Friday, May 31, 2013

La cage d'orée – Ruben Alves

La cage d’orée (Ruben Alves – France) 90 minutes

France’s Portuguese community – one million strong – is one of the country’s most unassuming success stories of integration. Most arrived in the post-war years, fleeing the underdeveloped economy, and often repression, of Salazar's Estado Novo, and made a number of trades their own, notably construction, painting and decorating and, most of all, the position of concierge, the superintendant of Parisian residential buildings. Facing less severe discrimination than Arab or African immigrants, the Franco-Portuguese have done well. Unlike other European immigrant groups in France though, such as the Spanish, the Poles and the Italians, the Portuguese have remained steadfastly connected to the old country. Many second-generation Portuguese are bilingual and will always choose the Selecçao over France, were the two to meet in a major football match (as they often do). Ruben Alves’ comedy La cage d’orée is a long-overdue portrayal of a community that has until now been largely ignored by French cinema.

The Ribeiro family live in the concierge lodge of a bourgeois building in Paris’ wealthy 16th arrondissement; mother Maria (Rita Blanco) takes care of the residents’ every need while José (Joaquim de Almeida) is a construction-site foreman. Son Carlos (Jean-Pierre Martins) is still at school while Paula (Barbara Cabrita) has started seeing the son of her father’s boss. José one day learns he has inherited a vineyard in the Douro valley from a long-estranged brother on condition that he go live there to oversee it. When word gets out that the Ribeiros are planning to leave, the building’s residents and José’s boss snap into action to prevent it by whatever means necessary.

La cage d’orée (the gilded cage) is a pretty unsophisticated comedy and is loaded to the point of cliche with all the familiar trappings of Portuguese life – the virgin of Fatima, pastéis de nata, fado (with Amália Rodrigues to the fore, of course), bacalhau à bras, the music of Rodrigo Leão (who contributed the soundtrack, much of it recycled), Port, Super Bock, and so on. The sporting idol of the Franco-Portuguese, PSG’s record scorer Pauleta even makes a goofy guest appearance. The central conceit is a bit flawed as, though it might be funny to a French audience, from the point of view of a neutral observer trying to prevent an immigrant from returning home has a touch of cruelty to it that sits uncomfortably with gentle comedy.

Nonetheless Alves’ film has some surprisingly sharp insights into the immigrant experience, particularly the tension between the yearning for the homeland and the commitments of life in the new country. It also movingly throws into relief the inferiority complex of the Portuguese vis-à-vis their French hosts (never mind that Portuguese culture and society are every bit as rich as those of France). It’s none too complicated and has the air of TV comedy about it but La cage d’orée is a pleasant portrait of a quietly proud immigrant community and it is nice to see the stone-faced Joaquim de Almeida get a go at comedy, being far more used to playing minor Latino tough guys in Hollywood movies.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Simple Life - Ann Hui

A Simple Life (Tao Jie) (Ann Hui – Hong Kong) 118 minutes

A Simple Life is a simple film – no pretensions, conventional enough in its portrayal of a relationship between two people who have known each other all their lives. Yet it manages to be magical in its own modest way. Ah Tao (played by Deannie Yip) is a septuagenarian housekeeper, who has been working for the same Hong Kong family for decades since she was orphaned during the Japanese occupation of mainland China. The rest of the family having decamped to North America, Roger (Andy Lau), a single successful film producer in his forties, is the only member left in her charge. When Ah Tao falls victim to a stroke, Roger is forced to find a nursing home for her, where she struggles initially but then adapts.

The nursing home, owned by a slightly dubious former stuntman, is short on comfort, coldly functional and one of the underpaid nurses even offers to moonlight as a replacement housekeeper for Roger. You might expect the film to turn into a crusading indictment of conditions in Hong Kong’s old-folk’s homes, but the criticism remains implicit. The relationship between Ah Tao and Roger also grows paradoxically stronger as he attends to her more and visits her daily, taking her out to lunch at every possible opportunity, to escape the grimness of the institutional catering. (East Asian films always make me incredibly hungry, focusing as much as they do on food and mealtimes. In American and European movies, food is just a detail, meals just a backdrop for diegetic action; in Asia, both are a vital part of the texture of a film.)

There is only one way the film is going but A Simple Life is a wonderfully full and intelligent melodrama nonetheless. The relationship between two people, which until recently has been strained by class-bound etiquette and decorum, grows, as if they are living on borrowed time. Just as in Wong Kar-Wai’s recent The Grandmaster, where Gong Er (played by Zhang Ziyi) forsakes her kung-fu expertise and declines to pass it on, Ah Tao’s knowledge and prowess in cooking, caring and keeping house, amassed over decades, is to die out without being transmitted. In one sequence she interviews prospective replacements to take over as housekeeper and finds none of them will be able to cook like her.

One of A Simple Life’s most remarkable qualities is how it portrays love so convincingly. Love has, for as long as films have been made, been one of the great vectors of narrative cinema; it has mostly been sign-posted in the most superficial ways though – walks in the park, scenes of intimacy, weddings. Love in the movies is also the domain of the young and the sexually intimate. Much of the time, we have to take a film’s depiction of it on faith. Here we see the love build up in subtle increments and we share in a depiction of an emotional bond that is usually incredibly hard to dramatise. There is one particularly moving scene where Roger and some old school friends call Ah Tao up on the spur of the moment and tease her, reminiscing about old times. It thrills the elderly lady, as she plays mah jong with her fellow residents. It is moments like this, discreetly worked into a drama where the stress of illness, death and loss figure prominently, that make A Simple Life such a brilliantly affecting film. Based on the real-life experience of Hong Kong producer Roger Lee, the film has been a critical and commercial success in Hong Kong, which has prompted veteran director Ann Hui to postpone her retirement. A weepie of the highest quality.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Post Tenebras Lux – Carlos Reygadas

Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas – Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany) 115 minutes

As this year’s Cannes Film Festival unfolded, a largely forgotten prize-winner from last year made it to French screens, mostly unremarked. Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ fourth film was a rather unpopular winner of the Best Director prize; in fact Reygadas’ films on the whole have so far fared far better with festival juries than they have with critics. Personally, I would side with the juries on this as the Mexican is one of the most interesting filmmakers going at the moment and one who never makes the same film twice, even if they are often far from perfect.

