Thursday, October 31, 2013

This Is the End & Prince Avalanche

This Is the End (Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg – USA) 106 minutes

Prince Avalanche (David Gordon Green – USA) 90 minutes

Canadian childhood friends Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who wrote the comedies Superbad and Pineapple Express under the auspices of the Judd Apatow stable, step behind the camera for the first time. The result is at times diverting, but more often annoying and desperately shorter on ideas than it thinks it is. Rogen, noticeably slimmed down from his early days in Hollywood, plays himself – as does everyone else in the film – and, at the beginning, picks Jay Baruchel (another Apatow regular) from the airport. Baruchel professes to hate the phoniness of LA and is not impressed when Rogen drags him along to a party at James Franco’s house.

At first, Jay is pissed off at his friend for abandoning him among the party’s glittery but unengaging guests, but then an earthquake intervenes, and appears to be more than your average LA tremor, swallowing up a number of the party’s guests – including none other than Rihanna – and it soon becomes apparent the Apocalypse is upon us. The assembled remaining guests – Seth and Jay, Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, familiar faces all – bicker among themselves as they fight for survival and the film runs through the expected gamut of gags for the constituent group of man-children – how are these guys expected to pull through Armageddon when all they have is weed, beer, beef jerky and an Xbox?

There are a few cumbersome and tasteless jokes along the way, including one where Emma Watson mistakenly believes the guys intend raping her and makes off with the last of their water. The scenario and most of the jokes will be familiar from Shaun of the Dead but that film being nearly a decade old now, This Is the End’s core audience is not going to notice that too much. The one thing that Rogen and Goldberg probably imagined was fresh in their approach was their casting everyone as fictional versions of themselves; unfortunately, there is no genuinely edgy Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque self-deprecation on display – Michael Cera is made to look a bit pathetic and there are digs at both Franco and Hill’s thespian vanity but it is all very complicit and very safe.

You come away with the rather annoying impression of witnessing a litany of frat-boy in-jokes that every one (the supposedly dissident Baruchel included) is in upon. This Is the End made its first appearance as an April Fool trailer for a sequel to Pineapple Express and it resembles that film in its basic structure and tone – with apocalyptic forces replacing the murderous drug traffickers. It’s predictable and occasionally amiable enough and will please Rogen’s teenage fans but as is increasingly the case with the Apatow circle, you feel that all are capable of much better.

The director of Pineapple Express was David Gordon Green, for whom, back in 2008, it represented a radical career following his earlier Malickian dramas George Washington, All the Real Girls and Undertow (the latter of which was produced by Terrence Malick himself). Green has since Pineapple Express continued along in the same vein of boisterous comedy, directing Your Highness, The Sitter and the Danny McBride TV show Eastbound and Down. With Prince Avalanche, he returns to the more restrained tenor of the earlier movies even if he retains a proclivity to cheap laughs.

Prince Avalanche is loosely based on a little-seen 2011 Icelandic film Either Way and is set in 1988, a year after a massive forest fire in Western Texas. The film was actually filmed in Bastrop County, close to Austin, which itself suffered a devastating fire two years ago, but, presumably for reasons of sensitivity, Green chose to move the action 25 years into the past. Middle-aged Alvin (Paul Rudd) and his girlfriend’s feckless younger brother Lance (Emile Hirsch) are working as road maintenance men, repainting road markings and replacing signs and bollards after the fire. It’s a solitary existence, one savoured by Alvin, despite the fact it takes him away from his girlfriend, and hated by Lance, who just lives for the weekend and the opportunity to dip his wick.

We get a sense of the initial promise David Gordon Green showed in his earlier films – he films beautifully the destruction wrought by the forest fires and his casual, wordless observations of people bring home the sense of disbelief and disarray it must have occasioned those made homeless. The only two other characters in the film – an elderly alcoholic road worker and a mysterious woman who has lost her home – are never explained, and the background of the fire maintains a pregnant intrigue all the way to the end. It is a remarkable resistance to the obvious temptations of explaining everything away with signposted narrative developments and earned Green the Silver Bear for Best Director at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.

Where the film fails though is the central buddy-movie plot, which is perfunctory, hastily-constructed and never comes to life. The very first scene, in which the uptight Alvin argues with Lance when the latter removes Alvin’s German-learning tape from the stereo, gives you a taste of the contrived relationship that will follow. You imagine Green had Robert Altman or Hal Ashby in mind when conceiving the pairing, but his characterisation is slip-shod and inert in comparison. It is unlikely that greater diligence at the scripting stage would have lifted the film beyond run-of-the-mill Sundance standard but the whole thing could have been a whole lot better. As it is, it’s an interesting effort sunk by too great a cleaving to formula, which is another feature of Apatow and his circle.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Gravity – Alfonso Cuarón

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón – USA) 91 minutes

In Tom McCarthy’s 2005 novel Remainder, the hero, who is re-enacting in painstaking detail events from his life, expresses repeatedly his frustration at not being able to get a fridge door to open and close like in the movies – the door always catches, unlike the smoothness with which, say Robert de Niro, negotiates it on screen. This is because the movies – Hollywood ones in particular – don’t do mistakes. The inconveniences of life are airbrushed out of the diegetic reality of film – characters are able to get parking spaces right in front of buildings, they survive improbably long despite losing lots of blood after getting shot and they never wait for change in shops or restaurants.

