Friday, 31 January 2014

January Films

A good start to 2014 - 36 films, mostly good or great. Any favourites here? Anything you feel is completely overrated? 

  • American Hustle x2
  • 12 years a Slave
  • The Patience Stone (2013)
  • Gloria (2013)
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • The Outsiders (1983)
  • La Dolce Vita (1960)
  • A Short Film about Love (1988)
  • A Short Film about Killing (1988)
  • Tony Manero (2008)
  • Post Mortem (2010)
  • Like Someone in Love (2013)
  • Upstream Colour (2013)
  • Stoker (2013)
  • Hunger (2008)
  • Shame (2011)
  • Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
  • Visions of Light (1992)
Visions Of Light: The Art Of Cinematography Movie Review
  • The Great Beauty (2013)
  • I Am Love (2010)
  • Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (2012)
  • Side by Side (2013)
  • The Conformist (1970)
  • Ten (2002)
  • The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)
  • Casino (1995)
  • Close Up (2007)
  • Badlands (1973)
  • Days of Heaven (1978)
  • Shuddh Desi Romance (2013)
  • Willow (2007)
  • Django Unchained (2013)
  • Offside (2006)
  • The Apple (1998)
  • The Selfish Giant (2013)

School Film Club

   Watching The Selfish Giant last night (brilliant btw) I was reminded of a film club when I was at school. We were shown 6 films over a number of weeks. The films were well attended – hundreds possibly. I can remember 4 of the films: Hawk the Slayer, Gregory’s Girl, The Blues Brothers and Kes. I wish I could remember how old I was – 13 or 14 I reckon, but I’m not sure.  Some readers won’t know these films but it doesn’t matter - what’s interesting is their range: silly fantasy (though we boys loved it), romantic comedy, risqué (or boorish) comedy (Blues Brothers was a 15 cert) and serious drama. We were trusted with difficult subject matter and with films that included swearing and a little bit of bare flesh (I seem to remember!) even though we weren’t all 15.

   It made me want to come up with a list that would work for my school now– a mixture of fun, serious, provocative, romance, action and horror – whatever,  without anything too pretentious (difficult for me).  The game is to come up with a programme of six films: 15 certificates are allowed – it would be for Years 10-13, and provide a one (or two) sentence plug.  Here’s what I came up with (bearing in my mind I’m planning for a girl’s school):

·         Little Miss Sunshine (15): a dysfunctional family set off on a road trip. Very funny and one of those films you’ll want to discuss afterwards.

·         Wadjda (PG): the first film ever made by a women in Saudi Arabia, about an 11 year-old girl desperate to ride a bicycle. Sounds serious but is cheeky, funny and full of life.

·         The Bourne Identity (12): most of you love a good action film so why settle for anything less than the best. It’s Matt Damon innit?

·         Shuddh Desi Romance (12): a very modern Bollywood film – quite a bit of kissing and (even) the odd swear word (!); it's about three young Indians not sure that marriage is such a good idea.

·         Moonlight Kingdom (12): a boy and a girl, tired of the hypocrisy of the adults around them set out together to survive alone: cute, silly, whacky, bizarre and very funny.

·         Let the Right One In (15): a Swedish Vampire Horror. One of the most beautiful, moving and sad films of the 21st century.
So many films but you can only have 6.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

American Hustle

“Sometimes all you have in life are fucked up, poisonous choices...” (Rosalyn to Sydney)
American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams

  Awards season always makes you think a little more about critical inflation. Everything gets hyped and you consider again that, however much you love them and appreciate their love of cinema, your favourite critics are part of the commercial world – selling magazines and newspapers, promoting films and stars, etc. That said you learn to appreciate who you can trust and why. The day Empire gave 5 stars to Star Wars Episode I was the day I stopped reading it. I know too that every film Peter Bradshaw gives 4 or 5 stars isn’t necessarily a classic that will stand the test of time. His judgements are relative to the year it was made and the general standard of films being made at the time.

   And so to American Hustle again: 7.7/10 on IMDB and 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and in many places a 4 star film. I liked it first time (with a couple of reservations) and even more so the second viewing. I was right about the dazzling effect of the acting and the direction and probably a little harsh on its obviousness and its reliance on dialogue.

  David O. Russell’s movie is bursting with pleasures: how is it that an overweight, balding Christian Bale with a heart problem can be so ridiculously attractive and charismatic. How is it that you can care about all these fucked up characters who are so full of self-deceit and betrayal?  But then that is what the film is all about - America and Americans – how self-deceit, deception, loose morals, ambition and violence run deeply and inexorably into every area of life. The swagger and comedy of the performances; brilliantly chosen settings and costumes; sharp editing and bravura camerawork fuse with a sensational score. There’s a joyous choreography about the film that emphasises the madness, the excitement and the inevitability of it all.

   I was initially bothered about the female characters: too many scenes where the film shows their jealousy of each other, their manipulative behaviour or in the case of Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), her silly, scatter-brained act. I still feel a little uneasy but Sydney and Rosalyn’s characters play on two specific archetypes. Amy Adams is undoubtedly a variant on the femme fatale. Cinematic history has given us plenty of these characters that have functioned as enigmas to serve the plot rather than as multidimensional characters trying to figure out their own motivations and make difficult choices. Adams (and Russell) just about nails it. Equally, Lawrence’s character is the truth teller of the movie, partially aware of her own neuroses and on hand to cut through the bullshit of everyone else.

