man City blue’) is tacked on long after it’s dramatic momentum should have kicked in, and Morton, his wife, on whose book the film is based, becomes a mumsy purveyor of stock lines. Neither character is fleshed out, and the film’s failure to explore their complexity short-changes Curtis’s dilemma and the true nature of his tragedy.

Finally, back to the music. In taking the decision to portray Curtis as an anthem to doomed youth, Control tends to ignore the thing that made him stand out. His music. Control makes little attempt to investigate the creative process of the song writing; how his ideas were melded into those barbed wire songs. Hook’s dry wit and Sumner’s quiet neuroticism are local colour for his love life, like the grey northern skies.

In the end the music on Control’s soundtrack, which is the reason the film has been made in the first place, has a depth of feeling which indicts the film for presuming to offer a rounded portrait of the singer, a portrait it doesn’t begin to pull off as well as the songs do themselves. The film shows the skin of the man, but it never manages to get underneath it.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Yella (dir Christian Petzold)

The advantage of going to see a film that has had no hype is that the film can retain the possibility of surprise.

Yella is a film where not a great deal happens, save for a moment when all is revealed to be other than it seems, and a great deal of things suddenly make more sense. To reveal the twist would be discourteous; however to write about the narrative without revealing the twist restricts the critical approach.

Yella is the name of the heroine, played with a honed blankness by Nina Hoss. Yella doesn't say much; in itself a bold anti-heroic move. She suffers from strange mental fits: a glass falls off the table in a meeting and she trips out, an effect rendered almost entirely, and most effectively, through the sound mix. She is pursued by her stalker ex-husband, (played with a honed sociopathy by Hinnerk Schonemann), an experience she finds both terrifying and also strangely unconcerning. Why do these things happen? Why is her life so aimless? The director constantly teases the viewer, playing with the language of cinematic significance, and all is indeed revealed at the end.

Petzold's cinema appears to be one of close observation (like the Argentine Trapero). Yella even riffs on this with a playful scene where the body language of the boardroom is documented and ridiculed. In conjunction with her newfound lover, Phillip, Yella plays a small part in the great game of capital, and sees straight through it. She knows it's a haphazard, merciless game of power, which snuffs out the weak, to whom she is attracted. Her marriage has faltered on the rock of a bad business deal, and her relationship with Phillip goes through a similar cycle. Along the way, the director initiates the viewer, Mamet-style, into the workings of power, a game which Yella has no desire to win.

Yella is a subtle, unshowy film, dealing with big issues of power, death, society and the meaninglessness of the modern condition. It is to its credit that in its unassuming style, it never really lets on that this is what it's doing. The editing and cinematography is plain to the point of ordinariness; it is only in the inner world of the sound mix that the hard edges are explored. In this way the film creeps up on the viewer, like its twist, which when revealed seems obvious, but is so artfully set up that it never crossed my mind until it occurred.

Days later, Nina Hoss's blank expression, in the face of this world she had been granted to inhabit, still haunted.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

born and bred (dir Pablo Trapero)

Nacido Y Criado is a simple story. A husband is involved in a car crash in which his wife and daughter are killed. He believes this to be his fault and takes off to a remote part of the country. He gets a job on a remote Patagonian airstrip, makes a couple of friends, doesn't really deal with his grief, doesn't kill himself, and finally reveals the truth to his housemate, an action which precipitates his return to the city.

Pablo Trapero's film does various things extremely effectively. Perhaps most notably in his use of the long take. This isn't a static Hanecke long take. Trapero's camera weaves in and out of the action, watching for a while, then getting involved, then withdrawing. The willingness to leave the camera running, as Hanecke illustrated so effectively in Hidden, creates tension, notably in the scene leading up to the crash. The longer the shot goes on the more we know that something will have to break it, but we don't know what or when that break is coming. However it's also used to establish the quirks of character: the initial breakfast sequence establishes the complete family dynamic in one swooping hand-held portrait, the husband's ability to organise, the child's to chivvy, the mother to complement. Santiago's descent into depression following the crash is often traced with almost painfully slow shots that mirror the pain he is suffering.

Once again, a filmmaker perpared to work against the drift of a fast-edit MTV culture, shows that relentlessness is not an essential ingredient of drama. It's unclear precisely how long Santiago is away in the bleakness of Patagonia. It might be anything from a couple of months to a year. In grief, the film suggests, time is of little consequence. Santiago finds himself trapped in an eternal present. In contrast to his city life, with its design deadlines, all he needs to do in Patagonia is wake up, go to work, drink himself into a stupor occasionally, and stare out of the window which his friend swears at him for leaving open. Only birth and death puncture the remorseless of this present, that and the changing price of rabbit skins offered by the only trader around.

Pablo Trapero's film immerses itself in the snowy bleakness of Patagonia, just as effectively as it immerses us in Santiago's grief. Guillermo Pfenning's performance remains restrained, the director's camera keeping an objective eye on his breakdown, rarely letting it get carried away. In the end, Born and Bred becomes a buddy story, with Santiago's friendships with Roberto and Cacique establishing the conditions for his recovery. Their flaws help him to understand and come to terms with his own, more terrible flaw.