Gravity is an unusual film then in that its drama stems almost entirely from a single mistake – the film might even be subtitled ‘Anatomy of an Error’. In Alfonso Cuarón’s new movie, things go wrong – many things go wrong, one after another. Three NASA astronauts are doing routine maintenance on their space station when they are informed by Houston that debris from an exploded Russian satellite is heading their way at high speed. Shuttle pilot Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) instructs engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) to detach herself from her post but Stone dallies. They end up getting hit by the first blast of the debris, which pierces the space station, destroying it, and killing three of the crew. Stone and Kowalski then have to make their way to one of three neighbouring space stations, in the hope of getting a shuttle back to Earth but, their peregrinations being knocked out of step, things are immediately more complicated.

Though Gravity has been praised for its realism by astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin, and the recreation of Earth’s orbit is hugely impressive, it is, I think, only incidentally a film about space. It seems to me to be more about the fragility of human existence, the abruptness with which lives end, the difference between life and death being often a misplaced foot or coming loose from one’s moorings, or not coming loose from them. This is what makes it such a thrilling, yet terrifying experience throughout. You have a wearying sense of mortality, of physical danger, even if the circumstances Stone and Kowalski find themselves in are hardly commonplace. In its spatial organisation, Gravity feels more like a Western than a traditional sci-fi film; the catastrophe befallen the astronauts resembles the march through the desert of John Ford’s 3 Godfathers or the travails of the desperate pioneer-prospectors of the recent films Meek’s Cut-Off and Gold. There is also the echo of a road-movie in Kowalski’s name, surely a reference to the lately departed Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point, as well as the Country and Western music that he plays in space, much to the annoyance of Stone.

Gravity works as an unusually sophisticated mainstream film, imbued with an acute existential frisson, because it is so simple. It is stripped down, a two-hander with two actors unencumbered by showiness. While Clooney may be a little too noticeably Clooney to fully inhabit an astronaut’s burnished anonymity, he does the job well enough; Bullock, on the other hand, an actor whose very ordinariness is the most remarkable thing about her, is perfect as Stone, the hospital systems engineer who ended up in Space following the sudden death of her four-year-old daughter. She looks just like the steely resilient soccer moms that beam out of their oversized spacesuits in official NASA portraits. Stone is someone for whom mistakes have come to be expected – she says she crashed the spacecraft every time in the Simulator – but now she has to unlearn that habit to survive. It is a testimony to the assuredness of Cuarón’s direction – a man who, it must be said, is a cerebral journeyman rather than a fully-fledged auteur – that Stone’s narrative of self-realisation is integrated into the film without appearing cheesy or maudlin. Gravity is a rare film, of any provenance, that is ineffably physical and visual while also giving the mind something to chew over. There will be few Hollywood films this year – this decade even – that are as good as it.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Behind the Candelabra & Fifi Howls from Happiness

Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh – USA) 118 minutes

Fifi Howls from Happiness (Fifi az khoshhali zooze mikeshad) (Mitra Farahani – USA/Iran/France) 96 minutes

The first I heard of Liberace was the day he died, when I was eleven years old. Within twenty-four hours I knew he was gay and had died of AIDS. And so crumbled the façade he had so assiduously maintained. The star entertainer had successfully cowed media speculation about his sexuality (though, curiously, he only felt the need to resort to suing in the less libel-friendly UK) and many of his fans were none the wiser as to the fact. Almost immediately though his homosexuality became one of the dominant things about his personality among the wider public (to be fair to the man, the attempts to out him were never motivated by emancipatory intent, so you can’t really blame him for hiding it). Another immediate effect of his death was he began to be forgotten. Liberace’s fame relied upon his presence on stage in Las Vegas and on TV holiday specials. He may have produced over forty LPs but not a single one of them lives on as testament to his fame.

Upon hearing Steven Soderbergh was to finish his filmmaking career with a Liberace biopic, I thought ‘oh yeah, Liberace, remember him.’ Like Michael Winterbottom’s recent Paul Raymond film The Look of Love, Behind the Candelabra feels like it has come a couple of decades too late. Soderbergh made the film for HBO – it has been released in cinemas internationally after premiering at Cannes – and, despite suggestions that the studios weren’t prepared to handle such a high-profile gay story, you sense they steered clear of it more because it is about the, well, forgotten Liberace. Besides, though the film is perfectly cinematic, its home is definitely on the small screen.

