Tag Archives: Cinema

Something In The Air (Apres Mai)

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France (2012). Dir: Olivier Assayas; Scr: Olivier Assayas

It is 1971 in the Paris suburbs and the zeitgeist of May 1968 – the student occupations, wildcat strikes and street violence – is felt strongly by a group of restless, creative high-school friends. In a perfectly composed recreation of the early seventies Assayas, unashamed but with some confessional humility, presents a (self) portrait of the artist as a late teen passing into a twenty-something: middle-class, rebellious, searching but rather more self-centred and just “afraid to miss out on his youth”. It’s a film so rich in atmosphere, so evocative of place and time, so immaculate in detail that story becomes subordinated to the feeling that we are drawn into Assayas’ memory. It’s less nostalgia than a shared experience: the terrible adrenalin thrill of running from crowd violence, the hopeless love for a (more) sophisticated free-spirit and the comfort of drifting. Time passes, chapters open and close, often in flames.  It envelops you.

We first see Gilles, played by Clement Metayer, scratching the anarchy symbol into his desk in class.  He distributes leaflets by the school and argues – angry, self-contained – at smokey meetings.  We see his breathless and terrifying escape from the Police after he and his friends join a demonstration in the city. Early on we also see Gilles’ muse, Laure (Carol Combes), an ethereal child of nature (they meet on a woodland pathway). She reads lesser-known beat poets and is unselfconscious about her body and sex. She tells him she is moving to London because her dad is going to work with Soft Machine.

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Gilles’ group step up their nocturnal activism (against their school buildings) and Gilles gets closer to Christine, played by Lola Creton. But their lives change when a night raid goes badly wrong and one of the group faces charges, so Gilles, Christine and another friend, Alain (Felix Armand), travel to Italy to lie low.  There they they hook up with beautiful itinerant young people on a higher plane of grooviness. Alain heads off to Afganistan with Leslie, an American who wants to study spiritual dance and Christine drives off in the campervan of a group of political film-makers.  Eventually they each drift homeward, Gilles first.

The film steers clear of developing a coherent political argument, because Gilles can’t – the filmmakers in Italy deride his reading material and don’t take him seriously enough to help his film project,“We do agitprop, we don’t lend for fiction”. In fact, Assayas doesn’t want us to like Gilles: he is always “outside the real struggle”, wealth cushions any risks he takes (he’s happy to rely on nepotism back in France) and he is selfish. But while we feel more sympathy for the committed Christine, whose (hopeless) love for Gilles endures, and the idealistic and supportive Alain, Gilles is no less real.

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The cinematography is exquisite. It glows. The music of the time is selected with a passion: Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart and Tangerine Dream.  Assayas is also particularly in tune with a kind of asymmetric young love – the disappointments are poignant and quietly dramatic. And around this he reminds us of a communication that we may have lost: when she leaves for London, Christine gives Gilles a copy of Corso’s book of poems, Gasoline, and, most moving, Alain gently urges Leslie to go to see two paintings on display near to where she will be.  At the time it is the most loving, thoughtful present he can give.

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In A World

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USA, 2012.  Dir: Lake Bell, Scr: Lake Bell

One of the nice things about Lake Bell’s first feature-length film is the genuine recognition given to legendary film trailer and TV advert voice-over artist Don LaFontaine, “The Voice of God” or “Thunder Throat”, who died in 2008. There’s no irony in her opening tribute to the undisputed king of an obscure cottage industry supplying The Movies. Closer to the real LA than the glamour of Hollywood, this insular world is, nevertheless, characterised by egos, rivalry, hierarchy and sexual politics. But these are playfully undermined by Bell as she introduces a fictional group of characters to the real-world vacuum left after LaFontaine’s death. With a warm universal (at least mid-Atlantic) humour that blends quirkiness, self-deprecation and throwaway lines, the film is wonderfully funny.  It is a film of such charm that, while Lake Bell is becoming a well-known TV actress, the audience can see it has made a discovery and, in her – writer, director and leading actress, it has discovered a phenomenon.

Carol is the voice-coach daughter of successful, now retired, larger-than-life film trailer voice-over artist, Sam, played by Fred Melamed. She still lives at home but, early on, Sam talks about his girlfriend moving in and the need for Carol to move out, “I can’t continue to support your emotional handicap.”  Carol stays with her sister, Dani (Michaela Watkins), and her partner, Moe (Rob Corddry) – an arrangement which helps develop the subplot around tests of fidelity. The sweet, geeky recording engineer, played by Demetri Martin, who fancies Carol arranges for her to record a test voice-over, which is well-received. After winning an advertising job, “Wow, you’re the voice of Sunny D!”, Carol is added to the shortlist for the voice-over of the trailer for the next Hollywood fantasy blockbuster.  When her father hears, he decides to compete against her.