  There are several points when you can’t help but make serious comparisons between Russell’s set pieces and those of Coppola and Scorcese:  the Live and Let Die scene is a belter. In short there is a lot to love and admire here – I shall be treating myself to the Blu-ray - but ultimately it remains a bit baggy and unfinished and it still doesn’t quite feel emotionally or intellectually substantial enough.

   Silver Linings Playbook, on the other hand, gets it just right.

And one last thing - Jeremy Renner doesn’t seem to be getting the praise the others are getting - which is a shame – because he's kind of at the heart of the film and he's brilliant.

The Examined Life

   I have enough friends who work in mental health (and I’m still enough of socialist) to possess a healthy scepticism of psychoanalysis. Yet I also grew up surrounded by people who were depressed, anxious or suicidal and have had counselling myself so I also know the benefits of talking to a sensitive, trained, professional. Maybe that’s why I’m so intrigued by the stories we tell ourselves to survive, to hide, to ignore and how we convince ourselves those stories are true.
The Examined Life
    It’s easy to see why Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves has been such a bestseller. Grosz has been a psychoanalyst for 25 years. In this book he writes a series of simple accounts of his encounters with various patients to illuminate aspects of psychoanalysis and human behaviour. I’ll stress 'simple’ because each account is only a few pages long and he writes elegantly and with great clarity: these aren’t Adam Phillips like meditations full of literature and philosophy even if we do get the odd reference to Joyce and Melville. Still if you equate simple with simplistic you’d be way off the mark. Some of his reflections are so accurate/uncomfortable/incisive they take on the quality of dreams – hard to remember or grasp on to – as you turn the page. Not that he’s trying to freak you out! On the contrary the book is full of warmth, humanity and the desire to understand.

   Maybe on a second reading I’ll find more to complain about but for now it’s a book I’d unreservedly recommend to anyone eager to delve into the complexities of human motivation. You could read it all in an afternoon but one chapter at a time is plenty. Better still read a chapter out loud to a partner or friends . . . pause . . . and engage.


Something I wrote on Facebook last year.

Watching Sholay has started me thinking about Spaghetti westerns. It’s possible that I saw Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy first but I’m pretty sure I was ten, or possibly 11, when I first saw Sergio Corbucci’s Django. It had been banned in the UK for many years but videos brought new possibilities. A video shop opened up in Thringstone, about a mile from where I lived and I would walk there with my dad. Sometimes we’d get chips to eat on the way back. The videos we watched over the next couple of years – a spectacular list of pulp and B movies - I remember clearly:  Excaliber, The Sword and the Sorcerer with Lee Horsley (remember Matt Houston, TV fiends?), The Beastmaster starring Marc Singer (who we remember from V of course), Krull, Hawk the Slayer,  Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (Molly Ringwald AND Michael Ironside!),  Harry Tracey with Bruce Dern. What a terrible movie education! [Apart from Boorman’s Excalibur OBVIOUSLY]. Luckily I was watching lots of new and old films on the TV too.

   Django is different I think, as were all the Spaghetti westerns that I searched out or stumbled upon during my teenage years: all of Leone; most of Corbucci; Damiani’s A Bullet for the General. I watched Django almost as many times as I watched Flash Gordon.  I loved the politics - though it was often pretty superficial and rarely profound. Even more, I loved the style and tone – the different way of seeing things and the lack of romanticism,  the music (so often Morricone), landscapes, the close ups, the violence and the comedy. And despite the focus on stylisation they had heart too. All those things were present in Sholay and it made me reflect on how difficult it is to get right. Tone I mean. How does Sippy navigate so effortlessly between violence, comedy, melodrama, singing, dancing, buddy movie? Why is it that I found the violence unobjectionable yet I increasingly hate the heartless, sterile and clinical brutality of modern action films (Star Trek anybody?). As much as I debate this with people or go to meetings I’m not sure there’s a good answer. Why is it that I love (the violence in) Die Hard and Kill Bill (1) but couldn’t stand Iron Man 3. Of course it’s partly subjective but it’s (also) definitely about tone I think. Answers please.

   Most of the Italian and Hollywood Spaghettis were truly terrible with regard to women, of course, so I’d love to know if any women enjoy them. Sholay is much better on this score; way ahead of its time, despite the fun Sippy has with Basanti’s garrulousness.

   And my favourite Spaghetti? Corbucci’s The Great Silence – one of the bleakest films ever made. I didn’t see it till I was 18 when it was on BBC2’s Moviedrome. Klaus Kinski and Jean-Louis Trintignant fight it out in the snow with one of Morricone’s best scores. But I still love the title tune to Django – I could of sang it to you at any point over the last 30 years - and was thrilled when Tarantino’s film began the same way.

   Books btw: if you visit Alex Cox’s website you can download his excellent book 10,000 Ways to Die as a pdf for free. You can also download his Moviedrome introductions. Christopher Frayling’s Spaghetti Westerns is still probably the best introduction. He communicates his enthusiasm but is never soft on their weaknesses and contradictions.

