Sunday, 27 February 2011

animal kingdom (d. david michôd)

I don't know if this is down to my state of mind at the moment or the film itself. Animal Kingdom's merits as a film are indisputable. The acting is impressive, the story-telling is effective, there's a bleached deadness to the grade and sufficient longeurs in the editing to allow the film to breathe. I was engaged throughout. Yet even as I left the cinema the film had already washed over me and now, less than two days since seeing it, I struggle to recollect any overwhelming feeling in response to it. As I say, I don't know if this is due to the film or my own personal sense of current alienation. Perhaps, being a film that in some ways deals with the notion of alienation, through an impressive central performance from James Frecheville, it hit a nerve that is partially dead.

There's a lot of Scorcese in the background in the tale of a crime family from the Melbourne suburbs. Scorcese gets everywhere these days. You can't move for Scorcese. The slow-motion takes, reminiscent of Mean Streets, were one of the film's weaker tropes. However, early Scorcese works not just because of its vivid technical qualities, but also because of the film-makers ability to present his world, the edges of Little Italy. In a similar way, Michod captures the low-level Anglo-Saxon tropicality of an Australian suburb. Seemingly the antithesis to gloomy , rainy England, in actuality Australia sometimes feels like a Platonic experiment at the creation of a sun-bleached nirvana that has gone weirdly off the rails. And Michod gets to grip with this sense of unease, showing us a society where sociopaths determine social structures and no-one can escape their influence.

As I say, there's much to admire in this film. I have a feeling Michod will make more films and become successful. It will be interesting to see if he stays in his native land or not. The offers will be flooding in. Making a good crime thriller is one of the hardest things to do. The audience doesn't just have to buy into the actions of characters at odds with society; they also have to believe in their world. Animal Kingdom achieves all that. Even if it leaves you as numb as J, it's monosyllabic protagonist, a young man whose future seems doomed both before the film begins and after the credits have rolled.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

inside job (d. charles ferguson; w. chad beck, adam bolt)

1. Whilst the financial crisis of '08, (since it has failed to obtain a less prosaic monicker), was occurring, and indeed it its aftermath, experts and laymen alike would say, and still say, that the world of derivatives and credit swaps and the like was so baffling that its complexity in some way became linked to the notion of a black hole of (toxic) money. The banks and their experts had created a black hole of knowledge, something so devious that it had outrun even the gurus of the financial world. As though that knowledge had in some way morphed into an anti-knowledge, one capable of bringing down the whole house of cards. Inside Job, with the help of a few simple diagrams, comprehensively punctures that myth. It's not that complicated. People knew what they were doing. They are responsible. Not the anti-knowledge.

2. This clarity extends itself to the interviewing style. We never see the interviewer, or interviewers. But we hear their voice. Common sense is a somewhat ephemeral concept which can doubtless be manipulated. But when an interviewer asks a perfectly reasonable question and is rebuffed, the confidence of the interviewer in resisting the rebuff reminds the viewer of its common sense. Does it matter that an expert changes the name of his paper from 'Stability in Iceland' to 'Instability in Iceland'? Not a lot, in the wider scheme of things, but revealing the expert's reaction to the disclosure of this fact helps to reveal the levels of duplicity and intellectual laziness necessary to construct and support a system as catastrophic as the one that was constructed, with the expert's help. If the interviewer were an actor we would be lauding his understated brilliance.

3. The words 'holy cow' in the mouth of a Frenchwoman are surprisingly potent.

4. I watched this in a cinema in Notting Hill. The audience was not, I'd imagine, what could be described as downtrodden. They gasped in amazement at the film's revelations. What happened in 08 in some ways transcends political boundaries. Which is not to say it was not the work and product of right wing thinking, but is to say that the creators of the economic model which lead to '08 were not acting out of an ideological instinct. Unless greed is ideological. What the film shows is the complete lack of any ethical dimension to the actions of those promulgating and profiting from an economic model they themselves instigated. In that sense this class (a tiny elite with appropriate intellectual underpinning) seems to embody a form of fascism, whereby the actions of the individual have become entirely disassociated from the actions of society. The miracle of all this, which perhaps encouraged their sociopathy, is that they are the ones whom society chose to reward or allowed to be rewarded on what can only be described as a disproportionate scale.

5. It is a pity, as well as presumably revealing, that the film didn't succeed in conducting an interview with any single banker working for one of the significant corporate players during the events of '08.

6. Who really matters? Mervyn King appears in one shot in this film. He is not name-checked.

6. The cinematography is impressive. If ever a documentary could get away with sweeping helicopter takes of NY riverfront, this is it. All to often a documentary's aesthetics get in the way of its intentions. In this case, the film cannot afford not to be watched because its aesthetics could be dismissed as being those of a low-budget attention seeker.

