Saturday, 27 August 2016

Moving House

After some careful consideration and a considered recommendation from a close friend, I have made the decision to up sticks and move across the river to Wordpress. The perk of this is that my domain no longer has to have Blogspot in the address, and also I have more guaranteed reach there, and frankly Google offers no support on this platform unless you get Adsense, which utterly ruins the look of the blog anyway.

So, off I go. My blog now resides at I'll spend some time moving over and re-posting my reviews from here to there (although only the ones I'm proud of, which isn't a terribly long list), but this blog is pretty much done. I've got nearly 6000 views in total, and I'm grateful for all of them.


Friday, 26 August 2016

Force Majeure

Ask any self-respecting group of Seinfeld fans what the show's antiheroic everyman George Costanza's worst act in the history of the show was, and it won't be long before someone mentions "The Fire", the episode where a fire breaks out at a kids' birthday party and George pushes his way through kids and even pensioners to ensure his own safety. It's heinous, despicable, and morally inexcusable... And funny, because it speaks to our own basest self-preservation instincts and the way we cannot govern how we act in a crisis.

Force Majeure is basically a remake of that episode of Seinfeld, if it had been written by Michael Haneke. Director Ruben Ostland has crafted a wonderful two hour exercise in virtue ethics based around the conceit that, upon seeing an avalanche whilst eating lunch with his family, patriarch Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) panics, grabs his phone, and runs away, as opposed to sticking around to ensure his family's safety. After the initial shock has settled, his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) begins to take stock, and starts to think, "is this the man I married?", "is this the man I chose to protect me?".

Fittingly, the film has the structure of an avalanche, starting as a slow rumble, not enough to comment on, and building in momentum until before you know it, it's too big to ignore and too late to run away. The film cleverly dissects Tomas's psyche in the wake of the incident, and the effect it has on his family. By extension, the film shrewdly asks questions about what it is we expect of our protectors in life, what that role entails, and the way in which society fosters those roles upon us.

This is exemplified in what was, for me, as opposed to the avalanche itself, the film's centrepiece, a conversation between Tomas and Ebba, their friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his much younger girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius). In it, all the parties air their various grievances, and it becomes clear to everyone in the room (and the audience) that Ebba is not simply going to let this slide. She delivers, masterfully, a monologue where she describes her version of events, while Tomas stares blankly, taking the words like silent punches. Mats and Fanni look on, but eventually Mats sides with Tomas, and Fanni with Ebba. The conversation reveals itself to be less about the incident itself, but about gender roles. Mats tries to justify Tomas's actions by saying that he simply escaped so that he could later return and rescue his family safely; nobody buys it.

Ostlund's direction spells out these lines cannily. He has a habit of exaggerating the frame so that what is presented to us, and what we are hearing, are often at odds with each other. In the aforementioned sequence, Fanni is talking about herself, but all we can see is a closeup of Ebba's face; this is held for a couple of minutes before Ebba begins her monologue, and it leaves the viewer uncertain where Fanni is in relation to everyone else. A lot of scenes occur in this manner, and it's effective, because it forces the viewer into the same state of disassociative confusion that the family has found themselves in.

If it all sounds very clever-clever and heavy-leaden, it isn't. Hidden amongst the flashes of portentousness (cannons firing to control the avalanches punctuate sequences like individually aimed gunshots, or the 1812 Overture), the film has an almost gleefully sadistic, satirical bent, protecting itself against favourable MRA readings by painting Tomas out to be, in some scenes, utterly pathetic. A sequence where he finds himself uncontrollably bawling outside his hotel room, claiming to be held captive by his own instincts, is uncomfortably pitched but hilarious for Ostlund's refusal to look away, and Kuhnke's commitment to character.

Ostlund, in an interview, talks about how typically in films, "man as hero" is the most common trope, and how that doesn't match up to the statistical reality of how men act in an emergency, and how they're usually much more selfish. This is clearly of great interest him, but he cleverly refuses to take one side or another, and acknowledges both realities. Men, yes, are put under a great amount of pressure to provide for those around them, but men also have a tendency to play the victim and expect a great deal, perhaps too much, in return.

This is a dense, knotty, shrewd and refreshingly doe-eyed film, hilarious and a little scary in places, and it doesn't back away from the questions it's asking. As such, it's a moral thriller of the highest calibre, that invites readings on a number of levels, and it engages the viewer on a philosophical level as well as a real-world, practical level. Not many films can do either of those things, let alone be funny on top. It's something of a marvel.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Pocket Money

Pocket Money, Francois Truffaut's 1976 effort concerning a small rural town, the pupils of the local school, and a couple of its teachers, is an engaging, empathetic film that crystallises all that Truffaut seems to think about children, one of his favourite subjects; namely, that they're all little miracles, and they all deserve paying attention to, because you never know what secrets they're concealing, and what truths they're discovering.

The film is loose and ramshackle, in a way that reminded me of the similarly episodic ode to youth "Amarcord", and it's told in a faux-documentary style. There is little plot to speak of, and the film was shot almost entirely with unknowns and amateurs. This makes sense. There are kids we come to know a little better than others, such as Patrick (Georges Desmousceaux), who is beginning to learn the meaning of attraction to the opposite sex, and Julien Leclou (Philippe Goldmann), the bedraggled, scruffy kid with an apathetic attitude who can't help falling asleep in class, and who has a rough home life, and Martine (Pascale Bruchon), who isn't allowed to take the handbag she wants to a meal and is left at home, resulting in a very funny sequence where she gets her neighbours to lower food into her apartment through the open window.

Yet when they are in the classroom, or trampling through the streets, or fighting over seats in the local cinema, the kids become a multi-limbed mass, an indistinct blur, face after face after face, and it is this energy that Truffaut captures with precision. It's an idealised view of childhood to be sure, but childhood is basically unfettered idealism, and Truffaut understands this. It's childhood as we remember it, not necessarily how it happened, but since we don't really remember how it happened, this approach pays off.

Some sequences stand out; there's a bravura piece near the beginning that would work as a short film on its own, concerning a young single mother and her little infant Gregory, who is left alone in the flat so the mother can look for her lost purse. It's a masterclass in observation; the camera follows Gregory around as he burbles and shrieks, plays with the cat, and eventually falls out of a very high window. It's tense, but in this world we don't feel like there is all that much danger; and true to form, Gregory lands without a scratch.

This leads a parent to observe that despite the fact that children bump into everything they see, they nevertheless retain a certain "grace". This must be a sentiment held by Truffaut, since this film is 100 minutes of finding the grace in children's bumbling natures.

There is another moment near the end that, we gather, is an echoing of a truth that Truffaut believes deeply. It occurs just after the authorities have uncovered just how bad Leclou's home life really is, and the school is in a state of shock. It is a monologue delivered by the teacher Monsieur Richet, a new father, and it stands as the films' centrepiece. As Richet talks about how an injustice enacted against a child is the unfairest injustice of all, and of the way we must love those around us, and of how all he wanted was to provide a better childhood for those in the room than he had himself, Truffaut gently spells out his own humanism, and we cannot fail to be moved.

And just as it acts as a summation of Truffaut's own feelings, it also sums up the film as a whole; endearing, gentle, kind, funny, truthful, and basically faultless.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Air Doll

All those people all those lives, where are they now?
With loves, and hates, and passions just like mine,
They were born and then they lived and then they died,
Seems so unfair,
I want to cry.

Hirokazu Koreeda's film "Air Doll", based on Yoshiie Goda's manga, has a synopsis that, at face value, could inspire titters, which is a great shame considering the end result produces anything but. It tells the simple story of a man, Hideo, (Itsuji Itao) and his sex doll, Nozomi, (Doona Bae), who comes to life and develops a "heart" of her own. The initial scenes juggle pathos, as Hideo looks bereft in a supermarket, and comedy, as Hideo addresses Nozomi as if she were alive and makes love with a startling tenderness.

But one day, as Hideo leaves for work, Nozomi's eyes move. She looks around the room, and gets out of bed. She places her hand underneath a railing which is dripping with rain water, and she goes from being completely plastic to something approaching human. She does this slowly, and initially its clear that its an animatronic doll, but at some point the doll becomes the actress. This is cleverly handled, and establishes the quiet physicality that Bae maintains for the remainder of the film; stiff limbs, slow jerky movement, a head that never quite moves comfortably.