Violence and exploitation

   Violence in films is something I come back to. I like it; I like the cartoon violence of Die Hard and Kill Bill; I like the shock of hard-to-describe violence in surreal or hallucinatory films like Badlands (good article here) and, bar the ‘torture porn’ of films like Saw I’ve never really had a problem with horror violence (as long as someone holds my hand). Though I’ve never watched enough of these films to start analysing whether ‘torture porn’ is even a useful term or whether it’s particularly unwholesome.
   I’m intrigued though with how media violence works – when is it exploitative or how can it be used to help us question; the horror of war say, or the banality of evil, and I still enjoy the old question of how on-screen violence might affect our thoughts or behaviour. Studies show that gun violence has increased three fold in films aged at teenagers (PG13 in the USA) since 1985. We also know that the so called “weapons effect” is questionable and that no obvious causal relationship exists between on-screen violence and crime statistics (see, for instance, a recent exchange in Pediatrics journal here and here).  Indeed numerous studies have been done but it’s mostly unfulfilling and lacking in theoretical rigour. Perhaps we need a Cordelia Fine to make sense of it all – what a great book The Delusions of Gender is!

   I also don’t really understand why I like it. I remember very clearly seeing a string of violent westerns when I was eleven or twelve; everything from The Wild Bunch (1969) to Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and from Django (1966) to The Cowboys (1972) and kind of understanding how they wanted to do different things and achieve different effects. I already appreciated some of the politics and the varied aesthetics but most of all I loved the excitement and thrill of the violence. Yet stick me in any vaguely threatening real-world situation and my adrenaline levels soar to other-worldly levels and I become completely useless.  You can invoke words like fantasy, catharsis, release but I’m not sure I really buy that pseudo psychoanalytic stuff.

  On-screen violence also elicits varying responses from lefties and liberals too. Look at this exchange about Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009). Joe Allen makes some good points in his review and he’s right to remind us how many films Hollywood has been made about WW2 and why; he’s probably right to suggest there is something “juvenile” about Tarantino’s film but when one of the responses contrasts the ‘fun’ violence of Basterds with the horrific violence depicted in Come and See (1985) I get a little depressed. Klimov’s film is one of the greatest films ever made but why can’t I have both. Inglorious Basterds AND Come and See; Django Unchained AND 12 Years A Slave. You can see where I’m going with this. I don’t really see the triumph of critical rigour or clarity in these debates. And, in the words of Brian May, I Want It All.

   A good starting point might be to compare media violence with pornography or sexist representations of women. Some argue the comparison is a category error: women’s oppression is a different kind of phenomenon from violence in society – anything that reinforces and naturalises oppression must be fought and resisted. Yet does a causal relationship exist between media representations of women and women’s oppression? You might argue that this is the wrong question and that sexist media representations are a structural part of women’s oppression.

   Fair enough, but films and TV justify and naturalise violence too - they make it normal, funny, exciting, reasonable, necessary, righteous and so on. Nor would it do to underestimate the power of the moving image to beguile and enchant us – huge corporations don’t spend billions on advertising every year just for the hell of it and I’m sure I’m not the only one who comes out of a film high as a kite or full of desire – for new clothes; a slug of whiskey; a smoke; a kiss.

   The obvious answer is that with anything else you talk about context; but then you’d have to conclude Die Hard really does glamorise violence and makes it thrilling and imperative. Die Hard = bad! But that answer that is boring is as hell as I’ve already pointed out. If I can’t have Die Hard, The Long Kiss Goodnight, the Bourne films and Tarantino then life really isn’t worth living, is it? No more shouting at the screen “Come on Bruce - kill that fucker” and so on - Dullsville; Drab City; Dreary Town.  I know the defence really – we’re all able to differentiate between entertainment and ‘real’ life and it’s the inequality, inequity and violence inherent in capitalist society that generates violence. It’s just isn’t that too convenient a way of separating ‘entertainment’ from ‘capitalist society’.  

   Much of it is down to ideology – how it interpolates us, how we resist it, how we hold contradictory ideas in our head – all that malarkey; and we know what an inexact science it is. It’s a while since I’ve looked at the academic literature so please direct me to fruitful avenues of juicy, ripe scholarly goodness if you know of any.
the act of killing

   Different but related questions are raised by Jonathan Rosenbaum. The Act of Killing, for instance, is “a film that fits all too snugly within the category of valorizing and bringing spiritual dimensions to callous mass murderers and serial killers that has already reaped multiple benefits for The Silence of the Lambs and No Country for Old Men, among countless others), whilst 12 Years a Slave is “an arthouse exploitation gift to masochistic guilty liberals hungry for history lessons”. He also writes this:

 “. . . having suffered through the 169-minute “director’s cut” of The Act of Killing twice, I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the media’s validation of mass murderers and relative lack of interest in their victims is by now too well ingrained in our cultural reflexes to be irrelevant to the appeal of Joshua Oppenheimer’s film. Maybe there’s some other use value for his showcase for the feelings of mass murderers that I haven’t yet been able to tease out of this material.”

And finally this:

What 12 Years a Slave, The Act of Killing, Bastards, and A Touch of Sin (the latter, for me, the best of a dubious lot) all seem to be proposing, in different ways, is that the shocks and jolts of exploitation filmmaking are the most expressive tools we have in order to arrive at the truth about the world we live in. But what is this truth, finally, but that venerable chestnut, “It’s only a movie”?”