7. Final point. It's not my style to bullet point a review, but in some ways Inside Job seems such an important film, that the critic's job with regard to it is not to give an opinion, but to attempt to highlight why it should be seen. Furthermore, it will be ignored and tarred with the accusation of being in some ways ideological. Because merely to document what occurs in certain parts of our world is deemed 'left wing'. [There will be those who say it is left wing to watch Al-Jazeera when today, of all days, shows why it is an imperative if you regard news as being a source of information regarding what's going on in the world.] If Inside Job has an axe to grind it is that the events which lead up to the financial crisis of '08 have been ignored, marginalised or mystified by mainstream media. Which allows politicians to do the same thing. Next time this kind of financial collapse occurs, the outcomes will be even more malignant than in '08. And we still don't have any real idea of the full cost of '08.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

our private life (w pedro miguel rozo, d lyndsey turner)

This afternoon the following quote from Cortazar arrived via twittersphere: "pero quién sabe si todo eso lo decía o solamente lo pensaba". Rozo's play deals, ostentatiously, with the division between thought and word, suggesting that in a more modern environment, people become more adept at concealing their thoughts, something which in older times, in more basic communities, were as exposed as the words that people used. This is an engaging, if not completely original idea. Part of the pleasure of watching this English language production was seeing the way British actors, schooled as they are now in naturalism, dealing with the writer's presentation of their characters' thoughts, which are, essentially asides. Asides are a key component of 16th, 17th, and 18th century theatre. The ascendancy of film has lead towards the domination of naturalism, which has no space for the aside. The spoken thought is now consigned to the margin in British theatre.

Not, however in Latin American theatre, or what little I may have seen of it. Rozo's play, in common with the work of Uruguayan authors such as Calderon, Sanguinetti and Morena, revels in the theatricality of the aside, as the actors establish a complicity with the audience. Some of the play's actors seem to have gained more of a grasp of of it than others. Adrian Schiller, in particular, as the devious but charming psychiatrist and Bolano lookalike, seemed to delight in unveiling his hypocrisy, his performance helping to set the tone once the play had got past a slightly stilted opening section.

The family, that cauldron of secrets and lies, is the perfect domain for this style of combative theatre. Rozo investigates the duplicity of a would-be middle class family with some verve. Again, there were moments when the play struggled to engage with the move beyond naturalism. This is a heightened, perhaps expressionist style of theatre (which pays its dues to the telenovelas Rozo also writes). It requires pace, verve and variation in order to be true to the writing's rhythms rather than the search for emotional truth. (Not for nothing is Berkoff one of the more popular British authors in Latin America.) At times the play really hit its stride, whilst at others it seemed to flag, although it's likely that the timing will improve as the play runs.

If Rozo's play doesn't have the theatricality of La Munequita or Ararat, it's still refreshing to see the production engage with a contrasting theatrical style, a reminder perhaps of the flair of London's Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre rhythms. The space between word and thought is so simple to explore in theatre and offers up vast psychological and dramatic potential, something that can counteract the predictable and marry tragedy with bitter humour. So often I left the best productions I saw in Latin America with the feeling that the theatre there contained something more visceral and adventurous than our more studied methods of creating plays. This may well be a romantic and absurd generalisation, but if it has any basis in fact then there are flashes of these differences to be denoted at the Court's upstairs space in its production of Rozo's acerbic play.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

black swan (aronofsky; w. heyman, heinz, mclaughlin)

I feel more normal today.
Yesterday, walking back solo through Notting Hill, I felt less so.
There may have been many reasons for this, but one of them was Black Swan. Which I had just been to see.
Many years ago, I remember coming out of Venn Street Clapham Picture House having just seen Naked. The only Mike Leigh film that's ever touched a nerve. I felt edgy, watchful. The world that the film had conjured (as much Thewlis' performance as anything else) seemed all around me. In truth it was. I was young. I lived in London. Life seemed transient and precarious.
The circumstances under which one watches a film affect one's reaction to it.
Less than a day later it's easy to look back on Aronofsky's film and laugh at its gaucheness and cliche, and sheer over-the-topness.
Which should not be to forget that I also found myself laughing within the cinema, at Cassel's splendidly seedy manipulator, at the film's exaggerated Apollo/ Dionysis schtik, at a director pushing boundaries with glee.
But the laughter a day later is that of the critics who see the film as at best infantile, at worst, abusive. And it's not hard to see why.
A thick skin and you're insulated against the ridiculous.
Or some feathers, perhaps.
Because this is, in spite of its various absurdities, a visceral film. About things that in the moment seem real but from outside can look ridiculous. Creativity, neurosis, desire.
I don't live in New York and I've never liked ballet. I'm no gamine waif. But somehow, the film, with its remarkable camera work and its shrewd use of music and all the other tricks that it employs, succeeded in bowling me over.
I came out of the cinema and the world, this plush world I walked through, felt borderline repulsive; borderline homicidal.
It's a reaction. I almost used the word over-reaction. But that would be wrong. It was a reaction. To the director's cinematic will.
Art, as this most metaphysical of films (no reason metaphysicm should not also be visceral) relates, is more than the sum of its parts, and should not be afraid of crossing the line unto what might be perceived as ridiculousness.
The ridiculous is out there, and it doesn't do us any harm to touch it every now and again, to lose control, to strive to, or perhaps to actually achieve, the going-beyond the line. Drawn by ourselves or society or god or the universe or physics.
I feel normal now. But for a while last night I didn't. Which is almost entirely to the film's credit.

