Sunday, 8 January 2017

Baccalaureate/Graduation

Baccalaureate

It is impossible to tell from the opening shot of Baccalaureate - a street level view of a group of low-level, poor quality apartment buildings -  whether we are in pre- or post-1989 Romania. It is a scene we return to again and again and it becomes clear as the film progresses that the physical lack of change it displays so clearly is paralleled in many less visible areas of Romanian life as well.

The action of the film begins inside a ground floor apartment in one of the buildings, where the main character, a surgeon, lives with his wife, an enigmatic semi-invalid who smokes constantly & with whom he no longer shares a bed, & his daughter, who has been offered a scholarship to Cambridge, provided she scores a very high mark in her final school exams.

It is the morning of the girl's Romanian exam. The father & daughter are preparing to leave when a stone flies through the sitting room window. The father goes out in search of the person responsible but finds no one. He then takes the daughter to school but drops her round the back rather than right outside the building , as he is in a hurry. The next scene reveals that he is in a hurry to see his lover. While he kisses her, his telephone rings. His daughter has been attacked on her way to school.

A chain of events spools out from this disaster, revealing to the audience that the corrupt old habits of favours and influence still hold sway in Romania.  The father, whose desperate passion is for his child to get out of Romania, is, in his efforts to free her, ensnared in the mesh he wants her to escape - and quite possibly drags her down with him.

As well as being a portrayal of a society still profoundly damaged by the years it was subjected to misrule, the film also raises questions about parental ambition. The lead character only has his child's best interests at heart but he never stops to think about whether she will actually be happy if she does fulfil his dream of leaving Romania and studying at Cambridge. She has friends and a boyfriend and, left to her own devices, it is fairly clear that she would prefer to go to Kolodsvar to study.

We know that the boyfriend in whom the daughter seems to be investing rather a lot, emotionally, is utterly worthless. Nevertheless, can parents live their children's lives for them or undo their own mistakes through them - the father came back to Romania, post-1989, and now regrets it and this is fuelling the intensity of his desire that his daughter escape. Surely, it is she who will have to conceive her own desperation to leave, she who will have to make what she will of the life she has been given. In the father's overbearing drive to direct his daughter's existence, could there be a parallel with the paternalistic attitude of the old regime?


The film is intriguing, with several surreal or, for want of a better word, faintly dreamlike elements. The line-up scene at the police station, comes to mind, along with the scene in which the daughter suddenly asks her father a question about his driving, and that in which he weeps in the dark beside the road - not to mention the recurring mystery of the stone thrower, (who continues to harass the father throughout the film, a persistent reminder that unexpected events have a habit of erupting into the calm of the everyday, derailing order and careful plans).

Although the characters of the mother and the lover are not entirely satisfactory, the film is wonderfully haunting and thought provoking. I like the very immediate way Mungiu shoots his films; you are always right there beside the character or just behind his shoulder. When indoors, you can somehow feel the walls of the room around you, rather than having a sense of being a distant viewer. When a character is hurrying down alleys and round the corners of buildings, you have the impression of clattering along the broken pavement too, right on their heels. I would like to have seen quite a lot more of the lover's little boy who was a most intriguing figure but, apart from that, I did not feel anything was missing. Baccalaureate is worth a look.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Arrival

I don't know about you but I have always wanted to know why it is that the spoken form of Portuguese, while a member of the family of Romance languages, sounds nothing at all like any of its relatives and is virtually impossible to pick so much as one word from that might be familiar if you already have an understanding of Spanish, Italian or French.

Tantalisingly, the opening scenes of Arrival promise to unlock this mystery at last. A university lecturer enters a lecture hall and launches into a lesson in which she says she will explain precisely what it is that makes Portuguese sound the way it does sound. But abruptly the lecture is interrupted. Twelve mysterious black objects have appeared in the skies above twelve countries, evacuation sirens sound across the campus and the whole world is put into a state of emergency.

Leaving aside my disappointment about being thwarted just when I'd got my hopes up about understanding the mysterious evolution of Portuguese pronunciation, (not that I can really - the film makers really got my hopes up), I was also somewhat surprised at a public policy level by this turn of events. If I ruled the world and twelve strange objects appeared in the sky, I would do everything in my power to ensure things continued to run normally and that no cause for panic was supplied to the populace by anything my government did. "Steady as she goes" would be my motto. I would play down the whole situation, avoiding any suggestion that mankind might be under any sort of threat.