   These are questions worth answering. First, should we worry about “valorizing and bringing spiritual dimensions to callous mass murderers and serial killers”? Applying this question to anti-heroes like Hannibal Lector or Anton Chigurh in popular thrillers IS fascinating but I’m not sure how we separate that from our interest in murderers, criminals and psychopaths. Lurid fascination is only a short step away from a genuine desire to understand after all. Is it also because we identify with such characters? Do they tap into desires for power and freedom or into our fears and unease?  For a fully-fledged defence of The Act of Killing however I would urge people to read this essay by Carrie McAlinden: actually I do want people to bring a spiritual dimension to mass murderers because I want to see their humanity, understand why they did the things they did and see if they are capable of change or regret. That doesn’t validate them or ignore or show a lack of interest in their victims.

   I don’t buy the idea that 12 Years a Slave is for “masochistic guilty liberals hungry for history lessons” or that it has “been custom-built to curry self-congratulatory favour with contemporary viewers” (Cinema Scope review by Julian Carrington). It feels snide, pompous and linked to that kind of assumption that says we’re all somehow a bit racist or a bit sexist.  I happily concede that lots of people luxuriate or find solace in thinking themselves superior – because they understand complicated art or because of the job they do, the school they went to or a hundred other stupid reasons. I’d go further and say that most of us do it at some point or another because there are times when we need to feel good about ourselves. Most of us will hopefully go on to reflect that it’s a distorted and sad way of doing it. So, yes, I suppose a few individuals may be wandering the streets happy that they sat through a two hour film about slavery; but stretching that out to suggest there are loads of guilty liberals out there who have somehow assuaged their guilt by watching McQueen’s film is DUMB, patronising and empty of any analytic content.

    Though of course an art film or a serious film can be just as dumb, manipulative or superficial as a blockbuster but McQueen’s film is none of those things.

    Rosenbaum’s most interesting charge is that “the shocks and jolts of exploitation filmmaking are the most expressive tools we have in order to arrive at the truth about the world we live in”, added to this:

“One of the most debilitating facets of contemporary media discourse, at least in the U.S., is the unspoken assumption that serious discussion about such topics as torture, mass murder, and slavery can only enter the mainstream public sphere once it becomes tied to the sale of a current movie, regardless of how inane or superficial or inadequate its treatment of that subject might be.
 I could point to many films from the last year or so that don’t use these tools [of exploitation] – as could he – but as to whether this is a developing trend I’m happy to give it some more thought. Yet I suspect I’ll come back to where I started. First someone needs to give me a good definition of ‘exploitation filmmaking’ at which point I’ll be able to tell them it’s been around for a long time and can do a marvellous job of complicating, problematizing and investigating our world.

Thursday, 23 January 2014


   I've been reading more of the criticisms of 12 Years a Slave including Armond White's article Can’t Trust It. I don't mind being proved wrong (really) but I just don't recognise the feelings and thoughts that he connects to the film. I am going to see it again though.

   Jonathan Rosenbaum also has a number of interesting points to make about this year's critically acclaimed films - and some of my favourites - in posts here and here. He asks some questions that I'm not sure I have good answers to so I'd advise everyone to have a look and don their thinking caps.

   His top ten lists for 2013 for Indiewire are well worth checking out too.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

12 Years a Slave

    Critical reaction to 12 Years a Slave is, to say the least, very interesting. Sometimes it’s really good - one of the first pieces I read was Carole Boyce Davis’ short article here. It gives you a brilliant sense of the limits of McQueen’s film and it’s worth reading before you see it. It raises all sorts of questions about what is, and probably isn’t, possible in Hollywood today.

5 Reasons ’12 Years a Slave’ Is No Oscar Lock: Backlash, the Unseen and McQueen

     This article by Osterweil in Aljazeera America isn’t so good. It’s a very broad piece that makes a couple of good points but is obviously wrong on some issues and just plain obvious on others. Anyone remotely interested in film will know the damning statistics about the representation of non-whites and women in Hollywood – in all aspects of the industry. Nor will they be under any illusion that the Oscars or any other awards celebrate the best films or the most innovative films. They are a celebration of glitz and glamour and if they manage to get a few decisions right then all our smiles are a little wider for a night or two – that’s all. Not that we can’t be reminded of this but I think Osterweil joins this up with some inaccurate criticisms of McQueen’s film.

     Some of Osterweil’s criticisms of the film are a little bizarre. He writes that “the film portrays the North in 1841 as a racism-free place where black and white live in harmony” yet two of those white people arrange for Northup to be sold into slavery and McQueen is careful to include the scene where a fearful black man, obviously desperate for a better life, follows Northup and his family into the shop only to be hauled back by his ‘master’. Or “white characters get much more dialogue and characterization than black ones” and the slaves are “mostly-silent extras whose graphically suffering bodies make us feel bad about slavery” – urgh! Chiwetel Ejiofor is in almost every frame and dominates the film whilst McQueen tries to allow us to imagine how difficult it would have been for the slaves to speak out or help each other. His rhetorical question about the use of famous white actors is interesting but he doesn’t answer it! I can answer his question though. First the film is for anyone that loves and appreciates film; secondly he wants to begin two sets of dialogues. One with tens of millions of Americans who are unaware of their own history – do I really need to produce one of those sets of statistics that shows how clueless they are? The second with the American film industry that has historically failed to address the horrors of slavery. Go on, think of all those brilliant, nuanced films about slavery. You’re spoilt for choice aren’t you? Glory has lots of good points but Amistad is dull with extra added dull. Give me Django Unchained any day.