It may be that Trapero's film is probing at the values of his country, contrasting the affluence of the city with the integrity of rural poverty. His cinematography, constrained to interiors in the city, comes alive in the bleak Southern wilderness. But this is a subtle, meditative film, and it seems unwise to draw too many hard and fast conclusions from it's narrative. This point is heightened by the film's ambivalent, understated conclusion, which seems to hover between a future hope and the past's despair.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

inland empire (dir lynch)

In Lost Highway there's a corridor in the saxophophist's flat. It's no ordinary corridor. It pulses. It could swallow you up. You watch it like a child, scared of the dark, suspecting that if you go down this corridor and through whatever door lies on the other side, you're in for all kinds of trouble.

In Inland Empire, Lynch hasn't even bothered to show us the corridor. He's gone straight down it and from the moment the film starts, we're there, on the other side.

The film opens with grainy footage from what appears to be a hotel room. A man and a woman with their heads pixillated into a blur. It cuts to a room which looks like a stage set, where three people wearing rabbit heads iron, sit, talk. Canned laughter interrupts them. Back in the room, the woman begins to undress. She says she's scared. Laura Dern's neighbour rings on her doorbell. Welcome to Lynch world.

Which, the film is very clear in stating (in a film that is very clear about little) is also Hollywood. The Hollywood sign makes a guest appearance. Much of the action occurs on a studio sound stage. Dern's death scene, or one of her character's death scenes, occurs on Hollywood Boulevard itself, next to the faded glory of a star's sign on the pavement.

Watching this film is a hunt for clues. One of the clues is that this is a movie about/ within Hollywood, and the reality distortions that place conduces. When you're in a movie you inhabit unreality, which is the stuff of dreams, which is what this film undoubtably is. As Dern leapfrogs from scene to scene, sometimes a movie star, sometimes a character, sometimes a doomed drifter, she often appears to be looking at the action rather than participating in it. Her eyes are the eyes of the dreamer, and Lynch invites us to wander through the rooms of the dreamer's mind.

Which dreamer? Is another question. Who is the Polish girl? What are the Polish characters doing at all? The filmmaker who watched Inland Empire with me speculated that this was the aborted film within the film which the film within the film (which Laura Dern stars in and Jeremy Irons directs) adapts. He might be right, he might be wrong. These potshots at the film's 'meaning' are all we can take, unless we were PhD students doing a full and proper exegisis, as one kind of hopes there one day will be.

Watching Inland Empire hoping to find its 'meaning' feels like a foolish endeavour. Lynch, as in all his work, is smart enough to know that an audience can't help but bring their instinct for plot-resolution with them. Normally he throws them enough bones to make them think they've got a chance of digesting some kind of sense. You don't know what's going on but you can at least hazard an informed guess. Here, the wise course of action is to give up before you die trying. His tongue-in-cheek credits sequence teases the viewer. Inland Empire is self-consciously opaque; non-sense, if you like, tied together by the fact that every frame constitutes a connection with the other frames contained within the material of the film.

No other filmmaker in Hollywood could get away with this sort of gibberish. The very fact that Lynch can throws a fly in the Hollywood soup. Film is not about neat story lines and coherent story telling. It is about an amalgamation of images, knitted together to produce something that looks like a whole, but is as full of gaps as any dream. Only Lynch brings you the gaps. Which makes it more representative of a dream. Which might mean it's more truthful. Or might mean we're but children of the filmic age, and in a hundred years time they'll complain that Lynch was good, if a little obvious at times.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

transylvania (dir tony gatlif)

How hard is to make a movie these days? In my mind, the dream film-making technique was Eric Rohmer's, who allegedly had a crew of about half a dozen for some of his precise fables. Cinema, the technologic medium, stripped down to its barest minimum; the bride stripped bare by her bachelors.

The cost of film always mitigated against cinema becoming as open a medium as say, music, poetry or art. But now the advent of HD is supposed to liberate the filmmaker. The expense of celluloid and making prints can be done away with, and with the latest hard disk technology, there aren't even any tapes. A film can, in theory, go straight from camera to edit suite.

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I don't know what Transylvania was shot on. But the screening was advertised as a digital screening, and the cinematography had the abrasive beauty of digital, rather than the subtler tones of celluloid.

Transylvania wears its rough and readiness on its sleeve, from the opening shots of a blurred car journey punctuated by quick fire stills of local peasants. It is in keeping with a digital ethos whereby all you need to do is ward off the evil eye, cast a beautiful woman or two, add more than a dash of local colour, and lay them on to the bare bones of a story. Done well enough and you have a movie.

This slightly cynical perspective crossed my mind as Asia Argento, playing the exotically named Zingarina, began her journey through Transylvania. The script felt half hearted, no more so than in her showdown with her no-good musical boyfriend, Milan. The director seemed more interested in capturing colour, as depicted in a visually impressive but narratively insignificant gypsy procession, than telling a story of any subtlelty. The impression that Zingarina and her friend were just spoilt Western show ponies lingered, and when Ms Argento claimed to have done 'everything' I was strongly inclined to disbelieve her. It seemed unlikely she'd ever made beans on toast, taught in a primary school, or sat around feeling shy at a party waiting for someone to talk to her. Although she had clearly smashed a lot of plates and presumably broken a few hearts.

