Wednesday, 30 September 2009
Tuesday, 29 September 2009
Colin Firth's most interesting performances seem destined to go unheralded. As Joe, in Michael Winterbottom's Genova, he digs deep into the role of a husband attempting to make a new life for himself and his kids following the death of his wife (Hope Davis) in a car accident, and comes up with a nuanced, subtle performance. Unfortunately, the film hardly surfaced in British cinemas but it's well worth seeking out now on DVD. It re-teams Winterbottom with Laurence Coriat, the writer of what is, for me, the director's best work: the beautiful tough-but-tender portrait of London loneliness and London connection, Wonderland (1999). Though quite different in tone, Genova retains some of that film's intimacy, spontaneity and truth. Joe takes up a teaching post in Genova, taking his two daughters with him. When the family arrive, they have a month to spend together before the new term starts and the film charts their response to the town and its effect upon their grief. While older daughter Kelly (Willa Holland) quickly finds a kind of solace in the company of other teens (albeit one that brings her into conflict with her father) Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) is haunted by what she feels to be her role in her mother's death, and begins to experience visions of her mother walking in the streets. Employing a skeleton crew, Winterbottom and cinematographer Marcel Zyskind shoot the film mainly handheld; the scenes have a loose, natural rhythm. The city is presented evocatively but unostentatiously and the film wears its Don't Look Now parallels lightly. The conventional child-in-peril ending is a little pat but Genova remains a gem.
Saturday, 26 September 2009
These days, Euro directors seem to enjoy de-glamming Marianne Faithfull and putting her in the seamiest of London settings. Following her cameo in Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy (2001), Faithfull is given a full-blown starring role in Sam Garbarski’s Irina Palm, as Maggie a dowdy widow turned sex worker. (And in between Faithfull got to play Empress Maria Theresa in Coppola’s Marie Antoinette - ah, how varied are the joys of acting.) Garbarski’s movie is the ultimate in high (low) concept, an odd mix of sentiment and smut. In order to fund an operation for her beloved grandson, Maggie takes on a job in a Soho sex club. Her task: masturbating clients through a glory hole. The club's owner Miki (Miki Manojlovic, Kusturica fave and the woodsman-ogre in Ozon's underrated Criminal Lovers) has noted her soft hands and, after some resistance, Maggie proves a natural in her new occupation, with a queue of clients and a new identity: Irina Palm.
Tuesday, 22 September 2009
Wednesday, 16 September 2009
Fiona Shaw swaggers magnificently through the first half of Deborah Warner’s thrillingly messy production of Mother Courage and Her Children, which opens (a few days later than scheduled, due to tech hitches) at the National Theatre this month. Warner loves stage detritus and her scattergun approach has a certain grandeur to it; it’s far more effective here than it has been in some of her staging of classical drama. There’s a sense of experiment and danger to a Warner production; you’re never sure what might get thrown at you next. (Literally so, if you happen to be occupying the front row.) Seventy years on, Brecht’s great play of war, profit and loss retains its power, its “relevance.” For this production, Tony Kushner contributes a lithe if tediously profane translation, while the songs of Duke Special (who mingles with the actors throughout the evening, sometimes duetting with them) bring added energy and soul to the piece - this in a play in which the heroine declares “I have no soul.” And dig Gore Vidal's deeply sinister-sounding narration! But Shaw’s the star of the show, honouring every step of Mother Courage’s journey with skill and intelligence. The cart here is an extension of Mother Courage’s physical and emotional being. At the beginning she rises triumphantly out of the Olivier stage upon it; by the end, she’s a stooped figure, effortfully dragging it alone. We see what war hath wrought.
