Saturday, May 12, 2012

Film Club Reviews #15

I've been trying to pinpoint where Cary Fukunaga's adaptation of Jane Eyre goes wrong. It's handsomely made with fine location work and composition of shots, the performances are all strong and it's properly cinematic. Upon reflection I think the screenplay is the problem. There's too much to get in. Screenwriter Moira Buffini's decision to start at a moment of dramatic crisis late in the book and flashback to Jane's childhood is a good one but by the end too many plot developments are left to get through in too short a time. It feels rushed, a cascade of improbable incident. Which is a pity because there's much to admire here. Mia Wasikowska is compelling as Jane, a study of inner strength, restraint and vulnerability, one of those performances that are all presence, the camera in thrall to her face. Michael Fassbender has presence to burn in any role but give him Victorian sideburns, riding breeches and a scowl and you're guarenteed the business. His Rochester is less gothically mysterious than the book, more distracted, burdened, a man made remote by the secrets he has to keep. Judi Dench is reliably kindly and humourous as Mrs. Fairfax and there's fine support too from Sally Hawkins as nasty Mrs. Reed and Amelia Clarkson as the young Jane. Add a great feel for landscape and you have a film well worth seeing despite the rushed later stages. I should add I was the only one who seemed to have a problem with it. Everyone else loved it.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Film Club Review #14

When is a documentary not a documentary? When it's made by Werner Herzog of course. There were rumblings of complaint after we screened Cave Of Forgotten Dreams from some members frustrated with its refusal to lay out all the facts in proper documentary style and thrown by its left-turn ending. The thing is, Herzog isn't a documentary-maker as such, he's more interested in the metaphyics than the facts, and the film should be seen as a meditation on what the caves might mean and the kinds of people they attract. The caves in question being the Chauvet caves in Southern France, home to the oldest known pictorial creations of mankind. As the public are unlikely to ever be allowed inside the caves Herzog's film is an invaluable record of the wonders they hold. It was truly spellbinding to see these drawings of horses, bison, lions and rhinos emerge out of the darkness or a human handprint from thousands of years ago, emblematic of human consciousness, the awakening of self awareness and the transformative power of art. Some members felt because we couldn't show it in 3D we shouldn’t have shown it at all, but really, it didn’t need that. If your imagination can’t process the wonder without the aid of visual Viagra then I’m sad for you. As usual Herzog found odd characters, coaxed revelatory admissions from people, and arrived at a conclusion involving albino alligators that was too much for some. A nearby nuclear power plant has raised the temperature of the local environment and caused evolutionary change in these alligators. This is the same, Herzog seems to say, as what happened in the caves, mankind made an evolutionary step forward, a mutation of consciousness, due to changes in the environment. Whether you buy this or not, there's no denying the experience of the caves, the sense of time as both impossibly distant and mysterious and yet also immediate and alive because of the way Herzog brings us close to the paintings and they bring us close to the people who made them.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Film Club Review #13

How to explain the anomaly that is Midnight in Paris? Because lets be honest here, Allen has been in severe decline for over a decade now. The last two of his films I’ve seen where Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona, the former a travesty the latter mildly diverting but lightweight and forgettable. (And the trailer for To Rome With Love makes it look heart-sinkingly bad). And yet, here this is, a gem, a throwback to Allen’s heyday, a film that could have been made in the 1980s, sandwiched between The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days. Sure it's cozy and soft-focused and doesn't engage with reality very much but none of that matters. The fantasy prevails. Owen Wilson was born to be an Allen surrogate and Adrian Brody’s Dali is arguably the best five minutes of his entire career. The message of the film, that every generation romantisises previous times, that these 'golden ages' almost certainly didn't feel special to the people living them, yearning as they were for their own idealised pasts, is undermined by the experience of the film itself. Paris of the 20s does seem golden here, an endless party, a moveable feast, full of larger-than-life characters and mysterious muses, a young man's dream of artistic nirvana revisited. It glows with sweet wonder.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Film Club Reviews #12

I rewatched M last year, Mark M For Murder, and was so struck by how modern it still seemed, not just thematically but visually as a thriller, I decided it would be perfect to show at the film club. And I was right. To see it on the big screen was a revelation. Watching it the way it was intended to be seen intensified its effect tenfold. It traps an audience as inexorably as the mob closes in on Hans Becker. There's nowhere to escape. A classic not embalmed in another time or place but still a live issue, a cinematic time-bomb. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Film Club Reviews #11