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The film is easy to love and difficult to fault. The Dani and Moe sub-plot is in to show the rounding of characters, how people are flawed, the real LA.  It is perhaps slightly over-done in the film, but the “Sisterhood” between Carol and Dani is both silly in-joke and important statement. Bell is a smart feminist: she is making her mark in a (man’s) world because she is a workaholic with huge talent, energy, passion and interest.  But, in a scene with a brilliant cameo by Geena Davis she acknowledges that affirmative action has a place. As a sign that her popularity, rightly, seems to be growing we see if not better, then funnier, cameos from Cameron Diaz and Eva Longoria. The infectious, child-like vibrancy we saw at the Q&A at Sundance London permeates the film.  She talked of performing “The Late Lake Show” between the ages of 5 and 11 to put off bed-time and I don’t think she’s changed: why sleep when you can be tangential? Oh, and she loves doing accents – The valley girl, the Russian (her favourite), the wide-boy – and they all appear in the film.  She is, well, just lovely – a sort of lozenge of light.  She has everything you’d want in a best friend.  And anyone who can slip Haircut 100 into a party scene is a friend of mine.

PS: Technically, one of the accents in the film was Bulgarian, not Russian.  Russian is still her favourite, I think.

Running From Crazy

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USA 2012.  Dir: Barbara Kopple, Scr: Barbara Kopple

The film opens with the scene being clearly set: Seven of Mariel Hemingway’s relatives, including grandfather Ernest, committed suicide.  But there’s a still more disturbing moment when the final credits show that Oprah Winfrey is executive producer.  It’s easy to be suspicious: we imagine OW in a big gleaming limo on the phone to Kopple, “Make ’em cry, Babs”.  But this does the director a massive disservice.  This a brave film and she is in control.

It’s the story not just of Mariel but of the three sisters living with the Hemingway gene – the daughters of Ernest’s eldest son’s marriage, one that was unhappy and blurred by “wine time” every evening. Muffet is the eldest: she was elegant, sporty, clever, nomadic, but often institutionalized and now barely recognisable, living on the margin of society, unable to fend for herself.  Margaux, the wild child, drinker, fighter, big partier, at one time the highest paid model in the country and star of films with mixed critical and commercial success, now dead after a drug overdose in 1996.  And Mariel, a more successful movie star who – after her husband’s cancer, a broken marriage, battles with depression, faddish life-style obsessions – actively campaigns for suicide awareness and, here, talks with disarming honesty about coming to terms with being from “the other American family that had this horrible curse”.

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Kopple’s style here is passive, she’s a watcher and a collector. The narrative doesn’t build momentum, nor is there a big surprise moment that shifts the gear or direction nor onion-peeling detective work.  And it is more subtle than a polemic on mental health. The film is a collage with a chronological spine. It splices together family film footage, interviews and fly on the wall views of Mariel with film and tape interviews with Margot along with excerpts from an unfinished film of hers, retracing her grandfather’s footsteps.  These sections are the highlight as Margot’s louche, self-destructive allure commands our attention.  In a striking scene we are shown Margaux’s distress at the brutality of the bullfight.  Mariel reflects that the event is a “metaphor for Margaux’s life”.

Kopple never spoon-feeds opinions to the audience: the almost off-the-cuff revelation that the girls were sexually abused by their father is left hanging and passes – its a “what did she just say?” moment; footage of the “Out of the Darkness” festival for people touched by suicide is used only as moving context to show the bond between Mariel and her daughter, and; we are encouraged to form our own view of Mariel. Kopple indulges her self-pity at times – how she never felt important, how she provided the support to a mother who “lacked physical affection”. But shows her remorsefully reflecting on tension with Margaux, who “Idolized all the things I hated.  I thought she was stupid”. This candour  shows her strength, emphasized when Kopple takes a directorial risk, by showing a sort of reality tv argument between Mariel and her partner.  But then she neatly cuts to Mariel pulling herself up a sheer rockface by her fingertips.

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It’s a brave film about women who, though not Nobel-prize winning novelists, deserve attention for trying to build their own lives in the shadow of “Papa” Ernest and who are interesting in their own right, albeit tragically.  Its subject matter does takes us close to, not quite over, the schmaltz line once or twice but the most painfully sugary moment is when Margaux explains her change of name (from Margot): it was the wine her father was drinking when she was conceived.  She stops short of saying whether he was chateaud at the time.

