Archive | November, 2010

Chico and Rita – style or substance?

26 Nov

I confess to having massive expectations for Chico and Rita. Not only do I love animation and it came highly recommended by people I respect, but I also completely fell for its directors, Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, on BBC2’s the Culture Show. Plus I lived in Spain in the early nineties when Mariscal’s Bar-cel-ona logo and Olympic mascot, Cobi, were ubiquitous and, as boleros enjoyed a revival, Los Panchos played in every bar.

And on the whole I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a luscious, gorgeous film with a soundtrack (courtesy of Cuban composer Bebo Valdés) to die for and a humour I wasn’t expecting – in particular during the scenes in the tenement where Chico lives. The repartee amongst his neighbours provides some genuinely lol moments such as, for example, a neighbour defending his revolutionary credentials after criticising a power cut: ‘But I was reading Granma, and had just got to the interesting bit’!

Talking of translation (it took me a second to remember Granma is the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party and not just a variant of grandma) I’d have preferred to see Ramon’s advice  to Chico that he’s ‘enchochado’ translated as ‘in lust’ rather than ‘in love’ – ‘chocho’ being a (non-offensive) term for the female genitals.

The scenes in the tenement also touch on another aspect of the film I liked – its politics are lightly worn but deeply felt. When the action switches to Rita’s career in the USA not only is the obvious target of racial segregation criticised, but there are also visual references to the less blatant racism of the exoticising of, amongst others, Josephine Baker and Carmen Miranda.

Blog on the box, however, calls Chico and Rita ‘one of the most profoundly moving films of the year, a heart-wrenching love story’ and I have to disagree. Although a feast for the senses, the narrative fails to grip. It’s unevenly paced and contains some check-your-watch longueurs. And, although I did shed three tears at the end (I counted), I was annoyed with myself for doing so.

But perhaps boleros always have prided themselves on being a triumph of sentiment over intellect: the style is the substance. As Trueba comments on the film’s website: ‘For me Chico & Rita is a song, a romantic song, a bolero. It’s the story of two young people in Cuba at the end of the 40s, and how life gets them together and separates them like in a song. It’s a film full of music and love and sensuality and colour.’

A paean to both directors’ passion for Cuba and its music, somewhat disappointingly Chico and Rita never felt more than the sum of its parts – as gorgeous as those parts were. As they’re passions I share it still earns 4 out of 5 stars, but if you want to be profoundly moved seek out Mary and Max.

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My Afternoons with Margueritte

22 Nov

Ok, I’ll lay my cards on the table. I’ve loved Gérard Depardieu since seeing him strut across the room in leopardskin briefs (and they were brief) in Bertrand Blier’s Tenue de Soirée (Evening Dress) in 1986. And any film that gives a leading role to a dictionary (see Police, Adjective) is equally irresistible. Last but not least, not only had I just had a fabulous supper with congenial company at BangBangs, but I also managed to bagsy a sofa at the fabulous Abbeygate Picturehouse.

So, yes, I loved My Afternoons with Margueritte (La Tête en Friche). Even if no one seems quite able to decide whether it’s Marguerite or Margueritte (though film would suggest the latter). Congenial company did suggest that it was rather like going for a stroll, with no particular destination in mind, but sometimes a stroll is just what the doctor ordered. Particularly if it’s with lovely people with whom you can engage in pleasantly bookish conversation.

Depardieu plays Germain Chazes, a middle-aged man who lives in a caravan in his mother’s garden. Although not lacking in practical skills (he’s a successful gardener, good at whittling and odd jobs) amongst his friends at the local bar he’s certainly not considered, whether affectionately or otherwise, as the sharpest knife in the box. And, in flashbacks of his childhood (a difficult mother and sadistic school-teacher), we’re shown why. However, through his meetings with the 95-year-old Margueritte (equally wonderfully played by Gisèle Casadesus) who believes in the power of literature to help us understand the world, he learns to re-evalue his relationships – not only with books but with those around him.

David Jenkins’ hilarious description in Time Out of ‘Gérard Depardieu, looking like a hay bale in dungarees… It’s basically ‘Educating Rita’, if Rita were French, rotund and Forrest Gump’ certainly made me laugh, but I have to disagree. It’s a beautifully acted, warm, gentle and humorous film. Yes, it is sentimental, but it doesn’t quite cross over into maudlin as [SPOILER ALERT] Margueritte didn’t have to die for either Germain or the slower amongst us to appreciate its moral.