Soon Nozomi finds herself on the street, and it's here that the film turns from a curious piece of magical realism into a broad and pondering metaphysical exploration of the meaning of human existence. This is not exaggeration. Scene after scene follows Nozomi as she does things like interacting with children, getting a job, talking to that old dishevelled guy on the bench who you just know probably has an interesting life story, taking her first trip to the restaurant, to the beach, learning what it means to cling onto someone on the back of a motorbike.

The film is basically a parable on learning what it means to be a part of this world. Doona Bae is the perfect actress for this; her eyes are endlessly wide, drinking in the sights of the world with all the fervour of a parched man in the desert. The film transports you back to when you were a child, and calls to mind Wordsworth's idea that heaven lies about us in our infancy. This is an unfussy film that asks little of the audience, other than to take in what Nozomi takes in, as she takes it in.

The film is unconcerned with the specifics of her status as an ex-sex doll. There is a moment midway through where she cuts her arm on a hinge, deflates, and has to be blown back to life by her co-worker, but even this isn't handled as a piece of comedy of the kind one might expect with a sex doll, but instead (and later on in the film also) as a metaphor for the way we want to breathe life into the people we love (and that these attempts can often be so ruinous).

There is just so much to observe with this film. It's crafted with all tenderness of a soft kiss, from the gentle sound design by Yutaka Tsurumaki, to the dreamy and creamy urban cinematography from Ping Bin Lee, which finds a kind of visual poetry amongst the small local shops and big skyscrapers stacked high up past our field of vision, and the streets with black washing lines dangling like bars on sheet music. It is a subtle exercise in empathy, as we find ourselves marvelling at the world in the same way Nozomi does.

The score, from World's End Girlfriend is a blissful affair. There are several moments where Koreeda leisurely gives way to a montage, flitting from person to person that Nozomi has observed as they face either joyous elation or downtrodden despair, that feel like they were edited to the music after it was composed.

Of course, after the initial rush of giddiness, we develop notions of unfairness, cruelty, and sadness. As Nozomi eventually observes, "having a heart has been so heartbreaking". But even these revelations are observed gently, and with little force. Compared to Under The Skin, another film about an outsider reacting to humanity for the first time, this is much more hopeful, and optimistic.

This is a film that understands what it means to exist. Koreeda's eye for detail is unrelenting, and he has turned what could have been a forgettable comedy into a film I doubt I will ever forget. Like the works of Alain De Botton, it configures everyday truths into miniature works of art. As Nozomi quietly observes, "why is it that the world is constructed so loosely?"

It's a question that we'll never know the answer to. But it's healthy to ask things like that every now and again, and the act of asking, of recognising these truths, constitutes some form of an answer all on its own. This film, along with everything else, gets that.

Monday, 22 August 2016


Todd Solondz is cinema's architect of miserabilism, but never have his powers been put to such disquieting effect in his latest film, Wiener-Dog, a film that runs through misanthropy in the first ten minutes, and continues at breakneck pace towards sadism, cruelty, and outright nastiness. It really is a piece of work, even more so than "Happiness", his established masterpiece, a film which juggled themes of child sex abuse and the futility of marriage quite deftly.

But whereas the content of that film was objectively more shocking, Solondz imbued his screenplay with enormous empathy, which elevated the material into something great. There is very little empathy here, and the work is all the more dour for it. It's interesting, because the plot is one that could be ultimately heart-warming; it tells the tale of a sausage dog (hence the title) who passes through four different owners over the course of its life. It's sort of like Au Hasard Balthazar directed by a suicidal Aki Kaurismaki.

The first owners are a big tip-off; the dog is bought by two chilly parents (Tracy Letts, Julie Delpy) for their young son (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who has recently (we gather) survived a bout with leukaemia. The conversations between parent and child are not devoid of warmth, but the impression we get is that reproduction definitely was not for them. Delpy botches the explanation of why the dog has to be spayed, and then later has to spin a yarn about how a dog of hers was "raped" (by a stray called Mohammed!), all because it wasn't spayed. It's the only truly hilarious scene in the whole film, and Delpy plays up the white panic to brilliant effect. Letts is much more aggressive, his maxim with the dog being "heel, motherfucker!".

An ill-advised granola bar leads the dog to be put down (leading to a funny musing on the randomness of death, delivered by Delpy to her son), but events transpire and the dog is saved by Dawn Wieners, from Solondz's debut "Welcome To The Dollhouse" (now a vet, here played by Greta Gerwig). Dawn hasn't changed; she thanks ex-bully Kieran Culkin when he says she looks like the dog, and then takes up his invite of a road trip to Ohio.

This is the segment with the most pathos, where Solondz embraces some genuine sincerity, particularly in the scene where Culkin tells his brother Tommy (Connor Long) that their father has passed away from alcoholism.

From here, the dog passes into the arms of Danny DeVito, playing a failing screenwriter, out of place and ignored in his position as faculty member of a film school. The film dabbles with culture shock here (and has the least to do with the dog), and mines effective fodder from having DeVito deal with a young upstart who wants to make a film exploring gender identity, for example, and being told by faculty leader to be more positive.

Finally (after quite the turn of events), it lands with Ellen Burstyn, playing a blind woman on the close to death, receiving pleas for money from her granddaughter and living with a carer/friend.

This is a film with a great eye for detail; take Culkin's order for Gerwig to "wait", in the car, or DeVito's students assuming him to be a homophobic dinosaur, or the way the ending lampoons with remarkable effectiveness the old maxim of achieving immortality through your art. Typically, Solondz is very good at directing the children in the film. It is also composed with an understated formality by cinematographer Edward Lachman, and it's amusingly self-aware, replete with interlude and opening credits.

Ultimately, though, this film is something of a zero-sum game. It piles on cynical observation after cynical observation to the point where, after a time, it just stops landing. There's no denying Solondz's talents, and this is by no means a bad film, it is consistently well-written, but nobody would forgive you for deciding that it's just not worth the effort.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

who are you?

i have no conception of my readership so i have no idea who is reading this; forgive my tone, in this case. but if you are a regular reader (i have no idea if i have any of those) i implore you to reach out, to comment, to criticise, to berate, to praise, to say anything.

you may have noticed that my last two posts have not been film reviews, but some shambolic attempt at film theory, as i understand it with my (meagre) powers of intellect. this is because i have a goal to become some kind of film scholar, and i want to test my writing.

i have come a long way on this blog, from listicles of the best horror films ever made to what i would consider genuine analysis of film, to a more personal stream of consciousness angle (with this in mind, i remain most proud of my review of boyhood).

this is the next step. i love reviewing movies as i do, so that won't change. but those reviews will have to share a bed with the more academic style of writing i'm attempting.

if you are reading this, reach out. i long to hear from you.

declan x

The Cinema of the Literal and the Cinema of the Obfuscated

The cinema of the literal and the cinema of the obfuscated. Both have their charms, and methods, and we have moved from the former to the latter as our capability for understanding cinema has evolved. We can probably trace the origins of the obfuscation method back to Godard, with his immortal experiment in cutting out the middle to cut to the chase. Yet his contemporaries were big fans of the literal. Truffaut, for example, is the most obvious example of the literal. Everything in the frame is everything we need to do. When it is concealed from us in Le Dernier Metro that Deneuve’s husband is hidden underneath the theatre, this is not obfuscation, it is simply allowing us to observe her actions before we come to know her. The same can be said of Le Fils, where the exact reasons for Gourmet’s pursuit of the young boy, despite the audience presuming some malicious intent, are actually poignant and heartbreaking. Nothing is obfuscated here. There is no mannerism so to speak; all is revealed in good time, and it is simply the requirements of the narrative framework that have been conjured up that mean all the necessary information is not revealed at the exact point we need it.

The cinema of the obfuscation is somewhat trickier to pin down, and it has its roots in excessive stylisation; no bad thing at all. Take the shot, for example, in The Silent Storm where Lewis’s hand reaches across the table to grab the young lad. The focus of the scene is three-pronged; symbolically, it could tell us a lot, with the young man in the centre, trying to depart to follow the woman he is interested in, and the husband reaching out, and restricting him from doing so. A fine shot. But an artist working in the cinema of the literal would have instead framed it as flitting between the three faces, and focussed on the anger of Lewis, the lust of the young man, and the conflict of the woman in some kind of order, as opposed to containing each in one shot.