Behind the Candelabra is based on the memoir of Scott Thorson, Liberace’s former lover, who lived with him for several years in the late 70s and early 80s, before the pianist kicked him out as his drug problem got out of hand. Thorson (Matt Damon) is introduced to Liberace (Michael Douglas) while working as a young animal wrangler (though the film does not have him as young as he supposedly was in real life at the time – 16) and is quickly taken in, working as a chauffeur and assistant to give him something to do. Liberace seems to see more in him than in his other beaux and bizarrely suggests adopting Scott – though this may have been a publicity ploy, given that many of Liberace’s housewife fans came to assume that was their relationship. The strangeness of the demand is compounded by the plastic surgery and general make-over Scott is put through to make him resemble the older man. This backfires however when the surgeon – a wonderfully sleazy Rob Lowe in one of the film’s many casting coups – gets Scott hooked on pills as part of his ‘California diet’. The drug dependent downfall that follows is familiar from many West Coast films set in the era.

Michael Douglas won an Emmy for his portrayal of Liberace and it is hard to argue with that; if the film were eligible for the Oscars he would surely be the hot favourite for Best Actor too. Douglas inhabits Liberace effortlessly, and pulls off a performance that might have proved disastrous with the slightest false move. His Liberace has a clear sense of his impending obsolescence – a failure as a concert pianist, he reinvented himself as a hugely successful entertainer but he cannot even prevent his own brother, who plays under the same name, from chipping away at his fame. He tells Scott that he is so old he remembers the ladies playing the Wurlitzers at movie theatres; he is part of a dying world and his lawyer’s last desperate attempts to alter his death certificate to hide his cause of death are the last hurrah. Damon is quietly effective as Thorson, a man whose drug habits have never gone away – he is currently in prison for parole violation – though his performance is more biopic standard.

 Soberbergh’s direction is smooth and slick and the film whips along at a good pace, but as ever with his films there is something clinical about Behind the Candelabra and you miss the sense of ill-manneredness that might have tipped it into the realm of genius. Still, he had the inspired idea of casting Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother, providing a living link with the era that made the man huge. You imagine that, had he not succumbed to AIDS, Liberace might have enjoyed a resurgent fame in the 90s. He would probably have been able to come out of the closet and with both his camp sensibility and the faux-sophistication of the swing era coming back into fashion, he’d have been an even bigger draw than ever. As it stands, Behind the Candelabra is a curiosity, a slice of 20th century ephemera that catches momentarily a time when popular culture thrived on a necessary innocence.

Mitra Farahani’s documentary Fifi Howls from Happiness is another portrait of a gay artist in his final days. The subject is the late Iranian painter and sculptor, Bahman Mohasses, who died in 2010. Farahani, who previously directed a fascinating 2004 documentary, Taboos, on sexual attitudes in Iran, tracked Mohasses down to his hotel suite in Rome, where he has lived in exile for much of the past sixty years. Long out of Iran and his works within the country having been destroyed following the Islamic revolution, Mohasses is sufficiently forgotten by many to be considered a cult figure. Early on, we see wealthy young Iranian diaspora collectors waxing lyrical about his work, in which the influences of Ernst, Magritte and Bacon can be discerned.

    Mohasses himself is an engaging, provocative interviewee. He perorates in a semi-reactionary way, being scornful of gay marriage, reproaching the gay rights movement for ‘taking the illicit pleasure’ out of sex – he also claims that he never cruised gay men, but always young Italian guys who had girlfriends. He is also misogynistic, remarking upon the ‘bitch face’ of the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (no relation to the director) on a magazine cover. However contentious he might be though, his gregarious bronchial cackle and his gleeful wit make his every moment on screen compellingly watchable. At one point he mocks the director, saying that in the old Soviet Union, she would have got a medal pinned to her chest by Zhdanov for services to Socialist Realism (Mohasses studied art in Moscow at the very time that Zhdanov was overseeing Stalinist aesthetics).

    Farahani’s ‘services to Socialist Realism’ certainly don’t preclude her from playing the international art market, as part of the deal for Mohasses agreeing to do the film is her finding him a commission worth €100,000. Most collectors she calls baulk at the price, saying nothing has been heard of him since the Revolution, but two young Dubai-based brothers are enthusiastic and fly to Rome to meet Mohasses, who immediately plays hardball, demanding 70% payment up front. The episode is framed by Farahani, in voiceover, in reference to the meeting of the young Nicolas Poussin with the older painter Frenhofer in Balzac’s short story ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’. This formal self-consciousness shifts Farahani’s film more into film-essay territory, as do the extracts from Visconti’s The Leopard, a favourite film of Mohasses, and an explicit end-of-an-era reference.

    The film ends with Mohasses’ death, though it is not clear if the scene where he shouts in distress, off camera, is that very moment. It is one of the few instances of uncomfortable voyeurism in the film, and reminds you a little of the ailing Nicholas Ray in Wim Wenders’ Nick’s Movie. The painting is unfinished, and instead the young commissioners get to take a selection of the artist’s works he has offered as guarantee. Mohasses’ niece oversees the packing away of the works, including the one which gives the film its title, a sunnier version of Munch’s ‘The Scream’ and which was the painter’s own favourite of his works. As the movers wrap the tableaux up and slide them into crates, you have the sense of the great art movements of the twentieth century being put to rest, of abstract canvases finally yielding to conceptualism and gimmickry. Mohasses was already someone who had the stamp of yesteryear about him, a man thoroughly imbued with the hope and certainties of the post-war art boom, now largely forgotten. This fine documentary will hopefully go some of the way towards keeping his memory alive, both in his native country and abroad.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Butler & Elysium

The Butler (Lee Daniels – USA) 132 minutes

Elysium (Neill Blomkamp – USA) 109 minutes

Lee Daniels’ film à clef about the life of White House butler Cecil Gaines carries few surprises and, after the catastrophe of the inept Southern burlesque The Paperboy, that is no bad thing. The Butler is conventional to a fault and probably does too much to hold its audience’s hand – the rape of Gaines’ mother and murder of his father by a brutish plantation owner did not happen to Eugene Allen, whom the film is based on, and is a rather clunky sublimation of the legacy of slavery – but much of the film is admirably done and, though sentimental, you are rarely left feeling cheated.

