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.