But no, in Arrival the decision is taken to close everything and frighten everybody and call on that well-known Bond sub-genre, the hotshot professor of linguistics, to deal with the conundrum the strange airborne objects pose. When it transpires that there are two hotshot linguistics professors in the running, each almost equally qualified to take on aliens, a sudden death play-off about the meaning of the word "war" in Sanskrit settles things, (???!?), and a woman is helicoptered down to Montana for a crash course in alien-speak.

Around this point - or possibly right from the start of the film - someone gets the blue filter stuck so firmly on the camera lens that the director gives up and as a result the audience has to put up with an indigo bathed world for almost two hours. The plot is lagubrious and the all round gloomy colouring just adds to the sensation that one is not being whisked along but instead wading through water.

Maybe it would have been all right if the film had been genuinely clever rather than just thinking itself clever. But the lack of depth to the ideas was breathtaking - leaving me wondering whether that early scene on Portuguese pronunciation was cut short mainly because none of the researchers could be bothered to find out enough about the subject to actually supply the information needed to extend it.

There were times, in fact,  when you wondered how the script could have got through what we are always led to believe is the excoriatingly rigorous process Hollywood subjects everything too. Which did I hate the most: the pompous parsing of a sentence for Forrest Whittaker's benefit; the enormous great hole in the plot which leads a phsycist to leave his wife because she decides to have a baby, even though her understanding of time means she knows it will not survive - as a physicist surely he above all understands that, with the definition of time that the two of them both accept, she cannot decide to do anything but what has already been done; the fact that the person who translates a word into English as "weapon", helpfully points out, after the damage has been done, that it could also be translated as "tool" - so why didn't she to start with?; the failure to make the effort to understand international diplomacy enough to know that the head of China's army is not the individual who singlehanded decides whether that nation goes to war; the dig at rightwing shock jocks, and therefore at their listeners, a symptom of why we have ended up where we are today (that is, the film chooses to sneer at those kinds of people and their audiences, rather than either ignoring them for the purposes of the story - or including them and trying to understand);the cardboard characterisation; the mystery of why anyone would be swayed from doing anything by having his wife's dying words whispered into his ears by a stranger.

In short this film does not look very nice, it has almost no plot impulsion and, while it has a romance developing at its centre, it chooses not to pay any attention to that. It also makes no sense whatsoever and is intellectualy incoherent.

On the plus side, the aliens are cute, part-octopus, part-elephant leg umbrella stand, part Henry Moore figure -

- and Australia comes out of things rather well.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Fragment 53

I watched this on Mubi in the hope of understanding better what had gone on in Liberia. Fortunately, I now realise, I was distracted by a telephone call during an early part of the film. I later realised that, as a result, I had only caught very brief glimpses of what is essentially a snuff movie - a chilling piece of footage in which a Liberian politician is murdered in a room full of people, none of whom appear particularly disturbed by what is going on.

The film, the bulk of which consists of footage of various veterans talking about their participation in the civil war, intercut with shots of landscapes seemingly untouched by man, left me more baffled than I had been to start with - and certain that Liberia is a dangerous place while people who have experienced such depravity remain walking its streets. Or what remain of its streets - as well as stripping all trace of civilised behaviour, the conflict resulted in what appears to be the total dismantlement of Liberia's infrastructure.

What happened? How did this society descend into such astonishing violence? The narrative of cultural destruction as the result of Western exploitation doesn't fit the Liberian experience at all, yet the murderous blood letting was, if not unparalleled, certainly as terrible there as anywhere else.

Taking a wider perspective, the film demonstrated what just at present the news seems to be teaching us every day - and indeed what most of history seems to imply - that is, man's capacity for wild destruction and murder is much larger than we would like to believe and possibly lurking only a millimetre beneath the surface of even the apparently most ordered, tranquil societies.



Wednesday, 13 April 2016

A Bigger Splash

A Bigger Splash is said to be based on or inspired by or derived from a film called La Piscine. If La Piscine is half as good as A Bigger Splash, I want to see it. Which is surprising as, if you saw I Am Love, the last outing with Tilda Swinton by the film's director, Luca Guadagnino, you might be forgiven for expecting the worst - or indeed for not going to A Bigger Splash at all.

You see, I Am Love is one of the worst - eg most sentimental and tedious - films ever made; a sort of Lady Chatterley's Lover without the laughs (and yes, I do know that there are no laughs, at least not intentional ones, in Lady Chatterley's Lover and that DH Lawrence did not possess anything that anyone would recognise as a sense of humour, but believe me I Am Love made him look like a potential Edinburgh Comedy Award candidate by comparison).