Is it possible to wipe the slate clean and start again, no matter how old you are or how many mistakes you've made. That's the question at the heart of Mike Mills' hopeful, bittersweet Beginners. Are we trapped by convention, age, sexuality, family history? When Oliver Fields' mother dies his father Hal shocks him by revealing his homosexuality. What follows is an education in tolerance and empathy. In the years left before he gets cancer Hal lives a life of freedom, true to himself at last, grabbing what happiness he can. It's an example his son struggles to follow. He meets Anna, a French actress, and embarks on a sweet if fraught relationship with her. It's funny, sad, slightly bewildered, people sabotaging their lives to avoid getting hurt. Nothing is easy for them. Mills fully understands the failure they're capable of, the emotional cages they've locked themselves into. Darkness is ready to flood in at any time. But the film's lightness of touch carries us through. It's visually witty, using Oliver's job as a graphic artist to break up the structure, give it narrative energy. This is how Oliver sees the world, looping memory, subtitled dogs, history as a series of rapid-fire montages. If it's undermined in places by hazy, liberal niceness and romantic scenes that flirt with tweeness, it gets away with it thanks to shaggy-dog charm and a seam of melancholy that runs through it like a grace note. Ewen McGregor's Oliver is a hurt child in a man's body, Christopher Plummer has the good grace to underplay a sure-fire Oscar role and Melanie Laurent's radiance carries Anna beyond the implausible. There are also brief flashbacks to childhood afternoons Oliver spent with his mother, Georgia, (Mary Page Keller) that are arguably the most effective and memorable in the film. So much hinted at, so much unsaid about a clearly talented woman going crazy with boredom, someone who didn't get a second chance.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mystic River

For those of you who love this film as much as I do just thought I'd mention that my review of Jean Vigo's timeless classic L'Atalante can be read over at arts and pop culture magazine Oomska

Film Club Reviews #10

Terrific exploration of masculinity from Susanne Bier, the modern mistress of emotional filmmaking, the 21st century Nicholas Ray. Her films are about love in all its complicated shades, the devastation it can cause, how uncontrollable it is, how it can lead us into dangerous territory. In A Better World starts with Anton, a doctor working at a refugee camp in a dangerous African country where gangs mutilate girls and justice doesn't exist. Back home in civilised Denmark his marriage to Marianne is heading for divorce. They have two young sons, the eldest of which, ten-year-old Elias, is being bullied at school. Or he is until Christian, a new boy, defends him by threatening the bully with a knife. Christian's mother has died of cancer and he's a powderkeg of unresolved grief and resentment. When Anton stops a fight involving his younger son, the other father, a mechanic, slaps him in the face. Later he visits this man, with Elias and Christian, to show them he's not afraid. But the mechanic slaps him again, Anton refusing to respond, determined to prove he's the better man for rising above violence. But the children don't see it this way. Christian persuades Elias that if his father won't do something about this bully it's up to them to enact revenge. And so things escalate. Along the way the plot resolves itself in a somewhat contived fashion but the emotional journey earns it. These are children, after all, perilously close to destruction, and we should want them to survive. Bier and her regular screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen delight in taking soap opera plots and infusing them with authentic detail. It's a tightrope walk that doesn't always work but when it does the result is vivid and engrossing filmmaking that asks questions of us few films get close to. How do we respond when our children suffer bullying and look to us for protection, for schoolyard justice? How do men deal with violence in a civilised society, the violence they're confronted by and the violence inside themselves? What is justice without retribution? How can we defend ourselves without descending to the level of our attackers? This is acutely observed cinema, filmed with big-budget panache and impossible not to be moved by if you’re a parent, a father especially.

Film Club Review #9

Based on the ''beloved'' bestseller, Mona Achache's The Hedgehog portrays the lonely existence of RenĂ©e, a middle-aged, dowdy concierge in a well-to-do Parisian apartment building and Paloma, the daughter of a wealthy family in the same building who records her life with a video camera and plans to kill herself on her twelfth birthday. In their own ways they've both stopped believing in life. Then mysterious new tenant Mr. Ozu arrives and they begin to see things differently. Ironically, for a film that's all about hidden depth The Hedgehog has all the intellectual riguor of a mind/body/spirit bestseller, full of thumpingly obvious symbolism, never really engaged with existential crisis, happy instead to set it up to be skittled by the power of love or the easy uplift of a good old cry. Togo Igawa does wonders with that cardboard paragon of Eastern virtue Mr Ozu, almost making him a flesh and blood character and Josiane Balasko is excellent as Renee, her wary, deadpan expression gradually revealing the sweet woman hidden beneath the grouchy exterior. Life is worth living, the film tells us, if you open yourself up to it, reveal the real you hidden inside. Which is fine, of course, but does it have to be made explicit by a secret room of books that constitute Renee’s true personality, a room with a door that’s always closed. Just like her heart. She’s a hedgehog, y'see, prickly on the outside, but inside ‘she’s as refined as that falsely lethargic, staunchly private, and terribly elegant creature’. (This from the mouth of an eleven-year-old). Appearances can be deceiving then. Like this film which prides itself on being philosophical, references the great art of Tolstoy and Yasujiro Ozu, but underneath the elegant surface it's just soft-headed trash dressed up in arty clothes, a so sad but so lovely experience for educated sentimentalists.