Also by Barbara Kopple (Selection):

Bearing Witness (2005)

American Dream (1990) [Oscar for Best Documentary]

Harlan County, USA (1976) [Oscar for Best Documentary]

Upstream Color

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USA 2012. Dir: Shane Carruth, Scr: Shane Carruth

At Better Than Disneyland we sometimes worry that we get too bogged down in trying to tie things down, trying to understand what the director wants to say.  Sometimes we just want to answer the question, “Is it beautiful?” For Upstream Color this definitely feels like the more relevant question to ask, but the answer isn’t simple. This is a film whose powerful beauty is of the strangest kind. Instead of luxuriating, we find ourselves worrying. While it might be the most sensuous film we’ve seen this year – we feel the images and sounds they are so strong – it’s also possibly the most challenging.  The narrative is not only obscure it is also far from a pleasing montage – the content is at times disturbing and horrifying.  Although an award winner (for Sound Design) at Sundance, the film divided opinion – but what metaphysical science fiction romantic thriller wouldn’t?  We don’t find ourselves doing anything as simple as loving it, we find ourselves absorbed by it, lost in thought about it and we nod in appreciation of a director who is challenging conventional cinematic language, comfortable with a bold language other than words.

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A natural organism – a worm, a bug – is fed by a thief to a woman to drug her. The drug puts her under his control so that he can commit a sophisticated robbery. The organism, seemingly alive inside her, makes her ill. After an X files-like sequence to extract it in which she is “sampled” – her body is connected to a pig, she begins a difficult process of recovery and rehabilitation. She is thrown together with a man she meets on the train.  He has lost his job due to a financial crime he committed (to recover money lost in a similar way?).  Both are desperately fragile but they find protection in each other from things like the malevolent “surgeon”/pig-farmer who provides an otherworldly threat throughout.

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If this seems bonkers, Carruth manages to keep the audience transfixed. His extraordinary use of sound, his mix of camerawork both angled and direct and his mix of the lyrical and the brutal amplify our emotional responses:  we grimace as the woman clumsily tries to extract the organism herself, we feel the precarious safety of the two lovers as they hide away in their bath, wrapped in each other. He also handles the disturbing scenes in the early part of the film delicately. The drugged woman loses all choice, all power. The thief is in her apartment. But any sexual violence or exploitation is avoided and, at the same time, the thief is shown without judgement, almost in the abstract. Carruth also stars in the film with Amy Seimetz, who has a face that can reflect perfectly both emptiness and, in turn, inspiration by love. His bold creative talent is matched by his intelligence and his ability to worry. He worries about identity and what happens to someone when this is lost. He worries about how life is pieced together when someone has been violated.  And he worries about nature and purity.  Has man, or something, already interfered too much? Just as significant as the wild orchid turning an artificial blue is the final image: at first sight an upbeat, gentle note. But it’s a much more ambiguous image. Of mother and child, perhaps? It is a film to file under “special”, “unique”, a film to respect.

Withnail and I (UK, 1987) is on tv in the UK this week

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1969. Two out of work actors escape their frustrating existence in a London flat and go on holiday to the country.  That’s it.  But it is the film most deserving of it’s mythical status and fanatical cult following that we know.  It is a national treasure.  A favourite cousin remembered with love, distraction and (sometimes uncontrollable) giggling.

From a blurry alcoholic haze, Bruce Robinson created some of the most memorable characters, lines and scenes to bless the Silver Screen.  Richard E Grant as the flamboyant but desperate Withnail, Richard Griffiths (sadly recently deceased) as the predatory Uncle Monty and Ralph Brown as Danny the Dealer are all unforgettable.  And their lines – always delivered perfectly – are touched with genius, with bohemian abstraction. The scenes are similarly inspired: remember “Lighter Fluid” or “Fishing”, the “Camberwell Carrot” or the “Tea Room”.  But we just have to mention “I’m making time!” when “I” wakes up in the back seat of the beaten-up MkII Jaguar, with an intoxicated Withnail hurtling down the motorway to Voodoo Chile by Jimi Hendrix on the soundtrack.

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As students, aspiring writers, musicians or, of course, thespians, we saw that, if these characters weren’t our alter egos, we knew them well.  Part of the film’s attraction was that these extraordinary people were very real in our young lives.  A unique film for all the right reasons.  Beautiful, really.

If you are in the UK, Withnail and I is being shown on Film 4 on Friday 26th April at 12.20 am – technically that’s Saturday the 27th.

Reality

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Italy-France (2012).  Dir: Matteo Garrone, Scr: Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso

It was many years ago, in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  I saw the tiny frail old lady standing alone, completely transfixed on a painting of the Madonna, lit by a beam of sunlight. Oblivious to everything around her, she was staring upward, lost in audible, feverish supplication.  Now, in the cinema, Garrone shows me Luciano, the fish-stall trader from Naples, sitting alone in a broom-cupboard staring upward, transfixed on a tv screen, oblivious, lost. Giggling feverishly, he watches Grande Fratello, the Italian Big Brother. Of course, the idea that celebrity is the new religion isn’t new nor are we unaware that the basis of celebrity is becoming more random. But, from its fairytale opening sequence to final pathos, this film feels deeply for those who scrape a living among the beautiful buildings of old Naples and it worries about how they need desperately to make life feel more complete.  Slightly sentimental?  Possibly, but these things are worth worrying about.

