Archive | January, 2011

On Tour: teases but fails to seduce

27 Jan

Sadly the most enjoyable thing about On Tour (Tournée), directed by and starring Mathieu Amalric, was hearing The Harry Lime Theme on the radio as I drove home. Although it wasn’t  so bad that I regretted going – I may have been more resentful had it been a beautiful summer’s evening rather than a damp January one – I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to friends.

The story of a group of US new-burlesque dancers on tour in France with their producer, Joachim Zand (Amalric), Tour did contain some positives. Amalric is intensely watchable even, or perhaps particularly, with a dodgy haircut and moustache (Robbie Collin in the News of the World memorably described his look as ‘a pimp Oompa Loompa’). His beautiful suits though didn’t seem to quite match: a bona fide sharp-dressed man, perhaps he just couldn’t bring himself to wear an ill-fitting one.

It’s also heartening to see womens’ bodies as they rarely appear in mainstream films, with a cheering lack of silicone and in a variety of shapes and sizes. Interviewed in the Guardian, Amalric spoke of how the film is ‘struggling against perfection… If I’m Dita Von Teese of course I can be naked, but if I’m me?’ A line that is echoed in the film when Mimi Le Meaux (Miranda Colclasure), one of the more experienced dancers, explains the difficulties of a colleague not yet ready to strip, ‘you have to love your body first’.

Along the way, too, there are some beautifully composed shots and a richly sensuous use of colour, and I enjoyed Zand’s battles against muzak. Like the use of women’s bodies, it seemed to hint at a political subtext: that of corporate control and power, and an attendant abnegation of personal responsibility. However, although I adored the energy of the final shot, overall I’m afraid I didn’t see the point. The hints about Joachim’s past felt tagged on and ultimately we didn’t care. Other parts were just plain puzzling: I’m still not clear about the purpose of the scene where a supermarket cashier, inspired by the show, attempts to strip off in front of Joachim and Mimi and then, when they stop her, hurls Joachim’s shopping at him.

Joachim’s visit to an ex-lover in hospital was similarly unsatisfying. I appreciate that the film plays with the links between female identity, their bodies and appearance and perhaps even psychoanalytic theories of the gaze, but the fact she was recovering from a mastectomy felt forced. In the end I was left slightly bemused by Amalric’s best director award at Cannes. In the Guardian, he confessed he had worried On Tour ‘was going to be boring for the audience’ which I’m afraid I think it was. While I respect the intellectual framework, as entertainment it didn’t cut the mustard and as a director Amalric, a self-confessed ladies’ man, failed to seduce.

The King’s Speech: El Rey del Mambo

20 Jan

More ink, virtual and otherwise, has been spilled about The King’s Speech than about any film in my memory. Every day another Guardian blog jumps on the bandwagon: stammering, audience demographics, republicanism or – admittedly less often in the Guardian – royalism. Then there’s the rumours of an Oscar boycott, or the Golden Globes (including a bonus short feature starring Ricky Gervais).

I’m not sure there’s any stone left to turn but, on the grounds of it being inexcusable to ignore the cinematic event of the year, here’s my ha’porth:

Did I like it: Yes

Did I cry? Disappointingly no. Having turned up carefully prepared with a large handkerchief, in the end a few fierce blinks sufficed.

Did it make me think about life, the universe and everything? No.

But if that appears to damn with faint praise, it shouldn’t. The King’s Speech is easy on the eye and beautifully acted – by Firth in particular. (For the record I hated A Single Man, although I accept I’m in the minority.) It also has some great quotes, of which my favourite has to be: ‘Do you know the “f” word?’ Ffff… fornication?’

Mostly though, it’s fabulous to see that ‘British film’ and ‘breaking box office records’ doesn’t have to be an oxymoron – the mere fact of arriving at cinemas to be greeted with queues and sold out signs is exciting. Also, I chose the words ‘cinematic event of the year’ with care. It may not be my film of the year, but in terms of getting people talking about cinema and off their sofas and into the pictures, it deserves all the praise that’s being heaped upon it.

Blue Valentine – a tattooed broken promise?

18 Jan

[If you’ve stumbled across my review looking for Ryan Gosling’s tattoo, it’s the giving tree.]

Blue Valentine, directed and co-scripted by Derek Cianfrance, places the relationship of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) under the microscope. It’s an apt analogy as the camerawork often places us claustrophobically close – during Cindy’s visit to an abortion clinic for example, or focusing on her expression during an attempt to patch things up through sex. Many people who’ve been through a failed relationship would identify with this – a sort of living death of desire – so perhaps it’s brave and honest to portray it. But if you’re tackling big issues, and Blue Valentine claims to, then you need more than a talent for reproduction. Mark Kermode’s comment that ‘a little bit of quirky goes a long way’, is one that applies equally to misery.

