Is Anybody There? (2008)

May 15, 2009

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I haven’t been able to get on here for a while- in fact it’s been a week since I saw Is Anybody There? and Goldfinger– which poses a bit of a problem.  My Goldfinger notes were about two paragraphs in and I’ve just tossed them off so that I can get to this film.  It’s not like I need notes to remember that particular film.  With Is Anybody There? I could have done with notes at the time, this is far from a memorable film.

So you’ve got Michael Caine as an ageing, retired magician (he seems to like films about conjuring these days) and young Bill Milner from the lovely Son Of Rambow as- guess what- a geeky outsider kid and they strike up a friendship and teach one another about life and love.  That’s right, they strike up the kind of friendship that is really unusual except in films where they’re ten-a-penny.  It looks quite nice; shot in a fuzzy, vaguely lo-fi, slightly off-kilter and- I suppose- quite trendy way.  There are a couple of good performances- I especially liked Anne-Marie Duff as Bill Milner’s mother- and some nice cameos from a couple of top-notch old players (Leslie Phillips, Peter Vaughan, Mavis from Coronation Street, Elizabeth Spriggs and Sylvia Sims).  And so I liked it for that.

But because it’s formulaic and a bit obvious and determinedly bittersweet I didn’t even remember it a week later, rendering these notes redundant, so it’s sort of okay but a poor utilisation of the superb talents on show. 4/10

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Oliver Twist (1948)

May 3, 2009

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It’s difficult to know what to mention first- Lean’s masterfully clear narrative structure or Guinness’s incredible prosthetic nose (what is it about Lean putting Guinness in mad costumes?); Robert Newton’s eyeball-rolling losing-it-rapidly Bill Sykes or Guy Green’s wonderful almost Expressionistic camerawork; the atmospheric opening or the delicious scenery-eating of Francis L. Sullivan- this is a very rich film.  I love the performances, the pace, the storyline and dialogue (though most of the credit there goes Boz, obviously) but most of all I really love the look of the film.  The stark monochrome contrast and wonderfully deep set locations in scenes like Sykes’ rooftop escape or Twist’s flee through the London streets leave an indelible impression on the watcher.  This looks more like the London of Dickens’ novels than any film I’ve seen- it is authentic and haunting.

I don’t want to say too much, I want to surprise myself when I see it again.  Everyone knows the story but this retelling of it is still surprising. Superlative, better even than Lean’s Great Expectations.  10/10.

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Let The Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (2009) * Second viewing

April 14, 2009

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“Haunting blanched beauty”

The first time I saw this I was so enchanted by it that I concluded my notes with the words “If this film isn’t the best of the year, then I may not live through the one that beats it”.  I have to say that I was probably underselling it.  The first time I saw this- on a leaked screener played on a small screen- I probably didn’t truly appreciate the haunting blanched beauty of the film or its stunning soundtrack (by Johan Söderqvist).  Well I do now.

Tomas Alfredson’s film has been trailed over here as a pretty standard horror film (I haven’t seen the trailer but it is apparently very generic).  The poster, reproduced at the bottom, doesn’t give a sense of what is to follow at all.  I suppose the aim is laudable- get bums on seats and let the quality win them over- but filling screenings with people expecting eye-popping gore and sudden shocks doesn’t seem very fair upon either them or upon the people who might want to watch something beautiful and romantic and may then miss this on the basis that it is being sold as if it was The Omen Part 14 or something.  Tough call.