Forrest Whitaker plays Gaines, a man who stumbles into service through the concerned paternal racism of his childhood employer Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), and who, after moving north, works his way into the White House via a Capitol Hill hotel. Gaines is pleasant and jovial but he quickly learns to be discreet as he adapts to his job in the company of a pair of cynical house staff (Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz). We see a succession of presidents and first ladies, who are portrayed with varying degrees of success by name actors: a painterly Eisenhower (Robin Williams), a beaming John and Jackie Kennedy (James Marsden and Minka Kelly), LBJ (Liev Schrieber) barking orders to his aides while sitting on the shitter, a fantastically shifty Nixon (John Cusack) and a solicitous Ronald and Nancy Reagan (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda). For some reason Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are passed over, but it is Reagan’s decision to veto Congressional sanctions on Apartheid South Africa that finally prompt Cecil to quit after almost four decades of service.

What goes on in the Gaines house is more interesting though. The life of middle-class black Americans is one we seldom see in Hollywood films, for whom black life must always be a litany of drug-and-crime-tinged misery. Oprah Winfrey, making one of her rare screen appearances, plays Cecil’s alcoholic wife, Gloria. Once you get over the weirdness of Oprah playing someone else, you realise how great an actress she is. Gloria is a sharp-tongued, world-weary lady who struggles with the booze as her husband spends long hours at work, and one son (Elijah Kelly) heads off to Vietnam while the other (David Oyelowo) flirts with the Black Panthers. Louis’ drift from civil rights advocate to the Panthers is another invention of the film and it is clearly contrived to reassure mainstream audiences (he soon breaks with them and becomes a lefty Democratic politician). The film is unabashedly pro-Obama and the film ends with Cecil invited back to the White House to meet the current president, as happened with Eugene Allen in real life.

The Butler is an undemanding enough of a film, and is a bit too beholden to the current Hollywood fondness for grand narratives of origin and accomplishment. But it is hard to find major fault with it – the acting is good throughout (Whitaker in particular) and it’s handsomely mounted, with excellent music by the Portuguese composer Rodrigo Leão. One can sense a raft of Oscar nominations awaiting – it’s really that sort of film – but I wouldn’t begrudge it its moment in the sun, even if it is a film that is unlikely to be remembered for long after.

Hollywood ventures into vulgar Marxism once again with Neill Blomkamp’s futuristic utopia/dystopia follow-up to the surprise sci-fi hit District 9. The year is 2154 and the great and the good have long given up on Earth, wracked by pollution, environmental catastrophe and crime. The rich have decamped to Elysium, a habitable sealed-atmosphere space-station that looks like the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey and which is lovingly landscaped with manicured lawns and the sort of aseptic neo-classical architecture that the American moneyed classes imagine to be the acme of good taste. It’s not unlike the hermetic, tax-free paradises advocated by Silicon Valley libertarians such as Peter Thiel, and William Fichtner, who plays John Carlyle, the villainous military systems CEO in cahoots with Elysian Secretary of Defence Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), even resembles Thiel in appearance.

Back on Earth, Elysium is a dream for the desperate multitudes, not least because of the existence there of incubation technology that will cure all ills. Julio, a Mexican people-trafficker (Diego Luna) runs regular excursions up, but most are intercepted with extreme prejudice by Elysian defence forces. One particular destruction of two vessels containing hopeful emigrants is disturbing for the insouciance with which Blomkamp films it, which is the first time you begin to question the sincerity of the film’s political line. Max da Costa (Matt Damon), a former car thief out on parole, is one of Carlyle’s employees and he is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation that leaves him only five days to get to Elysium for the all-important medical treatment. To pay his way, he takes on a job with Julio where he will hi-jack Carlyle’s pod on the way to Elysium and steal valuable data. Little do either Julio or Max know that the encrypted data is intended to override Elysium’s operating system and allow Delacourt seize power. Meanwhile, Frey (Alice Braga), an orphanage friend of Max, needs to get to Elysium to get her daughter cured of her terminal leukaemia.