He was certainly setting himself up for a fall with the pretentious Latin title Post Tenebras Lux (Light after Darkness) and this recondite tale of a young bourgeois Mexican family pushes the envelope in enough ways for people to be tempted to call bullshit on it – the elliptical structure, with seemingly unrelated scenes shuffled about, a nocturnal appearance from a CGI’d luminous cartoon devil, digital photography in Academy ratio that is sharply focused at the centre of the frame and all blurry at the edges. That said, Post Tenebras Lux might be the formally most challenging of Reygadas’ work but, thematically it is probably the most accessible. Given that his previous films included a man who goes to a village in the Mexican mountains to die (Japón), a working class chauffeur who kidnaps a child to make a bit of money and whose sexual fantasies concerning his boss’ teenage daughter are played out for real on screen (Batalla en el cielo) and a portrait of a German-speaking Mexican Mennonite community (Silent Light), this might be a mercy of sorts.

The unnamed family live in a bucolic sustainable-living home somewhere in the Mexican countryside, designed by architect father Juan. The balm of the rural existence is spoiled early on by what appear to be nightmares had by the two young children Rut and Eleazar (played by Reygadas’ own children of the same name). It then becomes clear that Juan is addicted to internet porn, his workers are variously drug addicted and stealing from him, and his marriage therapy with his wife Natalia appears to consist of a trip to a wife-swapping hammam in France, where he watches her being penetrated by a stranger. There is no narrative to speak of, and it is not even clear if we are getting any particular deep insight into its character’s minds and feelings. The whole thing, however, works. It might be confusing, obscure but the sequences function so well as micro-stories, are so beautifully filmed, they needle the viewer’s interpretative faculties with their strange, off-kilter drama. When two sequences appear out of the blue of teenage boys at an English public school preparing for and taking part in a rugby match, the effect is jolting and bracing in its non sequitur detour. (It becomes less mysterious though when you learn that Reygadas was himself a pupil at the same school.)

There are people for whom Reygadas is an outright charlatan, whose cinema is self-indulgent nonsense. That’s fine by me – I think much the same of Guy Maddin, Reygadas’ compatriot Alejandro González Iñárritu or the recent work of Terrence Malick. They all have their fervent defenders. If anything, Reygadas makes the same type of cinema as Malick but far better, with a clearer focus on the contours of his drama, and less obfuscatory in its lyricism. Post Tenebras Lux doesn’t approach the majestic beauty of Silent Light’s unlikely adultery drama, which won Reygadas the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2007. It may even be ultimately unsubstantial but it is an open-ended film poem that gets you thinking and looks like little else in contemporary cinema.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorrentino

The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) (Paolo Sorrentino – Italy/France) 140 minutes

The first fifteen minutes of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty alone are enough to banish the memory of the fiasco that was This Must Be the Place. Day breaks in Rome, a choir sings on Gianocolo, early risers nonchalantly go about their business, a Japanese tour group is shown about the city’s antique sights. One of their number breaks away for a moment to take a picture of the cityscape, admires the view and then keels over with what appears to be a Stendhal Syndrome-induced heart attack. We then abruptly cut to a rip-roaring rooftop party, where revellers of all ages get their rocks off to pounding trashy Euro house. At the centre of it all is one Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), who steps out of the film for a moment to introduce himself. The rooftop patio is his, overlooking the Colosseum, and it will be him we follow for the next two hours and more.

The clear reference here is Fellini, and most explicitly La dolce vita, which Jep, a successful journalist and frustrated novelist, has no difficulty living up. But if the film begins with a heavily loaded sense of déjà-vu, it is an openly avowed one. There is no gradually divulged portrait of the ennui and emptiness beneath the glitz and glamour of mondaine Rome – the emptiness is already a given. This is Berlusconi’s Italy, a country obsessed with reality TV and the trivial. The film itself is complicit in it, having been partly produced by Mediaset Premium, one of the high-end branches of the former Prime Minister’s media empire. Jep says at one point to a Communist novelist friend whom he rather cruelly scorns: "Flaubert wanted to write a novel about nothing; if he had ever met you, he could have written his masterpiece." The Great Beauty does not benefit quite to this extent from such a proximity to the vacuous but it is a great character portrait and has some magnificent set pieces.

Servillo, unrecognisable under mounds of make-up as Giulio Andreotti in Sorrentino’s Il Divo, here shows his true face, as a dapper old roué who begins to have second thoughts about the life he had led when he learns some news out of the blue. A man appears on his doorstep and tells him that his wife, deceased the day before, loved only Jep, whom she nonetheless mysteriously left forty years before. And so the edifice of smug certainty that is Jep’s life begins to be chipped away at. His cynicism starts to desert him, and with it his ability to protect himself from the ravages of time and ageing. He continues nonetheless to womanise, picking up slightly younger women who are themselves desperately trying to ward off physical decline – one, a 42-year-old, works part-time as a stripper in her father’s club to help finance her cosmetic enhancements. Servillo is one of the great actors of his generation, a man with a rubbery fizzog straight out of the Commedia dell’arte; he is at once charming, winsome and melancholy. His Jep is more together than all around him but that only serves to increase his desperate awareness of what has slipped away in his life. Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello’s script builds a fascinatingly complex character, the textures of which deepen as the film progresses, and Servillo’s performance is a tour de force of understated confidence.