The Kid’s Aren’t Totally All Right…

19 Nov

Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian calls Lisa Cholodenko’s new film The Kids Are All Right ‘a witty portrait of postmodern family life in which script, casting, direction and location all just float together without any apparent effort at all’. And Time Out, too, focused on its ‘warm, wise humour’.

And, to be fair, there is much to recommend it. The performances are great, in particular Annette Bening as Nic. And I liked the sympathetic but realistic portrayal of a long-term relationship. Although I’m not sure why Julianne Moore’s character, Jules, chose to have an affaire with a man rather than another woman? It was just too neat, unrealistic and (surely?) plain old insulting.

However, I’ve a sneaking suspicion that the mainstream press are rushing to praise it more to show off their liberal credentials than for any inherent value. I really don’t want to knock The Kids Are All Right too much. I’m sure it’ll help reduce the explaining those who’ve gone down the donor sperm route have to give their kids. And help reduce any pressure the children themselves feel, which can only be a good thing. Certainly I hope it’s a cause, as well as an effect, of things moving on since a friend, brought up by his mother and her partner in the 70s, was very careful to hide his home life from people at school.

But, I still felt the end result was unsatisfyingly lite. And found the supposed humour of the scenes with the Mexican gardener (Joaquín Garrido) offensive. What were they doing in a film claiming to wear its PC heart on its sleeve? (Read Daisy Hernandez at racialicious for an excellent analysis on the film’s racial stereotypes.)

So probably worth a look if you’re on a flight, and I won’t be at all surprised if it picks up an Oscar (see above re: liberal credentials) but I had some serious reservations.

Police, Adjective versus The Hunter

14 Nov

It’s official – Romanian films rock! After seeing the wonderful Tales from the Golden Age earlier this year, I’ve now fallen for Police, Adjective (Poliţist, Adjectiv). Both share a fascination with the nature of reality and the creation of meaning. And both reveal a strong sense of compassion toward their characters and society in general.

Director and screenwriter, Corneliu Porumboiui, explains, ‘I wanted to make a film about language, about its meaning or better yet, about its lack of meaning… At the end of “1 2:08 East of Bucharest“, there were a lot of different definitions of the revolution popping up. This time, I tried to find out was hidden behind words, how words can be interpreted, and how they imply lots of different points of view. The film culminates in a dramatic scene in which a Romanian dictionary is supposed to explain the meaning of “conscience,” “Iaw” and other key words in the story… only, it doesn’t.’

Police, Adjective, sets out to not only deconstruct language and the creation of reality but also the crime genre itself, creating in the process what Porumboiui describes as a’post-crime genre’ movie. One populated with characters you care deeply about, who are portrayed neither as innately good nor innately bad, but simply getting by the best they can.

Sadly, unlike Police, Adjective, which proves that films which portray reality in a realistic way don’t have to be boring, Iranian film The Hunter (Shekarchi), starring and directed by Rafi Pitts, failed to engage me in any meaningful way. There were just too many lingering shots of the hero looking… looking… well, haggard and unemotional. Both before and after he discovered that his wife and daughter had been killed in the cross-fire between police and insurgents.

There is one short attempt to provide some context and depth in the character of one of the policemen who catch up with him, but it’s all too brief and made little impression on our hero.

Sorry: I know it was nominated for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival and many people loved it, but even at a mere 90 minutes it felt woefully overlong to me.

Mary and Max rocks

12 Nov

Luckily, an hour after seeing Another Year, I was treated to the marvelous and moving Mary and Max. Although the themes are similar (‘Life’s not always kind, is it?‘ in Another Year, and ‘Dr. Hazelhof also said that everyone’s lives are like a very long sidewalk. Some are well paved. Others, like mine, have cracks, banana skins and cigarette butts.’ in Mary and Max) Adam Eliot treats it with subtlety and sympathy. In his own words, his latest clayography again ‘explores our desires for acceptance and love, no matter how different we are!’