Steve McQueen, in particular his work Shame, is a master of obfuscation. Inasmuch as he focusses on movement and action with his central actor, a lot is also held from us and we are led to fill in the gaps by ourselves. The true extent of his addiction is never spelled out to us. In the scene where he runs across New York to escape his sister having sex with his boss, the literal moment is him running; it is never spelled out, for example, just why he is running. He is escaping, yes, but is it because he is made uncomfortable? Because he is scared of becoming aroused? Scared of trying to join them? Does this show contempt or desire for his sister? Or both, one feeding into the other.

Only a fool would deny Shame to be a great film. But its greatness arises from its atempts to let the viewer decide what is going on, in the face of the deliberate obfuscation of the director. The dictum of “show don’t tell” comes to mind.

A similar tactic was used in PTA’s There Will Be Blood and the Master. Both fine films; both films where we have to fill in some gaps ourselves, because information is deliberately obfuscated.

It must be said that this is not borne out of a contempt for the audience; rather, a trusting optimism that the viewer will be content enough with the work and patient enough, to engage with it on the level of trying to read what is being obfuscated. Here it must be said that the cinema of the obfuscation is more penetrative because it delineates a direct engagement with the text on the level of guesswork, perhaps, or maybe a better term than guesswork is simply engagement.

Yet the cinema of the literal can itself yield deep rewards, when the literal is engaging enough. The best example of this is in the silent films, particularly Jeanne D’Arc, or Potemkin, where the information is fed to us bit by bit.

In this sense, the cinema of the literal will always bear more of a resemblance to the theatre (do not forget “Metro”’s theatrical setting!) because theatre, often, is literal, because theatre lacks the ability to do what film can do, which is show us one thing but depict another. That is to say; a filmmaker can have one thing in the frame, but can frame that shot in such a way, with such calibrated mis-en-scene, that the crying is not the thing being conveyed. This is harder to do in theatre because the open nature of the theatre means it is harder to police what is being seen by the audience, and so it has to tend to the literal. But a filmmaker has absolute control of the frame, and so can use it to any ends he desires.

This is not meant to decry or decamp one method as being better than the other; there are also other methods, multitudinous methods. But I hope this describes them adequately. No doubt this is a topic to which I will come back to at a later date.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Death of Cinema?

For as long as people have been writing about cinema, people have been writing about the death of cinema, something I have always put down to the fact that as multi-faceted a thing as the cinema invites so many personal readings of what the cinema must do that when someone invariably makes a film against that grain, it seems antithetical to you as a person. A case in point; Godard views film, largely, as a propaganda tool, and as an extension of his expression. Notions of entertainment in the traditional sense mean little to him, he is more experimental, and interested in what film can do to further the form of film.

This seems to be the opposite of his contemporary, Francois Truffaut, a much more commercially successful director who made films that were intensely personal, but also made with the wider audience in mind. They are all accessible, fun, funny, and so on. Godard himself attacked one of Truffaut's most popular films, "Day For Night", for being "dishonest", but what Godard really meant was that it was dishonest to him, and dishonest when measured up to his own personal subjective criterion for what qualifies as worthwhile cinema.

Here we have two directors, both rightfully considered great by critics and the public, at odds with one another, because of their different ideas as to what films should do. Ignoring the fact that the idea of film having a should highly contentious in itself, what can this tell us about film? It tells us, or it tells me, or I feel, that it means that any arguments for the death of cinema, or the evolution of cinema, should be taken with a pinch of salt, because the death of cinema for one critic or viewer could be the evolution for another. Truffaut, for example, didn't live to see the films of Harmony Korine, say, but we can infer from Truffaut's tendency to espouse moralism and fill his pictures with a moralistic bent, that he would likely have disapproved of the doe-eyed nihilism inherent in "Kids", a film which presents a tableaux of domestic and street-level cruelty in as plain a way as possible.

On the other hand, Godard later in his career came round to argue that Spielberg was dishonest, and that American cinema in general was a false use of the medium. The irony here, of course, is that it was American cinema in the first place which gave him the rules to break, and the standards to deviate from, when he and his contemporaries pioneered the French New Wave. But this is a criticism that has been lobbied at him often, that he seems to pay little attention to. From Godard's perspective, it is American cinema that has changed, not him, and his criticisms are valid; this is because Godard did not evolve along the lines of the American cinema, he carved his own path, and at some point his path diverged greatly from American cinema.

Godard and Truffaut, favourites though they are of mine, are not the only two to have strong opinions on this topic. Famously, Michael Haneke, another great director, has a great distaste for the Hollywood tendency to relish on depictions of violence, particularly of the Tarantino generation. He does not state that violence has no place in the cinema (Funny Games aside, "Amour" and "Caché contain scenes of startling violence), but that it has no place being depicted as it does. Both versions of Funny Games are horribly, horribly violent, but this is Haneke's aim; to make us hate the depiction of violence, as opposed to enjoy it.

Haneke, as far as I know, has never claimed that cinema died with the introduction of extreme violence in popular films, but he certainly holds in extreme disregard that tendency. There is nothing to say that this opinion is any more valid or invalid than that of the person who howls with laughter when Marvin gets shot in the face by John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, although it could be said that his argument is more coherent and comes from a place of care, whereas the Tarantino defence comes from a place of sneering, postmodern irony.

When Theodor Adorno famously announced the dictum of "no poetry after Auschwitz", even those who disagreed with the idea could not disagree with the underlying sentiment, because the post-war, post-Holocaust worldview was so bleak and hopeless that it is impossible to conceive of now. It is likely that the moralism of Truffaut, and the disdain of Haneke (an Austrian), come from living in the more immediate shadow of that most barbaric event (Godard is trickier, given the accusations of anti-Semitism levelled at him, but to me there is no evidence to suggest that he views the Holocaust as anything other than what is is; an atrocity).

And yet as the years have gone by, the shadow has faded, and just as it is not unreasonable to suggest that those directors were informed by those worldviews, it is also reasonable to suggest that Harmony Korine himself could not have had matters of the Holocaust and Adorno's assertions further from his mind; indeed, the main drive in his art is the squalor and torpor he encountered as a young man amongst the heroin junkies of New York (I am, myself, begrudgingly fond of Kids, by the way, but I am still saddened that a film that horrible could also be that true to life, if that makes sense).

What this means is that there are as many perspectives on the cinema as there are films, and that any proclamations on what the cinema can do and should do should (and I mean should) be measured and weighted equally against all of the other proclamations. Films are made by people, critics are people, and people are influenced by their immediate worldly experiences. Sometimes those experiences are good; more often than not, those experiences are bad, be it the Holocaust, the events of 9/11, or Korine's experiences in the squalor of New York.

The one thing that must be said, however, is that the frequent and persistent concern from various persons that the cinema might in some way be dying shows a care and fascination for its wellbeing, and a consideration that it is in fact alive in the first place. The cinema is immortal, until it isn't; some people might adorn it with tattoos, so to speak, or piercings, or a Savile Row suit, or a pair of Louis Vuitton shoes, but these will not be the things that kill it; what will kill it will be the day where people stop dressing it up in any way at all. As long as people disagree, however passionately, over the cinema and what it does, then the fact that there is something to disagree over stands as a beaming confirmation that the cinema is alive and well, and we're all the more better off for it.

Thursday, 18 August 2016


"And you may find yourself
In another part of the world"

"And you may ask yourself
Well, how did I get here?"

Talking Heads - Once In A Lifetime

Anomalisa, from Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, is one of those films that is simultaneously vague about what its meaning is (if it has one), and yet seems to impress upon the viewer a deep need to be understood (a little like it's protagonist). When I say that I took it principally to be a parable on man's tendency to force his will upon those around him and make everything fit his desires perfectly, this could ring profoundly true for you, or seem like a dire misinterpretation; and that's fine. But no matter how you take the film, nobody can deny its truth, or its power; indeed, it is true and powerful because it has a genuine conception of the intricacies of the human soul. Near the end of the film, the main character David Stone (David Thewlis) announces to an audience that "every human has aches... What does it mean to ache? What does it mean to be human?"

Simply, he doesn't know, the filmmakers don't know, I have no clue, and if you claim to know then I wouldn't believe you. But despite the profound lack of answers, this film is still asking the right questions. It is about the search for meaning in a world that can be scary, mundane, arbitrary, and cruel. Yet "the search for meaning" seems so trite; perhaps it is about realising that the search is futile and the end in itself, because the meaning is hidden from view by virtue of the nature of our existence.

