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

Monday, 31 August 2015

Disco and Atomic War

Disco and Atomic War is an Estonian documentary - with some amusing later renactments, (so I suppose it is a documentary-drama, but a comic drama, if that).

In the film, Jaak Klimi, who is the director, tells of how his childhood in Tallinn - and that of most of his playmates, and their parents - was greatly enhanced by being able to watch Finnish television. The authorities try to stop them, but ingenuity wins out, so that each time some new jamming method is introduced, the citizens work out a way to get around it. The scenes showing the various subterfuges that are thought up and how they are put into practice are very funny.

Similarly amusing is the plot line that runs through the film about Klimi's relatives from the south of the country, where Finnish television is not accessible. One holiday they come to stay with Klimi's family in Talliin and join them in their weekly viewing of Dallas. After their return to the south, he has to write weekly letters to keep them up to date with developments on the programme. These are read out to ever larger groups of country people, the Dallas addiction spreading like wildfire, even without access to the moving screen

Meanwhile, the Soviet goverment and its proxy in Talliin tries to mitigate the influence of Finnish television, unsuccessfully. In an interview towards the end of the film, the former Soviet puppet leader of the government, who now lives in Moscow and has not set foot in Estonia since his downfall, blames Finnish television more than anything else for the end of Communist rule in the country. The illogic of this argument does not seem to strike him - or any of the other stooges we see, in clips taken from footage filmed down the years, blaming the West for its propaganda, rather than noticing that the state of affairs they have created is the problem, the existence of a better life in the West merely the perceived solution to that problem for many of their citizens.

The film is wonderfully wry and very charming. It made me feel old, seeing footage of events during the Cold War and realising that it all looks a very long time ago. I don't feel anything like nostalgia for those days, but I do wish things had turned out better since everything changed.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Le Petit Amour/Kung Fu Master

I watched this film because I'd seen Agnes Varda speak at the Frieze Art Fair in London some years ago, and her talk had made me interested to see her films - clearly not desperately interested since the time that elapsed between seeing her and watching one of her films was quite lengthy, but nevertheless interested enough when the opportunity arose.

In all honesty, I was momentarily disappointed when I realised Jane Birkin was the lead actress in the film but, once I got over an initial mild nausea provoked by her fey way of speaking,I realised she wasn't actually too bad.

She plays a woman who lives alone with two children - a fifteen-year-old daughter and another of about three. The woman falls in love with a friend of her daughter's - a rather small adolescent boy, also fourteen or fifteen, whose parents have gone away and left him with his grandparents. The boy's main interest is an arcade game called Kung Fu Fighter, in which the player must rise through various levels to free a maiden trapped at the top of a house.

The film wasn't made so terribly long ago - 1988 - but I doubt a film about an adult falling for a child would be made at all these days. We have become unable to look at relationships between the generations without fear. In Varda's movie, morality scarcely enters into the story, which in any case is about a love that is barely sexual, (possibly that is not the best choice of adjective I have ever made, in the context - I should point out that there is absolutely no nudity in the film). Our judgment is not invited and Varda provides none of her own.

This did not surprise me since at her Frieze talk the director came across as gently tolerant of the oddness of humanity, and this film plays out in a similar tone. There is a sad charm to the whole affair. The film seems to be less interested in portraying a transgressive relationship than in providing a glimpse of the bumbling nature of human loneliness and the clumsy attempts to find and give love that sometimes result.

Clearly, the viewer knows from the start that no good will come from Birkin's character's odd attraction, but, so far as one can tell, apart from to herself, no real harm results either. Perhaps this is a wicked impression to create in a film - today, I suspect that might be the general opinion. However, watching the movie, I was persuaded that connections that are out of the ordinary need not be depraved or profoundly damaging, provided they spring from love and kindness and a wish to make a connection between two unhappy souls, rather than from a purely physical desire to corrupt young flesh. As I write these words, I feel I am pushing against a sea of horrified reaction. I doubt if anything I say will persuade anyone that there can be nuance in this sphere. I'm not even sure if there can be. All I can say is that the story is somehow innocent and the film is not without charm.

Looking backward afterwards, I also realise that the opening sequence, which is my favourite in the whole film - you can look at it here - pretty much sums up the entire film. For both characters, the episode in their lives that brings them together is really just a time when they are finding someone to love. Oddly, even in this uneven relationship, it is the woman who is somehow the weaker party.