I’m not even sure that it is a horror film, even after seeing it twice.  There are horrific elements of course, but the film is more than that.  It is a coming-of-age film, a love story, a film about childhood and loneliness and resilience and pain and conventionality and unconventionality.  There is a theme in Sam Mendes’ overrated but nonetheless impressive American Beauty about seeing beauty where others don’t and that applies equally here.  Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is an outsider, bullied and ostracized by his classmates and misunderstood by his family but Eli (Lina Leandersson) connects with him in the same way that, we are led to presume, Eli connected with Håkan (Per Ragnar) before him.  What Eli connects with isn’t Oskar’s vulnerability or loneliness, despite this being their common ground, it is his latent rage (the first words Eli hears from him are “Squeal! “Squeal like a pig!”) and his total detachment from the conventional standards and expectations of the people around him.  When he strikes his erstwhile tormentor Conny (Patrik Rydmark), his immediate reaction to seeing the blood and pain is one of curiosity which turns to delight.  And this is the most interesting aspect of their friendship- Eli is the vampire with a capacity for violence which is tempered by a disregard for it while Oskar’s capacity for violence is latent and expressed only through his fascination with newspaper reports of murders and his knife.

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The theme of seeing the beauty in unexpected places extends to the visuals of the film itself.  The icicles on the climbing frame, Oskar’s snot running from nose to mouth, dripping blood in the snow, the hand-print fading on a windowpane, Oskar resurfacing in the swimming pool- no matter how mundane the subject, a perverse beauty is created by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema.

Something that struck me on second viewing was the possibility that the very final scene (on the train) doesn’t happen.  What if Oskar dies and this is his dying thought?  He certainly appears to die- he ceases to struggle, he doesn’t inhale upon resurfacing, he has a beatific smile upon his face- but this is purely speculation.  The only real clue is the complete lack of reaction from Conny’s brother when another boy is dragged away by Eli- his hand doesn’t react at all- but is that really a clue.  It’s dodgy territory this, where does it stop; what if the whole thing was in his imagination?  I prefer the more literal ending.  It makes more sense that, with Oskar taking the place of Håkan, the story turns full cycle.  There are signposts to this throughout the film- Håkan’s jealousy of Eli’s new friend as he watches from the window, Eli’s tender gesture when he asks her not to see Oskar that evening, the way in which Håkan targets the ‘normal’ boys who would be Oskar’s tormentors and would have been his own.

My descriptive powers are pitifully inadequate for the task of conveying my admiration of Let The Right One In.  10/10

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Far From The Madding Crowd (1967)

April 13, 2009

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“Why is love such a misery?”

Thomas Hardy’s novel was one of the texts I was set for my A-Level English Literature course and I hated it.  I hated the slow pace, the unnecessarily detailed sections (there were, I recall, about three pages describing a barn on a hillside which no-one ever entered or discussed again) and the cloyingly sweet pastoral setting.  Dorset in winter isn’t idyllic, whatever Hardy would have you believe.  While that should make it surprising that I even risked the near-three hour film adaptation, it does also mean that I won’t spend these notes banging on “it isn’t as good as the book” as I did with Watchmen and The Damned United recently!

Such pressing reasons not to like (or even watch) Far From The Madding Crowd were outweighed by the Kinks connection, my admiration for Schlesinger’s sixties films, the cinematography of Nic Roeg and Terry Stamp.  I love Terence Stamp.  When I was commenting having seen Valkyrie, I said “This is Terry Stamp doing an advert for that life insurance that only the over-50s can have“.  The guy is basically sleepwalking his way through risible film after risible film these days (his last few films have been Valkyrie, Yes Man, Get Smart and Wanted) but this shouldn’t detract from the fact that he is an incredibly talented, charismatic actor with some superb performances behind him.  For me, this is one of them.  There is a moment where Stamp turns to Julie Christie with cold-eyes and says “this woman is more to me dead as she is than you ever were or are or could be” and you are simply awestruck.  He chills you to the bone as he destroys her with spite and malice by completely underplaying it.  The words are delivered deliciously, with venom.  It is a powerhouse performance, he is breathtaking.  The beauty of Jude Law combined with the presence of a young (pre-self-parodying) Pacino.  Amazing stuff.  But what a wasted talent!