I'm running round in circles, but that's because for 90 minutes I let Kaufman and Johnson run rings around me. Their film, on the surface, is about a middle aged man, British but living in L.A, giving a conference in Cincinnati. In one of the films many little ironies, the talk he is giving is on how to best deliver customer service; on how to best deal with people. This information is withheld for the opening passages, just long enough to observe that David is quite a curt, brusque, arguably rude person. He does not suffer fools lightly. He has a habit of rubbing the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. Small talk does not come naturally to him. Various people ask him to repeat things he's said, and it's clear that he is not a man who is understood all that well; another of the films ironies.

Once he is in his hotel room, he rings up and old lover, and meets her in the hotel bar. She seems overwhelmed; he seems like he is following an impulse with little thought. We gather that they were very close- perhaps once in a lifetime love- but he walked out, or perhaps ran. He talks about running a lot. She misconstrues an invite to his room for a proposition of sex (or maybe it wasn't misconstrued at all?) and storms out. David's emptiness is made palpable. But curiously, we do not pity him; we simply understand.

Yet the main bulk of the film consists of David speaking to a woman called Lisa, who is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. I say voiced because this film is acted out entirely with stop-motion puppets. I will not say that the animation is seamless, and I forgot I was watching puppets; the viewer is constantly aware of this fact. But the puppets themselves are indescribably human, and it is here that true credit must go to Johnson's animating style; he must be a very adept people watcher, because his eye for the nuances of human movement is breathtaking. Everyone else in the film; David's wife, his son, the bellboy, his taxi driver, his old lover, are all voiced by Tom Noonan. His initial attraction to Lisa is the simple fact that she sounds different. He feels he can love this person; he wants to love her.

And this is where, for me, the film perhaps reveals its true hand, because it seems to be to be about the myth surrounding men that they can somehow be saved by a woman. David immediately puts her on a pedestal. It is arguable that he preys on her insecurities to get her into bed, although she is attracted to him straight away, and is self-aware and capable, even if she pretends not to be. When David tells her that she is extraordinary, her actual qualities could not be further from his mind, and he instead just cares about the fact that he has someone to offload on, that he has found someone who has allowed him to feel.

This could read as criticism, but I do not mean it to be. A critique of masculinity is just one of the many things at play in this film, it was just also the most apparent to me as I was watching it. David is, ultimately, a human, humans contain multitudes, and as such we can scorn, pity, love, and empathise with him all at once, perhaps in the same scene. The fact of his selfishness does not de-legitimise the depth and breadth of his feelings, or his lack of feelings, or both.

Is this film optimistic or pessimistic? I think it is both. David is none the wiser at the end of the film, reconciled with his wife, playing with his son. Everyone still sounds the same. He sits on his stairs, looking miserable. He has not learned his lesson, is even perhaps unaware that there is some kind of lesson to be learnt. We do not really hold out much hope for him, and despite his intentions, he still does not feel any deeper than he did before.

Yet Lisa, having taken their encounter to be a brief but sweet break from mundanity, smiles in her car as she writes him a farewell letter. She understands the situation, and allows herself to be hopeful. Her meeting with David may have even taught her a little more about herself, and eventually raised her confidence. This is healthy; after the fact, she has assessed the impact it had on her, and realised that it had one. This is the opposite of David, who attempted to manufacture an evening to somehow teach him to love again; of course it failed.

This is a complex film with complex emotions that I feel I have described incoherently and with little tact or subtlety, which is against the grain of this film and its general spirit. Let me put it more simply for you. It is a better film than I think I have words in my vocabulary to describe it. You will never forget it.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Two English Girls

"Two English Girls" (or "Anne and Muriel") is the fifth Truffaut effort I have seen now, and as I watch more I begin to see the threads and themes that run through his work. As a director he seems predominantly concerned with people whose natures are their ultimate undoing. In Shoot the Pianist I observed that it was an inability to act which led to the protagonists' downfall; in Jules and Jim, famously, it is the central characters love of each other which ends up undoing their relationships; in The Soft Skin, Pierre's enigmatic approach to his own emotions results in tragedy; The Man Who Loved Women loved them too much to maintain his own lifestyle.

And now we have this film, set at the turn of the 20th century, starring Jean Pierre Leaud as Claude, a young man whose slavery to his whims is his undoing romantically. As the film begins he is young, fresh-faced, and hopeful, and he enters into his quasi-tryst with the two sisters of the title cheerfully and without reserve. They are young, English, and Claude is staying in their cottage, at the behest of his mother, to teach them French, and vice versa. Anne (Kika Markham) is the older sister, bold, with dark hair, who worries about her sister, Muriel (Stacy Tendeter); she spends a lot of time in bed, and has problems with her eyes, leaving her preferring the indoors. The two girls are overseen by their mother, Mrs Brown (Sylvia Marriott), a wayward but fair woman who trusts Claude. And Claude's mother (Marie Mansart), arguably the only woman he truly loves, is similarly wayward but also much more permissive of Claude's eventual womanising lifestyle.

These are the five characters in just about all the scenes of the film, and the film explores their different relationships over the many years they know each other. Adapted from the novel by Henri-Pierre Roche, (who wrote "Jules") the screenplay deftly covers a great expanse of time, never feeling busy, but always riding a gentle current of shifting relationships, allegiances, loves. But this is more than a gender-inverted Jules Et Jim; where that film was busier, brisker, playing the wife-swapping like moves in a chess match, this is paced much more glacially, and it benefits from it. The moments in the film where Claude realises he loves someone different, or has fallen out of love with someone, carry genuine weight and heft.

And whilst it does have the typical sprightly Truffaut nature, this is an elegantly and classically composed affair, with the feel of a genuine period piece. The locations are superb; the girls' cottage by the sea is picturesque, a homely den decorated in blue, beset on all sides by comforting greenery and woodland, and vast rolling hills; Claude's flat, filled with art and books, feels like an extension of his character; the various gardens which are dined in feel real. The use of colour is masterfully sustained, and the film has a persistent painterly feel at the same time as indicating the inner states of the characters.

It also contains two scenes of lovemaking which work as a contrast and prop up the film; one frankly erotic, and the other harsh and detached. They define the different relationships that Claude has with the two sisters at various points. When he sleeps with Anne, it is probing and exploratory, he seduces her over a number of days in a cabin, and when the time eventually comes, they fall into each other. When he sleeps with Muriel, it is instead a much more rugged affair, like he is planting a flag inside of her. Her screams could be of pleasure, or pain; it is never spelled out. In both instances Claude makes a reference to "making a woman" of these two. But what of the effect on him?

And this question is the central irony of the film, which reveals itself in the very last shot, as Claude, fifteen years later, old and weathered, looks into a mirror and seems to see himself for the first time. It's ironic because he entered this affair with the least to lose, and seemed in control at all points; Muriel was timid, but comes into her own later on. This twist, and juxtaposition, provides the point of the film. We realise that this aloofness on Claude's part hides an inability to move on. We see, finally, that it is his inherent nature that has betrayed him.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

The Soft Skin

“I don't think you can be dealing
With the situation very well
You take a lover for a dirty weekend, that's ok
But when it's over
You are looking at the working week through the eyes of a gigolo”

Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian sang these lyrics on their 1996 album “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, and I thought of them as I watched Francois Truffaut’s 1964 film “The Soft Skin”, which is also about someone, married, who takes up a lover, and even attempts a dirty weekend with said lover, although only the most forgiving of people wouldn’t call it an unmitigated disaster.

But while these lyrics describe the film, they are also a tip-off to its problems, because whilst Murdoch lyrically describes the guilt and shame that can often follow a sordid tryst, when we try and zero in on protagonist Pierre Lechenay (Jean Desailly)’s emotions, we find ourselves drawing a blank. The same, too, can be said for the object of his desires Nicole (Francoise Dorléac), an air hostess whom he spots on a flight to Lisbon to deliver a talk on Balzac. And the less said about his wife Franca (Nelly Belledetti) the better; if Pierre and Nicole can at generously be described as wilfully enigmatic, Franca is a blank slate you can’t even draw anything on.

The central issue is that we cannot genuinely conceive of a single concrete reason why Nicole and Pierre go together. Well, I can on Pierre’s part; Nicole is an exceptionally beautiful woman, with a gentle voice that is at once caring and striking, and yes, she does appear to have exceptionally supple skin, or we must gather as much, from the sequence where she is lying supine in a little bed and breakfast, and Pierre undoes her stockings with all the care and precision of a technician rewiring a motherboard. But Pierre, unfortunately, seems like a stuffy bore, scared, imprecise, and not as though he’d make the most exciting lover.