It's only when the non-story line of her quest for the lost Romany ends, that the film begins to breathe. Nothing much happens. Zingarina hooks up with Tchangalo, the scraggy-haired modern day peddlar. They wander round Transylvania, getting into scrapes, being menaced by a bear, meeting old folk and not really going anywhere.

Transylvania, thankfully, turns into a shambling road movie. And in doing so, it reveals its origins. What Gatlif does, and clearly what he's seeking to do, is capture a world. This place called Transylvania. Which swallows Zingarina up (she becomes a gypsy) and the viewer with her.

And in the darkness of the communal space which exists between viewer and screen, I mused on a culture which seems as related to the Marsh Arabs as it does to Western Europe. Not a Kustarican fairy land, just a harsh, vibrant beauty which has been preserved as though in aspic by communist isolation and poverty. A land with much music, little advertising, its own codes, plenty of beer, wooden cellos, dodgy priests and the burning of coals.

These things have all been captured by Gatlif in Transylvania. If he'd had a big crew and a potage of trailers, it seems unlikely he'd have been able to preserve the aroma of authenticity which his camera somehow does. If his narrative had been more sophisticated and his points more precise, he might not have captured it either.

As it was I felt like I, along with Zingarina, had been taken to this place I'd never known before. And I envied Zingarina her escape from the confines of the spoilt Western world. And this envy is connected to the wish-fufilment of cinema, because, after all, it is but a fiction. Dreams made out of machines, made out of dreams.

Friday, 10 August 2007

tell no one (dir canet)

Every year, it seems, a foreign language film 'crosses over' and against the odds grabs a sizeable chunk of UK film revenue. Examples that come to mind include Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Cinema Paradiso, In The Mood for Love, Amelie, and most surprisingly, Hidden. British cinematic culture tends not to be too forgiving of other languages (of various forms), and the films that manage to have an impact in the UK market are by and large too good to ignore.

Ne Le Dis A Personne has stuck around. I watched it in a half-full Renoir, several weeks after it's release. It's had good press and the distributors must be pleased. Is it worthy of its success? What marks it out from the other myriad French releases which aren't doing such good box office at the moment?

Guillaume Canet seems like a canny operator. He adapted the script from an American crime novel, and directs with ambition. There's various crowd-pleasing sequences, including an all-action getaway scene, and a team of killers featuring a sadistic female who can assassinate by touch alone. The hook is effective - a man receives an email from his eight-year murdered wife. Is this real, or is he being set up? We want to find out and so does he.

Canet also wittily references recent french political history: the police chasing our hero Docteur Beck are thwarted by a gang of disillusioned multi-racial youths on a housing estate, walk-ons from La Haine, who create a mini riot to divert attention. The villainous, patriarchal Gilberte Neuville, aloof in his corruption, reminds one of the autocratic tendencies and absolute power of seemingly all French Presidents.

These factors are welded onto a complex, well-written plot, of the kind they used to make, with hints of Hawks and Hitchcock. There are genuine surprises, and it builds towards a satisfying conclusion, even if the revelatory scene feels unnecessarily stagey within a film that opens with cinematic verve.

Perhaps this is a clue as to why Tell No One ends up feeling like less than the sum of its parts. It ticks so many solid boxes, covers so many bases, that it ends up seeming as though this was the director's main ambition. A strategy that may be commercially effective, but ends up feeling like cinema by focus group, slightly americanised, lacking the auteur's willingness to fail.

Which does not mean there isn't much to enjoy. The director's attention to detail produces unexpected benefits which rub off on his scenes. Francois Cluzet, playing the good Docteur, seems most at home within his hospital scenes. When he is on the point of being arrested, and receives a phone call from his lawyer, he's treating a young colour-blind African child, with the child's mother in the background. We observe the scene through the mother's eyes, which lends it a slice of humour lifting his escape out of the ordinary. Similarly, the Detective chasing him is revealed in one scene to be a keen environmentalist, telling his assistant off for not placing something in the recycling bin. For no clear reason save that it gives a sideways insight into the detective's life, this scene is set in his elderly mother's home, and suddenly a whole sub-structure, lurking beneath the safe conventions of the thriller, shows its face.

Monday, 30 July 2007

the seventh seal (dir bergman)

I called the Bergman aficionado from the Barbican. He said, a little sniffily, so you're going to see it for the ninetieth time. Not being a Bergman aficionado myself, I muttered that I remembered seeing it once on TV when I was 19, but even this was a distortion. I'd seen the opening frames, nothing more.

Max Von Sydow sitting on a Swedish beach playing chess with Mr De'ath himself. Horses up to their fetlocks in whippy Northern waters. An eerie, intellectual gloss permeating the scene.

During these first few frames, imposing though they are, I feared that The Seventh Seal was going to prove too austere, too like a Calvinesque cathedral. Beautiful yet far from heart-warming. Which is the preconceived model of a Bergman film, a filmmaker most know more through Woody Allen's failed attempts to become him than his work itself.