Like Il Divo before it, The Great Beauty is flawed – it is overlong and its rhythm flags at times, and Sorrentino has a frustrating penchant for cramming quirks into his story – a disappearing giraffe and a mustering of storks that gathers on Jep’s patio on their way south.  But the flaws, as in the previous film, are more than outweighed by its better qualities. Servillo’s performance is the most obvious, but there are fine comic turns throughout, particularly from Carlo Buccirosso (previously brilliant in Il Divo) as Jep’s lonesome playwright friend, Lello Cava. Sorrentino also has a deft touch for the burlesque. His party scenes are throbbing with energy and humour, and show those in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby up for the mess they are. The Great Beauty is not going to define this era in the way its illustrious monochrome predecessor did its own but it is a vibrant and literate comedy that is far more substantial than many European films of the moment.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Only God Forgives - Nicolas Winding Refn

Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn – France/Denmark) 90 minutes

Nicolas Winding Refn, long a purveyor of slick action movies for art house audiences, reunites with Ryan Gosling after the success that was Drive. This time the setting is Thailand and Gosling plays Julian, the seemingly reluctant son of an American crime family, who is being urged by his psychotic mother (a surprisingly effective Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge the death of his older brother. (The brother had it coming to him, something which gives Julian some pause). The man they are looking for is police chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), an impassive taciturn killer who swings a mean krabi sword, and who is unlikely to go quietly.

Gosling is a man who will always be able to rely upon the goodwill of the world’s womenfolk; unfortunately he has been less well served by his agent and the world’s casting directors. Only a small handful of the films he has appeared in have been any good and there have been a great many duffers. Only God Forgives falls somewhere between those two stools but it is a disappointment and doesn’t really do justice to Gosling, who is a decent actor. He reprises his puppy-dog Steve McQueen silent type from Drive and it falls a bit flat as he is forced to wander aimlessly around a film that is far more attentive to look than to plot. Gosling is not so inexpressive as he first appears but the silent role doesn’t always work (I shudder to think how he will turn out in the next Terrence Malick, which he has just finished shooting).

Where Only God Forgives excels is in atmosphere and with its visual palette; Refn is one of the greatest filmers of the night going and some of his sequences are wonderfully mounted. But whereas Drive pared its story of an unlikely tough-guy loner down to a sharp, clean fable, his new film is a mess that overplays its hand far too often. Refn is a little too in love with the photogenic locations he found in Bangkok and he can’t resist framing everything with exquisite taste – there is one particular shot of Scott Thomas against a grilled window that is annoyingly intrusive, if geometrically beautiful. The director’s hand is also far too apparent in a host of characters that are poorly written and barely credible (true, the film is not meant to be overly realistic but you still need a bit of credibility to hook the viewer). There are some scenes too which are just woefully incompetent, such as when Julian, for reasons best known to himself, decides to introduce his hooker girlfriend to his harridan of a mother.

The violence in the film is also a bit hard to take, even by Refn’s standards, and there is a bit too much sadistic pleasure in its portrayal. Refn does his best to suffuse the film with local atmosphere, going so far as to have the opening credits in Thai, but the only Thais that interest him are hookers and viciously venal cops. I don’t wish to throw the ‘racist’ tag about but Refn’s portrayal of Thailand certainly ticks all the Orientalist boxes. Only God Forgives, with its bombastic title and its sexy, red-lit sheen will please fans of sado-arty cinema, and fans of Ryan Gosling, but it’s thin stuff that is best consumed as a cinematic coffee-table book.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Stoker – Park Chan-wook

Stoker (Park Chan-wook – USA/UK) 99 minutes

Park Chan-wook’s Korean films, I have to admit, leave me quite unmoved. They’re not particularly bad but there is a wearying samey-ness about them and they demand a suspension of disbelief so constant your disbelief is in danger of getting serious cramp. It doesn’t help either that, for the general public in the West, Park has eclipsed all of Korean cinema – I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard someone ask, upon hearing of a Korean film, ‘is that by the guy who did Old Boy?’

But, just as one might socialise more with a casual acquaintance from back home were one to meet them while travelling, I was interested in seeing how Park fared in an American setting. Stoker is produced by Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony – an unusual departure in itself for them – and is based on an original script by actor Wentworth Miller (of Prison Break fame), one that looks like it was specifically written with Park in mind. The samey-ness, even in a new locale, continues, but that is not necessarily a bad thing for Stoker, which is a chillingly effective thriller.

The film opens with a monologue delivered by wealthy teenager India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), who has pulled her car up by the side of the road, and steps out, in long-shot, announcing, in breathless voiceover, ‘I'm not formed by things that are of myself alone. I wear my father's belt tied around my mother's blouse, and shoes which are from my uncle. This is me. Just as a flower does not choose its colour, we are not responsible for what we have come to be’. Latecomers to the screening might be forgiven for thinking they are watching one of those vacuous ads for fashion houses that are regularly shown before the main feature. It is a canny device though, which foreshadows the way the film sculpts emptiness into something icy and freakishly substantial.

We then move on (or back?) to the funeral of India’s father, who has been killed in a tragic car accident. India, who went on hunting trips with her beloved father (Dermot Mulroney), is disturbed by the arrival of her paternal uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who has seemingly been travelling the world learning how to be refined. He also has designs on India’s mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who has little compunction in shedding her widow’s weeds to consent. So far, so Hamlet then, and it is little surprise that Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy and the films of Park Chan-wook, already not a million miles apart, should become joined at the hip in Park’s first Western film.

Stoker is not a conventional thriller or horror film as Miller and Park divulge vital plot information far too early for the intrigue to hold up. At first this is an annoyance but it soon becomes clear that the plot is being cast off, almost as a McGuffin, and character is of far greater concern. And India Stoker is a fantastic heroine, one rarely seen in mainstream cinema – a troubled, ingeniously resourceful, viciously moral teenager, and one whose evolution will trouble audiences as much as it thrills them. Mia Wasikowska, like Rooney Mara, may be at risk of being typecast as a troubled young waif but she captures the cold justice of India superbly here. The shadow of Hitchcock (not to mention the Irish writer alluded to in the titular heroine's name) also looms over the film – the casting itself has an air of Hitchcockian caprice about it: Goode, a vacant, mannequin-like presence at the best of times, is just right for the wraithishly handsome Uncle Charlie. The repeated scenes where he pulls his belt (stolen from his brother, the same one referenced in the opening scene) out of its loops are diabolically sadistic but inflected with all the gustatory visual bravura of luxury advertising. Kidman, a woman who has, over two decades, gradually emptied herself of acting prowess, is also well cast as the unthinking pawn who becomes the target of her daughter’s righteous ire.