Tuesday, 15 September 2009
The film’s sexual politics is its most noteworthy aspect. Lesbian Vampire Killers is about as explicit a fulfilment of Faludi’s backlash as you could (n)ever wish to see, a film in which women who dump men deserve death and lesbianism is presented as an abomination equal to vampirism. The Cragwich girls’ penchant for blood-sucking is, according to this movie’s logic, simply a disturbing extension of their sexual orientation: lesbianism - or being “a lover of the vagine” - is blithely presented throughout as “a curse”, an evil perversion “fuelled by a hatred of men”. “Massive tits, never speaks” - that’s this film’s version of the ideal woman. Yes, the movie possesses a “feisty” heroine but only one spared the “curse” of homosexuality. The hysterical girlfriend gets what’s coming to her and the “psycho bitch vampire queen” Carmilla can only be vanquished by an encounter with the ultimate phallic object: a sword with, oh yes, a penis-shaped handle. The piss-poor finale proposes a greater horror: a gay (ie. limp-pawed) werewolf.
Friday, 11 September 2009
Broken Embraces starts stodgily, builds to a spectacular middle, and then unravels at the end. The film’s pairings, doublings, frames-within-frames and films-within-films are fairly absorbing scene-by-scene but there’s ultimately a sense of anti-climax to the enterprise. After the relatively streamlined Volver, Almodóvar resorts to his old bad habit of piling on the plot and the final sections sink into a sea of exposition; pity poor Blanca Portillo, saddled with delivering some of the hokiest “revelations” that Almodóvar has yet devised. For Almodóvar buffs, it’s interesting to see the director revisiting Women on the Verge … with new muse Cruz replacing old muse Maura. But these sequences more than any others point to the film’s masturbatory, even self-congratulatory tone.
As usual, much has been made of the film’s genre blur - the shifts between comedy, melodrama, and noir - but the result isn’t the dynamic synthesis that Almodóvar has achieved in the past. There’s a distanced quality to Broken Embraces, and its swerves between genres are jarring. Lluis Homar’s Mateo and Penelope Cruz’s Lena go through a lot in this movie (blindness, beatings), but Almodóvar seems uninterested in the implications of their suffering - especially, it must be said, Lena’s. To some extent, Almodóvar uses Cruz here as he used Gael Garcia Bernal in Bad Education: more as prop than personality. She’s great to watch but remote, somehow. I’d have liked to have seen more of Angela Molina (who, in a few scenes as Lena’s mother, floods the film with emotion), and Lola Dueñas, whose sublime cameo as a lip-reader made me laugh out loud.
Nonetheless, we should be grateful that Almodóvar does more with the blind-director scenario than Woody Allen did in Hollywood Ending. He can still construct the kind of vibrant sequences that galvanise the viewer: Jose Luis Gomez’s Ernesto pushing Lena, Kiss of Death-style, down the stairs; Lena dubbing herself to Ernesto Hijo’s silent footage. The director also comes up with an indelible haptic image: the blind director touching the screen image of his lost beloved. Following the atypically asexual Volver, it’s pleasing to find Almodóvar feeling his oats again here, and showing his wit in an expertly filmed (if gratuitous) early sex scene. Yet, unlike the tempestuous couplings of Law of Desire and Live Flesh, Mateo’s love for Lena ultimately feels more like a simulacrum of passion than the real thing.
But of course Almodóvar’s characters have always lived through and by film, and Broken Embrace’s true subject is the romance of the reel. There remains, even now, a movie-struck energy and excitement to Almodóvar's work that few directors can match. For sheer exuberant visual pleasure, Broken Embraces takes some beating. I swooned more than I groaned.
Tuesday, 8 September 2009
With Ricky still unreleased in the UK and apparently unlikely to be any time soon (a pox on British cinema distributors!), the lucky Torontonians get to see François Ozon’s new work Le Refuge before anyone else, as part of the upcoming film festival. I kind of wish that Ozon would get over the strange pregnancy/baby obsession that’s crept into his last few movies, a fixation that helped to banalize both Time To Leave and Angel. But at least Le Refuge finds his characters back at the beach.