The screen was disappointingly small and the print far from great. I girded my loins and prepared to bathe worthily in the great auteur's gloom, as Max Von Sydow set off with his page to avoid the plague.

If the reader wants to retain the Bergmanesque myth, stop here. Because the film itself fails to honour it. Strange things start to happen. A couple, she beautiful, he a quirky fool, awake in a meadow, play with their child, clown around. A blacksmith loses his wife to a knavish actor, then wins her back in scenes of knockabout comedy. The tone of the film becomes warm, comic, charming.

In a way The Seventh Seal can be summarised as a Black Death Road Movie. Which might have a Tarantino/ Rodriguez ring to it. Bergman's sensibility seems populist. He creates characters who are lovable, and exposes them to danger. The audience roots for their survival. Death seems more of a vengeful sprite than a macabre ghoul. The heavy handed costume and make-up worn by Bengt Ekerot loses any taint of horror, as he plots and plans. This is a character from a medieval morality play, a villain and a rogue, whose gleeful sense of humour is revealed in the film's theatrical closing shot.

The wider philosophical and psychological context of the movie passed me by. No doubt there were things that I missed. Yet, like Beckett, another author whose work is categorised as much by its reputation as its actuality, it would be easy to lose sight of the manifest entertainer at work, were one to dwell too ornately on the significance of the imagery. The title, The Seventh Seal has a portentous ring to it, which the film does not shy away from, but Bergman has been careful to root his fatalism within a kernel of earthy joy. So when Von Sydow is asked by Death at the end whether his stay of execution has been worth while, we, the audience know exactly what he means when he replies that it certainly has.

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Note: Less than an hour after writing this I learn that Mr De'ath has caught up with Ingmar Bergman, who shall be playing chess no more.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

puffball (dir nic roeg)

At 11pm Nic Roeg came on stage at the Galway Film Festival to present what might well turn out to be his last film. The screening was half an hour late and the cinema was far from full. He said that unusually for him, this film had a beginning and an end, and they came in that order.

It is a long time since Roeg made a film. He's in his eightees now. Puffball was made on a tight budget, with few stars. It's a curious narrative, adapted from a Fay Weldon novel, of Irish voodoo, pregnancies (two, perhaps three, perhaps four) and sex. As might be expected from a Weldon novel, it feels like a narrative told from a female perspective. In between some of the several shagging scenes are shots of sperm flying, as though seen through a microscope, across the big screen.

Given Roeg's venerable age it is perhaps understandable why he should turn to this material, dealing as it does with the process and continuation of life itself. Roeg has always enjoyed a good sex scene, and the vigour of his mind and cinematic muscle is still evident. The tempo of the narrative seems uneven, and Kelly Reilly's central performance feels at times unfocussed, both of these being flaws of the script more than anything else, but there are still flashes of Roeg's cinematic genius, the laser-like editing that can send shivers up every spine in the house.

The clues to the film's intentions can perhaps be found in Donald Sutherland's cameo. When Sutherland comes on screen, he brings the baggage of Don't Look Now, and Roeg's feverish interpretations of relationships with him. Yet this is an older Sutherland, somewhat mannered in his acting, expressing the need for constant re-invention, as well as a capacity to learn from youth. 'It all starts from now' is a phrase used both by the younger, pregnant Reilly and the older, rennovated Sutherland. Its not hard to see this, and the film's playfulness, as Roeg's rebuttal of looming death. In old age, as in youth, life is there to be re-invented. There are no endings, only beginnings.

Puffball is not Roeg's greatest film. There's some concern over what kind of release it's going to get, and it's far from clearly commercial. The broad humour seems somewhat out of keeping with the intensity the maker of Eureka, Performance and Don't Look Now brought to the screen. But in spite of these caveats, there is still something fascinating, unexpected, taking place on the screen. The film may indeed begin at what appears to be the beginning and end at what appears to be the end, as all journeys do, but the 'what-happens-in-between' bit is never predictable. Roeg shows that his alien cinematic mind is as acute and unconventional as ever.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

flandres (dir. dumont)

Dumont comes garlanded as the bleakest of the new bleak. His films lay bare the blank canvas of modernity, where humans are dehumanised, life is oncemore nasty, brutish and short.

Flandres tells the tale of Demester, a young farm labourer, played with bovine assiduousness by Samuel Boidin. Demester has perfunctory sex with the farm owners daughter, Barbe. He seems incapable of understanding what love or tenderness might mean. He is sent to fight in 'the' war, which is taking place in an unnamed Arabic state. There his colleagues kill, rape and degrade the enemy, and are in turn killed and degraded by the same enemy, upon their capture. Demester somehow survives and returns to Flanders to find that Barbe accuses him of killing his fellow soldier, because she had become pregnant by him. He admits the charges, then discovers feelings of love for her.

Along the way there are scenes of rape, castration, abortion and 'hell' as Demester finally describes the war. The director does not appear to want to give his audience an easy ride. Iraq and the pointlessness of our lives are to the forefront of his agenda, and the title and the setting imply that modernity has given us little in the near century since that other senseless bout of killing on the French fields.