As I said before, Stoker shows us nothing new in the Park Chan-wook canon, but expatriated to the United States, it acquires an unexpected freshness. You have to hand it to the Scotts, for having the balls to confer a mainstream production on Park (and Miller); there will be many audiences exposed to such a deft psychological portrait as this for the first time. If Park is given another couple of films in the US, we may even hear an end to the question ‘is that the guy who did Old Boy?’

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Great Gatsby – Baz Luhrmann

The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann – USA) 140 minutes

Baz Luhrmann adapts Fitzgerald and the result is pretty much as you might expect. There are no surprises here. You have a continual sense that you have seen this film before. That is largely because you have – if, that is, you happened to chance upon any of Luhrmann’s previous four features. Luhrmann goes for the same notes all the time, he modulates them less than a Wahhabi muezzin delivering an unwavering call to prayer. The film is all singing, all dancing, all loud, all of the time. But, you expect that, don’t you?

Luhrmann tackles the jazz age by ignoring jazz entirely in favour of executive producer Jay-Z’s sub-woofed party fuzz; but there's nothing necessarily wrong with that – the anachronistic music is one of the least jarring things about the film. His approach to the roaring twenties is to make the film roar, and boy, does it roar. Like a haemmorrhoidal lion. With sunburn. The film is a yabbering orgy of more-ishness; no sound is too much, no colour too garish, no cut too abrupt to let us know this was one swell era that just doesn’t come across in the rigidly analogue format that was a novel published in 1925.

Underneath all the slobbery excess and the over-designed munificence are the characters, who are considerably thinner than in Fitzgerald’s original, despite mouthing identical dialogue. This is largely down to poor casting and bad acting: Tobey Maguire, God bless him, is fit only for afternoon TV with his permanent look of fortunate surprise (no amount of radioactive spider bites will ever bestow a screen presence on Tobey). Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway is a cipher but he is not that empty. Carey Mulligan has never convinced me much before and she struggles badly as Daisy, she is playing an actor playing someone dressed up to resemble Daisy Buchanan. Leonardo di Caprio is, on the face of it, well cast as Gatsby, but he chews the 3D scenery up something awful. The ensemble acting is poor but you can hardly blame the actors involved; it doesn’t look like they were getting any direction worth talking about, not least from a man whose mise en scène is all over the place (and the 3D only makes it look worse).

The film captures the essence of the era, but not much of the flavour. It is also a bit annoying to see Nick’s narrative being couched in such an overt way as part of his later therapy sessions; what’s wrong with old-fashioned voiceover? Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a whirlwind of ineptitude from start to finish, and is surprisingly uninvolving. That said, it is not a travesty. If anything, it is too faithful to the book, or at least the period background to the book. It tries, as is common with any new contemporary version of a canonical novel, to show how different it is from all that have come before – it may even know the original novel better than Fitzgerald did himself. It probably would not have been a better film had it aimed a little less at the cultural history surrounding the novel, but a greater attention to the poor tenants of Fitzgerald’s novel would have at least made it slightly more watchable.

As bad as Luhrmann’s film is, it is admirable in many respects. It is like the uncouth distant cousins that show you up at weddings, all loud mouths, shirts the colour of a pack of Opal Fruits, propping up the bar. But they are still cousins and you cut them a bit of slack. Similarly, The Great Gatsby and its cheerful, blasé vulgarity is preferable to much of what passes for literary adaptations these days. Slavoj Zizek admires Ayn Rand because she betrays more readily the disingenuousness of mainstream of capitalism, rather than the more disciplined, streamlined advocates of real predatory capitalism. In the same way, Luhrmann’s film shows up all the better the predatory pedantry of literary adaptions. It even clocks in at two hours twenty minutes, twenty shorter than Jack Clayton’s 1974 version, which looked right but had all the memorability of a wedding you have been invited to at the last minute.

My heart sinks when I learn of a book I like being adapted for the cinema, not because, as per the usual gripe,  the film will ruin it (any great novel’s reputation is strong enough to long outlive the three to four weeks of PR inanity that surrounds the release of a film). No, the reason my heart sinks is because there are people out there who cannot read a novel without imagining how it would look projected on a screen, its costumes, its sets, its characters painstakingly reproduced. If that is what you’re thinking of when reading a novel, you’re missing the point. It’s a little like drinking a beer and wondering what it would taste like, frozen, as an ice lolly. Sure you can do it but why bother? A novel’s inner life and its outer structure are made of words, which is a sand-like substance, notoriously difficult to replicate on screen, but still the most interesting thing about the novel.

That’s not to say that novels (or plays, or even poems) should never serve as source material for films – there have been many fine films adapted from books, and there continue to be so. It is, however, depressing that we must be visited, every fifteen years or so now at this rate, with a new Dickens, Brontë, Jane Austen or Tolstoy adaptation, when few of those in the past have been terribly memorable anyway. Some filmmakers do get it right – Andrea Arnold’s recent Wuthering Heights understood the brute social relations that underlie the intense romance of the novel. Most adaptors of literary classics though are content to wallow in the crinoline, the fine teak wainscoting and the Received Pronunciation (American actors in particular are wont to apply RP to any character, of any nationality, from before the 20th century). That is why most film adaptations of classics bring little to the table and are instantly disposable, like the covers in a fast-food restaurant.