I almost suspect that all the talk of the film being ‘an actors’ piece’ is a polite way of saying that the audience has been forgotten. I’m not suggesting that films should be saccharine, but anyone going to see this film who’s gone through the breakdown of a relationship certainly won’t learn anything new. We’ve received – and inflicted – those endless point-scoring arguments, and we know just how bad things have to get before you can make the break. So I’d question the point of a film that doesn’t add anything new to the argument. However great the acting, it’s never going to match the emotional punch of the real thing.

Peter Bradshaw writes in the Guardian ‘The questions it asks are important: how do relationships fail? Is there a stage at which the unhappy couple can do something, somehow change course?’ And Anthony Quinn, in the Independent, suggests ‘it’s a subtlety of the film that our sympathies keep shifting between husband and wife’, Cianfrance ‘preferring to nudge the audience along rather than semaphore every last message’. But the cues we’re fed are as subtle as sledgehammers. Rather than challenged, stock responses are appealed to – where Quinn describes Cindy as ‘martyrish’, I suspect women would support her. By simply restating tired battle lines from many a domestic argument, the film fails to deliver any serious investigation into why many women feel they end up playing Ernie Wise to their partner’s Eric Morecambe.

At the Sundance film festival Cianfrance commented: ‘I never understood this idea of sympathetic or unsympathetic characters. Because everyone I’ve ever known in my life is like both at the same time. When I met my wife Shannon I told her I was like Dr. Jekyll, but eventually I was going to be like Mr. Hyde.‘ But broad stripes of black and white aren’t the same as grey and it’s this lack of subtlety that changes the story from one of everyman/woman to one where it’s too easy to blame the individuals. (I’m thinking here of the relevance of revealing Cindy’s sexual past.) It’s a process, too, that undermines the validity of any questions the film asks. The earth-shattering conclusion of those increasingly manipulative and unlikely plot developments is *fanfare*: there’s faults on both sides!

As each scene is painted on thicker than the last – Dean marries her despite the child not being his! Cindy cares for her elderly grandmother! Dean gets beaten up by her previous boyfriend! – to be honest I stopped believing or caring. And if a potential medical student believes water is more effective than the morning after pill, all I can say is she was probably never cut out to be a doctor.

I did appreciate the honesty of certain scenes; the way fault-lines and power struggles are played out through sex, or how different emotions strive for supremacy during arguments. And the delicacy of some of the detail was mighty fine – especially the scene where Dean struggles to remove his wedding ring. Sadly, though, many of these touches were lost in the intellectual flabbiness. Even the symbols are so glaringly obvious it hurts – the ‘future room’ at a sex motel has no windows and a bed that goes round in circles. And this before I get started on the much-praised ‘moving’ scene where Cindy tap dances to Dean playing his ukulele and singing ‘You Always Hurt the One You Love’ (geddit?). Even Mark Kermode thought it was ‘endearingly kooky’. Puh-lease. Perhaps when we were 18 and drinking Mateus wine to the soundtrack of Betty Blue.

Also at Sundance, Cianfrance shared the source of his inspiration: ‘My parents did divorce when I was 20, and it made me question a lot of things in my life. And question the point of falling in love.’ Making the film may well have been cathartic for the director, but it reminded me of adolescence when we all believed ‘profound’ equalled ‘bleak’ or ‘miserable’. The only interesting question was some hints about the unsuitability of our current cultural maps. Whether songs (as Dean says, ‘Everyone has a song’) or the romantic fiction that Cindy reads to her grandma. But, while I agree we need more useful guides, I don’t believe Blue Valentine is one of them. Do yourself a favour and instead listen to Tom Waits’ Blue Valentine or read Michael Donaghy’s poem Reprimand, “We fell out of love as toddlers fall / glancing down, distracted, at their feet”.

Catfish: Virtual Vérité

16 Jan

Catfish, a documentary in which filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost film the developing relationship of Ariel’s brother, Nev, with a family he met online through Facebook, unleashed massive debate about its authenticity. To put that one to bed, here’s David Calhoun, writing in Time Out “Some have accused Joost and the Schulman brothers of spinning a yarn. Personally, I think that reduces the very real debates the film raises to do with film-making ethics, the honesty of storytelling, the condescension with which the urbane view the provincial and the growing divide between the technologically sophisticated and technologically foolish.

If you begin with the premise that all films, docs and dramas, are constructs of one sort or another and it’s the how and why that’s important, you’ll have fun pulling this apart. Just don’t expect the filmmakers to join you at that level.’

I do, however, disagree with his comment that the filmmakers are ‘brandishing the falsest of sympathetic smiles’. I found the film funny, moving and deeply humane. And I’m not sure that the film deals with ‘the condescension with which the urban view the provincial’ so much as their lack of awareness. Nev in particular – admittedly I’m less sure about his brother and Joost – becomes increasingly uncomfortable and several times claims he’d prefer to stop filming.

