September 19, 2016 § Leave a comment
That it took 12 years for Alain Guiraudie, a French filmmaker, to find his way onto the Cannes Croisette is a matter of niggling curiosity. Between his first mainline* Cannes entry, the sublime, erotic thriller Stranger by the Lake (2013), and this delicate 49-minute slice of dreamy realism, Guiraudie directed three features, none of which I have seen and none of which received even a droplet’s worth of the acclaim showered upon his 2013 picture. It would be interesting to discover whether the mid 2000s was indeed an artistic trough, or simply neglected. What can be said with some confidence, though, is that the Bressonian visual elegance Guiraudie displays in Stranger by the Lake is very much on show in That Old Dream That Moves. With a keen eye for borderline bland locations, Guiraudie and cinematographer Emmanuel Soyer turn a dilapidated factory into a cathedral of fragile masculinity and unspoken desire. This brisk but patiently told tale centres on an industrious technician named Jacques who arrives at a factory that is being closed down, tasked with disassembling a particular (and at times phallic) machine in preparation for transportation to a new home. While the regular employees laze about, contemplating their pending unemployment and channeling their fear into petty squabbles, Jacques goes about his business with a certain intensity only to be courted ever so gently by two older ‘heteronormative’ men, Donand and Louis, both of whom may only just be discovering or coming to terms with their own wants and needs. At this point a vital voice in international queer cinema, Guiraudie’s approach to sexuality is neither combative nor yielding. While Jacques does not declare his preference for men on arrival, he neither bends over backwards to conceal his sexuality or rebuff advances. In a strange way, his unshowy matter-of-factness is a challenge to Donand and Louis, daring them to either make a move or make a run for it. If one is to go the allegorical route, Jacques’ role in decommissioning the factory could even position him as an angel of sexual rebirth, spurring his suitors to shed their old skins as they will their old jobs. Like low tide, this very social realist picture quietly presents its central ménage à trois (of sorts) in a manner that suggests the groggy period after an afternoon nap, accentuated by the use of muted tones, diffuse light and soft shadows, and still, boxy framing. At its modest length, That Old Dream That Moves qualifies as a feature film according to Anglo-American standards, while it is nine minutes shy of being a feature in its homeland, having been nominated for a Best Short Film Cesar in 2003. By either standard, though, it is without doubt a great film.
* Giuraudie’s 2009 picture The King of Escape premiered in that year’s Directors Fortnight sidebar
June 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
I concur with Quentin Tarantino’s impression of Brillante Mendoza’s eighth feature film and second Cannes entry, Kinatay, as expressed by the American filmmaker in this bit of collegial correspondence scribbled in red ink on hotel stationery during the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Tarantino applauds Mendoza’s dedication to the experiential perspective of the film’s lead character, Peping; praises the under-exposed, grainy depiction of horror that characterises the latter two-thirds of the film, and the relative anti-drama of the whole affair. That Tarantino, king of immaculately aestheticised violence, would praise a peer for practically being his antithesis is indeed of interest, but his appreciation of Mendoza’s approach was nonetheless shared by that year’s Cannes Jury, who awarded the Filipino filmmaker the Prix de la mise-en-scene for Best Director. At the risk of defending a picture that I don’t particularly care for, I must say that I do not necessarily contest their decision. Kinatay displays a certain clarity of purpose, a quality which few similarly grim and confronting pictures can consistently claim to have achieved with any degree of success. Whether Mendoza’s artistic purpose in turn serves a broader cultural or political purpose is where the debate might rapidly become a losing battle for those in the ‘pro’ camp. Inspired by the actual experiences of a young police academy recruit, Kinatay follows a newly-wed trainee whose part-time dealings with a crew of dirty cops ostensibly turns into a full-time contract when he is made a witness and peripheral accomplice to the belly-turning murder of a prostitute called Madonna. Beginning with Peping’s very low-key, good-natured daytime wedding, the first ‘act’ of the film ends with a fade-out of the setting sun after which his nightmare commences. It’s an obvious visual pun, as if to imply that the sun is also setting on Peping’s moral and spiritual freedom. Roger Ebert famously declared Kinatay to be the worst film ever selected to compete for the Palme d’Or, a claim which smacks of hyperbole despite my reservations about the movie. The late (and largely great) critic accused Mendoza of ideological bludgeoning, but could not quite articulate – in this piece – what this ‘Idea’ was and is. Frankly, neither can I. As a cautionary tale warning of the immense gravitational pull of crime on those in its orbit, Kinatay had me quietly promising myself that I would never associate with any individuals who exude even one percent of the malice and soul-blunted disregard for life exhibited by the on-screen killers. Without a doubt, such individuals live and breathe in their unfortunate communities, and similar crimes have in fact plagued Mendoza’s turf, let alone the wider world. But is a film like Kinatay what it takes to galvanise public awareness of and outrage at law enforcers who not only fail to uphold safety but who in fact actively propagate social degeneration? Who amongst us is not all too aware that violence and barbarism exists, and that death can arrive with shocking suddenness, even for those who dance with it on a daily basis to the point of feeling somewhat immune? Perhaps Kinatay is simply the result of a filmmaker translating a captivating story to screen in a manner which seemed – to him – most appropriate. If anything, Mendoza’s picture is at least an unapologetic alternative to the glut of cinema that seeks to extract entertainment from the gutters of human behaviour; a cinema at the centre of which sits the likes of…my beloved Basic Instinct?