I loved his previous short in 2003, Harvie Krumpet, and, as with that, found Mary and Max darkly comic, bleak in parts and gut-wrenchingly sad. But the humanity at their core, and their ability to put you through an emotional mill, makes both, finally, deeply life-affirming. As John Walsh in The Independent wrote, ‘Amid much childish dross this week, Adam Elliot’s “clayography” stands out as a genuine work of art, where Wallace and Gromit meet Dostoevsky and Diane Arbus.’

It’s tough to write about something you admire this much, that manages to name check Cherry Ripes, Caramel Koalas and Lamingtons, and that even has Philip Seymour Hoffman providing, brilliantly, Max’s voice –  but in the end I’m not sure I could love anyone who didn’t love Mary and Max.

Thanks to the Abbeygate Picturehouse in Bury St Edmunds for screening it (even if only once…). And huge appreciation to the whole creative team. May all your mood rings, but particularly Adam Eliot’s, always glow green!

Is it me? Or is Mike Leigh’s Another Year a pig in a poke?

11 Nov

Fabulous trailer; wonderful music; beautiful poster and amazing advance notices: in short, I was willing to like Mike Leigh’s Another Year: wanting to like it: waiting to like it. So why did I leave feeling I’d been sold a pig in a poke?

It certainly wasn’t the acting. As well as possessing unerring instinct in choosing his cast, Mike Leigh coaxes superlative performances from them. Another Year brings home how flat many films are; radiating, as it does, a warmth and depth that make you forget the screen. However, the excellence of the acting and the obvious care put into the film made their squandering on such a schematic tale even harder to take.

Basically my reaction was one of huge disappointment mixed with a little anger. Actually make that quite a lot of anger. “Life’s not always kind, is it?” asks Gerri. Well, I think most of us are aware of that, but I’m not sure middle-class marriage and an allotment are the answer. Or that marital status is an effective talisman either way.

I just wish there had been some balance – one friend in an unhappy marriage, say; or one who was happily single. And that the film had offered some depth and subtlety in its portrayal of Mary. Although Leigh has stated, ‘I think the film is sympathetic… I don’t think it shows Mary in a mean spirit.’ (See Brian Brooks in IndieWire) I’d question that claim in light of her scenes with Ken and Joe.

And, as Alistair Harkness points out in the Scotsman: that the film seems to suggest ‘the only choices facing a good-looking single woman edging into her mid-fifties seem to be humiliation, unappetising companionship or alcohol-fueled loneliness says a lot about how cruelly the film treats her.’

Even as a non-smoking, shamefully lightweight drinker, I left the cinema wanting a large whiskey and a cigarette (fags and alcohol being the lazy shorthand for sad sacks in the film) in solidarity with life’s losers. At least as Leigh seems to view them – intentionally or not – in Another Year.

Get thee to a repertory cinema…

10 Nov

As part of an ongoing book cull, I’ve just read Andrea S Walsh’s Women’s Film and Female Experience 1940-1950‘ (oh! the 80s worthiness of that title…). The following quote from p.46 sums up what I struggled with:

‘”Fatty” (Roscoe) Arbuckle was accused of the manslaughter of Virginia Rappe, a Hollywood starlet, at a party. Allegedly, Ms Rappe died as a result of Mr. Arbuckle’s cruel and unusual sexual practices.”

It was the use of ‘allegedly’ that rankled. That sense of wrecking someone’s reputation without putting your head above the parapet. Couldn’t she have balanced it with pointing out that he was acquitted (at the third trial) with the following statement from the jury: ‘Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him… there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime.’

Although they wouldn’t be the first jury to get something wrong, and the wikipedia account probably goes too far the other way in its unsympathetic portrayal of Virginia Rappe, at least it offers some necessary context.

On a cheerier note, it was good to discover that Buster Keaton was one of the very few people (keeping your head below the parapet being part of a long tradition) to make a public statement in Arbuckle’s defence. So, not only one of my heroes and heart-throbs, but an honourable man too!

However, to be fair to Andrea, it was great to be reminded of some old favourites I’d love to see again (His Girl Friday; Now, Voyager; Only Angels Have Wings; Letter from an Unknown Woman) and some shameful omissions that I need to track down soon (Gaslight; Adam’s Rib; Woman of the Year).