    After careful consideration (lol), I also reject this paragraph:

In the predictable ending, the good white people outmaneuver the evil white people and return Northup to safety. The obvious defense of this dramatic device — “but that’s what really happened!” — shows exactly how “based on a true story” shuts down critical thought. The point is not to question its factual accuracy: The film by all accounts keeps quite close to Northup’s memoir (although some scholars debate the memoir’s veracity). But that objection ignores the fact that the filmmakers chose to tell this particular story and to tell it in this particular way.

   Really!? My overriding feeling as Northup left Epps’ plantation, leaving many others to an uncertain, probably horrific, fate wasn’t anything to do with good or evil white folks and nor is this the film’s secret message, its lasting message, its implicit message or its ideological conclusion. He got lucky, though lucky doesn’t really sum up his experiences does it? Nor does saying it is “based on a true story” shut down critical thought – what condescending bollocks! “Twelve Years a Slave, one of the longest and most detailed slave narratives, was a bestseller when it appeared in 1853” (Sarah Churchill - 12 Years a Slave: the book behind the film. Guardian. 10/1/14) seems, for McQueen’s purposes, a perfectly good choice. Don’t get me wrong I can’t wait for his film of the Haitian revolution, his biopics of Toussaint Louverture and Frederick Douglass or his epic about the impact and bravery of slave revolts but forgive me if I don’t get my hopes up to see those films any time soon. Maybe I’m wrong – maybe Hollywood producers are sitting down with Robin Blackburn and a new generation of black filmmakers as I write now.

   Hands up – my sarcasm has got the better of me. Danny Glover is STILL trying to get his film about the Haitian Revolution off the ground.

   What’s just as interesting this year is that whilst 12 Years a Slave has had nominations in all the various awards so far, it isn’t winning many. That despite the fact that it really is the best movie produced in Hollywood this year. Yes film fans it really is! Bradshaw’s review in the Guardian gets to grips with why most cinephiles of any political stripe are excited. The film represents an evolution of McQueen’s technique and the film skilfully, beautifully and innovatively marries structure and content – basic stuff really. Does that mean it was the best film made in 2013 or even the most interesting film made in the USA? Probably not, but so what? Furthermore, whilst its critical reception has been unanimously positive – 97% on Rotton Tomatoes - you don’t have to look too far for all sorts of snide tomfoolery on various film blogs and websites – some would have you believe it’s nothing more than a horror film.

   Other factors: is McQueen’s film typical Hollywood fare? It was made for $22 using a tight filming schedule. Filming in Louisiana helped reduce costs because of state rebates. Nonetheless $22 million was relatively cheap and compares well only with Philomena($15 million) and Nebraska ($12 million) amongst other award season contenders: American Hustle ($40 million), Captain Phillips ($55 million) and Gravity($100 million). It looks like Fox fronted all the money so it is a Hollywood production though its director is an auteur who has thus far only made two low-budget films about respectively, Bobby Sands and a sex addict.

   So why isn’t the film winning more awards? Could it be that McQueen and his producers knew what they were up against – conservatism at all levels of the film industry and American society? Churchwell is bang on when she writes 12 Years A Slave “was produced as a corrective to a century of Hollywood sentimentalising and glorifying slavery”, and that leaving out details of Northup’s life – he might have been a bit of a rogue! – “is neither surprising nor objectionable”.

    She is also right to conclude:

But slaves don't have to be saints or their masters monsters in order for slavery to be an atrocity: our stories will remain trapped in simplistic pieties until we can admit that a man could be a rogue and still have been martyred by a barbaric system in a land that has yet to accept the terms of William Grimes's offer, and admit how bound its constitution is by the flayed skin of its victims.

    I’m not convinced there are that many simplistic pieties in McQueen’s film though clearly I’d love to see a film that pays greater attention to resistance and revolt. Still, I hope lots of people see it and I hope it wins a few gongs come Oscar night.

    For me McQueen has made a film without easy answers, a film that dramatizes a real, impossible situation, whilst providing lots of historical and social detail. It gives us a real sense of how the system brutalised people and placed fetters on their actions and their imagination. You could say it does so by reducing the narrative to one individual’s journey and the interiority of that experience; that implicitly it becomes imperative that you ask yourself how you might have behaved in the same situation. Perhaps you could easily see that as a limit on its credentials – too liberal and bourgeois. There are undoubtedly truths in such criticisms but they are also part of the film’s great emotional and interrogative achievements.
    Go see it and join the debate.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Great Beauty


   Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is high falutin art cinema at its artiest. It’s long, 142 mins, and deliberately invokes Fellini and Antonioni.  There’s little in the way of plot yet if I said it was episodic or that the film was based on a series of set pieces or tableaux vivants I think that would be misleading too. Its construction has a delicious sweep, rhythm and poetry to it, held together by camera work that swoops, glides and circles, and by a central performance by Toni Servillo (brilliant, as he was in The Consequences of Love and Gomorrah).
The Great Beauty
   Servillo is Jep Gambardella, 65, an established journalist and writer but really  a socialite and flâneur. He only wrote one successful novel when he was in his twenties. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. He mixes with the rich and the famous, the clergy and the gangsters, the artists and the actors. The first part of the film establishes the milieu and the tone of the movie and it’s only then that Sorrentino introduces the one main plot point.  Jep’s former lover, a woman he hasn’t seen in 30 years has died and this causes him to revisit his past and consider his life.
   Through Jep’s eyes we see the decadence of the rich in Berlosconi’s Italy; its emptiness and sourness, and also its moral and intellectual bankruptcy. Thankfully we are also given the glamour and the good times, the parties and the beautiful people. It was the first time my new surround sound really earned its money as I felt a thumping baseline reverberate around my front room and deep into my chest. You feel the heady appeal of what it might be like to be rich and carefree, dissolute and profligate whilst seeing the ruefulness and ennui at the heart of most of their lives. This is one of the wonders of the film – you feel that push and pull but not in any kind of heavy-handed, didactic way. Part of that is down to Servillo’s Jep. He is resolved to this life; comfortable and resigned, compromised and happy, with a world-weary wisdom and a cynicism that somehow doesn’t alienate. When that real understanding of the world is combined with his grief and, possibly, regret, the film accrues unexpected depth and humanity. The other key ingredient to the film’s mysterious balance of forces is Rome itself. Sorrentino captures the city’s bewildering beauty in a way I’ve never experienced before, combining his array of images with a beautiful score.