And yet... Flandres is curiously watchable. It is not a difficult experience. In these graphic times we are used to extreme imagery, and Dumont never quite succeeds in shocking us. It's true that the early 'farm' scenes are slow, but as soon as the action of war kicks in, the narrative flies along at a lick. In a recent interview, Dumont expressed his hopes to one day make a movie with Tom Cruise, and given the action of Flandres this seems less absurd than I had expected it too.

There's more than a touch of that dry ironist Houllebecq in Dumont's take on the world, albeit a slightly soft-soap Houllebecq, as its hard to see the writer coming up with such a sentimental pay-off. If the director is seeking to portray the bleakness of contemporary living, he's going to have to try a little harder. However, if Flandres is a parable for the way in which there is a residue of humanity and love to be found in even the most embattled, then this film succeeds. At the end we realise that this has not been a tale of insanity and war, rather a touching love story between two misfits, who are left with the rest of their lives to explore what this bizarre but most humane of feelings might mean.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The Pain and The Itch (w. Bruce Norris; d. Domininc Cooke)


Whose pain and whose itch? Questions which one suspects the writer and indeed director would like to be at least hovering around the theatre.

There's some very witty dialogue in Bruce Norris's piece. He writes with a sense of un-self-censored freedom, and the lines explode around the stage like little bundles of fun. The laughs are regular, and as the press suggests, infectious. The Pain and the Itch is also an artfully constructed piece, not a scatter-gun attack on modern mores. As the play comes to a conclusion the origins of Kayla's vaginal itch are neatly elaborated; the cause of the taxi driver's persistence succinctly resolved; a kind of family unity achieved. The play's structure is less comedy or farce than Murder Mystery. The taxi driver is a kind of 21st century Poirot, excavating the events of the night to uncover the hidden truth.

All of which is both extremely clever and also highly entertaining. Which might just be the play's Achilles Heel. The director, Dominic Cooke, who generates fine performances and conducts Norris's dialogue with suitable vigour, has been quoted as saying that he wants the Royal Court to move away from a voyeuristic kitchen sink approach and use the stage as a mirror to reflect and discomfort the audience. And one can see how The Pain and The Itch, an apparently scathing attack on liberal-western-upper-middle-mores might fit into this remit.

Yet, I felt, that the very neatness and confidence of the theatrical experience in some way helped to let the audience off the hook. Leaving aside the fact that it's not hard for a liberal British audience to laugh at and feel little connection with the fault-lines of the liberal US - in fact rather satisfying - it seemed as though the play's qualities in themselves may have been working against its intentions. The Pain and The Itch has all the attributes of the modern Western piece, it wears its cleverness on its sleeve, loose ends tied up, a highly efficient work of art. Whether that structure allows the pain that underlies this piece to see the light of day seems questionable. The pain which is not Kayla's itch, but the death of the taxi driver's wife, and by implication, the other needless deaths which US foreign policy has engendered in recent years. The only time this came through was when the taxi driver turned on his wife's de facto killer and said calmly - 'That is why you kill people', a moment when the man had to confront the fact that his whole way of life was tied up in the actions of the democracy he participated in, with the consequences that democracy has imposed on other people in other lands.

The Pain and The Itch is a great piece of writing. It's staged well. It's does a lot of things brilliantly. The question is whether it does all the things it sets itself up to do. If it doesn't, at least it's laying down some kind of road map showing the extent of what a play can do, and the directions it might have to go in if the Court is serious in its intentions to hold the mirror up to the life of its well-heeled audience.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

fanny and alexander (dir bergman)

The Bergman fan summoned me from weekend indolence to come and watch this late epic with him, urging me to book before it sold out. I hadn't seen it in twenty years. The friend had once given me or my wife, he's not quite sure which, the full-length video of the extended version of the film, which was apparently shown on Swedish TV. It sat on a dusty shelf and was never watched.

Sitting down in a half-empty Barbican cinema, I was increasingly glad of that. You can watch a film on TV and the narrative will come across; but not the spectacle. Fanny & Alexander is a big film, in length and detail, and much of that would be lost on a TV screen. The opening sequence, set around an early twentieth century Christmas day in a slightly bohemian Swedish family, lasts for over an hour. It's like watching a tapestry take shape: a stitch here, a stitch there, and gradually the complete vision of Alexander's family comes to life, in all it's bawdy, colourful glory.

This detail is reflected in the film's sets. I don't know there's all that much to say about Fanny & Alexander. I told my friend that I tend to book tickets at the side of the cinema, not the middle, in case I feel the need to flee, and he, a lover of the centre, replied: But this is Bergman! He was right. There was no reason to flee at any point during the course of the film's three hours. Just an invitation to sit back and bask in the physchological portrayals, the occasional surrealisms, the deft pacing of an old master.

So the only revelatory thing I have to offer concerns these sets, the full beauty of which can only be guaged on a cinema screen. The home of the bohemian family, captured in such detail during the first hour, seemed fussy, lavish, Victorian, ornate. The screen is packed to the rafters with rich colours and velvety fabrics. This is contrasted with the home of the wicked stepfather, the hidebound bishop who torments Alexander so. The bishop's home is all austere off-whites, stripped bare walls, an antiseptic minimalism. The point of note is that, at the start of the 21st century, it is the cruel bishop's taste which reflects our notions of civilised living - clean Ikea lines, simple colour schemes. The unruly lifestyle of Alexander's father's family, which Bergman celebrates so vigorously, is allied to out-dated notions of domestic taste; it seems fusty and old-fashioned in comparison with the bishop's bleak modernity.