It is not only classics that are subject to this either; the film rights on practically every contemporary novel that makes a splash are instantly snapped up. It’s not too surprising – it is a relatively easy way for studios to make money, provided the production is not delayed for too long, and few writers can afford to say no. A strong contemporary novel will likewise survive the brief ignominy of being associated with an idiotic film adaptation, and will only gain in reputation from a good film treatment. But this industrial reproduction of hit novels rarely leads to good cinema – one need only look at the work of Stephen Daldry, who, it seems, cannot behold a Waterstone’s 3-for-2 table without thinking of getting into the cinematic pants of every book on it. This is why we should welcome more adaptations like Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, no matter how vulgar, how misplaced, how tin-eared they might be. Such violence done to the po-faced edifice of ‘literary’ cinema might sensitise people to the pedantry of the slavish adaptation and might lead people to enjoy the source text without wasting time ruminating over whether Keira Knightly or Carey Mulligan might make a better Maggie Tulliver.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Mud – Jeff Nichols

Mud (Jeff Nichols – USA) 130 minutes

The first thing that is puzzling about Mud is why it took twelve months to get a release after it screened at Cannes, particularly when Jeff Nichols’ previous film, Take Shelter was such a popular and critical success. Mud is in many respects more commercial than that film, with an arguably bigger-name cast (Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, as well as Nichols regular Michael Shannon); it is also a more conventional film, if one that is certainly a cut above most current Hollywood output.

The film starts off with two young friends Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who secretly head out to a small island on the Mississippi in search of a boat they have heard is stuck in a tree. They soon discover there is someone living in it – a drifter who goes by the name of Mud (McConaughey); on the run from the law, he makes a deal with the youngsters, promising them the boat if they come back with food. The more practical Neckbone is initially wary of this Magwitch character but Ellis is more drawn to him, being an idealist who recognises something of himself in the older man. It soon becomes clear however that Mud is wanted for murder and as well as hiding from the law, he has to elude bounty hunters hired by his victim’s family. The two boys, both of them from impoverished fishing families, become embroiled in a drama that gets only messier as Mud tries to persuade his old flame Juniper (Witherspoon) to run away with him.

As in his two previous films, Nichols delivers a full and truthful  portrait of life in small town America, in this case DeWitt, Arkansas. The youngsters, like their elders, have a resourcefulness born of poverty – they are adept bricoleurs, able to turn their hand to almost any type of manual exigency; they are already conscious of the fact that they cannot expect to rely on anything in life, what with their family’s livelihoods under threat from an increasingly officious river authority. The film presents a dense matrix of father figures, both absent and present and their confused offspring – Ellis has a strained relationship with his own father, Senior (Ray McKinnon), while Neckbone is an orphan, raised by his uncle Galen (Shannon) much as Mud was himself raised by Tom Blankenship (Shepard). It’s a laudable trope but one that is a bit overdone, not to mention over-populated; we get the point early on and the film lurches into cliche from time to time. Nichols’ men are fabulists, self-deluded and fatuous, who are far less rooted than their various long-suffering women, whom they nonetheless harbour bitterness towards.

The final act is another puzzling aspect of the film – it seems grafted on from another movie entirely. The denouement is both cluttered and contrived and it doesn’t help that the gang of killers on Mud’s trail are little more than cardboard cut-outs. I also felt that, having set up as ineffably a romantic rogue as Mud, who is like a Christy Mahon of the Mississippi, Nichols squandered an opportunity to give us a far more resonant, ambiguous ending, as he did in Take Shelter. It is no disgrace that Mud is a comedown after that film, which was, after all, probably the best American film of the past few years, but it could have still been better. A little more ambition and a touch more audacity might have raised it above the level of merely efficient.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Past – Asghar Farhadi

The Past (Le passé) (Asghar Farhadi – France/Italy) 130 minutes

Having swept practically every award going, including the Best Foreign Film Oscar and the Golden Bear at Berlin, for A Separation, Asghar Farhadi makes his first film outside of Iran. The French-produced The Past gives Farhadi a fresh environment to work in, but it is very much in the vein of all his films to date.

Another separation takes place in this film – Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), a forty-something Iranian returns to Paris after four years back in Tehran to finalise his divorce from his French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo). The divorce is an amicable one and is by far the least complicated thing in the film – it is quickly resolved in a brief scene, where the judge is a far less imposing presence than in A Separation, and Farhadi eschews the claustrophobic subjective camera that ratcheted up the tension of that film from the very beginning. The Past is a more slow-burning film and nothing much happens for the first hour, even though it is clear there are recriminations and painful secrets that are set to rise to the surface at some point later on.

The first hitch is Marie is now living with a new boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his son Fouad, and has not warned Ahmad in advance. But the conflict comes not there, as you might expect, but with Marie’s teenage daughter (from a relationship prior to Ahmad) Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who is absenting herself from the home with greater frequency and who is steadfastly set against her mother’s relationship with Samir. The latter’s wife is also in a coma, after an attempted suicide, seemingly after finding out about his affair with Marie. But this is still only the beginning of it, with the motives and resentments of all only being gradually divulged as the film progresses. The past of the title is also not quite as distant as its imposing bareness suggests.

The Past is an exquisitely crafted drama and Farhadi glides effortlessly into a filmmaking environment very different to the one he is used to. The performances are also excellent, particularly Rahim, who, even though it is only four years since he was revealed in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, already looks like a seasoned professional, he is an actor of a rare intelligence and maturity for someone so young. Bejo, more accustomed to comedy, also repays handsomely the surprising choice to cast her instead of Marion Cotillard, who dropped out. Mosaffa is world-weary but generous as the Persian voice of reason, who may not be quite as reasonable as he thinks. His character does however seem to be a bit underwritten – there is little real sense of the sort of relationship Ahmad and Marie had and you get the sense that he is there to function as part-catalyst, part-diegetic father confessor.