Monday, 7 September 2009
With a little help from his friends (Mike Heron from the Incredible String Band, Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, Alessi’s Ark, and Graham Coxon), Robyn Hitchcock got the Southbank Centre’s Pestival underway in fine style on Friday night with a concert of buggy, ear-wiggy and otherwise insect-related songs. Hitchcock set the oddball tone for the night when he arrived on stage and launched into an anecdote comparing Bryan Ferry to an ant (affectionately, hem, hem).
In truth, Hitchcock’s brand of eccentric banter wore thin pretty quickly; his surrealism is channelled far more effectively in his wonderful song-writing. His performances of “Insect Mother,” “Red Locust Frenzy,” “Madonna of the Wasps” and, best of all, “Olé Tarantula” were superb.
The friends came and went, contributing backing vocals and taking the occasional lead. The mild-mannered Coxon unleashed a cathartic, furious squall on “Dead Bees”, Gartside offered “The Human Fly” ("an anti-essentialist reading"), “Where Fat Lies Ants Follow” and “Wood Beez,” Alessi’s Ark beguiled with “Woman” (“I haven't written many songs featuring insects … but this one has a web in it”), while the exuberant Mike Heron all but stole the show with his leads on ISB’s “Cousin Caterpillar” and a mesmerizing pre-interval version of the truly odd “A Very Cellular Song.” A more forced brand of British eccentricity came courtesy of John Hegley’s poetry reading, though Hegley did at least get the audience singing along on his charming ode to the amoeba. A fun night.
Wednesday, 2 September 2009
I generally avoid writing about American films on this blog, primarily because there seem to be so few interesting ones to see, let alone bother formulating a response to. Somewhere over the last ten years something seems to have gone horribly wrong with US film-making. Blame Bush, blame the success of the American Pie series, but American cinema badly needs an injection of reality (and imagination). The studios offer a turgid sea of sex comedies, comic book adaptations and remakes , while most people’s idea of a good indie movie, these days, isn’t The Apostle, Ulee’s Gold or Sling Blade but the painfully smug and bogus likes of Juno and Little Miss Sunshine. Or the equally smug and bogus (self-) “important” films: Syriana, Goodnight and Good Luck, Crash.
Surprisingly, though, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is worth seeing. It might be the best American Iraq War-related movie yet (not that there’s much competition for that particular title), and it’s certainly a vast improvement on the dire In The Valley of Elah, the original story for which was also written by Mark Boal. Drawing on Boal’s experience as an “embed” with a bomb disposal squad, The Hurt Locker follows a team made up of Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) and leader Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) whose reckless, getting-off-on-it approach to his work intrigues and frightens the other men.
The movie pulls you in from its opening scene: it’s visceral, with hand-held camera-work putting the viewer right there. Bigelow orchestrates the big set-pieces superbly and finds interesting, unexpected details in them: a cat limping across the road, a fly going into someone’s mouth. (There’s also a lovely little scene in which James dons his disposal helmet while lying on his bed.) The film's dynamic formal interplay between distance and closeness is echoed in the slippery relationship between the three protagonists, each expertly acted by the leads. Cool cameos from Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes are also effective.
Even so, there’s something a bit dubious about Bigelow and Boal’s creation of what is, essentially, a gung-ho action movie (which opens with the Chris Hedges quote “War is a drug”) out of an ongoing tragedy. There’s an odd mix of subtlety and banality to Boal’s writing: some scenes are brilliantly realised, others clunk. (The biggest clunker has the previously commitment-shy Sanborn tearfully declaring “I want a son!” after a particularly close encounter.) An initially affecting subplot about James’s relationship with an Iraqi boy named Beckham is also badly botched. While it’s certainly a relief that the film doesn’t take the obvious route of having James stay with kid and wifey (Evangeline Lilly, in the very definition of a thankless non-role) back in the US (or Canada, masquerading), the tone still seems off in the glib final sequence as he returns to Iraq and strides, smiling, towards the next unexpected bomb. The movie tells us “War is a drug” but could have dug deeper into the implications of that thesis. But if there are contradictions in what Bigelow and Boal are doing here, The Hurt Locker still feels like the most authentic depiction of Iraq war experience yet to reach the screen.