As noted, the best place to apreciate this is on the large screen. So I am glad I never sat down to watch the video, although, were it still there to be watched, I would now sieze the chance to find out what happens in the other three hours which were ruthlessly cut from the shortened narrative of the cinema release.

Monday, 11 June 2007

zodiac [dir david fincher]

My friends saw Zodiac at the Ritzy. Approximately two hours in, the projector broke. The film had to be abandoned. People were fuming. My friend told me that one member of the audience shouted: I don't want a refund, just tell me who's the Zodiac!

You can understand the frustration. After about two hours of this two and a half hour film this really did seem to be the only reason left for watching to the end. The most charismatic character had shuffled off an age ago to become a drunkard on a boat; the obsessive cartoonist's marriage was done; the copper was already a has been. All this and we were still a good twenty minutes from discovering the identity of the killer.

Which kind of explains why, worthy, intelligent, and well-made though it may be, Zodiac fails to follow in the footsteps of Fincher's finest work. There are too many protagonists. It's a movie that can't seem to decide whose movie it is. It seems as though Jake Gyllenhaal's cartoonist should be the epicentre of the action, but his journey is constantly interrupted by the cops and the pressmen and the red herrings.

All of which also takes a long time to tell. Zodiac is never quite dull, but it's hardly gripping either. I saw it on a wet Sunday afternoon in Fulham, which seems about right. It contains time, rather than absorbing it. The problem lies in the script. It's adapted from Robert Graysmith's books on the Zodiac. Graysmith is the obsessive cartoonist played by Gyllenhaal in the movie. But where literature can freely skate across timeframes and societal change, cinema often struggles. The screenplay seems to want to keep it all in, and the movie seems over-extended as a result. It can't contain the changes that occur in the various characters' lives. After two hours, all's that's left is the question the film begins with: Who is the Zodiac?

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

The Night of The Sunflowers (dir Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo)

There's a study to be made in the art of the fractured narrative. Who's to blame? Inarittu? Robbe-Grillet? Laurence Sterne? Virginia Woolf?

No doubt it's been made many a time and perhaps Jorge Sanchez-Cabezudo would like his film to be included in the next update. Working within a unity of place, time and action, the film breaks down 48 hours of misadventure into seven chapters, each time looking at the story from a different character's perspective.

Initially, this has an engaging feel. A brutal rape doesn't quite come off. The tension of the opening chapter spills over into the next one, as the woman's husband comes to her rescue after exploring a pot-hole. The action shifts backwards and forwards in time and the audience is looking for clues, waiting for the full picture to be revealed. The trouble is that the more that's revealed, the less interesting the narrative becomes. Other characters - a crooked policeman and his elderly father-in-law - emerge, their dramas taking over the film, eclipsing the taut tensions of the visiting couple, who are impoverished and then marginalised.

In the midst of this it's hard not to feel the deconstructive tendencies are getting in way of the narrative rather than enhancing it. A film which initially feels like a psychological drama turns into a neo-Deliverance then a study of the decay of rural Spain and then a family drama. If the film could carry off this mish-mash of ingredients, it might have been remarkable. As it is they seem to weigh it down, and the film seems to lose its way. The final shot of the serial rapist, ensconced in his armchair, suddenly back in the movie he left over an hour ago, none the wiser, seems almost an acknowledgement of the lack of headway.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

The Lives of Others (dir Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

Having seen the film on Friday, I then read an article in the paper explaining that the premise the film describes is historically inconceivable. All of which goes to show that there's no need for historical accuracy in the telling of a good story, and perhaps, furthermore, that if you want to get a film made at all, you're going to have to mess around with the truth, because audiences rarely head to the cinema to discover 'the truth'.

Having said which, whilst The Lives of Others grants some insight into what it's like to live and operate within a police state, and offers a pleasingly drab portrait of the DDR (a world without apparent advertising which has its charm), there appear to be other issues at play within the narrative.

Not least the notion of performance. This is a film with three lead characters: a Stasi agent; a writer; and an actress. All three of these characters perform, to varying degrees of expectation. (One of the nicest conceits in the film is that the Stasi agent, seeking to cover up for the writer, actually writes his purely theoretical play for him.) When the Stasi agent interrogates the actress, they are both performing to an audience. Their respective performances will determine their fates, so they believe, and these layers add a potency to the drama. At this point it appears that the director is suggesting that in order to survive within the old DDR, everyone was forced to become an actor of some kind or another, though this is an existential truth applicable, one suspects, to all societies.

The telegraphed conclusion of the film, with its four temporal leaps, denotes a narrative that has points to make and isn't afraid to interrupt the narrative impetus to make them. The natural climax is long gone before the credits roll. History, it seems to be saying, isn't all about the moment, its ramifications drag on, annoyingly, into the unknown future. The fact that the above article suggests the filmmakers have chosen to romanticise the historical facts adds another layer; the ignorant audience believes this might really have been so, but in fact this is history as performance: a what might have been, rather than what really was.