Anyway that was 2010. Guadagnino has changed. A Bigger Splash is not tedious or sentimental for even a fraction of a moment. Better still, it is not merely intriguing while you watch it but goes on being so after you have left the cinema.

Among the main characters, the performance that is absolutely extraordinary and outstanding is that of Ralph Fiennes, who plays Harry, a record producer. We've all got a Harry somewhere in our lives, God help us, an infuriatingly restless person who cannot resist saying what shouldn't be said, asking what shouldn't be asked, who has no understanding of calm pleasures like, for example, reading or writing and is permanently interrupting the peace of those unlucky enough to be in his vicinity with incessant demands for new excitements and thrills and an immature desire to shake things up.

 Fiennes is wonderfully hilarious in this role and astonishingly full of energy. The sequence where he dances to an old record is worth the price of entrance alone. I don't understand how someone who appears in this movie to be a genius could also be responsible for the worst production of The Tempest I have ever seen at the theatre - perhaps the lesson is that he is an exceptionally brilliant performer but not a good director.

Anyway, for what he does in this film, Fiennes really deserves a prize. Matthias Schoenaerts is also very good - and demonstrates, as he did in Far From the Madding Crowd, how much the camera loves his face.  Dakota Johnson is wonderfully difficult to understand and happy to be fairly dislikeable, which is something I always admire in an actor. The supporting cast are also excellent,  especially Lily McMenamy.

If there is a weak link it is Tilda Swinton who never convinces me that her character might ever have been a rock star, (the recording session we glimpse in the film doesn't help in this regard). Swinton is possibly better in comic roles. As in I Am Love, in this film she gives a quite dull, self-satisfied performance, despite her character being central to the plot. In all the performances I have seen by her, the surface is everything. This is not a problem when she takes on broad comic roles where depth is not required. Perhaps in A Bigger Splash she feels she has already done more than enough by allowing herself right at the start of the movie to be filmed naked for a tediously long time from an unusually revealing angle. All the same, I could have done with fewer of her crevices and a bit more of her character's motivation

Not that this ultimately matters. The film is beautiful, puzzling and entertaining. I'm really glad I went.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Son of Saul

I have been putting off writing about Son of Saul for weeks now, mainly because I was not keen to think about the film much, once it was done. Which is very far from being the same thing as saying it is a bad film. It is an astonishing film and it did such a horribly effective job of creating the impression that you were witnessing what really happened inside Auschwitz that, once released, if you are cowardly, as I am, you wanted as much as possible to push the experience from your mind.

Oddly, the technique chosen to conjure the experience so vividly is the maintenance of almost constant blurriness in the back of the shots, where unspeakable things are going on all the time. You can see that hundreds of people are being driven through dank corridors into changing rooms and then shower rooms and that heaps of corpses - or "Stücke" as the German overlords of the camp blithely call them - are all that remains some minutes later. But you can't see the individuals. I suspect  this was precisely how those picked out to work as members of zonder commandoes dealt with what they had to witness. The technique heightens the horror somehow.

I suppose one could object to the rather obvious quest plot that gives the film its narrative. You could argue that the film could simply have been about the real event that was the uprising in Auschwitz. However, that would have been less ambiguous than this tale, which leaves the viewer confused and horrified, rather than supporting one side as the goodies and the other as the baddies. The film makes clear that after the Holocaust, we live in a ruined world where there are no goodies and baddies, only an expanded knowledge of the potential humanity has to be wicked.

Not that the Germans are let off, mind you - the scene in which an officer murders a child with his bare hands, observed by his colleagues, is made all the more chilling by being shot as if it were a Vermeer painting. The weird interlude in which a group of German doctors are entertained by the crazed antics of a young officer who mocks the protagonist is equally vile. And then there is the endless ash. And the frenzied night scenes when the camp is overwhelmed by deliveries.

Horrible, horrible. The film reminds us just how horrible, and that cannot be anything but a good thing for a film to do.


Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Big Short

If, like me, you plod along thinking that the Western world is not too bad really, mistakes are made but our leaders try their best, The Big Short is a film you need to see. Adapted from the non-fiction book of the same name by Michael Lewis, it tells the story of the so-called Great Financial Crisis, mainly from the point of view of the few people astute enough to recognise that the prosperity that preceded the crisis was based on nothing more substantial than hope and rampant greed.