   I’m kind of in awe of this film I think. I watch it open-mouthed, bewitched. Unlike so many films that seduce on a first viewing only to disappoint when watched again, The Great Beauty just keeps on hypnotizing me.  I can only compare it’s mastery of technique to middle-period Scorsese or even Bertolucci’s The Conformist. The trouble with calling The Great Beauty high falutin is that you might think it’s too subtle or boring or pretentious to bother with. It certainly has its baffling moments – the introduction of a female stripper called Ramona in the middle section of the film, who then disappears almost without comment, IS baffling on your first viewing. Yet the film is rarely subtle – indeed a good word for it might be operatic, and I was never, ever bored. Rather the main problem that readers of this blog may have is with what I can only call the preponderance of the male gaze - there certainly is a fair amount of female flesh on show in the early part of the film. Some of the images are undoubtedly meant to have erotic overtones but as with so much of the film, Sorrentino wants to seduce us AND show us the seediness. This is the life of the rich, Sorrentino is saying to us, this is how they look, this is how they desire, and it would be a lie not to acknowledge its appeal too, however superficial.
   As I watch my favourite films of 2013 again it’s thrilling to see how vital and relevant they are.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014


   How many films have a 53-year-old woman at their core - in just about every single frame? Very few is the answer and even fewer if you try to think of those without sentimentality and schmaltz. Gloria is a Chilean film, directed by first-timer  Sebastián Lelio and starring Paulina García in the lead role.
   Two good reviews here (Catherine Shoard in the Guardian) and here (Maria Delgado for Sight and Sound) if you need convincing. Gloria is a brave, passionate and caring woman trying to come to terms with middle age and all the changes that brings for herself and her family. She is also daring, somewhat enigmatic and a little self destructive too which gives the film a beguiling, mysterious air.
   It's a film that doesn't lose at all by comparison with the other great political films to come out of Chile in the last few years - Pablo Larain's 'Pinochet Trilogy' and Patricio Guzmán's awesome, stunning Nostalgia for the Light. Gloria begins a relationship with Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández) who turns out to be an ex Navy officer and a man who really can't let go of the past. Watch out for the paintballers and the assassination!
   Two more things: the amount of drinking and smoking that goes on in this film almost made me break my no alcohol rule for January - what can I say, I'm easily led. Second, if the ending doesn't have you blubbing with happy tears there's probably something very wrong with you.
   If I could be bothered to change my 'Best of 2013' again Gloria would be in it. Out on DVD on Feb 10th (UK).

 Gloria (2013)

Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule - Quiz answers

These are my answers to the 2013 Christmas Quiz from Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. I'm not sure I've taken long enough to do it but it was great fun.

1) Favorite unsung holiday film 
A bit of a cheat - Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House. Watched it at Xmas when I was young so I have a kind of romantic attachment to it.
2) Name a movie you were surprised to have liked/loved
Sholay -  love it!
3) Ned Sparks or Edward Everett Horton?
Edward Everett Horton
4) Sam Peckinpah's Convoy - yes or no?
5) What contemporary actor would best fit into a popular, established genre of the past
Marion Cotillard - noir
6) Favorite non-disaster movie in which bad weather is a memorable element of the film’s atmosphere 
Groundhog Day
7) Second favorite Luchino Visconti movie
Death in Venice (I've only seen 2!)
8) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD/Blu-ray?
The Patience Stone and A Short Film about Love 
9) Explain your reaction when someone eloquently or not-so-eloquently attacks one of your favorite movies (Question courtesy of Patrick Robbins)
Definitely depends on how eloquent and thoughtful they are - being asked to rethink with new insights is exciting. That said I remember some idiot dissing Pitch Black as an Alien ripoff before going on to extoll Schwarzenegger. Grrrrrrr!
10) Joan Blondell or Glenda Farrell?
Joan Blondell
11) Movie star of any era you’d most like to take camping
Long list, but I'll go with Julie Christie, 1965
12) Second favorite George Cukor movie
So hard! Probably Adam's Rib 
13) Your top 10 of 2013 (feel free to elaborate!)
See previous post.
14) Name a movie you loved (or hated) upon first viewing, to which you eventually returned and had more or less the opposite reaction.
Didn't get Chinatown the first time I watched it - wtf? Love it now.
15) Movie most in need of a deluxe Blu-ray makeover.
My Favourite Year (1982)