January 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
Lauded for his eye for landscapes and an acute sense of character psychology, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s wordsmanship has always been as striking as his seeming eerie ability to order the very clouds in the sky into position and photograph them with an ominous sense of texture and omniscience. An artist who has never shied from acknowledging his major influences (something that critics have seized upon all too lazily), Ceylan seems to have over the years drifted from an Antonioni-like taciturnity and visual austerity towards a more ‘talky’ dialogue-driven narrative form that resides somewhere between the proverbialistic tenderness of Ozu and Ingmar Bergman’s Nordic brand of navel-gazing psychoanalysis. Ceylan’s penchant for philosophising became startlingly apparent with his masterful “Once upon a time in Anatolia,” especially when paired with his still boldly melancholic imagery. With “Winter Sleep,” the Turkish filmmaker, working as always with his wife Ebru during the scripting process, has finally overindulged his apparent love for verbosity…or so some would say. Well, for those who are drawn to Ceylan’s work primarily on the strength of his brooding photographic sense, the 2014 Palme d’Or winner may indeed be something of a departure, or rather, a touch understated. But the brilliance of this writing team is startlingly apparent. Unlike writer-director Olivier Assayas who, on the basis of “The Clouds of Sils Maria” and the labourious words of its fictional playwright Wilhelm Melchior, wouldn’t make the greatest dramaturge, Ceylan and his co-scripters would excel on stage, and while not linguistically dextrous like Tom Stoppard at his absurdist best, their ability to propel a narrative on the back of unapologetically analytical and often caustic intellectualised exchanges is essentially unmatched in current semi-mainstream world cinema. It does not bear the hipster swagger of Tarantino or the archly ironic bite of the Coens, but much like some of Ceylan’s Romanian contemporaries, the spoken content of “Winter Sleep” possesses deep, socially-engaged intelligence without affected art-house banality. But this does not in any way imply that Ceylan’s use of cinema is ‘uncinematic.’ On the contrary, the skill and minute attention with which he and DP Gokhan Tiryaki capture faces in close-up could not be further removed from the theatre. Quite simply the tale of a middle-aged ex-actor turned Cappadocian hotelier cum newspaper columnist trying to figure out life in the wake of a dying marriage and an engulfing sense of loneliness and disillusionment, “Winter Sleep” represents an exciting development in the careers of an absolutely vital collective of artists spearheaded by a filmmaker of refreshing integrity.
Bong Joon-Ho is an unquestionable master of tone. Over the course of four feature films (well…five), the Korean wunderkind has displayed an illusionist’s slippery ability, mixing pitch blackness with a giddy, nearly slapstick brand of farcical humour. Like the interrogation scenes in “Memories of Murder” which oscillate nauseatingly between moments of borderline torture to instances of surprising hilarity that spring directly from the preceding horror, 2014’s “Snowpiercer” constantly has one foot in the possibility – and frequent eventuation – of violence, and the other sunk deep in sickly sweet satire. It’s a testament to the strength of Bong’s vision that he can achieve the same tonal tightrope with a multinational, multilingual cast (featuring the likes of Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and Kang-ho Song), especially considering that the intended audience would have been far broader than what the director might be used to when working as an exclusively South Korean filmmaker, the risk being the possible dilution of whatever cultural specificities allow his earlier pictures to live and breathe as they do. In truth, “Snowpiercer” feels more unwieldy than Bong’s previous three films, less restrained, less ‘perfect’, more of a compromise. But it’s not so much meandering or aimless as it is indulgent and bloated at times, and this almost certainly has to do with a degree of excess and ‘blockbuster’ hubris that seems to run in the film’s veins which – one is tempted to say – is a due to the expectations of a globalised market dominated by far more excessive and gluttonous US tent pole releases. That this might be Bong’s least perfect picture is astounding, considering what an achievement of imagination the film truly is. Set in a future version of earth that is at the mercy of a mankind-induced ice age, staged on a globe-circling class-based train wherein the disenfranchised and disadvantaged masses occupy the rusted rear cars and so on and so forth, and featuring a very ‘pitchable’ high-concept plot, “Snowpiercer” is an openly symbolic, very topical fable for our current time, referencing everything from climate change to class disparity to the aforementioned globalisation. The film has been met with a curious degree of scepticism by the critical community, probably because of its tonal tenuousness and almost undisciplined grandiosity. Or maybe it’s to do with the gradual revelation – as was also the case with Park Chan-Wook’s “Stoker” (itself a fairly good film) – that the rhythms of mainstream English-language high-concept filmmaking may be relatively incompatible with the dizzying heights of Korean genre (bending) cinema. It’s funny to think that “Snowpiercer” somehow defies its status as a multinational, crossover production by ultimately highlighting the importance of cultural specificity. While Lars von Trier may thrive on casting his films with somewhat of an international reach, and though Paul Verhoeven’s approach and aesthetic may be as successful in the mainstream English mode as it is in the Dutch (though, who’s to say definitively?) , this might simply not apply to Bong Joon-Ho, which is not at all a bad thing.