Delacourt has set vicious mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley, from District 9) on Max to retrieve the data. Kruger is the best thing by far in the film, a monstrous apocalyptic colossus who is at once absurd and terrifying. He also turns out to be highly volatile and untrustworthy. Foster as Delacourt is where Elysium goes badly wrong. Though I have always thought her an overrated actor, it is surprising how awful Jodie Foster is in this role, a bizarre amalgam of Christine Lagarde and Donald Rumsfeld. It’s all shoulder pads and cold stares and not the stuff of formidable villains. The denouement of Elysium is routine stuff and, like with District 9 before it, Blomkamp has by then long dispensed with any effort at political analogy or serious social commentary. Still, it is enjoyable enough and is thankfully devoid of the pretentiousness which is such a common feature of such films. A diverting two hours.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Blue Jasmine & Nobody's Daughter Haewon

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen – USA) 98 minutes

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Nugu-ui ttal-do anin Haewon) (Hong Sang-soo – South Korea) 90 minutes

The auteur theory has fallen from grace in recent decades, even in its native France, but, for all its faults, it is still applicable to a fairly broad tranche of cinema, though little of it, admittedly, commercial. And, it must be remembered that finding common themes, styles and concerns through a director’s work is no guarantee of quality. Woody Allen is a case in point: barely a year has gone by over the past four decades where he has not turned out a film – his latest, Blue Jasmine, is his 43rd theatrical release. Allen’s industrial output is driven by treating his career as a job – he has never re-watched any of his films once the final cut is in the can. He famously works on set 9 to 5 whenever possible, and has never liked straying too far from Manhattan, though over the last decade he has broken with that habit.

An unfortunate side-effect of Allen’s prolificness has been quality control. Over the past two decades, his films have been of varying worth – ranging from the surprisingly smart (Match Point, You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger, Anything Else) to the unspeakably wretched (Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream, To Rome With Love). Still, regardless of its merits, every one is unmistakably a Woody Allen film; you might even say the inconsistency is proof of his status as a serious artist – who wouldn’t go like that if they cranked films out with such dizzying regularity? His recent films are far below the quality of his work in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the gags were far more polished and funnier, the characterisation more thorough and the films as a whole possessed of a breezy insouciance that is usually absent these days. But, given Woody’s longevity and the continuity of theme and style. apparent in his work over decades, you suspect that he was a second-rank filmmaker all along, no matter how much one might love Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose or Radio Days. They are better than his current work but their concerns are similarly limited. That is certainly how he sees it – he has often said that he has never produced a classic film to rival Citizen Kane or La Règle du jeu.

Blue Jasmine is Allen’s finest film in some years, but it is likely to be a false dawn like other bright moments in his recent filmography. It’s far from a perfect film but there is a surprising amount of meat to it. We first see the title character Jasmine on a flight from New York to San Francisco, talking incessantly to her neighbour, all the way through the airport. At first the glamour deficit between Cate Blanchett and an older unknown character actor suggests Jasmine is quite a big shot, but the veil falls when the other lady rushes away from her as soon as her luggage arrives on the carousel. It is a wonderfully economical way of dramatising Jasmine’s hyper-neurotic state and fall from grace while also being a ballsy way of introducing one’s star in such an unflattering light.

Jasmine is moving to the west coast to be with her half-sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), whom she wanted little to do with during her years married to hedge-fund guru Hal (Alec Baldwin). Now that Hal’s dodgy dealings have been rumbled by the Feds, Jasmine is trying to set herself up in life, having never worked for a living before. Blue-collar Ginger has split up with her ex-husband, Augie, who harbours resentment against both Jasmine and Hal over an ill-fated investment. She is now going out with Chilli (Bobby Canavale), whom Jasmine doesn’t care for much, calling him a carbon copy of Augie, and her derision is reciprocated in full.

Jasmine’s efforts to set herself up as an interior designer are stymied by lack of funds, her proclivity for pills and vodka martinis and her determinedness to wrench Ginger away from Chilli. When she meets a blue-nosed diplomat (a brilliantly smug Peter Sarsgaard) things appear to be looking up but her past, she finds, is never really past. Too often of late, the performances in Allen’s films have been cursory and obvious; here though they are a joy – true in energy and detail. Dice Clay in particular is excellent, as is Louis CK as a smooth-talking, ingenuous hi-fi salesman and Hawkins, a less hyper version of her down-to-earth Holly in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. It is Blanchett that is the greatest of all though; her portrayal of the self-deluded pillar of entitlement that is Jasmine is masterful. It teeters on the brink between mocking humour and terrifying alienation and the film as a whole strikes this balance incredibly well. There are flaws certainly – Allen’s squares the problem of filming an American film outside New York for the first time by populating San Francisco with Brooklyners – but Blue Jasmine is a creditable return to form, possibly the last good film Allen will ever make.

Another prolific director is the Korean Hong Sang-soo – Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is his eleventh feature in as many years. His films are usually shot on the hoof, on low budgets and are deceptively light. They also resemble each other a lot, often featuring as lead character a sad-sack middle-aged film director suffering a pained comedy of manners due to his philandering with younger women. His latest film is a slight variation on that, with the younger woman, Haewon (Jeung Eun-chae) the central character; she has been having an on-off affair with one of her film lecturers, Seongjun (Lee Seon-gyun). The film starts with Haewon’s mother, whom she hasn’t seen in five years (this is never explained), announcing she is leaving for Canada and won’t be coming back. Haewon is a loner – she appears to have few friends (partly because of a failed relationship) and her supposed Eurasian parentage seems to bother some of her less enlightened classmates.