Perhaps this is unfair speculation on my part, but the film gives us regrettably little to go on. A film like this lives and dies on the strength of the conveyance of the mental states of the central characters, and it seems to fail in that regard. It occasionally felt a little bit like certain scenes were missing or dropped; we just accept that Nicole loves Pierre, after a night where he talks about his work almost non-stop (he’s a literature professor), when I was wondering how she managed to stay awake. I was genuinely expecting the film to reveal her to be a femme fatale, but alas (although you could argue that the final scene of the pair in an apartment is an inversion of that trope). And the ending, perhaps startling for its days, is overwrought nonsense.

The film even gives us clues, to no avail; for example, a fair portion of the film concerns Pierre giving a talk on Andre Gides, which is acting as cover for the aforementioned dirty weekend. I believe this was no accident or random author, since Gides famously wrote “The Immoralist”, about a young man slowly doing away with conventional morality and succumbing to his most base desires; it cleverly frames the regression into incumbent ethical murk as the climactic victory for the protagonist.

If this theme is meant to be a counterpoint to the film, then it is ill-defined; if the book is meant to be a thematic bedfellow, then it is unconvincing because we do not know what Pierre is really thinking, whether he is enjoying his descent into immorality.

I realise now that I have spoken negatively throughout this entire review, and yet if pushed, I would recommend the film without question. Why is that, since it fails at everything it tries to do, and what it is trying to do is questionable? Truffaut, even when his canvas is half-baked, is a master of cinematic form. His innate sense of the frame and what to put in it is second to none. Even when we cannot buy into what is going on under the hood, on a scene by scene basis and from a cinematographic level, the film is compelling enough as it is. The film would work well watched alongside Shoot The Pianist, Truffaut’s unequivocal masterpiece, where emotional content and cinematic form coexist harmoniously, and The Man Who Loved Women, where Truffaut’s thematic motives are questionable, but nowhere near as muddled as here. In all three films, Truffaut shows a preternatural ability for what should be on screen and what shouldn’t, and how to edit in rhythm to a music that the audience just feels as the film goes along.

It’s just a shame he couldn’t conceive of an emotional base to match his stunning filmmaking. 

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Shoot The Pianist

When the Francois Truffaut's 1960 second feature "Shoot the Pianist" begins, we expect it to be about Chico (Albert Remy), the man who starts the film running away from unseen assailants, his right eye blackened, ready to collapse at any moment. He strikes up conversation after being helped up by a passerby, who waxes lyrical about love and marriage. Chico feigns interest, but when he parts ways with the man, he runs away in the opposite direction. Marriage is the last thing on his mind. Eventually he takes refuge in a dance club; he knows the pianist, who goes and plays by the name of Charlie, but who is really called Edouard (Charles Aznavour), according to Chico. Charlie is not initially noteworthy, a little aloof and detached, until he starts playing the piano. His face composed, he does his best to dodge his brother's ceaseless monologue. We can't quite tell if he's annoyed by his brother, passively tolerant, or regards him warmly; that is, until the people chasing Chico enter the club, and Charlie upends a stack of crates to stop them from getting to his brother. Clearly, then, there's filial loyalty there.

This enigmatic aura surrounding Charlie and his motivations is really what the film is about. After this, Charlie is in just about every scene. It turns out the men chasing Chico are after some money Chico pinched from them after a robbery; the actual details are a little unclear. The film is much more interested in the inner turmoil of Charlie, and what happened to him to make him so emotionally stunted. This isn't to say he's a recluse; his voiceover/interior monologue reveals him to have a healthy interest in (and eventual relationship with) his coworker at the club, Léna (Marie Dubois), but as the film explains, things have happened to him and he's undergone many metamorphoses over his life, juggling tragedy, success, and withdrawal.

This really is a fascinating film about the inner workings of an mysterious character, with a face that is compulsively watchable. This is all down to Aznavour's performance; a legend in France, I must confess I have never encountered him before in my adventures into chansons, but here he is compelling, and the film rests on his passive, reserved performance. We may not know precisely who he is, but we want to.

The plot begins to unfold around him; the purusuers take him and Lena hostage, with guns, at one point, and the manager of the club disapproves of his and Lena's union, resulting in a brutal fight. And yet despite these lashings of film noir tropes, the film never seems to present Charlie as in any danger. The hostage-takers seem too warm and genial to be really threatening, discussing their fondness for women and other banalities.

The film eventually boils down to the statement that Charlie, despite being benign and good of heart, seems to be a magnet for trouble wherever he goes. One could argue that this is because of his family of crooks, but the extended flashback midway through, which reveals a previous tragedy, is all on him, in some way, but also not really, because he didn't mean it. The film suggests that this is perhaps Charlie's curse; he is too benign, and too happy to let things just happen to him, ultimately a little too unwilling to try and change his circumstances; although that's arguably unfair, since his circumstances seem to have a habit of catching up with him.

This central tension of his character, of a seemingly good but ultimately enigmatic man mired in bad circumstances, is what carries the film. The direction is par excellence, as was Truffaut's standard; the film has a zip and go about it that is never less than compelling. It's all in the editing; look at the way Truffaut conveys the messiness of the opening chase scene with direct violations of the 180 rule, shooting this way and that way, describing less of the mechanics of the chase but more of a sense of someone being chased. There is a palpable musicality to the film, as befits Charlie's profession, and all of the characters seem to be swaying to some kind of beat or another. The on-location shooting also conjures up a sense of place, and in a few shots we are grounded in the club, Charlie's apartment, the well-trodden streets. It runs a good line of familiarity.

This is a masterful work, no doubt a masterpiece, and shows that Truffaut arrived out of the starting gate, raring to go. It spryly explores the mysteries behind our actions and deftly examines the way our motives can be a mystery to ourselves more than anyone else. This is a simple story told with economy, and for that the wider moral implications loom larger than life. And it proves the rule that there is nothing more fascinating than the human face in the cinema.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Le Pont Du Nord

Jacques Rivette's "Le Pont Du Nord" from 1981 is an interesting film, not least because it defies categorisation in any way you try and read it. I think it works best when viewed as an example of guerilla film-making, since that's effectively what it is, some years before that cadre of American filmmakers (Larry Clarke, Robert Rodriguez) took their cameras to the streets to film what their vision, and some years after Melvin Van Peebles arguably invented the genre. And yet it stands outside of those examples, since whilst those filmmakers resolutely worked within a genre and tried to emulate a genre, Rivette only uses his genre (the conspiracy thriller) as something of an afterthought, secondary to the process of guerilla film-making itself.

Rivette was, after all, all about method, and that seems to take preference within his films. In the liner notes he speaks of an inner juxtaposition, of the almost documentary-style nature of his film, and the highly strung plot. And yes, there is a plot, despite all this tedious stuff about methods and juxtapositions and all that. Mother and child Pascale and Bulle Olgier play two unrelated women, Baptiste and Marie, whose paths cross three times in one day, and whom Baptiste argues their being together must be fated. From there they explore a shady and ill-defined conspiracy involving a map modelled on a child's game, a briefcase containing... Something, and several men labelled as "Max" by Baptiste and hence deserving of scorn. Marie has just been released from prison; we have no idea where Baptiste has come from.

There's also Marie's partner Julien (Pierre Clementi), owner of the coveted briefcase, and seemingly the original Max (Jean-Francois Stevenin), who both cycle through benign and threatening at any given scene in the film.

What does it all mean? I don't know, but looking for meaning in a film like this seems counterintuitive. It seems to purposefully defy all meaning. In a Hollywood film, it would be a high-stakes affair with lots of scenes of Tom Hanks running through rooms looking for clues, but here, it is simply what Rivette presents it to us as. And it does contain an eerie, otherworldly beauty, mainly as a result of the on-location shooting in Paris, nearly devoid of interiors, and the rhythmic, simplistic editing.

I realise I have largely described this film instead of actually reviewing it, but this is no simple work. I loved it. It was quietly compelling, and culminates in a final sequence, with Baptiste and Max sparring opposite each other on a bridge, framing a Parisienne canal that's glimmering in the late evening sunlight, that has an indescribable lo-fi pulchritude, like the hazy neon glow you get from a Daniel Johnston record.

Odds are, if you know of this film, you know about Rivette, and already have an opinion on his methods and aims. If you've bought into his vision (I have), this will be an immensely rewarding venture. If you've never heard of him, this isn't a bad place to start. Look past the wilfully enigmatic style and engage in the beats, and the style.

