Sunday, 10 February 2013

eversmile new jersey (d. carlos sorin, w. sorin, goldenberg & scheuer)

This is a curio. It features the most acclaimed Hollywood actor of our times. It's made in Patagonia. With everyone speaking English. Directed by someone who would wait 13 years to make his next film, but who would then go on to become one of the most acclaimed Argentine directors.

Watching Eversmile, you can undertand why Sorin hit a career lull in its wake. Perhaps conceived as a Wendersesque road movie, it feels like a collection of parts and ideas that add up to a film that never gets going. The fact that all its Patagonian characters speak dubbed English in strange accents doesn't help. The actors seem unsure of themselves and the script doesn't seem to know where it's going. In some ways its like a palimpsest for what would come later. A road movie built around the unlikely premise of a travelling Irish dentist, you can detect the crossover points where quirky new wave Argentine cinema and US indie cinema would later meet. (It's worth noting that one of the biggest Indie crossover hints of recent years, the schmaltzy Little Miss Sunshine, is a rip-off of Trapero's Familia Rodante.) Day-Lewis is allowed a few grandstand moments as the luckless dentist, including some trademark hollering scenes. On these occasions he seems to be enjoying himself but at other times his performance is as lost as those of the dubbed Argentines. 

It's hard to say whether the film's quality is a reflection of the state of Argentine cinema in the late eighites or the result of the fact that it's a botch-job caused by the fact this as international co-pro. (All the post was done in the UK). Whatever, the story has a happy ending, even if the film doesn't really have any ending at all. Day-Lewis became Day-Lewis. And Sorin set about the task of working out what it meant to be an Argentine director. In a way Bon-Bon El Perro is the same story as Eversmile, only with a dog instead of a girl as a travelling companion, everyone speaking Spanish, and much better made. The lesson would appear to be that you have to be prepared to have a few fracasos in order to find out what works and what doesn't work. Also, that the wheels of the film industry grind slow, and it pays to hang on in there.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

marley (d kevin macdonald)

The Ubiquitous Troubadour

Is there any music which has become more ubiquitous around the world than Marley's? You could make an argument for Lennon. But Marley manages to cross boundaries, infiltrate himself into cultures like no-one else. With Marley, there's the added rider that it's not only the man but also the style of music. For the vast, vast majority, reggae and Marley are one and the same. Somehow, an impoverished child from Jamaica managed to conquer the world and he did it in a style which was all his own. All this was achieved by the age of 37, at which point he departed, Christ-like, his music posthumously furthering his global domination. In his review in the Guardian, Bradshaw said that the documentary portrayed him as a Napoleonic figure. Perhaps a truer comparison is with Alexander the Great.

Macdonald's lengthy doc pays its dues to the Marley story and the Marley myth. It's a measured piece of filmmaking which is prepared to note the more controversial aspects of his life and career. Including the way the star ruthlessly split with his teenage companions, Peter Tosh and the incredibly charismatic Bunny Wailer. It mentions the contradictions in his attitude to marriage and fidelity, including some telling footage of his wife on a tour bus. However, whilst it touches on these and other issues, it never probes, instead retaining a respectful distance. 

Even if Macdonald seems slightly bolder than Kapadia was prepared to be in his hagiographic Senna, the truth is we don't really get to know the man, leaving the viewer with the feeling that perhaps Marley himself was less interesting than his myth. He loved football and working out and women. Only his ambition truly marked him apart. It almost feels as though his capacity to retain his ordinariness, or perhaps his simplicity,  was the secret of his success. HIs lyrics in particular, heavily influenced by the bible, have a neutrality that allows anyone to engage with them, even if they don't speak English. The film closes with a sequence showing people round the world singing along to his music. In death, he has become a one man, one music UN peace mission. 

The film pays due tribute to this music, which remains almost uncannily powerful. At one point, a member of his band, explaining how they "invented" reggae, talks about the ghostly fourth beat which is never played. Suggesting that the power of reggae and Marley lies in the sound which is not heard, as much as the sounds we do hear. Likewise, Marley's power resides in the things (or roots) this film, for all its skill, never manages to track down. We await a Rosebud moment, a glimpse of the thing that really made him tick, but Marley takes his secrets with him, unwilling or unable to reveal what it was that turned him into the mythic figure whose influence and range, like all the best mythic figures, continues to expand long after the flesh lies dormant. 