Like much of Hong’s work, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is an intimiste chamber piece, with little of grand dramatic note happening. It is a succession of chance (or not so chance) encounters in the street, boozy, soju-sodden meals, and situations of sometimes excruciating embarrassment. Hong has a limited stylistic palette but it’s a very effective one – he favours sudden zooms which have a jarring effect similar to someone in your company acting unpredictably. His films are often brief slices of personal history, narrated in a voice-over that is palpably older and wiser, and while the humour is always to the fore, there is a bittersweet melancholy underpinning it.

There are also things in the film that seem at first throwaway but which upon reflection appear to be more significant. An example in Haewon is an encounter in the opening moments with Jane Birkin, who is asking for directions, and who tells Haewon she has similar features to her own daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg. Upon first sight, it looks like a pointless gimmick, a tacked-on cameo that is an echo of Hong’s previous film In Another Country, which featured Isabelle Huppert adrift in Korea, armed only with bad English to negotiate. Birkin’s cameo soon acquires a deeper meaning though when we realise how alone Haewon, a young woman both beautiful and smart, is in the world, and why has her own mother not been in touch with her for five years? Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is yet another limpid, economical work from Hong Sang-soo that does a lot with very little. Though a regular at Cannes in recent years, Hong has failed to impress English-speaking critics much. He is adulated in France though (hence Birkin and Huppert’s collaboration, and his excellent 2008 film Night and Day was set in Paris), which is not surprising. More than any director currently working, he resembles the late Éric Rohmer. Hong Sang-soo’s deftly amusing chamber pieces show him to be a worthy successor to a New Wave great.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Colour/La vie d'Adèle - Abdellatif Kechiche

Blue is the Warmest Colour (La vie d'Adèle - Chapîtres 1&2) (Abdellatif Kechiche - France/Belgium/Spain) 175 minutes

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or win for this three-hour drama about a lesbian love affair between two young women propelled him into the international spotlight, though he was already well established in France. Twice a winner of Best Picture at the Césars for L’Esquive and La Graine et le mulet (released in English with terrible titles, Games of Love and Chance and Couscous respectively), he is a razor-sharp observer of everyday French society and a director adept at coaxing electric, demotic performances out of unknown actors. La Graine et le mulet is one of the finest films about contemporary France and the struggles of immigrant communities to gain a foothold in society; it made little impact outside of France though, nor did his first period film, the 2010 Black Venus – about Sarah Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus’.

Though a universally popular winner at Cannes, Blue is the Warmest Colour has been the subject of raging controversy in France among industry professionals for what its crew called its director’s abusive behaviour. The two lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopolous and Léa Seydoux (the first real star to appear in a Kechiche film) have also said they will not work with him again, despite being co-awarded the Palme d’Or for their performances. It is not unusual for a film director to be accused of tyranny or megalomania but it is ironic that a man of such alleged abrasiveness should be a brilliantly sympathetic director of young women. Kechiche’s work might even be considered bone fide feminist, a rarity among male directors, and he has set Sara Forestier, Hafsia Herzi and, now, Exarchopolous, off on their careers. Whatever the conditions that surrounded its making, Blue is the Warmest Colour is another sensitive portrayal of women that subtly shifts focus as it moves along.

Based on Julie Maroh’s comic book Le bleu est une couleur chaude, the film relates the early adventures in love of Adèle (Exarchopolous), a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl from Lille, besotted with the 18th-century novelist Pierre de Marivaux (the film’s French title, La vie d’Adèle, is a nice classical allusion in this vein), and, like most teenagers, looking for love. She initially finds it in a handsome young schoolmate, Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte) but soon realises she is more interested in women. Though shy, she manages to catch the eye of twenty-something artist Emma (Seydoux), a brooding, boyish, blue-haired lesbian. They are soon madly in love, going to gallery openings together, lying to each other’s parents about their respective situations and having beastly sex, which is filmed in explicit wide-angle long-takes. You expect homophobia and accusations of statutary rape to arise but they are touched on briefly and the film quickly moves on, as Adèle becomes a nursery school teacher and Emma’s painting career begins to take off. One of the strengths of Blue is the Warmest Colour, aside from the characterisation and the performances, is the way it flips itself halfway through, shifting from being a self-consciously ‘lesbian’ drama to one that is more a conventional love story. This movement reflects the trajectory of the heroine’s consciousness (the film’s subtitle in French is ‘Chapters 1 & 2’) but it is also a deft wrongfooting of the audience, as well as mainlining a subject matter often considered marginal in the cinema.