For all the film’s qualities, it lacks the internal dynamics of Farhadi’s Iranian work – the logistical and moral imperatives forced on his characters. A feature of his earlier films, Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly as much as A Separation is characters seeking to carve out autonomous spaces for themselves free from the interference of a hostile, prescriptive state. We see this in the hiring of the maid on the black in A Separation and the later efforts to buy her off when things go wrong; it is also implicit in the attempt by the holiday-makers in About Elly to resolve the disappearance of Elly, a girl they barely know, without getting the police involved. One character in The Past is similarly concerned by her relationship with authority – Naïma (Sabrina Ouazani), the young Maghrebine who works in Samir’s dry cleaners as an illegal immigrant. This provides the spur for one vital plot turn but the rest of the characters have more workaday causes of grief. The Past is not a lesser film for this but its drama is implicitly less intense – and less draining – than Farhadi’s films in his home country.

The Past has been very favourably received by critics at Cannes and it is likely to garner an award or two from Steven Spielberg’s jury, most likely for the acting or the screenplay. Farhadi intends to continue living and working in Iran, but in light of the trouble the authorities, piqued by his rapturous welcome in Hollywood, have given him, the option to make more films abroad is one to keep open. And, if The Past is anything to go by, he shouldn’t have any problem doing that.

"THE PAST" by Asghar Farhadi - TRAILER from Memento Films International on Vimeo.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Promised Land – Gus Van Sant

Promised Land (Gus Van Sant – USA/United Arab Emirates) 106 minutes

For a good director, Gus Van Sant has made quite a few bad films in his time; nonetheless, all his films, from the resolutely commercial (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) to the experimental (Gerry, his frame-by-frame Psycho remake), both bad and good, are recognisably his. Each one bears the indelible stamp of a Gus Van Sant film. Van Sant’s last, the teenage cancer drama Restless, a tiresome stew of sentimentalism and quirkiness, brought to an end a run of excellent films but he was always likely to bounce back before too long.

Promised Land sees him return to the political activist genre that he first touched on in Milk, though this time the setting – rural Pennsylvania – is not so obvious for one of his films. It also reunites him with Matt Damon, who wrote and acted in the two films that represent the extremes of Van Sant’s work, Good Will Hunting and Gerry. Damon also contributes the screenplay here (based on an idea by Dave Eggers) and produces along with John Krasinski (who also stars, as the environmentalist activist Dustin Noble). The resulting film is a surprisingly robust if flawed drama about moral scruples and the strains of professional life.

Damon is Steve Butler, a young salesman for energy giant Global, who is a dab hand at convincing struggling farming communities to sell up their land for oil exploration (using the now notorious hydraulic fracturing method). When about to be promoted to an executive position at the beginning of the film, he explains his secret as being able to empathise with his prey, coming as he does from a similar rural background. Arriving in a small town with his sales partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDorman) however, he comes up against unexpected resistance, in the form of a science teacher and retired aviation engineer played by Hal Holbrook. Holbrook is then approached by Dustin Noble, an unknown environmental activist who is every bit Butler’s match, using fair means and foul to turn the townspeople against the buy-out bid.

The film is quite good early on in setting up the debate on fracking, and Butler is an impressively delineated figure of moral ambiguity. Krasinski is a rather alarmingly friendly idealist who resists corruption by his corporate adversaries while not being above delivering a few underhanded blows himself. The problem is the film does not really convince in the depiction of the community turning against the fracking. Their reaction is far too pavlovian and the implication is the townspeople are far too dim-witted to be capable of making an informed decision on their own. Butler’s efforts to win them over with a cattle fair is also a little crude and it betrays Damon and Krasinski’s origins as city boys. Even the roughest yokel is more sophisticated than that.

Ultimately Promised Land (a nifty title which infers something very different from its Biblical connotation) is a political sports movie like Milk but there is no clear-cut victory for anyone (the film, unlike many of this sort, is not based on any particular real-life case). Damon, a limited but efficient actor, is good in a role in which we find an echo of his younger Will Hunting (McDormand’s Sue is similarly cut from the same cloth as her Marge Gunderson in Fargo). Not surprisingly, Promised Land has been the target of public relations campaigns on behalf of fracking companies. I wonder if anyone pointed out the dubiousness of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates providing financial backing for the film, something that gives the film a strange additional flavour?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Lebanese Rocket Society – Joana Hadjithomas/Khalil Joreige

The Lebanese Rocket Society (Joana Hadjithomas/Khalil Joreige – Lebanon/France/Qatar) 90 minutes

In the 1960s, as the space race was heating up between the global superpowers, a small recently established Armenian university in Beirut was conducting its own rocket program of sorts. The program was headed by Manoug Manougian, a young professor of mathematics at Haigazian University, and it launched ten solid-fuel Cedar rockets over the course of seven years. The program had no avowed political intentions – something inconceivable today – but political leaders from across the Arab world – Nasser in particular – did try to get in on the action, albeit without success.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s third feature traces the history of the program, tracking down the protagonists – Manougian is now a professor in Florida while the university’s president at the time John Markarian is living in retirement in Pennsylvania. The film begins with some coy humour – the directors’ rudimentary Google research throws up nothing but Hezbollah Katyushas as representing ‘Lebanese rockets’. A trip to Haigazian University is more fruitful, though the archive news reports are all in Armenian and they have to get a student to translate. This front-ending of the research difficulties is a bit unconvincing as, even if Manougian’s rocket program has been largely forgotten, it is not all that obscure. There are ample witnesses to it, particularly Harry Koundakjian, the father of Lebanese photojournalism, who documented several of the launches. There is also Youssef Wehbé, a former army officer charged with observing it, who says that the government’s interest in the project was ultimately of a military nature.

The idealism of Manougian and his students was eventually quashed when the Lebanese government, under international pressure, put a stop to the project in the late 1960s. The researchers themselves had also exceeded their own expectations, to the extent that they almost got themselves into trouble, when one rocket made it all the way to Cyprus. It landed in the sea but there was an international complaint from the British government, who had (and still have) a military base on the island. What might have been is imagined in a futuristic animated sequence of Lebanese space travel at the end of the film.