Sunday, 3 February 2013

shoeshine (d. de sica, w. amidei, franci, zavattini, viola)

De Sica’s film occupies a place alongside Bicycle Thieves and Los Olvidados. It would be easy to say that in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War European intellectuals suddenly discovered a conscience and began to recognise society’s underclass, but the truth is that this is no more than a continuation of C19th Realism. The presence of the poor was nothing new in Western European thought; but it might be that the neo-realists were the first to use the magnifying glass of cinema to tell their story.

Although dated, obviously, Shoeshine is in its way as harrowing a journey as anything portrayed by Loach or Clarke. Two engaging shoeshine boys, Pasquale and Giuseppe, make a parlous living. Some of the clients are American GIs, who are shown as being poor payers. The two kids dream of owning a horse (shades of Kes). When Giuseppe’s brother gets them in on a scheme to sell black market US blankets, they suddenly find themselves rich. They buy the horse. This pre-empts a remarkable sequence when the pair ride the horse through the streets of Rome, cheered on by their fellow shoeshiners. This is cinema at its most visceral and the method in which it’s filmed, clearly on the hoof, only adds to the impact.

However, the kids are busted by the police and the action then moves to a juvenile prison. What started off seeming like a sentimental tale dealing with charming scamps gradually turns into something darker, ending in conflict and tragedy. There’s vast skill in the way the narrative is constructed to gradually lure its audience with what initially appear to be harmless childish adventures, only for them to later realise that what’s really at stake for these lovable kids is not only their future role within society but also a struggle for survival. The image of the horse becomes representative of the natural life these children will never be allowed to lead. As such, Shoeshine feels as though it still contains a disconcerting relevance, sixty years on, not only in the ‘third’ world but also in the ‘first’.

Friday, 1 February 2013

savages (d. oliver stone, w. stone, don winslow, shane salerno)

Raging against the Dying of the Light.

It’s strange to now be of an age where one has observed entire careers unfold. I watched Salvador in York, nearly thirty years ago. It should go down alongside Kiss of the Spiderwoman as a film which opened our perceptions to what was occurring in the world around us. After that, my friend Sedley watched Platoon compulsively in the front room in Stockwell, replaying the video time after time, hooked on the way the narrative functioned. Tom Berenger, now almost forgotten, pitted against the nascent Dafoe. Born on the Fourth of July helped to establish Stone as a man not only prepared but gung-ho to talk about the things which middle America considered taboo. Thereafter JFK came out and articulated something which had crossed the mind of anyone born after 1963, separating the generations. Something was fishy in the state of Texas, USA. Even if Costner’s magic bullet theory wasn’t the actual truth, the film reflected a growing consensus that the received truth governments offer is something we should never accept on trust. (Elroy’s novel American Tabloid makes even more effective capital out of this truism.) With this kind of capital in the bank, Stone could continue to address the big topics and claim a relevance, even if the quality and rigour of his films began to ebb away.

Which brings us to his latest, Savages. The subtext of Savages is fairly clear and not entirely stupid. The big banks, nay even capitalism itself, (which has financed Stone’s art and no doubt made him rich), have the same ethics and ruthlessness as drugs cartels. Chon and Ben, the young, ethically friendly dope producers are the subject of an aggressive takeover bid from some bad Mexicans, headed up by Salma Hayek with resident Hollywood Latino, Benicio Del Toro in tow. Which is about as much as anyone needs to know. Thereafter the acting is at best insipid, the narrative is porous and more than anything else the tone is so ill-judged that one wonders what happened to the old radical and how he ended up getting caught up in this dross. The man who made Salvador now portrays the Mexicans as blundering psychopaths and the pretty gringos as romantic leads. In another life, Chon and Ben might have been amongst the victims in Platoon. Now we have to endure their desperate attempts at squaring their moral turpitude with a Bhuddist perspective, one which leads to them becoming eco-warriors in Indonesia.

One can only assume that this was a studio job and Stone was in it for the money. Which kind of begs the question of how he’s managed to get himself so trapped by a system he’s spent so long trying to subvert. Stone was never the most subtle of filmmakers but you had the impression that there was conviction and a kind of bad-ass integrity. As these begin to wane you can’t help asking yourself why he feels the need to carry on, tarnishing a legacy which stands alongside some of the finest filmmakers of his Hollywood generation.