Exarchopolous and Seydoux are both superb, particularly the former, who pours youthful hopefulness and insecurity into her character. Kechiche films with the same claustrophobic assiduity familiar from his previous films (it’s striking how similar the dinner table scenes are to the ones in La Graine et le mulet, right down to food sticking messily to people’s chins and lips). The sex scenes look very real but were actually filmed with prosthetic pudenda so the actresses weren’t actually expected to give that much for their art. One of the scenes is almost ten minutes long – it’s neither erotic nor pornographic, lacking the mediated aestheticisation of either, but instead looks like a natural continuation in private of the couple’s public relationship. The sharp cuts to and from the sex scenes underscore this. While some might find the sex a little too much to take, there is nothing particularly jarring about it within the context of the film. If there is one complaint to make about this splendidly moving film though, it is its length. Kechiche, when asked if he would make it shorter for general release, replied that he would make it longer if he could. This was not a problem with La Graine et le mulet though it was with Black Venus, which were both in excess of two-and-a-half hours long. You might argue that Blue is the Warmest Colour is sufficiently conscious of the passing of time to absorb the longueurs, but, good as it is, it does drag at times. Though it’s not a fatal shortcoming, you feel that Kechiche might easily have shaved thirty minutes off its three-hour running time without making a worse film.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Dance of Reality - Alejandro Jodorowsky

The Dance of Reality (La Danza de la Realidad) (Alejandro Jodorowsky – Chile/France) 130 minutes

Alejandro Jodorowsky unexpectedly returned this year with his first film since his abortive attempt to move into the mainstream with The Rainbow Thief in 1990. Not that the Chilean magus has been idle in that time – he has busied himself with theatre work, comics and his weekly tarot sessions at a Paris café. The new film, The Dance of Reality,is a ‘freely’ autobiographical work, based on his memories of an unhappy childhood in the roughneck Chilean port town of Tocopillo during the Great Depression (which hit Chile as bad as it did the US). Born to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, Jodorowsky was close to neither of his parents – his father Jaime was a brutish Stalinist, while his mother, Sara, never loved him as he was conceived of a rape by Jaime during a rage of jealousy. Or so it was according to the 2005 memoir The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Dance of Reality offers a slightly more sympathetic view of both parents, with Jaime’s authoritarianism offset by bravery in the face of torture by government spooks, while Sara is a good deal more indulgent of her son, doting on him, singing all her dialogue as arias of perpetual urgency.

Jodorowsky shot the film in the actual town of Tocopillo, a gateway to the mining-rich Atacama Desert; you suspect the town, a rusty, wind-swept outpost, hasn’t changed a great deal since his childhood in the 1920s. Despite having a budget of $3 million (admittedly, not much for a period film) it looks cheap in a theatrical kind of way. But that may have been Jodorowsky’s intention, to denude the film of any cinematic patina and to foreground the acts of his characters. The first half focuses mostly on the young Alejandro, who is prey to both his boorish father, determined to toughen him up, and the anti-semitic bullying of his classmates. His first traumatic experience arrives when he gives a new pair of boots to a shoeless child, only for the boy to slip on wet rocks wearing them and drown. This leads to the violent recrimination of his father and his guilt at the boy’s death. Alejandro’s mother, unlike Jaime, urges him to survive in life by ‘making himself invisible’ (surely something that would have been known to many Jews from Eastern Europe); she demonstrates by bringing him to a bar frequented by sailors, stripping naked and going unnoticed by all.

The second part of The Dance of Reality is centred on the father, Jaime, who decides to give thanks for being delivered from the plague by attempting to assassinate populist right-wing president Carlos Ibañez del Campo, taking a job as the president’s stable hand (I suppose I should introduce a spoiler – Ibañez served a second term two decades later). Jaime then drifts in an amnesiac state, from a Santiago slum to a Christian carpenter’s studio before being picked up by agents of the state and tortured. When Ibañez is overthrown, he is rescued and returns to the family.

The Dance of Reality is replete with memorable scenes, such as a troop of plague-stricken peasants crossing the mountain to reach the sea; a group of amputees, straight out of Tod Browning, facing off against Jaime; the surreal appearance of a Chilean Nazi parade (the Chilean Nazis really did exist), and a fire-fighting incident gone awry in a favela. Jodorowsky, as ever, demands a lot of his actors, particularly his son Brontis, who plays his own grandfather. Brontis has electrodes applied to his bare testicles and is pissed on by the buxom Pamela Flores, playing Sara, in an attempt to cure his plague. There is much in this ingenuous, inoffensive film that will offend certain people but it is more its length that sticks in the craw. For all the inventiveness on display and for all the verve of Jodorowsky’s vision, The Dance of Reality goes on a bit too long and never really manages to gel into a cohesive whole, despite its origins in the director’s own experience. Jodorowsky cultists, of which there are many, will lap it up. More casual viewers will find that it drags.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Three new films

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Vic + Flo ont vu un ours) (Denis Côté – Canada) 95 minutes
Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (Arnaud Desplechin – France/USA) 117 minutes
Tip Top (Serge Bozon – France/Luxembourg) 106 minutes

Quebecois director Denis Côté’s second film this year (after the animal documentary, Bestiaire, which I reviewed back in March) is elliptic and oneiric, like much of his work so far. The film starts with Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille), released from prison at the age of 61 in rural Quebec, after serving a life sentence. Needing to be assigned a residence by her parole officer (Marc-André Grondin), she moves in with an elderly paraplegic uncle, who is being cared for by neighbours that are wary of Victoria’s arrival. Convinced of her fecklessness, they soon take the uncle to their own home. She also has a wealthy brother who turns up on her first day, but is told mockingly by Victoria, ‘I know you’re never going to come here again’. Victoria is joined a few days later by Florence (French actress Romane Bohringer, gamefully adopting an Arcadian accent), a jail friend and part-time lover. The parole officer Guillaume warns them they are in violation of Victoria’s parole conditions by consorting but he indulges them anyway, when he realises Florence is not such a bad influence.