Under the skin
No other major English-language film this year – none perhaps from the last few years – has managed, as has “Under the Skin,” to be so weirdly esoteric, so off-handedly oblique in its tone and mood all the while conveying a supreme sense of certainty of purpose and intellectual security. Every so often a film with a wide enough release or at least with a certain amount of festival buzz will dare to perplex audiences at the risk of alienating and infuriating them. Many if not most, even those as accomplished as Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” a few years ago (or maybe even “Enter the Void”), can leave even the most astute and analytical of viewers with the nagging suspicion that they’ve been somehow played; that the strange concoction of images, sounds and ideas they have just beheld is in fact a stark nude emperor prancing the world stage or the ramblings of a great poet gone suddenly mad. But despite the fact that it is cryptic as hell and does not easily lend itself to wild interpretations – at least for this particular writer – Jonathan Glazer’s third feature as director somehow fails to simply feel like a menagerie of bizarre scenes loosely tied together with slick artisanship and a selection of broad, bordering-on-vague themes. It seems that the picture’s quiet, creeping aloofness and the wintry greyness of its Scottish setting, which ends up informing the relatively muted visual palette, creates the sense that Glazer and his collaborators have no interest in seducing viewers by simply dazzling them. This relative austerity – for want of a better term – is what counterbalances the film’s more outré elements and creates the impression that there is some purpose to the weirdness. As the narrative drifts along to the atonal whining, wailing, echoing and gurgling of Mika Levi’s appropriately extra-terrestrial score, it complements the clinical manner in which Scarlett Johansson’s apparently alien, certainly nameless entity drives a white van through the streets of urban and rural Scotland, harvesting human males. But there is one aspect to this film by British filmmaker and supreme cinematic technician Jonathan Glazer (check out his music videography for evidence of this) that stands out in greatest relief. “Under the Skin” is like the tragic younger sister of Wim Winders’ “Wings of Desire”: an alien entity is seduced into becoming human after spending a wealth of time drifting amongst them, observing them, the crucial difference being that the only real enlightenment that Johansson’s character achieves is the fatal realisation that human femininity is burdened with the yoke of warped power dynamics. Having assumed the body of a very fetching human lass and utilised her newfound sexual authority to lure men into her tarry lair, ScarJo’s alien is shocked to find that this very sexuality, while powerful in one instance, is the basis of immense susceptibility whether it be to exploitation or outright violence. It’s as if to imply that being a woman in our generally androcentric societies necessitates being a player in the game of sexual power one way or another, dominating or being dominating, preying on or being preyed upon; as if to imply that utilising and reappropriating objectification and the male gaze is the only alternative to exploitation and violence. Yet, within the same breath, “Under the Skin” appears to celebrate the human experience in all its frailty and quiet desperation. In some ways it is a back-handed celebration; in some ways it isn’t.
So another Coppola has taken their place in the director’s chair, extending the legacy of the once towering Francis Ford to a new generation in the form of granddaughter Gia Coppola. Funnily, when “Palo Alto” first slouched onto the scene in late 2013, premiering in Venice film festival’s Orrizonti section, it seemed that aunt Sofia Coppola was cited almost as often – if not more – than her father Francis when mention was being made of this Hollywood dynasty’s apparently hereditary penchant for making movies and how this may or may not have influenced Gia’s desire and logistical ability to take up the art form in a directorial capacity. Undeniably, the fact that Gia and Sofia are both women is a major reason for the comparisons and references (if not only for the fact that a supreme alpha male of American cinema is most vigorously survived not by his son, Roman, but by his daughter and grand-daughter), but it’s also very easy to draw lines of influences between the films of Sofia Coppola and Gia’s debut. The potent mix of languid sensuality and hip detachment that characterises much of Sofia’s work can be found in “Palo Alto” which, with its focus on the lives of a group of teenagers in suburban USA and its being based on a literary work (the James Franco’s collection of short stories from which the film takes its name) somehow recalls “The Virgin Suicides.” But it’s difficult to know whether Gia’s film actually looks, moves and feels like those of her aunt, or whether it is simply reminiscent of a certain type of film made in the wake of Sofia Coppola’s rapid rise to auteur status because, were a Coppola name not attached to it, would it strike anyone as being the work of someone familiar with Sofia? In some ways, whatever cynicism or scepticism rises to meet “Palo Alto” and however erroneous and presumptuous the comparisons to the history and heritage of the Coppola clan, “Palo Alto” is a work of great promise. Set in the eponymous city and centred on what some may call entitled white kids – in particular, a pair caught up in a tentative and cute courtship, this picture displays an acute sense of understanding and an affinity for the psychosocial maelstrom that is their hypersexed and drug-fuelled adolescence. At risk of endorsing the self-obsession of this particular breed of American teenager, “Palo Alto” manages to celebrate their irreverence while at the same time mourning the ennui and apathy that can result when one realises the limits of entitlement. The film also reveals young Jack Kilmer (son of Val) to be a fine performer with a disarming sense of naivety both on-screen and – presumably – in front of the camera.