Monday, 25 July 2016

The Duke of Burgundy

Peter Strickland's "The Duke of Burgundy" is a surprisingly linear, straightforward love story that explores an element of BDSM that has remained relatively unexplored in the movies up until this point; the perspective of the person who desires to be dominated. We've had (most famously) the man who desires to dominate (although most people would rightly discredit that), and we've also had the union of one who must serve, and one who must dominate (Steven Shainberg's "Secretary"). Here we have someone for whom the desire to be dominated is an all-encompassing hole in her very being; she can't live without it.

The film begins in the expected manner; Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) arrives at the house of her lover, Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), who in a series of stilted and terse conversations, orders her to perform actions of servitude, such as cleaning her study, rubbing her feet, washing her lingerie, and so on. Cynthia is young, impish, somewhat reminiscent of a young Audrey Tautou; we can't initially tell if she's enjoying this treatment, but she complies nevertheless. Evelyn is stern, approaching the stereotypically cross schoolteacher.

We find out a little about the pair; they live in the countryside, and Evelyn is a lepidopterist who gives talks at a local institute. Then, we see the opening sequence again, but bookended  by Evelyn's preparation; she is wearing a wig, and is following orders written on a piece of card, given to her by Cynthia. Evelyn is, in fact, much more nervous than she appears to let on. Her face is a picture of the concealment of panic and discomfort, her eyes flit, her mouth is drawn.

From here the film explores the true nature of their relationship, with Evelyn doing her very best to accommodate all of Cynthia's desires. Where the film is a triumph is in its refusal to shy away from the true nature of their union, and the way Cynthia's need to be dominated seems to come from an insatiable place deep inside her. To this end, this is the most honest film yet made about BDSM, and anybody who finds themselves with a lover into kink, or who is into kink themselves, should watch it, because it will inspire the right conversations, and it asks just how far you can, or should, go for someone you love. It understands the rituals and routines that people in the lifestyle fall into. To someone who doesn't have the desire for kink inside them, the acts can seem cruel, unusual, and impossible to enjoy. It is this truth that the film understands deeply, and explores with insight and verve.

It helps that the film has a real technical calibre; Peter Strickland, who impressed with Berberian Sound Studio, here cements his place as a British director with vision, a more humanistic Ben Wheatley, He creates a world to live in with this film, a spacious house with luscious overgrown greenery adorning the outside, and musty closets and old leatherbound books adorning the inside, and a vast forest surrounding them. Pater Sparrow's production design and Zsuzsa Mihalek's set design are a triumph in themselves. The score from the band "Cat's Eyes" works as though the film was made around it, which is the highest compliment you can give to a film score. And the cinematography is sumptuous, a fantasia of rich colours and stark, moody lighting.

And at the centre are the two performances, from Knudsen and D'Anna, as two people desperate to please, and even more desperate to be pleased. They are, at their core, two people who are deeply in love, much like everyone else. I was not being contrarian when I said the film was a love story; look at the structure, and it becomes apparent how conventional it is, with the exception of the nightmare sequence beginning with the zoom between Evelyn's legs (you'll know it; a little on the nose, but still spellbinding).

More than anything, it understands that just because you're the one with the whip doesn't make you the person in control; people who need to dominate are actually much rarer than the other way around, and reaching some kind of equilibrium on the topic requires negotiating, empathy, and understanding. In turn, the film understands this, and it follows this theme with logic and remorselessness. This is a classical work of great technical and emotional mastery, deeply rewarding, perversely beautiful, and above all, honest.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Review of The Legend of Tarzan

The latest of iteration of Edgar Rice Borrough's "Tarzan" legend is by turns tedious, monotonous, sluggish, turgid and overwhelmingly grey, both in tone and production design. And that's just before you get to the post-colonial minefield the film tries to address at the same time. It tries to be a sweeping adventure story and an exploration of Saidian otherness at once and doesn't just fail, but falls completely flat. It's also the first film where the usual splendid Christoph Waltz seems to be spinning his wheels; now that is scary.

This differs from the usual Tarzan storytelling in that it occurs long after Tarzan, going by Lord Greystroke (Alexander Skarsgard, not hiding his accent or his abs), has been adopted by the West as a savage boy, and actually sees him making the return from London back to his home in the Congo, with his wife Jane. What's interesting is the way this is set up; the film initially and briefly purports to be an exploration of his sense of belonging in the two places Tarzan has come to know, and his reluctance to return to where he was raised amongst apes. The film even threatens to come across as some kind of Dark Knight Rises by way of Joseph Conrad, for a time, with the reformed hero struggling to accept his prior identity as lord of the jungle, and all that.

I say "threatens" because the film never realises these grand visions, and settles for a number of uninspired flashbacks and moody shots of Skarsgard frowning into the middle distance as an exploration of the central character's mental state. The plot undergoes similar burnout as it starts out with Christoph Waltz (playing Leon Rom) under orders from King Leopold to get some diamonds from the natives to help fund Leopold's dominance. The leader, Mbonga, agrees, but only on the condition that Tarzan be bought to him (why this is is revealed partially in multiple flashbacks).

Tarzan, despite the goading of the prime minister (Jim Broadbent, doing his thing), is reluctant, until Samuel L Jackson as an American aide convinces him by warning him of some kind of slave trade. Then we meet Jane (Margot Robbie), who we find out had a failed pregnancy in one of the clumsiest bits of expository dialogue I've seen.

And so on and so on, but not really, because by the time Tarzan is in the jungle it feels like hours have passed, and nothing feels at stake. Even his abs, gazed upon at length, do nothing to save it.

This feeling of detachment, that nobody involved really feels involved, is what permeates the film, from the script to the score to the costumes and sinks it before Tarzan has even arrived back with his natives. I want to say it's a shame, but there's something old fashioned about Burrough's stories, and not in a good way; the whole white saviour narrative thing has always been contentious as far back as "Heart of Darkness", but given the current political climate in particular this film just feels unnecessary. (I hate to get political, but the film has allusions to politics, so I might as well address them).

It's clearly just muddled and unwilling to stick to any particular guns one way or another. The closest the film gets to a postcolonial statement is the recurring motif of Rom strangling various natives with his treasured crucifix, dangling from his hand at all times; a metaphor on whites that I won't spell out for you. There are occasional attempts at portraying the natives as a more than one-dimensional community, and it succeeds briefly, until it resorts to the old tropes (the only named native spends a good half hour of the film mute and in a cage).

But this political element is secondary; if the film had been exciting in any capacity, I could have forgiven it as problematic popcorn fodder, but it simply wasn't. The usually reliable David Yates, responsible for the most emotionally resonant Harry Potter films, fails to deliver, never rising above a sense of studio nonchalance and just getting it in on time and under budget. You know you've got a muddle on your hands when the climactic battle needs expository dialogue referring to a brief flashback an hour earlier in the film to remind you what's actually at stake.

And even with that, you still feel like nothing's at stake. By the time the hour has passed and we actually get to see some vine-swinging, I had long since checked out.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Exquisite Corpus

Peter Tscherkassky’s “The Exquisite Corpus”, running at 19 minutes long, feels like Plunderphonics crossed with early Russ Meyer; a pastiche cum montage of black and white soft-core porn from what one might fondly refer to as “the golden age”, it does the opposite of what Debord was trying to get at with his inversion of existing art. This is REtournement, if you will, taking various clips and highlights of eroticism of yore and editing it to a sort of ne plus ultra of eroticism.

And so, hands tenderly unzip stiff jeans and stroke the invisible treasures inside; seagulls dominate the soundtrack, along with what sounds like Mogwai turned down; a man casts his net with a naked woman and jaunts around on a boat; a man looks left and right at a woman on either side of the screen, smiles, nods bashfully; a woman seductively crosses her legs. At the end, a haze of erotic pull circles a small boat in a blur; just like the sex obsessed, initially focussed with the desires buzzing around our heads, as Thom Yorke might say.

The real hardcore is hidden from view, as it was in the original works, but this work does more than suggest. It's not coy, and neither will I be.

The result, instead of obscuring the eroticism, instead accentuates it. This is not a deconstruction, but calling it a celebration seems a touch glib. It’s an exercise, but more than that, because it captivates as well as instructs. It’s simply a spellbinding triumph of new meets old, or old meets new, and it does a very clever thing in capturing the rhythms of sex, of lovemaking, and being edited to that beat, whilst at the same time presenting those things. More than a curio; like “Since I Left You”, it works as itself and should be enjoyed as thus.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Review of "Captain America: Civil War"

The Marvel train is showing no signs of stopping, with each film growing bigger and bigger as the years go by. Hence, I found it both odd and perfectly logical that the latest film in the series, "Captain America: Civil War" should invert things a little bit. No proper villain to speak of, a great deal of fuss made about the human costs of the building-smashing conflicts that have capped each previous film, and something entirely unexpected; moral relativism. The advertising for this film cannily engages the viewer in a "Team Cap" or "Team Iron Man" debate, but amusingly there is no real side to be picked, just varying shades of grey.