This brings us neatly on to boundaries and Catfish’s fascinating investigation of them. In a series of Russian doll layering of themes and tropes, the line between fact and fiction – the ‘am I, aren’t I?’ teasing of the plot neatly reflects that of the authenticity of the film itself – and the line between our public and private selves is unpicked. Similarly, the extent to which we construct ourselves and our reality – both publicly and privately – through storytelling, offers a further commentary on the film-making process. Other boundaries too are highlighted: that between urban and rural, when Nev questions what future his relationship with Megan, the eldest daughter who lives in rural Michigan, could have. Or, most painfully, what happens when someone with an ‘access all areas’ cultural pass meets someone whose nose is still pressed against the glass.

Above all, the film raises some interesting questions about technology’s ability to increase the cultural parameters of our lives. Is the access it provides genuine? And to what extent can it be considered a double-edged sword? Does the virtual (close analysis of that word might prove instructive) access it offers only increase awareness of exclusion? What I love is the way these and other big questions are smuggled in on the back of a slight plot and a focus on the apparently inconsequential and everyday.

One particularly touching, funny (in a squirming kind of a way) scene has Nev reading out a text exchange with Megan. As these become raunchier, albeit in a pretty innocent, cheesy way, Nev retreats under the bed-clothes to cover his embarrassment. This scene, and the film as a whole, act to remind us that we don’t yet know the directions this new technology will take us, or the etiquette it might need.  And, while it doesn’t claim to have the answers, it deserves a high mark for showing its creative working out of the problems.

Of Gods and Men, ritual and magic

11 Jan

Loosely based on the life of a group of French Cistercian monks living in Algeria in the 1990s, Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des Dieux) won the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Beautifully shot, directed (by Xavier Beauvois) and acted, it’s a wonderful mix of perfectly cast characters.

My particular favourite (although it was difficult to choose) is the wonderful, wise old bird Frère Luc (Michael Lonsdale), the order’s doctor. Clad in ribbed cardigan and beanie, he ministers to the local villagers and discusses life and love – both spiritual and temporal. However, as religious tensions in the area heighten and the violence increases, the monks must decide whether to leave their home. A quote from Pascal’s pensées, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction” could, suggests Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian apply to the monks, ‘secretly infatuated with the idea of a martyrdom that will fan the flames of violence for generations to come’ as much as the local mujahideen.

I’d argue, however, that the film specifically discounts this option. It takes pains to show the monks grappling with their motives and the struggle of each to reach a decision. The keyword here is struggle. Although stylistically the film is contemplative, the monks’ spirituality is anything but. Just how physical this struggle can be we see, or rather hear, through the cries to God of the youngest of the monks, Frère Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), alone in his cell. Belief, as portrayed in the film, is a powerful, dynamic force which depends on order and ritual if it is to be contained. (As a whole, the film could also be read as a refutation of Pascal’s quote: replacing the word ‘evil’ with ‘good’.)

Bradshaw also draws attention to ‘a cynical police chief, irritably preparing to wash his hands of the imminent bloodbath [who] tells Christian: “I blame French colonisation for not letting Algeria grow up.”’ Rather than cynicism though, the scene offers some vital context. I felt sympathy for the administrator (actually a local official rather than a police chief), caught as he was between a rock and a hard place. The scene draws attention to France’s colonial past, without claiming any easy answers. It complicates our response to the monks by providing a political and historical context – and perhaps even provides an echo of the phrase ‘the sins of the father…’.

Rituals are the spine of the film: the rituals of the land, or those of the villagers, are as carefully observed as those of the monks’ religious life. There are beautiful scenes of tending the land through the seasons. And it is no coincidence that the monastery keeps bees – a symbol of a community living in productive order and harmony. Ritual, representing beauty, order and life, is opposed to violence, disorder and death. But the film does not reduce this to a choice of either / or. Rather the struggle (that word again) lies in achieving balance.

The many panning shots seems to reinforce this holistic sense and the need to see the bigger picture.  Similarly, their control brilliantly suggests the  control of emotion. The photography, and in particular the use of colours (subtle enough to explore the amazing variety of tones possible in cream / white / grey) is stunning. One breathtakingly beautiful shot pans over the pale walls of the chapel before introducing a splash of colour (perhaps another echo of the links between the temporal and spiritual): the russet, earthy hue of Luc’s cardigan.

The final scene, after the monks have been kidnapped (by terrorists or the army – the actual events are still contested) shows them helping one another  through snowy mountains. For me it brought to mind Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, where Hans Castorp awakes from a dream of being trapped in a blizzard. Contemplating the meaning, he concludes “because of charity and love, man should never allow death to rule one’s thoughts.” A tenet brought to life by the monks and echoed by Luc’s, ‘I am not afraid of the terrorists and even less of the army. I am not afraid of death either, I am a free man.’