Luciano is a canny, popular member of his local community and a loving husband and father.  We first see him at a fantasy wedding reception, at which a short appearance by Enzo, a previous winner of Grande Fratello, is the highlight for the couple.  Luciano causes hilarity when, in drag as one of his party pieces “The Bag Lady”, he accosts Enzo as he is leaving.  Up close, Enzo and Luciano are very similar.

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Luciano is too busy with the fish-stall and a credit scam to care much about Grande Fratello, but to keep his daughter happy he agrees to audition for the programme in the local shopping mall, “Just point the camera at me, it doesn’t matter if it’s on”. But sometime later, he receives a call asking him to attend a second audition in Rome. The community is buzzing and he returns to a hero’s welcome.  But time passes and he hears nothing. Gradually he starts losing touch: he sees signs, feels that he is being watched, being tested, for selection. In a sadly comic but  significant moment at a crematorium, he seeks advice from two old ladies paying their respects, “Be patient. You only need faith and hope to get into the ‘House’”.  The worse his quasi-religious obsession becomes – he gives away all his worldy goods and loses his family – the more he seems to achieve a state of bliss.

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The film is rich with ideas and contains stunning cinematic flourishes: aerial, sweeping shots of beautiful settings; at one point an elegant, single take of simultaneous scenes playing out in different rooms of a gothic mansion, and images of the destitute carrying off ornaments from Luciano’s house.  It burst with empathy for the ordinary folk of Naples – Luciano is played by Aniello Arena, who was permitted day-release from prison to take part – and their lives. Rather obviously, it is a tragi-comic morality tale about the pursuit of celebrity and fame. But Garrone wants to say a little more.  He delicately handles the importance of religion in the lives of the people he cares about – he makes Luciano’s most loyal friend the most religious. But when the priest says that “God understands the difference between being and seeming” (we can’t be sure), if Garrone is not adding religion to his list of hoaxes he is, at least, cautioning that no opiate should be allowed to take over.

Reality won the Grand Prix at last year’s (2012) Cannes Film Festival.

Also by Matteo Garrone:

Gomorrah (2009)

Future My Love

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UK-Sweden (2012).  Dir: Maja Borg, Scr: Maja Borg

When Jacque Fresco met Einstein, “he just wanted to talk about Boolean geometry”.  He wasn’t interested in people.  It was symptomatic to Jacque of our cultural inability to apply science for the benefit of man.  Jacque is an industrial designer, industrial engineer and “futurist” and one of the three stars of Future My Love, a film audiences cannot help but applaud.  They applaud because it makes them think: “There might be a better way”.  But, for us, it deserves applause because it is a brave, beautiful and moving film that succeeds despite there being no easy categorization for it.  It is a poem about (lost) love, a road-movie and an essay, with music that moves both the soul and the feet, narrated gently in the sweetest Swedish/Scottish accent.  At its core is an aesthete’s eye, sharp intelligence and the most disarming humility and honesty.

Maja Borg was researching content for a film critique of the economic system when the financial crisis hit.  At about the same time, her long-term personal relationship broke down.  It had a profound effect on her – she felt incomplete: “ Yours is not the kind of love you can learn to live without”; she was bitter and felt betrayed, “How could you not tell me of your pregnancy?”; she was diffident and vulnerable, “If my way of loving makes me lose the people I love…”.  The film is (literally) a labour of love, a putting together of the pieces over several years, an interwoven narrative in which the personal journey is critical to the way she sees the flaws of a system we are wedded to and the challenge of change.  We sense she was angry, but now more thoughtful.

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Maja hitches to Venus – the town: three churches, no bars – to spend time with Jacque, now 93 years old, who set up The Venus Project with Roxanne Meadows to design and develop a community of the future.  He is fascinating in his passionate, steadfast view of the need to apply science and technology to the design of a better society, based on collective ownership of the world’s resources by the world’s people.  But he believes nothing will change until the old order collapses.  Footage of Jacque, filmed in HD colour, is blended with sections of archive film and lovingly, dreamily shot Super 8, mainly black and white, sequences of Maja’s former lover, the second star of the film.  It is the depth of this layering, the abstraction and parallel narrative that makes the film so much stronger than it would be as a simple, linear piece on the economic system.

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But the main star is Maja herself.  She doesn’t have all the answers, saying, “If we can do this much damage, we can do so much good”, but she is confidently unafraid of technology and knows that we need more than just to be nice to each other.  So, while we worry – as does her mother – that she has chosen a difficult path for herself, we leave the cinema with the feeling that Maja might just change the world. We hope she does.