The Lebanese Rocket Society is a conventional enough documentary and lacks the spark of Hadjithomas and Joreige’s earlier films Perfect Day and Je veux voir, both of which straddled fiction and documentary. As in those films however, the civil war looms large; in a way, the real focus of the film is not the rocket program per se but the society that was lost to the 15-year conflict. In many respects, Lebanon has weathered the last forty years surprisingly well – despite the bloody conflict, the rise of terrorism, occupation by both Israel and Syria and sectarian tension which keeps the country forever teetering on the brink of collapse, the country is still there. There has been none of the wholesale ethnic cleansing and population movements that have seen countries elsewhere in the world emptied of ethnic groups throughout the 19th century. Even Lebanon’s Christian community is faring much better than many others in the Middle East.

That instability has its own impact on the filmmakers. As part of a range of art installations to accompany the film, they decided to rebuild one of the rockets and give it as a gift to Haigazian University. Of course, they have to persuade authorities they have no military intent. They garner the requisite permits only to have to start all over again when Saad Hariri’s government falls in January 2011. It is this sense of portraying a historical flux that the film itself inhabits that gives The Lebanese Rocket Society an unexpected edge. This film may be a much lighter one than its predecessors but Hadjithomas and Joreige continue to have a lot to say about a small country with a painful but fascinating history.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Hannah Arendt – Margarethe von Trotta

Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta – Germany/Luxembourg/France/Israel) 113 minutes

Margarethe von Trotta’s latest portrayal of female German historical figures features the political theorist Hannah Arendt, or more precisely, the few months in 1961 surrounding the trial of Adolf Eichmann, about which Arendt wrote her famous articles for the New Yorker (subsequently published as Eichmann in Jerusalem). Barbara Sukowa, a regular in von Trotta’s films, in which she has already played Rosa Luxemburg, Hildegard von Bingen and a fictionalised Gudrun Esslin, is Arendt, a role you suspect she has been waiting her whole life to fill. Other figures in the film include Arendt’s husband, the Marxist Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg), her friend, the novelist Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) and New Yorker editor William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson). It is very much a talky affair, with the capture and trial of Eichmann discussed at length by Arendt’s largely German emigré circle, a colloquy that becomes more fractious after Arendt shocks the Jewish community with the publication of her first article.

The film is particularly strong on the development of Arendt’s famous concept of the banality of evil, which it suggests came to her as she sat watching the live relay of the trial in the Jerusalem press room. We see the actual archive footage of Eichmann in the dock, in which he berates the prosecution for their inaccuracies and selective interpretation of the bureaucratic evidence that he is only too familiar with. What causes the shit-storm back in New York though is her assertion that the number of Jewish deaths might have been less had there not been a Jewish leadership to co-operate with the Nazis. Viewed today, it is not an incredibly contentious argument but it inflamed Jewish opinion in both New York and Israel (where some of those leaders, such as Rudolf Kastner, assassinated in 1957, had taken refuge). Arendt received hate mail, was reviled as a self-hating Jew, many of her friends turned against her, Mossad turned up on her doorstep to issue veiled threats, and she was subject to academic intimidation, of the sort US critics of Israel today would recognise.

Arendt, despite the personal hurt caused her by her friends’ desertion, was unwavering – knowing most of her critics to be as intellectually mediocre as she found Eichmann to be – and Sukowa captures very well the imperious, at times overly-dispassionate, side to her character. Unfortunately she hams it up a little in the more dramatic scenes, particularly her defence in front of her students at the New School – while the intention is to convey impassioned argumentation, it reminds you a little too much of Lili von Stupp in Blazing Saddles. The film also protrays in flashback her romantic relationship with Martin Heidegger, her one-time teacher and mentor. While it makes perfect sense to evoke what would have been an undoubtedly seismic effect on Arendt's life – particularly given Heidegger's later collaboration with the Nazis – seeing the author of Being and Time playing hanky-panky with Hannah Arendt moves the film into the realm of the risible. Von Trotta’s direction is also overly academic – the film resembles a TV movie, or mini-series even, which is not surprising as her career in recent years has alternated between projects for TV and the big screen. Still, that hasn’t hampered its fortunes in Germany, where it has been a big hit at the box office. While the film may have the commendable effect of making Arendt known to a general audience, it really is a work that is far from approaching the stature of its subject, despite the best efforts of all involved.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Mood Indigo – Michel Gondry

Mood Indigo (L’écume des jours) (Michel Gondry – France/Belgium) 125 minutes

I wrote a few weeks ago about how my neighbourhood is becoming increasingly popular with filmmakers (mostly French, though it did also appear in Brian de Palma’s Femme Fatale over a decade ago). Now it is featuring in what is likely to be the biggest French film of the year; last Spring, a number of fantastical customised cars appeared on the streets around where I live, with the announcement that filming was afoot for Michel Gondry’s adaptation of Boris Vian’s 1947 novel L’écume des jours (translated, though little known, in English as Froth on the Daydream). The film has now made it to the screen. The result – a third adaptation of the novel – is a mixed bag, visually resplendent and inventive but ultimately rather empty. That said, it is definitely worth a look.

Vian’s novel is a French counterpart to On the Road or Catcher in the Rye, a mid-century novel that has been devoured by generations of teenagers. It is also, crucially, very different in nature and mood from Kerouac or Salinger’s novels. It tells of the wasting away of Chloé, the wife of the main character, Colin, after she ingests a water lily in her lungs while on their honeymoon. The novel is shot through with the existentialism of the day, even having as a peripheral character, a celebrated philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (the real Sartre would see the funny side and was an early champion of the novel, published when Vian was only 27). Jazz is also a key motif – Vian was a talented trumpeter, and close friend of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and many of the other greats of the era – and L’écume des jours is the literary embodiment of the zazou, a type of French student beatnik that surfaced during the German Occupation and which now lives on only in the Monaco, a sickly-sweet grenadine shandy confection popular among French students.