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No-one else here hits quite those heights, but there is still a great deal to admire here.  Julie Christie plays Bathsheba Everdene with just the right mix of arrogance and insecurity, her independence is stripped away little-by-little until Troy feels compelled to admonish her “don’t be so desperate”.  She skilfully retains a degree of ambiguity in the early stages and it is never truly clear whether Bathsheba is being purposely cruel or simply immature.  Smashing performance.  Peter Finch, the raving mad prophet of the airwaves from Network, plays Francis Boldwood another man on the verge of a nervous breakdown here- albeit with much greater composure.  Here he internalises the trauma, expressing it subtly; a quiver of the eyebrow, a distant glance, a mouth opening wordlessly.

The central performance is given by Alan Bates in the role of Gabriel Oak.  His character is the first and last that we see and provides the moral compass for the film.  He is always honest, if respectful, always thoughtful and exemplifies the traditional values of moral certitude and diligent stoicism.  His response upon being financially ruined by a sad quirk of fate is simply to remark “Thank God I am not married.  And this serene acceptance of events is what works against Bates, who is a fine actor, because he has nothing to do but look calm and read his lines.  It’s no coincidence that the most virtuous character is called Gabriel, is it?  Actually, I may as well moan about something that has bugged me since 1991- Far From The Madding Crowd has a character called Oak who is solid and dependable and one called Troy who is handsome but comes with hidden defects.  This is like giving them a white ten gallon hat and a black one- great literature my arse!  I’ll stop now, I’ve promised myself that I wouldn’t talk about the book, only the film.

The mechanics of the film are impressive, Roeg captures the landscape beautifully giving a sense of the absolute surrender to the elements which each character suffers from (indeed Boldwood, through machinery, is the only character who attempts to master his circumstances- as he does with his attempted bribery of Troy, a nice touch- but this proves futile).  The soundtrack, including originally composed folk songs, by Richard Rodney Bennett has a lilting pastoral beauty which serves to build the mood of the piece beautifully.  These things, in addition to the suppressed passion in the performances, are co-ordinated by Schesinger to produce a slightly arid and slightly too worthy reading of the novel.  It is almost as if he was so determined to move away from the small-scale urban setting of his great opening trio of films (A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar and Darling) that this overtook any other considerations.  It doesn’t ruin the film at all, but it does create a film where there are a few fantastic set-pieces (the unexpectedly harrowing scene where the sheepdog runs the sheep over the cliff, the tension of Gabriel and Bathsheba battling the storm, the carnival, the sword exercise where Troy seduces Bathsheba) interspersed with some disappointing ones (the obvious soft-focus scene where Boldwood first sees Bathsheba, the slow-motion shot of Bathsheba tossing the corn in the cornmarket, the harvest dance and the marketplace scene where Oak looks for work).

And so it’s a good film, but still a disappointing one.  Worth seeing again, but only when I’m in a patient mood 6/10.

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Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

April 10, 2009

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A nice little film this but it is impossibly burdened by the weight of expectation.  Not only have I never heard a bad word said about it, I have never heard it discussed in anything other than the most reverential terms.  When you watch a film that lots of people you trust have raved about as “the greatest road movie ever made”, then it really has its work cut out to live up to that.  For the record, I don’t agree that it is the greatest road movie ever made.  But it is probably the greatest film of all time featuring a girl performing simultaneous fellatio on two men.  Not that I can claim to have seen many of those to be fair.

Okay then, it’s a road movie in which two teenage friends and an older woman travel to an unknown and ostensibly imaginary beach.  It’s a coming of age movie with all of the attendant sadness and humour that this entails.  The narrative is pretty standard but excellently conveyed by the director (Alfonso Cuarón).  There are great performances from Gael García Bernal (as Julio) and Maribel Verdú (as Luisa) but the trio are a little let down by the comparatively lightweight and obvious Diego Luna (as Tenoch).  What I loved most about the film was the closure to the storyline involving Luisa- I’m not going to spoiler it in case anyone reads this- which not only contextualised but also legitimised a couple of the scenes I’d been surprised by (in their nature and, more importantly, necessity).  It’s great when a film invites you to think back over what you’ve seen and revisit it from another perspective.  Like M. Night Shallowman or whatever his fucking name is would if he wasn’t so shit and transparent and utterly risible, I suppose.