Andrei Rublev – masterpiece or the Tsar’s new clothes?

8 Jan

At least 15 years ago I was talking films (it’s generally a fail-safe filter) with a new acquaintance, whose favourite was Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Shamefully, at the time I hadn’t seen a single Tarkovsky film and, even more shamefully, I’m not fully confident I’d even heard of him.  So I jumped, admittedly somewhat belatedly, at the chance to make amends when the Abbeygate Picturehouse screened Andrei Rublev just before Christmas.

Tarkovsky’s 1966 film, loosely based on the life of the fifteenth century Russian icon painter, was voted joint second in a Guardian/Observer critics’ poll of ‘the greatest films ever made’ in October 2010. (For the curious it was beaten by Chinatown.) Add the 85 reviews on IMDB, where words such as ‘masterpiece’ crop up regularly, and I was expecting a corker.

So, having waited so long and after such a build-up, what did I think? It’s undoubtedly powerful, fascinating and challenging film-making. It’s also beautiful in the fullest sense – Tarkovsky doesn’t flinch from the ugliness and cruelty of medieval Russia. And, amazingly, at 3 hours (I saw the UK 2004 re-release – at 183 mins it’s one of the shorter versions) didn’t drag.

I admire, too, that he’s unafraid to deal with big subjects: the meaning of art and faith or the artist’s position in society. And I’d definitely be interested in reading up about his work. But, if you’re asking me if I liked it and would I hurry to another of his films, at the risk of having my Brownie film-buff badge ripped from my sleeve, well I’d have to say no.

However, I didn’t like Chinatown either, so what do I know? And don’t listen to me – here’s Ingmar Bergmann, writing in The Magic Lantern: “Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream… That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn’t explain. What should he explain anyhow?

Fellini, Kurosawa and Bunuel move in the same fields as Tarkovsky. Antonioni was on his way, but expired, suffocated by his own tediousness. Melies was always there without having to think about it. He was a magician by profession.”

I could have kissed Bergmann for his description of Antonioni (sweet revenge for excruciating hours spent watching his films!) and it’s true, Tarkovsky is in a different league. But he’s a director who needs (and, I’m sure, rewards) more intellectual input than I gave on a snowy December afternoon. So don’t be put off – particularly if film theory is your bag. Check out the reviews on IMDB, many of which are brilliantly insightful, see the film and make up your own mind.

Somewhere, Chekhov & Coppola

3 Jan

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit to it after Mark Kermode’s full-blown rant (well worth checking out – hugely entertaining, pertinent and a fab Hotel California anaology!) but I enjoyed Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Admittedly, unlike the excellent Lost in Translation, I wasn’t blown away and I certainly wasn’t on the edge of my seat fretting about what became of Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (an excellent Elle Fanning) and the rest of the cast. But might this be the point?

Chekhov claimed that audiences weren’t supposed to identify with his characters, but to be annoyed by them; to shriek at Olga, Maria and Irina to stop faffing and just get the darn train to Moscow. The difficulty, however, lies in balancing this with the use of a well-known, able cast. Careful handling is needed if the audience is to be challenged to change their lives rather than simply feel justified in their passivity. ‘But if X [insert actor of choice], is ground down by their life, what chance do I have?’ It could be argued, then, that Coppola and her cast have negotiated this balancing act with success.

Equally, I agree with Mark Kermode that the pole-dancing scenes go on way too long and are indisputably boring, but maybe this is intentional. The scenes aren’t salacious, or sexy, or even interestingly sleazy: they’re simply dull. And that the dancers and Johnny appear as bored as we are is surely a more effective critique than portraying the women as either victims or somehow empowered by their role.

David Denby in the New Yorker comments that ‘the funk of a noodling movie star is hardly a revelation of the absurdity of the human condition’. And David Edelstein writes ‘Coppola’s poor-rich-girl vision is certainly consistent, although you sometimes wonder if she knows that hers is not the universal human condition.’ I’d argue, however, that the vacuousness of the film world that Coppola portrays does filter down through society, so there are lessons to extrapolate. And while the frustration we feel with Johnny won’t bring the star system crashing down overnight, it might at least lead to some healthy questioning.

The fact that we don’t identify – or particularly engage – with the characters does make this a coolly intellectual rather than emotional working out of the problem, but this isn’t necessarily a criticism. Coppola’s minimalist approach and Harris Savides’ stunning cinematography manage both to support this coolness and create the heart of the film. The film’s beauty offers the emotional engagement we don’t get from the cast and is, finally, the antidote to the emptiness at the heart of Johnny’s world.