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

los olvidados (dir. bunuel)

Sitting in the NFT, watching a fifties film about Mexican City street kids, the last thing you anticipate is a shot of the South Bank, filmed from just outside.

It's just one of the touches Bunuel throws in to deconstruct what might otherwise have been a regulation docu-drama, the forerunner of so many. The opening shots show Paris, New York and London, before arriving at Mexico City, as the film maker declares a global perspective to this local tale. To watch it in this destabilised era of gun crime is to witness a point made: until the underlying causes of poverty are tackled, the things we are about to witness will continue.

Bunuel furthers his perspectivisation with surreal additions. A child rises up out of his own dream to observe on his future. Hens and cocks feature rather more than you'd expect. According to the notes, his plan to feature a full orchestra on an abandoned construction site were shelved, but these touches all help to give Los Olvidados something that lifts it out of the ordinary, in spite of the fact it is so rooted in the ordinary.

The old man in Amores Perros crossed my mind. His cinematic ancestor might be the blind folk singer, carting his drum across the wasteland, as cruel as he is kind as he is desperate. Like everyone else in the film. Urban living in Mexico City is probably no easier now than it was then.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

notes on a scandal (dir richard eyre)

For some reason which doubtless is more obvious than it feels at this moment, it's hard to write about British films. The level of expectation is perhaps higher than one might expect for a Tunisian or a Hungarian opus. The need for the cinema to some way represent at least a fraction of the culture it shares with you. Or attempt to. There is an inclination to become extremely critical (what else should a critic be?); indigenous cinema faces a in-built handicap.

If part of the beauty of cinema-watching is the sense of anonymity it conveys on the watcher, that seems compromised when you watch a film set in your country, above all your city. You look at it with half an eye open to spot somewhere you know (Was that the Shepherdess Cafe near Amnesty where I once had a lasagna for lunch?); the images seem to belong to you more than they ordinarily would. You become, perhaps, a part of the film, and that's not what cinema, the least Brechtian of mediums, seems to be about.

There were bits of London I thought I recognised in Notes On A Scandal. Luckily I'm more South than North, so they were fewer and further between. I've taught in schools in North London, and the depicted environment seemed authentic. This attention to detail was reassuring. Perhaps wisely, the film resisted any impulse to explore the real social ramifications of it's narrative, in spite of the apparent class consciousness. One of the few notes that rung hollow was when the boy-lover's family barged into the affluent household, a sudden welter of stereotypical Oirishness, fists flying.

By and large this is a film that plays to its strengths, foremost amongst which is Dench's unselfish performance. It takes art to find drama in the humdrum, the small passions which flare in every soul, the apparently undramatic. Dench does it with her eyes and her aura, depicting someone who believes, as so many do, that the world is not on our side, that we have been handicapped for no ostensible reason, that intelligence is a burden rather than a blessing.

The film is also smart enough to over-ride the problematics of its plot (Is the teacher-pupil relationship as convincing as it should be?) It is the story not of a love affair but of a co-joined downfall, the one who has everything brought low just as readily as the one who has nothing. Hubris is not class-conscious, it can come to us all.

I've never, I confess, seen a Chabrol movie. Always wanted to. However, I felt as though this might be what watching one would have been like. If I'd been born French and writing in the sixties.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

the last king of scotland (dir. macdonald; w. morgan)

The first time the young Scottish doctor meets the dictator is a moment of high drama. The dictator, whose speech the feckless Scot has admired already, has an accident – his car has hit a cow, and he’s suffered a minor injury. The doctor is summoned, the cow lies wailing in misery on the side of the road. The doctor tends to the president whilst the cow wails. His humanitarian instincts working in overdrive, the doctor seizes the President’s pistol, lying on the car bonnet, and puts the cow out of its misery. The sudden action leads the soldiers to prime their rifles. The dictator looks like he might order anything. The doctor realises he’s out of his depth. The dictator learns he’s Scottish and embraces him. The woman the doctor fancies admires his reckless heroism.

It’s a beautifully structured and executed scene which sets a standard that The Last King of Scotland can never top. Unfortunately it comes at the end of the ‘first act’: the moment when Idi meets Doctor Garrigan.

Forest Whitaker proceeds to deliver a bravura performance as the mercurial Amin. However a trope has been set: he will swing from overbearing to jocular in the space of a moment. His very unpredictability becomes predictable. The Scottish doctor, played by James McAvoy, is a harder part to pull off. Here is a man who is complicit in the mechanisms of a dictatorship. His ignorance is hardly excused by his callowness. Yet at the same time he is also the romantic lead, a dashing model of globalised youth. The contradictions within the character are pertinent. McAvoy’s performance has flashes where it captures these contradictions, yet the film is reluctant to undercut its hero with too severe an examination, and his eventual sadistic torture operates as a kind of atonement. His Scottish charm lets him off the hook, and those who he could turn to for advice or support are caricatures, none more so than McBurney’s villainous-seeming Englishman, whose two-dimensional role in the film seems to be entirely to act as a foil for McAvoy’s boyish charm.