Or at least not until a woman purporting to work for the municipality (Robert Lepage regular Marie Brassard) starts hanging around the property with a menacing sidekick (Ramon Cespedes). She is a former acquaintance of Florence, who seems to have crossed her in some undefined way in the past, and they kidnap Flo one day and break her legs. The film continues in a relatively light-hearted convalescent mode, as Guillaume warms to the prickly pair. But the relationship is under strain already by Florence’s preference for city life and her desire to go out and meet people (men included); Victoria’s tolerance for mankind is worn down by her years in jail and she snaps ‘what do I want with other people at my age?’

The menace lurking in the background never quite recedes though and the savagery hinted at in the title (there never is actually a bear glimpsed throughout the 95 minutes) underskirts a film that is, on the face of it, melancholy and gentle. Côté is a fine gauger of mood and sentiment and elegantly employs pans and dissolves to move from one time scale to another. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is an unassuming film that consistently strikes the right tone. It is a bit surprising a relatively modest film took the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival but it was nonetheless a deserving award.

Arnaud Despechin, so impressive in his wide-canvas ensemble pieces in his native France, misfires badly in his first American film. Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (whoever green-lit that clunking title is obviously too big to fire) recounts the real-life post-war encounter between a Blackfoot Indian, Jimmy Picard (Benicio del Toro) and the Hungarian-born French anthropologist Georges Devereux – né György Dobó (Mathieu Amalric) during therapy at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. Picard is suffering from hallucinations after injuring himself during the war (none too gloriously, by drunkenly falling out the back of a truck); no doctors can find anything wrong with him and Devereux, then untrained as a psychotherapist, is called in because of his expertise with Native Americans, having lived with the Mohave for two years.

Adapting Dreams and Reality, Devereux’s book documenting the case, has been an ambition for Desplechin for over two decades. It is all the more mystifying then that the resultant film is so slipshod and jejune. We take it on faith the magnitude of the subject – Karl Menninger (Larry Pine) and Devereux’s New York lover Madeleine are full of praise for the maverick anthropologist, but, apart from conducting therapy while ailing from heavy flu, we see nothing exceptional about him. One would expect race, class and historical dispossession to figure in the case of Picard but these are only fleetingly touched upon. His Native American background in the film appears to function only a vehicle for the self-congratulating pride in a sensitive, enlightened European bettering his American counterparts in treatment of a minority subject.

The film fails on a technical level too. Even though Desplechin got US film critic Kent Jones on board to write, the dialogue is hokey and flat, something that was a problem with his previous English-language film Esther Kahn (1999). The performances are also jarringly unfocussed – Amalric’s Devereux is a mincing, shambling eccentric who fails utterly to convey any sense of a troubled past (he is Jewish and this is just three years after the end of the war); del Toro, usually so good, is reduced to the clichéd mannerisms of two categories of ‘quality’ screen-acting – the ethnic minority and the disabled. That two good actors should be so adrift can only be down to deficiencies in Desplechin’s direction. You get the sense the Frenchman was going for his own attempt at the wide-scale Oscar season Hollywood film. Jimmy P is a sorry mess though, and barely passes muster as a TV movie.

Serge Bozon’s fourth film relocates Welsh writer David Craig/James Tucker’s 2006 crime novel to the unlovely Lille suburb of Villeneuve-d’Ascq. It has all the quirks of Bozon’s previous film La France, in which Sylvie Testud passes as a man in uniform during World War I in search of her brother, and then some. Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Kiberlain – together in possession of 90% of the freckles in French cinema – play two Internal Affairs cops investigating possible police involvement in the murder of an informer. They are met with hostility by the police they are investigating but one detective, Robert Mendès (François Damiens) comes round to their point of view when he realises his superiors could indeed be implicated.

Tip Top is laced with burlesque and intentionally stilted, choreographed acting. It’s underlit palette and fondness for interesting faces and obscure old rock and roll (in this case Turkish group 3 Hürel’s ‘Ve Ölüm’) recalls Aki Kaurismäki and the film occasionally succeeds in this vein. The lead actresses are breezy but awkward in their roles as two cops ill at ease with another and much of the world besides. The film incorporates into the plot Algerian police officers who fled their country during the Civil War, under threat of reprisals from Islamists, but, like the original murder, this is rarely fleshed out to any sufficient degree and winds up looking like window dressing. It’s a shame as Tip Top does take a genuinely different tack to much contemporary French cinema. Ultimately though the film is pretty bloodless, smothered by the quirks and peculiarities; by the time a lame joke about tourists being given an open-top bus tour of Villeneuve-d’Ascq, founded 1975, is dragged out over five minutes, you really have had enough.