It would be nice for an African film to one day – whenever that day comes – garner international attention on the back of a low key premise that focuses primarily on the lives of individuals in their own little worlds (like most US indies tend to be) as opposed to their being capital I ‘issue’ movies about civil war (“Darratt”), female circumcision (“Moolaade”), illegal trans-Atlantic migration (“La pirogue”) and, in the case of Aberahmanne Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” religious fundamentalism. But even with the Berlinale’s Golden Bear in its grasp and the fervent patronage of someone with as prominent a critical and cultural voice as Roger Ebert, the South African Xhosa language film based on a famous European opera, “U Carmen Ekhayalitsha,” failed to inspire much interest, not even in the form of derisive or dismissive negativity. Now, it could be quite successfully argued that a film like Mahmet Saleh Haroun’s “A Screaming Man” is in fact a modest tale of personal integrity and family that simply uses the Chadian civil war as a backdrop, though the spectre of conflict is present enough in that picture to justify it’s being classified as one about civil war. Haroun’s most recent picture “GriGris” about a wannabe dancer whose aspirations lead him to flirt with black market petrol (topical once again?) does not and did not possess any of the buzzwords that may have otherwise raised its profile as an African film worthy of attention. So, until that day comes, when there will be an African version of Hong Sang-Soo’s narratively inventive and structurally reflexive small scale relationship dramedies, we’ll have to ‘make do’ with exquisitely staged and soulfully photographed issue pictures like “Timbuktu.” This picture feels like one of those peaceful protests whose civility (here, gentle beauty) is all the more remarkable because of the underlying anger and outrage directed at those (presumably Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups) whose fundamentalism doesn’t necessarily extend inwards and is conveniently flexible, as required. What keeps the film from being one protracted cry against the scourge of unmitigated Sharia Law and other similar practices is the fact that Sissako & company seem to be more curious about the effect that the sudden imposition of one stringent value system may have a on a complex, non-perfect society, but at a decidedly grass roots level that focuses on what one may quite reasonably assume to be ‘average’ residents of Timbuktu. Like “A Screaming Man,” the political is very much filtered through the personal. So until the advent of moderately high profile talky Mauritanian romantic dramedies, “Timbuktu” will very much do.
For someone whose directorial talents have never been considered to extend to his various actorly turns, Joe Swanberg, like each member of this his tiny film’s tiny cast, brings a sublimely droll and somewhat disciplined naturalism to this tale of a young woman who calls in on her brother, his wife and their infant son in Chicago over Christmas. Quite possibly, the fact that Swanberg shares the stage with his actual two-year-old son, Jude, might account for the verisimilitude and sheer heart of his performance. And as for young Jude Swanberg, when last was a baby such a forceful and arresting screen presence to the point of seeming like a crucial narrative player despite his being generally unintelligible and wrapped up in his own little world? On another note, aquiline-faced Anna Kendrick seems to possess an uncanny (or maybe not so uncanny) understanding of what it is to be emotionally wrecked post-breakup so much so that one becomes socially oblivious and recklessly so, getting wantonly wasted, borderline loose and almost drunkenly burning down a house by reheating a pizza. But what propels “Happy Christmas” beyond being a modestly shot character study of a twenty-something acopic mess is that Kendrick’s Jenny is not a straight-up destabilising force like – say – Juno Temple’s character McKenna in Jill Soloway’s quite good “Afternoon Delight.” In fact, her effect on the central couple (Swanberg senior’s Jeff and Melanie Lynskey’s obliging but initially uptight Kelly) is surprising despite her continued psychological fragility and abandonment issues. And despite the fact that the loss of one man’s love has very nearly ruined her, Kelly proves to be an unexpected source of empowerment for a certain individual whose promising career as a literary novelist plays second fiddle to their role as full-time nurturer and wife. If, with “Happy Christmas” Joe Swanberg is still seen as merely a mumblecore director (if that term is still in use), then the ‘movement’ has certainly moved beyond awkward improvisations and slice-of-life uneventfulness while retaining considerable grit (of the sort found in the suburban garden not the urban gutter) and a great deal of soul.
Maybe it’s the lazy cinephile tendency to see everything through the lens of something previously seen, but a great deal of the rough-hewn charm of this Italian language (with swathes of German) picture seems to owe a little – if not a lot – to Fellini’s brand of fabulist cinema in whose wake magic and fantasy always lurks. Plus, the fact that the chief protagonist in this film, “The Wonders,” is the namesake of Giulietta Masina’s character in Fellini’s “La Strada,” only strengthens the link. Two bees crawl out of a girl’s mouth accompanied by the slightly eerie whistling of an apparently mute boy. As two children sleep in a cave, their spirits seem to come alive in the form of shadows cast against the rock walls by the light of a flame. A television show called ‘The land of wonders’ champions the primary industries of provincial central Italy as a way of celebrating the culinary traditions and general ethereal, spiritual earthiness of the region’s ancient Etruscan civilisation, complete with lyre and flute music and Monica Belluci looking resplendent as some kind of white-haired sprite-goddess TV host. These touches of mysticism/magical realism, paired with the very ‘indie’, very now approach to cinema (one which favours a drifty and physically intimate camera, inconsequential dialogue that aims for naturalism, and elliptical storytelling) gives the film a subtle atmosphere which at times feels exquisitely unique but can also come across as rote subscription to a very widespread mode of independent filmmaking. Written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher and featuring her soulfully aquiline sister Alba, “La Meraviglie” is most easily summarised as a coming-of-age tale though this is only truly accurate on a surface level. The key protagonist, Gelsomina, is a twelve year old girl, the honorary first-born son of her bee-keeping, honey-farming, petulantly patriarchal father whose tendency for girls (having borne a quartet) is commented on several times. Initially a bastion of prodigious responsibility and reliability and heir apparent to her father’s vocation, Gelsomina’s interest in partaking in ‘the land of wonders’ as well as the introduction of the aforementioned mute (and cute) boy creates a rift in the central father-daughter relationship, or at least highlights the fundamental disparities which clearly exist from the outset. Interestingly, “La Meraviglie” can be viewed from a primarily familial standpoint, but the film – and director Rohrwacher, presumably – has a clear interest in the concurrent romance and non-progressive isolationism inherent in ideas of pastoral self-sufficiency and traditionalism while also seeming intent on questioning or at least exploring the extent to which such isolationism is or isn’t sustainable in the face of ‘modernising’, globalist influences. For all these possible subtexts, it must be said that this picture is so unassuming and understated that it deserves praise for its patience but also gentle chiding for too often epitomising an all too common mode of ‘serious cinema.’