16) Alain Delon or Marcello Mastroianni?
17) Your favorite opening sequence, credits or no credits (provide link to clip if possible)
Easy - Django (1966).
18) Director with the strongest run of great movies
Steve McQueen is on a good run! 3 out of 3, as are Haneke and Audiard . . .
19) Is elitism a good/bad/necessary/inevitable aspect of being a cineaste?
Good question! It's unneccessary and bad but sometimes I wonder if it's inevitable. It's only after immersing yourself in classics, arthouse, foreign movies etc that you realise how dumbed down most Hollywood fare is. Lots of people aren't able or encouraged to watch stuff outside their comfort zone and sometimes it's a little difficult to tempt them out of it.
20) Second favorite Tony Scott film
Unforgiveable, but as reactionary as it is, Revenge
21) Favorite movie made before you were born that you only discovered this year. Where and how did you discover it?
Watching Mark Cousins' The Story of Film and reading old Roger Ebert reviews has given me plenty to discover. I'll go for Dreyer - ALL of Dreyer.
22) Actor/actress you would most want to see in a Santa suit, traditional or skimpy
LOL - changes by the day! Rita Hayworth - traditional is fine.
23) Video store or streaming?
DVDs and Blu-rays
24) Best/favorite final film by a noted director or screenwriter
Three Colors: Red - Kieslowski
25) Monica Vitti or Anna Karina?
26) Name a worthy movie indulgence you’ve had to most strenuously talk friends into experiencing with you. What was the result?
I love Lucrecia Martel's films but they go down like a lead balloon with everyone else :-(
27) The movie made by your favorite filmmaker (writer, director, et al) that you either have yet to see or are least familiar with among all the rest
Cries and Whispers - Bergman. This year, definitely.
28) Favorite horror movie that is either Christmas-oriented or has some element relating to the winter holiday season in it
I might have to cheat a little and say Let the Right One In.
29) Name a prop or other piece of movie memorabilia you’d most like to find with your name on it under the Christmas tree.
Something sharp from Last of the Mohicans.
30) Best holiday gift the movies could give to you to carry into 2014.
It would be nice if Ridley Scott would remember how to make a great film again but I don't think its possible. I'd like The Grand Budapest Hotel to be as good as the trailer makes it look.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Patience Stone

   The Patience Stone is a drama set in a nameless, war-torn part of Afghanistan. It is directed by French-Afghan writer and film-maker Atiq Rahimi , based on his own novel, and using a script he co-wrote with Jean-Claude Carrière.

'The Woman' (Golshifteh Farahani) on her way to see her Aunt

   It’s a troubling film with an astonishing central performance by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (last seen in the tense and powerful About Elly) that is both subtle and attention-grabbing. Her husband has been injured in the war and now lies at home in a persistent vegetative state. The film charts the terrible dilemmas facing the (unnamed) woman and her traumatic past at the hands of this abusive man and his family, as she recounts her life in a serious of monologues. If that sounds a little stagey - it is: for much of the film there are two people in a room and one of them can’t speak! Yet it works remarkably well. The explicit, shocking and poetic script just about manages to avoid too many “but how can I be telling you this” moments though, as with so many films, it suffers by repeatedly and explicitly expressing its themes. Rahimi’s creative, but not fussy or tricksy, camerawork helps however as does his use of close ups and extreme close ups on Farahani’s face, producing real and affecting intimacy.

   So, a very good film then but I think it’s my white liberal guilt that has me troubled. First, the male characters, those in the film and ones we are told about, are all irredeemably bad, bar one – and he starts out as a rapist. This is made even more complicated by the fact that the director, co-writer and much of the crew are male. Secondly all these men are Muslims and the film unblinkingly exposes the hypocrisy, violence and misogyny at the heart of this village’s life - though the film is very good at showing the brutality of the war and how it affects every aspect of life. Thus the film raises those age-old questions about representation and how sensitive artists have to be to broader political questions – in this case the anti-Muslim feeling and propaganda in the West. It doesn't try to be fair or tell the whole picture - but does it have to?  Sometimes a cry of rage is required!                  

   For these reasons the film did make me feel uncomfortable. That said, Rahimi's film gets to grips with truths, questions and dilemmas in a way that is artistically and politically interesting and has a fierce moral complexity too. I'm inclined to think most of my discomfort is of the kind the text wants to incite. The film for instance questions whether and how the woman and her aunt might to some degree be empowered by prostitution – such are their dearth of choices and the fragility and precariousness of their existence. It could have also been unremittingly bleak but moments of humour and the smiles and complex emotions on Farahani’s face skilfully punctuate the darkness. The line “men should learn to fuck with their mouth and talk with their dick” got a big laugh and murmurs of agreement from the women in the audience.

    The glory of The Patience Stone is the central performance by Farahani – another great role in what was a great year for women’s roles. Though it has weaknesses it’s also one of those films you want to discuss and you can’t help but respond to its mixture of rage, despair and quiet confidence. The DVD is out at the start of March – I can’t wait to talk about it with others.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

New Year catch up with a teeny, weeny rant.

All is Lost

One (old) man on a boat.

A small boat.

And he doesn’t talk.

And [Spoiler] he loses the boat.

For one hour and forty minutes.

And he’s probably gonna die…


…from boredom.

