Friday, 23 October 2015

Review of Last Orders (2001)

"Last Orders", Fred Schepisi's 2001 film about a group of very old friends travelling to Margate to scatter the ashes of their friend Jack (Michael Caine), based on the novel by Graham Swift, is an accomplished, good looking, verbally expansive film, acted to perfection, that suffers from near-terminal preciousness. I loved so many aspects of this film, the performances, the look, the stunning dialogue, but it is sentimental to the point of suffocation, and it feels hermetically sealed. Nothing can get into this film.

The performers involved are almost like a who's who of the top brass of British acting talent; Bob Hoskins plays Ray, who we sense was probably closest to Jack; Ray Winstone plays his son Vince, who always disappointed Jack by not going into his butchers business; Tom Courtenay plays Vic, who's the most peaceable member of the group; and David Hemmings plays Lenny, the one of them all who's the biggest sucker for a pint.

Helen Mirren also plays Jack's wife Amy; she doesn't come with the boys to scatter his ashes, instead staying at home to visit their severely disabled daughter June, who Jack has never wanted anything to do with. Theirs was not an unhappy marriage, but we sense that at some point after June's birth their marriage forked, and they spent large parts of it walking side by side but down two different roads.

The whole film is told through an interplay of flashback and the present day, but with flashbacks sometimes leading back to different flashbacks and the flashbacks coming forward not always to the present. Any narrative ambiguities are quelled by good makeup work and well-chosen younger actors who resemble the main stalwarts in motion and gesture if not in the face itself. So we see this old group meet each other, fight in the war together, get married together, and so on. It's a lovely if astoundingly obvious setup.

And it is in the flashbacks that the films preciousness begins to drag it down. There is nothing revealed in them that one could not attempt to decipher simply by watching the first 20 minutes and figuring out the relationships between the characters. For a film dealing ostensibly with grief and the measurement of what your life has been worth in its sum achievements and relationships, it all feels hopelessly safe, more than a little staid. There are the requisite reveals, the conflicts, the ultimate reconciliation with peace, and... What then? It just ends.

Perhaps I am being too harsh on the film;maybe I am expecting more; but I honestly cannot stress the calibre of the technical qualities enough, and the acting alone almost warrants watching it. But they are all in service of a flimsy piece of fluff that has nothing much to say about the subjects that its dealing with; it's almost as if it was directed to Radiohead's maxim of "no alarms and no surprises, please".

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Review of A Girl At My Door (2014)

July Jung's 2014 film "A Girl At My Door" is many things at once; it is simultaneously a partial police-procedural, an exploration of two very different types of alcoholism, a story of a mother-daughter type relationship, and the tale of a young girl escaping her abusive father (with time to address issues like illegal immigration and LGBT rights in the workplace). It also has a philosophical bent, and is one of those rare films that is content to leave the viewer with more questions than answers (and not because it wasn't intelligent enough to know the answers, but instead because it was intelligent enough to understand that audiences can actually think for themselves).

For a film, looking back, does so much, it is remarkable how mannered it is and how unfussily it moves forward in the act of watching it. The core of the plot is essentially a three-hander; Young-Nam (Doona Bae) is a recently disgraced police officer who has been relocated to a small seaside town after an unspecified incident. After establishing herself as a steely, determined and stoic piece of work (one awkwardly effective scene sees her refusing to participate in office karaoke), she finds herself drawn to a young girl named Do-Hee (Sae-Ron Kim), who is being brutally abused by her father Yong-Ha (Sae-byeok Song).

Do-Hee keeps turning up at Young-Nam's door in ever-increasing states of distress and dishevelment until Young-Nam is forced to take her in, not entirely to her chagrin but not to her great pleasure either. But eventually a warmth comes to pass between them, and a maternal relationship of sorts is formed.

There are various late-in-the-day revelations, and the plot builds to a conclusion that isn't so much tense as just messy, one where sympathies slide and motivations can only be guessed at; and this is a good thing. Jung's writing and direction is so surehanded that any attempt to have actually explained anything would have been cheap and forced. This is a film with a commitment to reality such that it understand that some motivations are hidden even from those performing the action.

It's also, technically, a very accomplished piece of work with a visual style to match the fairly bleak subject matter. The score from Yeong-gyu Jang is sparse, with strings and piano chords flaring up quietly and very occasionally, only really coming dominating the soundscape for the finale. And the cinematography from Hyun Seok Kim is wonderfully understated, grim, grey and bar maybe two shots, expressly unvibrant, capturing the sense of place in this town, framing the washing lines, the docks, the stone pier, Do-Hee's red house. It might not be a nice place, but it's a place we come to know.

It does all hinge on the acting, however, and thankfully all three performances work very well; I was particularly impressed by Doona Bae, who gives a composed, dignified performance even as her life, seemingly, falls apart, and she keeps pouring the alcohol. Contrasted with Song's performance as Yong-Ha, also an apparent alcoholic, I was reminded of the maxim from 2005's Capote that two characters grew up in the same house, but one left through the front door and the other through the back.

What's ultimately so effective is that the film consistently trumps audience expectations without every coming across as exploitative or smarmy; every twist seems rooted in what these characters might actually do, and that's the kind of intelligence which is uncommon in movies like this. It might not be a happy film, but it is rewarding, thoughtful, morally cogent, and doesn't disappear after you've left the theatre. It dares to ask, "who do YOU feel sorry for?"