Lightly joking about the grunts and grumbles with which proto-impressionist painter Joseph Mallord William (J.M.W.) Turner tends to express his thoughts and feelings (as per Timothy Spall’s spiritedly roughhewn interpretation) was something of a meme in 2014, at least amongst the critical community. Having seen the film, it turns out (pun unintended but nonetheless enjoyed) that the character of Mr Turner does in fact utilise guttural sounds as much as he does intelligible words (oftentimes mispronounced). Whatever the accuracy of Mr Spall’s portrayal, it is one which rings if not true then intuitively appropriate and fitting, painting the artist as a man whose astounding sensitivity to beauty and the subtlest behaviours of light is offset by a startlingly crude and brutish manner, a dichotomy which composer George Yerosh underscores (another pun) with pieces that range from soothingly traditional to borderline atonal, reflecting both Turner’s roots in the classical and his Avant-garde leanings. But it may also be that such an obsessive appreciation of aesthetics leaves no room in Turner’s persona for any sort of foppish or flattering social refinement, though there is also a strong sense that he is – was – a man consumed by pain of which he was never eager to confront yet never willing to let go of and which as a result expressed itself in his very physicality and in the disciplined squall of colour that characterises his art. In addition, the man was a visionary – a stance Leigh and his colleagues do not seem in the least bit shy about expressing – and it may very well be this moderate disregard for etiquette that enables his defiant and distinctly modern approach to landscape art whilst remaining a respected (perhaps feared) member of a very exclusive and conservative institution. This is not to say in the least that J.M.W. is not in fact a gentleman, for this he is in his own crusty way, not only in his being an esteemed and apparently popular fellow of the aforementioned Royal Academy and seemingly well off to boot money-wise , but that he also possesses a capacity for gentleness which he extends to some only to withhold from others, particularly – it seems – the women closest to him (his wife and daughters, and his heartbreakingly doting and exploited house help, Hannah Danby). But for all of this rich nuance (for which Timothy Spall is rightfully being heaped with plaudits), what makes this Mike Leigh film – ‘written’ (in quotes on account of the writer’s methods) and directed by a man who is by this point in time a bona fide cinematic master – a unique iteration of the ‘biopic’ is that it makes a notable effort to explore Turner not just as an emotional being but as a technician and an artisan, a deeply curious creature who stands apart from his peers by way of his almost scientific sense of procedure, technique and technology, but also – ironically – his unorthodox and sometimes aggressive methods which involve spitting on canvases and employing violent brushwork that seem to pre-empt, almost by a century, the action painting of Jackson Pollock. As for its being a period picture, “Mr Turner” finds Mike Leigh achieving a deeply refreshing balance between the stately rigidity that paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries suggest of upper middle class British society at that time (emphasised by the appropriately stately cinematography), and a very Leighsian naturalism of performance which is in some ways the very antithesis of “Barry Lyndon” but which ironically makes it that picture’s rightful peer. All this is captured for the screen by Leigh’s visual right-hand man, DP Dick Pope, whose normally modest approach is afforded the chance to reach moments of splendour that recall the aforementioned Kubrick film in their painterly quality: landscapes that echo the light-obsessed work of Turner himself, but which also highlight the fact that Pope, like his cinematographic forbears and his greatest contemporaries i.e. Lubezki and Deakins, are truly painters in a new medium, one which Mr Turner in one particularly poignant scene fears will eventually replace him and his peers (though, in all fairness, Turner was not simply a recordist but an interpreter). If this picture does not win J.M.W. Turner a resurgence of interest (if not a new slew of admirers), it would be deeply sad if it does not immortalise in cement the genius of Mike Leigh and the company of immense artists of whom he is but one. Surely one of the most exquisite films released by anyone anywhere this year.