It has a plot that can be described in a few words, or a few paragraphs. It concerns itself with a bill being passed that attempts to regulate the activities of superheroes, in the face of the untold destruction they keep causing. Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is opposed to it. "If I see a threat, I'll neutralise it", he says. On the other hand, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is for it. An early scene sees him accosted by a woman who presses a picture of her dead son into his chest; in saving the world, she says, he died. Ignoring the fact that the scene plays like some kind of Dickensian Christmas-Past thing, it gets the point across. As far as I can tell, Iron Man has always been the heart of the series, hiding his guilts and neuroses behind a mask of flippant cool, and it makes perfect sense that this kind of thing would haunt him (even if the film fudges it).

As the bill is drafted and put into motion, sides are picked, if a little arbitrarily, and the film lumbers towards the widely touted conflict between the group. A lot of screen-time is given to the relationship between Captain America and his friend Bucky/The Winter Soldier, (Sebastian Stan), who were close during the war, and separately frozen and later revived. Bucky was, unfortunately, brainwashed and so can't help killing things. But Captain sees something there, and takes Bucky's side throughout the film, insisting to everyone that he isn't bad.

If my descriptions of the relationships seem a little half-baked, it's because most people are on board by now, but also because my memories of the previous Marvel films are hazy, and this film relies on an apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of all that has come before. This isn't to say that the film isn't accessible, or indeed fun, because it is both of those things, but it does seem that the more you know/remember, the more you will get out of it.

There are a lot of players involved. Some, like Don Cheadle's "War Machine", are unengaging; others, like newcomer Tom Holland's "Spiderman" (the best screen iteration of the character so far), are note perfect. In the end, though, individual comparisons don't really matter, since this film has the rare distinction of a fight where you're rooting for everyone at the same time. This seems counter-intuitive to the general ethos of the modern blockbuster, where things are painted in black and white, but I'm not complaining. The scrap itself is handled excellently, and passes Mark Kermode's six-laugh test in itself.

Various excellent actors pop up; Daniel Bruhl plays shady ne'er-do-well named Helmut Zemo (what a name!), Martin Freeman occasionally distracts as a slimy politician type called Everett Ross, and William Hurt gently nibbles at the scenery as the Secretary of State.

In the end, it all amounts to whatever you want it to amount to. As a relative outsider to this whole saga, I admired it from the outside without ever feeling immersed or overjoyed; others in the cinema seemed to be having the time of their lives. A serious review of this film is ultimately pointless, since it's got a guaranteed audience who know just what to expect. It's directed confidently, competently, and a little impersonally by the Russo Brothers. The actors involved know what to do by now, and they do it well. In places it is far funnier than I'd expected. As an example of its genre it's up at the higher end. It's fun, watchable, never exactly compelling, but certainly never off-putting.

If you've never seen a Marvel film before, pay a little bit more attention, fill in the gaps, and you'll probably have fun yourself.

Review of "Son of Saul"

If László Nemes' film "Son of Saul", set in Auschwitz in 1944, is ultimately a success, it is because before anything else it understands that a conflict spanning the entirety of the universe can be depicted on a canvas no bigger and no smaller than the human face; in fact, it understands that the human face is the perfect setting for such things. If it falls short of triumph, that's because it follows its own methodologies a little too closely to their ends, and seems slightly too preoccupied with itself as a film as opposed to what it seemed to me to be; a document, a hymn, a paean.

Opening text informs us of the "Sonderkommando", a group of Jews chosen in Auschwitz to work for a few months, before being killed. Saul (Géza Rohrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando; a startling and upsetting opening shot presents him front and centre, ushering in a new truck full of his kin, to be disposed of by the cruel guards. This opening take is remarkable for two reasons, firstly because it's an ambitious long-shot, and secondly because it establishes Saul's character in a way that fundamentally doesn't really change for the remaining 100 minutes. Red cross on his back, hollowed out sunken eyes, mouth slightly twisted, blank expression; he doesn't give anything away.

This creates a paradox which sustains the whole film; just how does Saul remain so emotionless in the face of such unspeakable horror? How can he, for example, not even give a sign of disgust as he drags corpses across a blood-streaked gas chamber floor, or as he is forced to dance for a room full of sneering Nazi guards?

In this sense we do not get to 'know' Saul in the sense that we would typically come to know a protagonist. But there are some clues thrown our way; a passing reference to a conversation from a less hellish time, a couple of moments where we sense his mind has gone blank, and the prevailing sense of his determination. And the driving mechanism for the film is a clue also; Saul becomes steadily more obsessed with a young boy who comes coughing out of the gas chamber and dies shortly after, seeking a proper burial for him. This is the plot in its entirety.

Stanley Kubrick once stated that the problem with "Schindler's List" was that it took a moment of despair in the human race, and turned into a story of hope. Kubrick no doubt would have strongly approved of this film, for it is hopeless (although not nihilistic, thankfully). It stares into the horror and does not ask us for an opinion, or a reaction; instead, to simply observe. It is a fearfully convincing recreation, and I had to look away in all the obvious places.

This is mainly due to the cinematography from Mátyás Erdély, which adopts Saul's perspective and immerses us in it, and the production design from Lászlá Rajk, which is sharp and brutalist, all dingy concrete underground rooms and long off-white corridors leading round into nameless horror (as it should be, as it was).

As the story goes on, we realise that the Saul's journey can be taken either as a Biblical attempt at redemption, or something more mundane, the last grasp of a man facing death attempting to salvage something, and going insane as he does so. In the end, ultimately, it does not matter; he is here, he is doing this, and this is what is. The chaos surrounding him is scary, but he is on a mission. The classical 1:33 aspect ratio is perfect for this, with its intimidating black bars at the side; it mirrors Saul's tunnel vision. The sound design is vast, overbearing, industrial, imposing. The final moments are staggering in both their power and their logic.

However, when I said that the film has a mechanism, I do not mean this in a positive way. For a film staged so excellently and so thematically powerful, being reminded that we are in fact watching a film is one of the last things you want; we should be immersed completely. But there are moments here and there; shots left too long out of focus, as if to say... Well, what? Technique is left to creep in where it shouldn't have done. And when the film breaks its predominant focus on Saul, as it does in a couple of scenes, I felt pulled out of it.

This is a dark and powerful piece, meticulously composed and unlike anything I've ever seen, especially on this topic. That it is so great makes its flaws that bit more jarring. Nevertheless, this is vital, devastating stuff, a film that feels like it needed to be made. And, well, good. Because it did. And, consequently, it needs to be seen too.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Review of The Hateful Eight (2015)

It almost seems daft, really, given that Quentin Tarantino has effectively made a career out of mining his own idiosyncrasies for profit, to level the criticism of "too odd" at his latest effort and eighth film, the bounty-revenge-Western-thriller-sorta-whodunit-but-more-whowilldowhat "The Hateful Eight". And odd is the wrong word anyway. Maybe... Idiosyncratic? Oh dear.

To point; this film, which runs to three hours long, has been shot in a long-retired 70MM format, has a new score from maestro Ennio Morricone, and has a cast billing that reads like a who's-who of Tarantino's greatest hits (Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Madsen, Philip Roth, Bruce Dern and more). It's maybe Tarantino's most 'mounted' film in terms of the prestige and craft that has been utilised to bring it to the screen, and the truly odd thing is how slight and insular the story it's telling is. If I were the kind of critic prone to making trite references to Shakespeare, I'd say something about this film being much ado.

A harsh blizzard is threatening the mountains and valleys of Wyoming. Kurt Russell's John "The Hangman" Ruth has captured Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and is bringing her in to collect the $10,000 bounty on her head and also to watch her hang, since that's his thing (he claims it's because he likes to keep hangmen in business, but since he says this to a hangman he's just met we assume this could be out of politeness, and also the film makes a point of making us distrust what characters say. I suspect it's another idiosyncrasy and also a device to keep Leigh alive).