The other thing about Y Tu Mamá También which I thought was fantastic was it’s visual impact.  Even the sex scenes, though pretty graphic and often involving fumbling awkwardness of teenagers shooting their load too quickly, were beautifully lit and shot.  This, for me, was the best thing about the film.  Ooh, stop the press I’ve just remembered where I’ve seen the disappointing Diego Luna before, it was in Gus Van Sant’s Milk where I said “Diego Luna is crap in this.  Absolute crap”.  Fair enough, now I know he’s always a shitty bag of bollocks I’ll avoid his films from now on.

And (ignoring that digression) though all of the praise above is earnest and deserved, I still have reservations about the film.  It is just a genre film, adding in nudity and racy dialogue doesn’t change that, and the ending was pretty flat- I’ve praised the Luisa storyline and as good as that is the Julio/Tenoch storyline simply stops with an air of “I don’t know where this would go next, let’s just kill it”.  There’s also a really underdeveloped plotline involving Tenoch’s family’s political influence and the simmering but unacknowledged (other than in one scene) class conflict between the boys.  I know that I always look for class conflicts- I’m English, what can I say- but on this occasion it isn’t merely present, it is demonstrated to be a source of latent hostility and inevitable divisiveness and then forgotten again.  Even the boys’ eventual parting points to it- they go off to privately and publicly funded colleges- without exploring it.  It just feels a bit elephant in the room-y to me.  But then I am hyper-sensitive to these things.

Anyway, recommended but over-rated and don’t watch it with the in-laws. 6/10

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Ace In The Hole (1951)

April 10, 2009

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“This is pitch black”

Last month I watched Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch.  I said then “I never feel that  Wilder was truly comfortable making sex comedies. There is a bitterness and cynicism within them… this corruption at the core of the films that make them resonant and pertinent to this day”.  Well if I thought Sunset Blvd. was dark, then this is pitch black.

Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tattum; a journalist who has been kicked off various big newspapers and is working for a small circulation newspaper in Albuquerque.  He stumbles across a story that he can exploit as a means of getting him back into a prestigious job.  That the story has only a limited shelf-life and needs Tattum to involve himself in machinations to keep it going is the basis of the storyline, that those machinations involve risking a man’s life and capitalising on his suffering give the film its thematic thrust.  Douglas is excellent, his performance is not only thoroughly convincing but is necessarily ambiguous at certain points.  Throughout the film you hope that Tattum will see the immorality of his exploitation of Leo Minosa’s suffering and have a change of heart which is hinted at again and again- at one point he learns that unless he makes a change that Leo will die the next morning and he starts putting those changes in motion.  This is it you think, he’s seen the light.  Then he explains that Leo’s death will ruin his human interest story.  Even at this stage, faced with effectively murdering a man in order to get a big newspaper story he is unable to see past his own self-interest.  It may not have all of the ingredients of a typical noir thriller but films don’t get any more noir than this.

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One of those key film noir ingredients is the femme fatale figure and Jan Sterling’s role as the unsettled wife of Leo Minosa who aims to capitalise on his misfortune and then leave him typifies that.  She isn’t the Eve to Kirk Douglas’s Adam (see how I follow a snap of her eating an apple with that?  Oh yes!) as he was rotten to start with, but she is corrupt and corrupting- all heavy-lidded beauty and actions without remorse.  That said, I wasn’t thrilled by her performance at all.  I understand that her portrayal is highly regarded but for me it was flat and obvious: she starts corrupt and scheming and ends corrupt and scheming, there’s no arc, no nuance, no stand-out moment.  I just wanted to grab her by the shoulders and scream “Act damn you!”.  I guess I’m on my own on this one, but the opportunities she has to steal the film (stopping Leo’s mother praying for his rescue because her help is needed to serve customers, brilliant dialogue like “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons”, the scenes with Douglas where his character may win the argument but she gets more to do as a result ) are really wasted.