The LEGO Movie
If, by hailing the script penned by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller as the best piece of original screenwriting of 2014, the National Board of Review is applauding the Hollywood golden duo’s ability to capture the narrative hyperactivity and sheer chaos of child’s play, then the award is deserved. However, if this madcap story of an ordinary LEGO construction worker who finds himself amongst a merry band of rebels intent on foiling the diabolical plans of a tyrant is considered to be sharper, funnier or more elegantly structured than – say – “Winter Sleep” or “Listen Up Philip” (amongst others), then the NBR’s decision may warrant serious review. Towards the end of “The LEGO Movie,” an unseen character known only as “The Man Upstairs” is revealed to be someone quite unexpected, giving the movie’s heartfelt plea for unfettered creativity a disarmingly obvious but sweet new meaning, one that will be very pertinent to a hefty chunk of its viewership. In addition, this sudden inclusion of live action not only references the seminal “Toy Story” series but also contributes to the illusion that the animation in this film is achieved practically (as opposed to virtually) though it is more than reasonable to assume that CG has a major hand to play in the creation of the vibrant images on screen. Whatever the means of animation, it is safe to heap praise on the efforts made to maintain utmost fidelity to the nature of LEGO, most evident in the way fluid entities such as water, smoke and fire are rendered. The most impressive technical feat might be the depiction of the sea with its undulating blockiness which is nonetheless startling in its detail. But on a more thematic and narrative front, the film is either a haplessly or a wilfully transparent satire lampooning ubiquitous commerce and the effect it has on the creative spirit, one which maybe be chewing on the LEGO hand that feeds, to the point of being cringingly ironic, even oblivious. It features a Will Ferrell-voiced villain called Lord/President Business for the love of Christ. Plus, the fact that the cast of characters includes LEGO iterations of lucrative properties like Batman and Superman and not so lucrative ones like the Green Lantern only positions this film as a work of not so subtle brand publicity, but one which believes that openly highlighting its profiteering tendencies and relative creative bankruptcy gives it license to completely indulge and wallow in them. Like Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s “Jump Street” films, the significant kernels of imaginativeness evident in “The LEGO Movie” are unfortunately consumed by the trademark sensory assault that US studio cinema all too often confuses with ‘fun’ and ‘entertainment.’
Edge of Tomorrow
Seeing as it cannot, for some reason (probably rights related), be named after the novel upon which it is based (Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s “All you Need is Kill”), this financially ‘underperforming’ sci-fi action thriller whose lack of box-office punch has been attributed to everything from Tom Cruise’s apparent toxicity as a headliner to the film’s apparently vague and generic title, should probably stick with said title, vague and generic as it may be/appear. “Edge of Tomorrow” (the phrase, that is) has a certain wistful quality about it and a weird throw-back kind of innocence which is entirely in keeping with the movie itself, a Doug Liman directed effort set in a future where earth is under attack from a race of beastly extra-terrestrials called Mimics some of whom possess the ability to manipulate time and some of whom unwittingly transmit this power to human opponents, namely Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) and Sergeant Rita Vrataski (a brilliantly strapping Emily Blunt). “Live Die Repeat,” the name by which the film is now known post-theatrically, may be muscular and ‘cool’ from a ‘Halo’-playing kidult point of view, but it will only hurt the film by giving potential new viewers the impression that it is just a hectically violent, silver screen version of…well, ‘Halo.’ Now, to be fair, “Edge of Tomorrow” is as blue-green hued, CG clogged and plot-obsessed as one would expect from such a picture, but it is the slight but noticeable deviations that render it a standout example of modern high-concept Hollywood entertainment, these deviations being (a) the trust and patience Liman invests in his visuals such that he avoids chopping the film up into a string of shaky millisecond shots; (b) the absence of the one-note super-seriousness that too many action thriller adopt despite their mindlessness, replaced here with a steady pulse of humour and genuine tenderness; (c) the thankful lack of an overbearingly percussive ‘action movie’ score ; (d) the captivating, lived-in lead performances, especially that given by Tom Cruise who, despite his off-screen antics and what-have-you , has always been a most dependable and committed actor. A masterpiece it may not quite be, but for the type of film that it is (one which the US studio system is obsessed with churning out endlessly) “Edge of Tomorrow” should be the standard bearer. Sadly, its ‘measly’ $360000+ worldwide gross will ensure that the billion dollar “Transformers” series remains the template for a while longer yet.
December 22, 2014 § 1 Comment
It’s interesting to revisit a film whose first and only viewing was so seminal a moment in the viewer’s life that it was and has been considered an unwavering favourite in the viewer’s mind for years. Interesting in that those elements which initially seduced and bewitched on an almost purely sensual and intuitive level are now approached with an invariably analytical eye. Now that the packaging has been duly admired and fawned over, it’s time to see what’s inside, which in truth would be an erroneous assumption seeing as, with this and many of Antonioni’s subsequent films, form is function. On seeing “L’avventura” for the second time, the images are appreciated for more than just their crystalline beauty but for their role in externalising the interior, in being the visual analogue of the kind of spare modernist prose that can in a few choice words paint a terse yet lucid and eerily precise impression of a character’s essence, intellectual, spiritual and otherwise. Sure, the descriptive density may be low, but the accuracy of the few afforded descriptors is high, and higher still, their suggestive and implicative capacity. Similarly, the physical expanses and edifices, photographed with a challenging degree of patience, double as both the external world in which the characters materially exist and the mindscape in which so many find themselves so hopelessly lost. It’s not enough to view the physical world in “L’avventura” as being symbolic or expressive of the psychological; it is the mind of the characters that inhabit it.