The Last King of Scotland has all the ingredients of an exhilarating film. One of the most ruthless rites of passage narratives you could ever come across. Charismatic characters, moral contradiction, sex, exoticism, violence and ‘based on a true story’. For all this, it remains something of a haggis of a movie; flavoursome but stodgy, spicy but safe. Nowhere is this more evident than in the climactic party scene, where Garrigan sleeps with Amin’s wife. The action is ‘heightened’ by a montage scene of topless African nubiles, dreamlike images of Amin entering the doctor’s consciousness, burning flames. Perhaps this is a wilful homage to seventies Bond movies, but if so, one wonders, why?

At the end of the movie, Amin berates Garrigan for playing the white tourist in exotic Africa. It’s a valid point which has been waiting to be made. There does seem a danger that a Western film set in Africa will echo this voyeurism. The Last King of Scotland tries to steer clear of the worst excesses of Amin’s rule, but it is still trading on the notion of the dark continent, where unspeakable things will inevitably happen, to be re-presented for Western consumption and entertainment. At the end of the movie the chastened Garrigan flies out on a plane; we go with him, little the wiser about the continent we’ve been invited to visit in his company for an hour or so.

babel (dir. Inarritu)

They’re at it again, Inarritu and Arriaga. Replicating the formula. Only the formula’s getting bigger and the canvas broader.

So it’s not a surprise that a certain amount of bagginess is creeping in. Amores Perros was set within a single city. 21 Grams was set within a single country. Babel is set within a single globe.

The title itself seems to recognise the risk of hubris. On a thematic level, the word 'Babel' acts as an indicator of the perils of miscommunication. A child is mistaken for a terrorist. A kindly nanny is mistaken for a child-snatcher. A deaf girl is mistaken in all kinds of ways. Language holds the key to enlightenment, but also confusion and alienation. However, Babel was also a tower, a structural edifice, and this film’s sense of ambition incurs the risk of the thing collapsing, the ideas outpacing the content, the semiotic meaning drowning out the narrative.

To what extent this occurs remains a subjective judgement. It seemed to me as though the film didn’t quite manage to juggle all the balls in the air. There’s the basic unlikelihood of lightening striking twice at the core of the movie, with Blanchett and Pitt’s children being subjected to a tragedy which is completely independent of the one the parents are undergoing. Despite the neatness of the chronological rupture (the tragedies do not occur simultaneously, in spite of the fact they have to within screen time), this seemed too much like the vagaries of Greek tragedy for such a realistic (use of the) medium. Had they gone the whole way and the third strand of the storyline compounded this, it may have worked better. But as it was, this strand was only tenuously linked to the other two stories. The Japanese material – a teenage virgin desperate to get laid – seemed out of keeping with the measured psychology of the Calexican and Morrocan tales.

The movie flared and then faded. The first third of the movie – the promise of what kind of a movie this might become – was the strongest section. A movie which might encompass so much of this turbulent, globalised village. It set out its ambition, and then, like the tower, failed to fulfil it. It might be that the Japanese daughter killed her mother with the same gun that shot Blanchett, but this seemed too arbitrary a pillar on which to build a film that spans the world.

It’s impossible not to admire Inarritu and Arriaga’s ambition. Babel is aspiring to things that other movies have never even heard of, let alone dreamt of. The influence of Amores Perros on cinema has been substantial. It may be that it’s time for its creators to step out of their masterpiece’s shadow. Babel seems to follow the architecture of that movie to a logical, grandiose end. Perhaps it had to be done, but it would be interesting to see how the filmmakers’ cinematic dexterity might now work on a more intimate, humane scale.

Friday, 12 January 2007

zemastan/ in winter (dir. rafi pitts)

As a teenager I was shown Ashes and Diamonds, by Wajda. I don't remember much of it now. A scene set in a sea of sheets, subsequently stolen. But I do remember the lead performer. I was told he was like a Polish James Dean. I didn't know too much about James Dean, and what I had see didn't quite work for me, a mewling middle-american pretty boy, but I could sense that somehow what these actors did was maybe less important than who they knew they were. The actor as zeitgeist definer.

I raise all this because it crossed my mind that Hashem Abdi's performance as Mahrab might be doing something similar for a contemporary Iranian audience. The storyline of In Winter is simple, and bleak. A man leaves his wife to look for work abroad. Another man arrives in town. He's a bit of a chancer, good looking. He gets a job, takes a shine to the wife, The wife is told her husband's dead. The chancer marries the widow, then loses his job, and a few weeks later decides that he too has to go abroad to find work.

The film is beatifully constructed, with succinct cinematography capturing the hinterland of an Iranian town. The music is sparsely compelling. But the thing that lifts the film out of the ordinary is Abdi's enigmatic performance. He seems like a drifter and a waster, and yet he has a compelling charisma. When the boss wants to sack him, Marhab doesn't go meekly, he answers back and vandalises the car plant. He brings smiles to his wife's face and makes his friend laugh. This in a society where laughter seems as precious as money. In the face of the unremitting austerity of contemporary Iran, Abdi's laconic, amoral performance looks like it might be one that touches a nerve. With a bleak flair, Zemastan gets under the skin of this edgy, precarious world.