The film makers do make the assumption that all viewers will already know what a bond is - embarrassingly, I didn't, and still don't quite grasp it. Apart from that one instance though,  all specialist financial terminology - CDOs, sub-prime et cetera - is explained with such clarity that even dummies like me can faintly grasp what the hell these phrases mean. I wasn't particularly keen on the use of a blonde in a bubble bath to tell us about 'sub-prime' but Anthony Bourdain managed, with some old fish as props, to make CDOs troublingly clear.

What makes the film so terrific though is the performances. There is Christian Bale being brilliant. There is Steve Carell being brilliant. There is Brad Pitt being brilliant. There is Ryan Gosling being brilliant. And there are numerous other names unknown to me being equally brilliant. If there is one good thing that the film reminds you of it is that we are living in an absolute golden age of American male movie actors.

The Big Short manages to take an apparently rather dry subject and make it both entertaining and elucidating. The only problem is that it also makes you - well me at least - absolutely furious. Not only was no-one prosecuted for the dangerous banking habits they got into due to extreme greed; not only were the ratings agencies never driven to the wall because of their essential fraudulence; not only was no person in a position of responsibility made to atone for their incompetence or to return, so far as I could tell, a cent of the absurdly enormous salaries they received - which were justified purely on the grounds that they reflected the onerous nature of the responsibility those paid them had taken on, overseeing and steering a ship of finance of immense magnitude, so that it did not land on the rocks; not only did all these things not happen but - far more appalling - governments handed over taxpayers' money to those decadent individuals and institutions who'd created the crisis, bailing  them out and then demanding that the people who provided the bail-out money through their own hard work accept drastic cuts in every service you can think of to pay off the great big rich bastards' party bill.

This is one of the best films I've seen in ages. I recommend that anyone and everyone should go. Stay for the credits, in which it is explained that CDOs, renamed, are once more being hawked around on Wall Street and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the cleverest man in the film is concentrating his investing entirely on investments related to water. Make of that what you will.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Christmas Medley

I saw a few movies over the Christmas New Year time. I've been meaning to do justice to them but in the end have failed. I don't want to forget about them entirely though, so here are some bare notes, to jog my memory one day:

The Dressmaker - To start with I was entranced by an impression that the film captured a mood that was rural Australia and could not be anywhere else. Then I became interested in the garments being made andirons also became reasonably  absorbed or amused  by the grotesque characters. Unfortunately, about halfway through there is a peculiar gear shift and the film stops being a sort of sub-Baz Luhrman vividly coloured entertaining pantomime and takes on a Grand Guignol tone that I couldn't get used to, particularly as there seemed to be a shift in how we were supposed to regard certain characters, without any explanation about how they had transformed from fairly sympathetic to hostile. Kate Winslett is good. I thought Judy Davis over played her hand and sort of played someone self-consciously playing slapstick rather than really inhabiting the role. If I'd walked out before the silo came into the picture, I'd have liked the thing better. Anyone who remembers Charlie Cousins in Bellbird will know that no good can come from the appearance of a silo in an Australian work of fiction, but the plot twist this one brought was more than I could bear.

Joy - many very funny moments, (I especially loved Isabella Rosellini) but far too long

The Gift - lots of points in the plot you could pick apart but quite a nice little thriller. Rebecca Hall better than I've ever seen her. Worrying treatment of the female as vulnerable object, I thought

The Visit - not bad if you like M Night Shyamalan's particular way of building up a mystery, which I do even when his plots are s weak you ca see what's going on within ten minutes of the film's start. In that respect, this is better than the last couple of his that I've seen and a fairly terrifying oncept tht resonates laer.. I particularly like the child actor who played the little boy who likes doing rather bad rap

Youth - intriguing but the character who was a director who couldn't think of an ending for his film may have been too close to the character of the director himself, as the film fizzles out quite badly. Also not sure a practitioner of one art form should include someone supposedly successful in another art form if he doesn't know about that other art form - the music Michael Caine'a composer character composes sounded pretty second rate to me and yet he is supposedly splendidly successful. All the same,  lots of wonderful images. Intriguing that this is another film set in an old Austro Hungarian hotel now rather faded in its splendour. Must watch 8&1/2 Weeks again as supposedly this film is some kind of homage to it. Certainly it had the attractive dream quality of a Fellini film and lots of nice images,  but it rambled and didn't leave me entranced. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind seeing it again - or I wouldn't if I could cut off about the last half hour.

Also noted - Cold Souls,  which unfortunately expired on Mubi before I finished it - but what a funny and strange film. I must try to find a copy somewhere else. It is very intriguing