The languid pacing, while often testing, is a deeply ingenious way to induce not only a meditative disposition in the viewer, but a state of mind which mirrors that of the characters in the film, characters cursed with an excess of leisure time so great that they are wont to spiral ever deeper into a vortex of their own inner conflict and despair. Rather than providing the viewer a comfortable boxed seat high up in the stadium from which to view Claudia and Sandro struggle with their dual allegiances to tradition and (at the time) counter-conventional modernity: the concurrent desire for externally prescribed fulfilment and that which is self –determined, Antonioni the director thrusts the viewer onto the lonely emotional playing field alongside the characters he has created and demands that they, that we, play as much a role in this game of the soul as does he, as do his creations. There are probably only two ways to view this film: complete engagement or complete disengagement. As a piece of cinema, this does not suffer the passive patron. It does not give unless given to, which is to say, offered one’s patience and capacity to empathise, or at the very least analyse. What also becomes clear is the artistic shrewdness inherent in the decision of screenwriters Antonioni, Bartolini and Guerra to shoot existential turmoil through the lens of sex and romance, or at least the quest for it. There is perhaps no aspect of the human existence that highlights our perennial state of fickleness, insecurity and confusion quite as unforgivingly as that which relates to the figurative heart and the literal genitals. Contained within and symbolised by the shifting romantic fidelities and sexual scruples of “L’avventura’s” central couple, the decisions and indecision and seesawing between neediness and stubborn yet fragile independence (particularly on the part of Claudia) is – to paraphrase the title of critic Pauline Kael’s disparaging assessment of Antonioni’s follow up to “L’avventura”, “La notte” – ‘the sick soul of Europe.’ The most surprising realisation reached on second viewing, however, might simply be that this film, for all its visual and thematic intensity and brooding, has scattered throughout it instances of dry humour of the kind used by deeply sad people to throw others off their depressive scent. These moments, while able to evoke a smile, a chortle or even just a transitory levity, only serve to highlight the pain belying the pleasure.
But of all the things which stand out on repeat viewing, the film’s final gesture, that of Claudia placing a hand on the head of a seated, weeping Sandro (whom she has just discovered being unfaithful to her on a sofa with a young married starlet), is suddenly a great deal richer than it initially seemed. On first viewing this action bore the scent of forgiveness. This is not to say that she doesn’t forgive him for his infidelity, granted their relationship is itself built on infidelity and the flimsiest foundations; the hand on the head could and probably does encompass a wide range of implications, and Claudia may very well be doing it for various reasons, some perhaps unbeknownst to her. But of all the possibilities, it’s tantalising to imagine that Claudia is perhaps welcoming Sandro, welcoming him to the realm of insight that she and Anna before her have been wandering through, or at the very least the realm of acceptance of the fact that something is not quite and has never been quite right with the state of humankind and with themselves. It should not be forgotten that Claudia is herself in tears when Sandro appears on that rooftop. Her distress may be related to simple betrayal, or regret for her belief, however fleeting, that something durable may have existed between Sandro and herself. Yet when she sees that Sandro, who has hitherto displayed only the slightest bit of self-reflection, is not only contrite but is clearly in the throes of an abrupt realisation that his soul is a void which will not simply be filled by sexual approval and conquest, she is relieved for his sake, though mutedly so. If the film’s central triumvirate of Anna, Claudia and Sandro are at different points along the road to modern self-actualisation, Anna is furthest along, her deep sense of crisis at the film’s outset and her eventual demise or rebirth (whichever the viewer chooses to believe she has suffered/undergone) being the catalyst for Claudia’s own existential awakening, and Sandro’s moment of painful clarity.
So is that the crux of Antonioni’s film: to beautifully, elegantly dwell on the misery of a subset of a subset of a species, one in helpless ontological crisis? Maybe. Perhaps it is a comfort to the average viewer to see that to be simultaneously beautiful, wealthy and well-sexed does not preclude one from suffering pain of a type unique to a beautiful, wealthy and well-sexed existence, which is probably not true. The pain most likely traverses all borders: racial, social, gender, class, aesthetic. “L’avventura” clearly has no answers, no truths or revelations that will guide a person down the path of true happiness and self-fulfilment, nor does it seem in the least bit interested in providing such unequivocal nuggets of self-help gold. If there are to be found in the film, this viewer certainly missed them. But one thing seems apparent; Sandro’s tears are as much a sign of discovery and personal growth as they are of anguish. Perhaps in this moment Anna has finally been found, somehow.
April 20, 2014 § 1 Comment
What an odd feeling it is, being disappointed by the very thing you are excited about. This phenomenon occurred to me when I scanned this week’s press release which revealed the films officially selected for Cannes 2014.
More so than any in recent memory, this year’s selection – particularly the films In Competition – seems overwhelmingly dominated by those directed by ‘name auteurs’, the kind whose auteur status may have in fact been nurtured or at least solidified by festivals such as Cannes; the irony of this being that, while I may appear skeptical of this year’s selection by the tone of my words, I don’t know that I have salivated this freely in response to a list of festival films (at least one released by Cannes), nor have I been familiar with as many directors in main competition as I am this year. Aside from 3 or 4 names that barely ring a bell, most of these individuals I can say with certainty are capital E established directors, the type fledgling filmmakers in every nook and crevice hope to one day be. Even newcomers to the Cannes main competition line-up like Xavier Dolan and Bennett Miller are either highly-regarded mainstream artists with critical heft or protégés of the festival itself, Dolan having cut his teeth at least twice in Un Certain Regard. As for the rest…the mere inclusion of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and a seemingly MIA-until-now Mike Leigh is enough to flood my mouth with anticipatory secretions. Add to this the newest works from The Dardennes, Olivier Assayas, Bertrand Bonello whose last Cannes entry ‘The House of Tolerance’ I found to be nothing short of magnificent, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Naomi Kawase, Ken Loach, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Abderrahmane Sissako (one of the few African filmmakers of international renown and himself not a newcomer to Cannes)… even Tommy Lee Jones who won big at Cannes a few years back with ‘The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada’…add these and you have a murderer’s row that will pique the interest of any serious cinephile with an internet connection. Lest I fail to mention it, a crown prince of French and indeed world cinema, Jean Luc Godard, will present his newest film in competition as well. Which is where the trouble begins.