On the way to the town of Red Rock, where Ruth can collect his bounty, they are stopped by Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) who manages to talk his way onto the coach through charm and the fact that the two have met before. Then they're stopped by Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), a racist gang-member who claims to be the new Sheriff in Red Rock; Ruth doesn't believe him, but can't risk it, since Mannix would die in the snow and leaving him out there would constitute murder otherwise. There's also the coach driver, O.B Jackson (James Parks), but he seems fairly calm and non-violent, almost friendly.

This takes about half an hour. They arrive at "Minnie's Haberdashery" to shack up for the night, where they meet Oswaldo Mobray, aforementioned hangman (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), and Bob (Demián Bichir). All the characters embody types; Mobray is British, sardonic, overly polite. Gage is grouchy, distrusting and monosyllabic; Smithers is a racist veteran who doesn't leave his chair; Bob is also distrustful, but at the same time tries to be neutral. Minnie and her husband are nowhere to be seen.

As the film goes on it's pretty clear people are playing people and everyone is not quite who they seem. Of course, it's not long before blood starts to be shed; and in true Tarantino fashion, it pours. The most obvious structural reference point is, fittingly, "Reservoir Dogs"; this basically has the same structure as that film but with a half-hour prologue, and the gunfight at the end lasts for over an hour this time, and with a lengthy flashback for good measure.

The fact that it is so long and the length in service of so little is the first and most pressing of the film's issues, but far from its only one. For a start, there's the treatment of Leigh's character. There's an easy defence of the violence perpetuated towards her in that she is a murdering outlaw who has stepped into a man's world. But too often she's hit in the face (in brutal, thwacking, look-away-now crunches) and it feels like the punchline to a joke. Of course violence is often a joke in Tarantino-land (think of Marv from Pulp Fiction), but this feels a little too exaggerated and dwelt-upon for it to actually be funny. It feels like Tarantino is too often making a point of the fact that it's her being treated so cruelly, and this I found troublesome (I also felt the same way about Tarantino's persistent use of the n-word, which feels like he drops it in just so he can; why?)

This is also, to me, the film where Tarantino's vaudeville brand of comedy falls flattest. There's one protracted sequence involving a letter Warren has from Abraham Lincoln that probably runs to ten-plus minutes that grows steadily more risible by the second (although the payoff, where Warren explains the true origins of the letter, is maybe the only time the film gets at something more than just what's onscreen). But so much is made of the exaggerated delivery of words and the humour is so crude that it failed to take off; the levity it could have bought to the film felt heavy in itself.

Also... Once more, it's redundant to say that a Tarantino film goes too far, since he makes his films not so much in spite of but because of those kinds of criticisms, but there is one midway sequence involving a scene of cruelty that would get another less renowned film-maker into trouble. And there is so much of that violence for violence's sake attitude to the film that it becomes wearying. Django Unchained at least had the main character's established desire for revenge, and Inglorious Basterds seemed to be making a genuine statement (or as much as Tarantino can) about Jewish attitudes towards the cruelties enacted towards them in World War 2.

Here... People distrust each other, and then they die. We can never tell who's telling the truth to who, and they occasionally explode. The usual narrative tricks are played, including a voiceover halfway through which was as subtle as a brick through a window. There's no real sense of paranoia, or tension, just the ceaseless knowledge that at some point we're going to be expected to enjoy some death.

Maybe it sounds like I've expected things from a Tarantino film that he was just never going to deliver; too uneven, too violent, too unsubtle, too ultimately meaningless. The point is what's onscreen, he'd (probably) say. But there is no escaping the fact that this story is not worth the effort that has gone into the telling of it. It ultimately comes across as an Agatha Christie novel, if Agatha Christie had a penchant for ruining her twists halfway through and also a fetish for watching people get soaked in other people's brains.

It was too well-made for me to hate it with every fibre of its being (the score and cinematography saw to that), but inside this is by far Tarantino's most morally bankrupt work, and underneath the pretty artifice there is a putrid rotting corpse, at which Tarantino seems to want us to point and laugh.

Forgive me for looking away this time.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Review of "45 Years"

For a film about a marriage slowly but surely tumbling out of control, it's astonishing, and something of a coup, how assured and precise Andrew Haigh's "45 Years" is. It's a film which doesn't so much ape as embody the spirit of a cinematic mathematician like Haneke, where every shot feels fine-tuned for effect, every angle maximising some important aspect- or throwing us a red herring. A work of some kind of mastery, basically. 

All this would be for naught if it was in service of nonsense, or worse, something meaningless, but luckily "45 Years" has an emotional reach to meet its technical precision, and is mining deep thematic wellsprings of ambiguous but bold feeling. 

Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Jeff (Tom Courtenay) have been married for 45 years. We start the film on a Monday- their anniversary party is on Saturday. Their events organiser observes how that's an odd number of years to celebrate, and Kate informs him they would have had it five years ago but Jeff was unwell. You feel that waiting until the 50th anniversary wasn't an option. There's a lot to celebrate.  

In that same scene, the organiser also points out that the room in which they're celebrating has a rich history, like any marriage. It was even home to the celebrations of the Battle of Trafalgar. "Didn't Nelson die in the Battle of Trafalgar?" Kate knowingly probes. The organiser replies yes, but a victory like that is worth celebrating. 

This is a clever piece of offhand dialogue that in a lesser film would simply set the stage for the upcoming jaunt, but here outlines and echoes the entire themes of the film. Earlier that day, Jeff had received a letter from Germany saying that the body had been found. "My Katia", he says. Kate looks on in worry. We find out that Katia was somebody Jeff was with many years ago. They were climbing a mountain, and one day- she was gone, with nothing but a scream (Jeff's description of that scream is one of the most evocative and perfect pieces of perfectly delivered dialogue you could choose to hear). 

But now her body has been unearthed, frozen, and perfectly preserved, which is fitting, because her presence is felt by both Kate and Jeff for the remainder of the film.

There's not much more to the plot itself, and the film explores the ways in which this revelation impacts them in the run-up to a party in honour of their love. 

Jeff responds by becoming distant and vague. Not there. He starts to research climate change and becomes intensely interested in how people can be preserved in ice. Kate expresses interest in all of this (with reservations, such as her gentle dissuading of Jeff going to Switzerland to see the body), but soon it seems like this has impacted her in more ways than even she thought. Is she jealous? She can't be jealous of something that happened before (although, we learn, not too long before) Kate came into Jeff's life.  

However, Kate knows Jeff, and we can see she senses something's off. Why is he being so mournful over something that happened so long ago? The narrative screws are inevitably tightened and whilst there are late in the day revelations, they are delivered subtly, for us to consider for ourselves, instead of being told how to feel. 

The film succeeds so brilliantly because of many reasons. Haigh's screenplay, in a very short space of time and in some quite restrictive conditions (about 85% of the film is just conversations between the pair, or Kate on her own), manages to draw the outline of an entire marriage. We sense their love through small conversations only old married couples can have, such as Kate's quiet surprise that Jeff is reading Kierkegaard again. "You have three editions of that book, but I don't think you've ever got past the final chapter." 

The acting is another reason why the film is successful. Where others might play it with an eye to melodrama, Rampling and Courtenay do the opposite. If this is the tale of a marriage falling apart, and I leave that up to you to decide, it's a marriage imploding as opposed to exploding. The sense of routine and order brilliantly established in the first two scenes doesn't dissipate throughout the whole film. Nobody shouts, and lines are delivered with the true emotions implied, not stated. Only two masters of their craft could convincingly pull this off, and there's enough evidence here to suggest that that's just what these two are. Talk has been had of an Oscar nomination for Rampling; she deserves it. Every aspect of her performance is controlled, and studied, to perfection. Every pause, intonation, and look seems utterly natural but tells us something words can't. 

Then there's the filmmaking itself. Largely composed of static shots just observing the dialogue being spoken, the film plays with placing and framing to tell us things and give us clues. Look at how Kate tends to be placed nearest the camera, or how many shots there are that show Kate side-on, looking left or right. The film is studying her. It wants us to feel her feelings, in close up. It's an extraordinary example of cinematic empathy. Her feelings become ours. 

That's it. There's music, but it comes from characters playing it, as opposed to a non-diegetic soundtrack. There are no fireworks, no drama, no explosions. Just a gentle thawing, like the ice that has preserved Katia, and a trickle that becomes a stream that slowly becomes a jet of feeling. The characters try their best to contain it, but it's there. Whatever happens by the end of this film, and it's left open to debate, things have been altered in unforeseeable ways. Haigh, Rampling and Courtenay are masters of their craft.