   At least that’s what I thought, but I was wrong. All is Lost was a wonderful surprise: exciting, compelling and as deep as the ocean. Not Mariana Trench deep admittedly – but deep enough. The film begins with Our Man (Robert Redford) waking up to find that his boat has hit a shipping container and is taking on water fast. By the time he has a grip on things much of his equipment is waterlogged. He is phlegmatic, practical and assured as he goes about repairing the boat and considering his options. Then thing get really bad! On one level it’s a paean to seafarers and, possibly, a type of rugged, unemotional American as it delves into the psychology of a survivor trying calmly, and desperately, to survive. But it transcends that basic narrative too, firstly because it’s such an exciting, beautiful film and also because it becomes a celebration of human beings’ indomitable will to grasp and struggle for life.

   Redford has never been the greatest actor but he’s been a great and beautiful movie star. I wanted to be him more than anyone else growing up – or the characters he played - because of that run of movies starting in the 60s: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Way We Were (1972 – not so great admittedly, but I fell for it anyway), The Sting (1973), Three Days of the Condor (1975), All the President’s Men, (1976) and Out of Africa (1985). There are days, alas, when I wish I’d grown up watching Tarkovsky but it was the great American films of the 70s that made me and I know it. In All is Lost Redford is 77 and not quite so beautiful any more but all the gestures and movements are the same and he gives a fantastic performance. Throughout the film though I couldn’t help but think of that serious, glamorous, younger man who helped millions of men and women to yearn, dream and idealise. It’s not just that you are forced to think about the passing of time and age – your own and Redford’s - but you can’t help but think of all those complex interconnections between stardom, fame, cinema, fantasy and meaning.

   If you’re anything like me you’ll be trying to remember how much of the world’s surface is ocean too. I’ll save you looking it up – it’s 71%. That’s A LOT.



American Hustle

   Some of my fondest film memories are of comedies – probably, I think, because good comedies are so rare. I remember laughing out loud at Crimes and Misdemeanours and Rushmore (when hardly anyone else in the cinema was), at The Other Guys (when most were) and at 21 Jump Street, Youth in Revolt or (long, long ago) Some Like It Hot, Manhattan and The Pink Panther alone at home. Best of all I can remember watching Young Frankenstein, Airplane, and all the old Steve Martin films with Helen and giggling uncontrollably.  To that list I happily now add David O Russell’s American Hustle. Not that it’s perfect – it’s long, big and baggy. Sometimes you long for a little more showing and a little less telling too – not that it EVER feels lifeless, but you suspect that the whole project was a little rushed: the themes get laid out a little too much in the dialogue rather than living and breathing through the structure of the film. On one level that’s probably a little unfair – the script in Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter was a huge part of the magic and it crackles in Hustle too, but it definitely lacks cohesion. What you get though is a bravura display of acting magic and directorial fireworks and more than anything Hustle makes you understand the power and attraction of stars. We already know about Jennifer Lawrence – the whole world has been wowed and she is utterly brilliant again – if she hadn’t won the Oscar for Best Actress last year she be nailed on for Supporting Actress this time. But who would have thought Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper could be THIS funny.  Amy Adams, literally at the centre of the film and Jeremy Renner get less chance for laughs but are, nonetheless, astonishingly good. If structure and subtlety are somewhat lacking, Russell’s camerawork and the editing enable you to inhabit the world and see things from the viewpoints of the (largely) unsympathetic characters. The soundtrack of 70s tracks is electric too and used beautifully to reinforce the comedy and the irony. LOVED it!

Upstream Colour (and a little rant and slight spoilers)

   I read the Guardian every day but sometimes it really does wind me up. I refer you to this moronic bit of filler. If Cloud Atlas, Elysium, Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness are four of the best sci-fi and comic book movies of 2013 then I need a brain and personality transplant ASAP. Ben Child starts the article by worrying about the opportunities for Arthouse projects but argues that if there is a “silver lining, it is that studios are getting better at making these preposterously expensive, spectacle-heavy movies”. Really? REALLY! I realise that my geek pretensions are crumbling but three of these films (Cloud Atlas tried – I’ll give it that) wasted interesting ideas and turned everything in to brainless drivel. Incidentally, Blomkamp also managed to inspire THE MOST DIRE performance from Jodie Foster (and Sharlto Copley wasn’t much better). 
   Luckily, 2013 will be measured as a landmark year because we got Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour. Carruth’s film might not be considered sci-fi (definitions are so difficult) but think about the first twenty minutes. A man has discovered that maggots living on a particular plant have various mind-altering properties. He tests it first by straining the maggots through fluids and giving the drink to local youths. Next thing we see, he abducts a young woman and forces her to swallow one of the maggots: she becomes little more than a childlike automaton and what follows is one part Alien, one part Philip K Dick, one part 2001 and one part David Cronenberg.  Admittedly that last line is there just to tempt all you geeks to watch this amazing film because Carruth’s vision is unique, obtuse and not a little difficult. Anyone that saw his only other film, Primer, will know what I mean. Critical opinion is mixed –some love Upstream Colour (it came sixth on the Sight and Sound best of 2013 poll), some think it monstrously pretentious and some think it derivative of late Malick. I’d watch it first without knowing too much about it but if you need convincing I’ll refer you to these two thoughtful reviews. I loved it on first viewing but second time round it blew me away. It’s about how we invent and reinvent ourselves; how we invest our lives with meaning (or fail to); about coming to terms with the meaningless of existence and much more – all with parasitic worms! Better than that, it’s made with degrees of vitality, creativity and oomph missing in most American film. In short it’s fucking brilliant and I’m gonna have to rejig my ‘Best of 2013’ to somehow get it in my top 5.