And that is what stops the film being absolutely perfect because, quite frankly, in every other aspect it is.  Ace in the Hole is cynical and brutal and pointed and merciless and utterly uncompromising.  There is no hero, there’s no-one to root for, there’s no-one even to like.  Everyone in it is self-serving, nasty or cynical, or else weak, cowardly and thoroughly unsympathetic as a result.  There isn’t even a happy ending.  Billy Wilder’s cynicism here isn’t confined to the newspaper hacks who keep the story going.  He focuses upon the corrupt officials who allow this to happen, the travelling hawkers and peddlers, the rubber-neckers, the travelling vigil-holders, spectators, vultures and ghouls, the contractors who take the more lucrative long way around, the sideshow entertainers and the local entrepreneurs.  Everyone wants to indulge in the Leo Minosa tragedy- it’s a human interest story!  Watching this in the wake of the Jade Goody carnival funeral, it can’t help but strike me how close to reality the whole thing really is almost sixty years later.

Only an idiot would say this film isn’t perfect and then give it 10/10.   10/10.

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Tape (2001)

April 7, 2009

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“Claustrophobic”

In many ways this is just my kind of film. By that I mean ‘the kind of film I would want to make, were I ever to try. I won’t obviously. It is a very intense, claustrophobic vignette which is heavily reliant on dialogue and requires investment from the viewer.

The film is about our perceptions of others and of ourselves; how they are formed, how they are distorted and how inaccurate they can turn out to be. The storyline- three old friends meet up and come into conflict over an event long buried in the memory- is hardly original, some of the acting is melodramatic, some of the relationships and events implausible; but these are necessary evils to facilitate the exploration of the key themes. In an hour and twenty minutes a film cannot introduce, explore and ultimately resolve issues, draw a plausible character arc for each main player or simply tell an interesting story without reverting to clunky, wordy exposition and stagey performances. This is no time for nuance.

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And so Tape sees Ethan Hawke playing a borderline sociopath, Robert Sean Leonard his staid, pretentious oldest friend and Uma Thurman a girlfriend from their mutual past. You can’t see how Leonard would ever be able to tolerate the obnoxious Hawke but, as I said, you have to let these things slide.  The whole thing is played out in a small (presumably bespoke) motel room which heightens the conflict by requiring constant proximity. The viewer is made to feel trapped within the room with the protagonists, like an unseen eavesdropper.  The handheld cameras (there must be about thirty on the go at once!) can become extremely intrusive and, in moments of extreme tension, pans rapidly between two faces again and again like a spectator at the world’s fastest tennis match.  This isn’t comfortable viewing.  The cramped set is emphasised by Hawke’s hyperactive, bundle of nervous energy performance.  His naturally quite feminine mannerisms are kept to a minimum as he plays the tough-guy.  He bounces around the room cutting down the space in the same way that a boxer cuts off the ring, a boorish bullying performance that doesn’t really convince.  Physically he’s fine, but his emotional transmission is weak- especially for the first hour.  Curiously, his performance picks up the less he is given to do.

Thurman and Leonard, though, are great.  The theatricality of their acting would normally piss me off but in the circumstances was fine.  He has probably found his niche on House M.D. now, but holds his own well here.  Uma uses her could-be-ugly-but-is-actually-really-beautiful face brilliantly, she is all wide-eyed shock and arched eyebrow scorn.  The harsh lighting and unflattering camerawork simply emphasises her great bones and that helps her to project the emotions she wishes to.

And so in spite of the exposition, the blatant signposting (“what’s in the bag Vince?”), the An Inspector Calls/Sleuth type telegraphed twists and Hawke’s comparatively weak turn, I liked it.  I liked the way the audience’s sympathies were subverted and questioned and I really liked the way a frantic pace was maintained in a real-time film.  6/10

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