There seems to be a general expectation that the newest works by the most renowned directors must have their premieres at the most renowned film festivals. There are certain online publications that shall remain nameless due to my general appreciation of them, publications that nonetheless broadcast and enforce such expectations. When updating their readerships about upcoming releases for filmmakers of note, there is often a line of two speculating where and when these films might premiere. Speculation is one thing, but when phrases such as (and I paraphrase) “so and so film will receive a main competition slot at Cannes” are thrown around months before a festival lineup is even aired and before a frame of the film has even been made public, the air begins to smell a little foul. There is being speculative, and there is being just plain presumptuous. Following the announcement of the official selection, Thierry Fremaux fielded questions from the press and the first of these were silly enough to inquire about the absence of Malick and Kusturica in the lineup. It turns out, according to Fremaux at least, that these filmmakers did not feel their work was quite yet fit for presentation, but even if the final edits were ready to screen, why should anybody expect that a movie should find its way into competition simply by virtue of being a Malick picture? Perhaps individuals responsible for such presumptive statements have informants on their payroll, or maybe they simply believe that there are filmmakers so flawless, so creamy that they will float to the top in all circumstances. And while it would to some extent puzzle – perhaps even irk – the film community if a Cannes competition lineup featured no ‘big’ names, there is something worth questioning in the expectation that the newest film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan or the Dardennes must surely be good enough to make the cut; and I cite these filmmakers because, unless I am mistaken, neither party has in the last decade had a new feature not premiere at Cannes. Now my personal opinion is that Ceylan is hurtling towards arguable pantheon-level greatness with his modest filmography to date, but humour me this for a moment. If, by some stroke of cosmic madness Ceylan’s ‘Winter Sleep’ and all other new works by renowned filmmakers were utterly devoid of artistic merit, were utter goat turds, would they be left off in preference of films by lesser known, less sexy artists whose names would not draw nearly as much interest from film lovers and the film press? I suspect that in this fantastical situation I have created, a festival committee – for fear of losing the publicity a festival like Cannes or Venice banks on – would not only invite a host of A-list celebrities to grace their carpets, but that the selection committee would take chances on bad films by essentially good filmmakers, hoping they have a ‘Vertigo’ on their hands (a film essentially ahead of its time) or that, at the very least, the press will have a field day trashing a name director’s turd of a picture. Am I saying that a selection would throw filmmakers under the bus in order to maintain their festival’s profile? I’m saying I don’t know that they wouldn’t, and that – if they did – that it would be knowingly malicious.
Now – to be a stick in the mud of my own complaint – is there perhaps a reason why the same names keep appearing at festivals such as Cannes, hogging the artistic limelight? Is it because these filmmakers make buddy-buddy with Thierry Fremaux and Gilles Jacob and don’t forget to send Christmas cards? Is it because the film community – like any community – is ever so resistant to those on the fringes, only welcoming a few at a time into its core? Or are these artists well renowned because they truly are the best of the best of the best of the best? Considering thousands of films are submitted each year in the hopes of landing a slot somewhere in the official selection, I’d say that all three of the above are at work to one degree of another.
But on the other hand, Cannes is an institution with the sovereign right to elevate those films it deems worthy of elevation. There are those who question what right festivals have to select a handful of films and ignore a vast majority. To these folk I say, “What right don’t they have? This is what a selection is.” As much as I appreciate their frustration (and mine at times), the simple truth is that each festival, each panel of selectors, is ultimately taking part in the act of ranking art according to its own (the respective festival’s own, that is) value system however steeped in superficiality or artistic integrity, and unless they are tasked with ranking numbers 1 through 2000 in order of numerical value, it is hard to argue against the selection of a film versus the non-selection of another film. If anything, the fact that these festivals don’t seem to surreptitiously suggest that their choice is the capital C choice, unlike some academies that brand films ‘Best Picture’ without much of a relativity clause, sucks the wind from the sails of those who argue against the objective merit of the films that tend to be selected for festivals. The answer is that there is no pretence of objectivity, only the belief that the opinions of those selecting films are as much in service of cinema as the opinions of those who will be ultimately bestowing golden statuettes and ribbon-tied scrolls at said festival’s conclusion. At the very least, the best film at Locarno is the best film at Locarno, and simply that.
So, having argued for the right of festival committees to select whatever films that they so desire, can I then blame the film press for being aware of these committees’ predilections and patterns? If Festival A showcases all the big names while Festival C focuses on small scale films by cinematic underdogs, can one be blamed for knowing that SXSW will almost certainly not be screening Haneke’s next film and that, likewise, Alex Ross Perry isn’t that likely to bag a spot on the Croisette in place of Kore-eda? I suppose the game of presumption and expectation will continue as long as some festivals remain dedicated to bringing you the newest films from the best directors you have heard of.