Monday, 7 February 2011

of gods and men (d. xavier beauvois; w. beauvois & comar)

The more you like the premise the more likely you are to be disappointed. I think that's the conclusion I came to in discussion with Mr Mahey this week, with particular regard to the work of Dos Santos.

The premise of this film is a bunch of Christian monks (lead by a man called Christian) who live in the Atlas mountains of Algeria at a time when violent Muslim extremism is on the rise. Which made me think of Pamuk, for a start. Particularly in the engaging opening scenes where the monks are seen co-existing with the Muslim village, and Christian has a copy of the Koran on his desk alongside the saying of Francis of Assisi. I thought at this point that Beauvois was about to deliver the film which no-one seems interested or capable of making, one which explored not just the fault lines between Christian and Muslim communities, but the points they have in common. Where better to set this film than in the mountains of North Africa?

Then the villagers dropped out of the story and the Muslims were relegated to terrorists and the brutal army, menacing the monks in vespers with their noisy helicopters. I reassessed, and tried to re-read the film as a study of the devotional life and sense of duty. Christian takes walks by the beautiful lake as he wrestles with his destiny. But the army and the terrorists kept popping up to interrupt the peace. In the end, the film turns into a thriller. Will they survive or not? If so, who will survive? And how? It's the Towering Inferno in extremist Algeria.

A little bit of this and a little bit of that. A recipe for art-house success, without doubt. A superb premise which has gone down out a storm. I loved the premise. And was then disappointed by the film itself.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

biutiful (d iñárritu; w iñárritu, armando bo, nicolas giacobone)

Back in the cinema. Lights dimmed. Big screen. Ten pounds. Three hundred pesos uruguayos. Having experienced cinema within a purely digital form (casi) of late, this was a return to the old routine. There's another conversation to be had about the merits or demerits of how you watch cinema, and what this implies for the cinematic form, but that's a conversation for another day.

One thing Iñárritu has shown no fear of within his career, for better or for worse, is the potential of cinematic narrative. Oddly, I now remember sitting with Ana's niece at one point in 2009 in San Jose, watching a pirated version of the Japanese club scene in Babel and enjoying it for 20 minutes before retiring. There's another club scene in Biutiful, Inarittu likes a bit of bling, and this is also well filmed. In isolation it would make for a compelling sequence. Biutiful has a whole range of isolated sequences which stand out as bravura filmmaking. The opening; the first scene where we meet Marambra; the arrest of the Africans. Among others. Unfortunately for Inarittu, the real art of cinema is not merely the creation of remarkable moments, but how those remarkable moments are then strung together. This is where one wonders if Arriaga's true talent was understanding Inarittu's limitations. A fractured narrative papers over the narrative cracks in a way a linear one cannot. Biutiful is the work of a talented filmmaker, but all the same a filmmaker who doesn't know how to edit.

As a result, in spite of Bardem's remarkable performance, (finally persuading me that he's more than just a craggy face), Biutiful sags in too many places. When the film's central tenet is that the leading character has cancer and will die, it's probably going to be grim. I enjoy a grim film more than your average punter, but even for me this was pushing it. Furthermore, there's something about Inarittu's flair as a filmmaker that seems counter-productive for the material. Although the narrative is grim, the style of the film isn't. There are too many sexy moments. Even the club scene, which should be a kind of descent into the underworld, feels lush and eminently watchable. There's also too many seemingly clever touches which aren't really developed and smack of "Script Development". That Bardem's modern day saint should happen to talk to the dead; that the Chinese sweatshop owner happens to be gay; these details feel like add-ons, the gilding of the lily.

It's tempting to say that Inarittu has cooked his goose as filmmaker, that he peaked with his debut, and its been glamour and downhill ski slopes ever since. I'm not sure that's true. In twenty minute chunks he's about as good as it gets in terms of dynamic, visceral film-making. He just needs to find the right writer to help him string these episodes into a functioning narrative. And learn how to edit.