Gondry, not surprisingly, emphasises the fantastical aspect of the novel and picks and chooses for the film’s visual and aural texture. The soundtrack is the very jazz that Vian would have listened to (and played) while the costumes and sets are very much of the 1940s, though it is clearly set in some type of parallel universe of present-day Paris. Every frame of the film is filled with some type of disjointed surreal gadget or scenario – a TV chef instructing Colin’s manservant Nicolas (Omar Sy) as he cooks, a doorbell that crawls all over the apartment as it rings, a pair of two-tone loafers that growl and have a life of their own. My own favourite trope was the assembly-line typing pool located in the belly of Oscar Niemeyer's French Communist Party HQ. You imagine early on that it will all soon wear thin, but the visuals are actually the most enduring thing about the film. They are constantly inventive and have a gauche charm; they are a box of analogue delights found in the attic, an old hokey train-set resurrected by CGI.

Romain Duris, a man who doesn’t look to be getting any older, is well cast as Colin, even if he has very little in the way of a real character to grapple with. Audrey Tatou does the bare minimum as Chloé – neither good nor bad, she is rather a presence in a film, reassuring for audiences and financiers alike (in much the same way as Tom Hanks is in Hollywood). Better are Aïssa Maïga and Gad Elmaleh as Alice and Chick, the couple whose own travails pad out the subplot. Gondry himself also turns in a surprisingly effective comic performance as Chloé’s doctor.

While the film’s visual inventiveness never wanes, the narrative does. At just over two hours, it is about half an hour too long; what starts off like a sprightly, technicolor Guy Maddin film ends up like an actual Guy Maddin film. The final half-hour is a real slog and whereas Gondry ably captures the style and mood of Vian’s novel (as referenced in the film’s English-language title), his repackaging of its ideas and themes leaves a lot more to be desired. In a way, you can trace the film’s problems, like many of Gondry’s recent films, to the lack of a Charlie Kaufman, who wrote his first two, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kaufman doubles up, folds and contorts plot, time and space in his scripts in much the same way Gondry mangles visual information – in the two early films, they complemented each other well. Without Kaufman though, Gondry is really back to where he started out as – a talented director of music videos with a flair for the imaginative but lacking the structural discipline necessary for a full feature (though you might also say that Kaufman without Gondry or Spike Jonze is himself adrift – his Synecdoche, New York, plays out in an equally plodding way to this film). Mood Indigo is ultimately a thin undertaking that fails to really do justice to the source text. Still, the film is visually exciting enough to recommend, and it is likely to do well internationally, even if its posterior success is set to be as motion-picture wallpaper projected on the walls of hipster bars and clubs.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

What Richard Did – Lenny Abrahamson

What Richard Did (Lenny Abrahamson – Ireland) 88 minutes

Tone and register. Those are the two things that most bedevil Irish films and the things that ultimately determine their credibility. Too often, an Irish (fiction) film can fail because it just doesn’t sound, feel or look right. There are various reasons for this – a directorial sensibility that doesn’t always manage to free itself from the influence of television, a relatively small pool of actors (no matter how good many of them are), sometimes having to rely for commercial reasons on imported actors who struggle with the accent, not to mention the various constraints of budget and production values. Even the best filmmakers can find it difficult to maintain consistency in the way they portray Ireland on screen – a director as adept as John Boorman went from getting Ireland exactly right in The General to the rather more jarring A Tiger’s Tail. This is what makes Lenny Abrahamson particularly impressive; as well as being an excellent filmmaker in his own right, his films have consistently rung true, in wildly different social settings – working class Dublin junkies in Adam & Paul; the rural midlands in Garage; and now, in his third film, What Richard Did, the South County Dublin bourgeoisie.

The film is loosely based, by way of Kevin Power’s novel Bad Day at Blackrock, on the Annabel’s manslaughter case in 2000, in which 18-year-old Brian Murphy died from his injuries after a night-club brawl with rugby players from a rival private school. (This is not giving too much away, as it is implicit in the title.) The hero of the film is Richard Karlsen (Jack Reynor), a popular, successful jock with an eye on medical school, who has it all – he is the darling only son of his parents (Lorraine Pilkington and Lars – brother of Mads – Mikkelsen) and manages to prise away Lara (Róisín Murphy), the girlfriend of one of his friends Conor (Sam Keeley). At first there appears to be no fall-out but that does not last long, and the inevitable breaking point arrives.

The ‘SoCo’ milieu Abrahamson portrays is one many in Ireland love to hate but he and screenwriter Malcolm Campbell wisely avoid casting them in an egregiously unsympathetic light – the odd social snobbery aside, the kids are not particularly unpleasant (Richard, in fact, is the very opposite, being exceptionally generous to younger kids in his wider social circle). It casts the drama in greater relief when the upheaval comes and it also perfectly captures the sense of the gilded cocoon the kids inhabit. When four youngsters were convicted in connection with the killing of Brian Murphy (convictions that were later overturned on appeal), the prosecuting counsel remarked that not one but five lives were ruined by the killing. It was, as many pointed out at the time, a sympathetic encomium rarely extended to less well-off perpetrators of violent crime. What Richard Did doesn’t tackle the subject matter with the same attitude, but it does shape the drama’s contours, suggesting how high the stakes are for the teenagers involved.

Like Abrahamson’s previous films, the central character (or characters, in the case of Adam & Paul) is, despite his manifold social relationships and apparent contentedness, ultimately a solitary figure. Jack Reynor is excellent as Richard – a beaming, boyish ox of a teen, with a facility for charm and who always has the right word for the smallest of social interactions. The smaller roles are all deftly peopled too – there is just enough information sprinkled about to bring them to life, a tribute to the work of both Abrahamson and Campbell and also Nathan Nugent’s splendidly economic editing. The moral quandary at the centre of the film reminds one of the early Michael Haneke film Benny’s Video, while the low-key aesthetic (with a preference for natural lighting) is similar to recent German social dramas, by the likes of Henning Winckler, Christoph Hochhäusler or Hans-Christian Schmid. At a time when Irish filmmaking is beginning to bristle with a confidence and assuredness it has had only intermittently in the past, Abrahamson is the best of a talented bunch of young-ish directors. His reputation is also beginning to spread beyond Ireland, suggesting he has many good years ahead of him.