Tuesday, 30 July 2013

In The House

This French film tells the story of a schoolmaster who finds that one of his pupils writes particularly well and encourages him to keep going. The pupil follows the schoolmaster's advice, makes friends with another boy in his class and infiltrates that boy's family, in order to write about them. The schoolmaster becomes addicted to the pupil's descriptions of his friend's family life, each new episode arriving with 'to be continued' at its end. Things become sinister - or that I think is what they are supposed to become - and nothing ends well.

Which would all be great if the film managed to actually make us believe that the young schoolboy's tales from a middle class family were unputdownable, but it doesn't - and that is its great flaw. Instead, we just have to accept that the rather pathetic schoolmaster would risk his career in exchange for seeing another chunk of fairly unexciting writing. I didn't accept that. I couldn't, because what we heard of it was really pretty dull.

I did recognise that something was being said about writing instead of living, about the manipulation of reality that often goes on in the process of making fiction - and indeed the manipulation of reality into a kind of private fiction that failed writers like the teacher indulge in inside their heads. I quite enjoyed the various digs at new educational theories - apparently in France one must no longer call the people who attend school pupils but learners. However, the characters were pretty unsympathetic - has anyone ever found Kristen Scott Thomas sympathetic in anything (although I acknowledge she speaks pretty good French for a Pom) and the story unconvincing. The world that was created seemed so small - as if we were watching people living in a stage-set rather than in a wider environment. The young man who played the writing adolescent had a wonderfully wicked faun-like look about him and I hope he'll go on to great success in other films. Unfortunately, his charisma alone was not enough to carry this one on his own.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013


Trance reminded me of Inception and both reminded me of Matrioska dolls or the infinite receding reflections seen in mirrors facing each other or carved boxes within carved boxes within carved boxes. None of which is meant as a positive. The film is claustrophobic, with very little outdoor action. It whirls along at a great pace but not much happens. It is a heist movie and a movie about a con, but no-one is a hero and so the audience's attention is never really engaged. Who cares what the outcome is, if our affections are not held by any character? A bunch of grubby little tricksters steal something, lose it, find it, play mind games with each other, bash each other up, um, er, the end.

The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines starts off well, but rapidly goes downhill. It is preoccupied with fathers - Ryan Gosling lacked one, I think (although his diction means that I'm not entirely certain whether he asserts to the mother of his child that he didn't have a father around, and hence he is as he is, or that he did; I'm guessing he says that he didn't, despite the fact that what I hear is the opposite). The policeman he comes up against has an all too present controlling father and is unable to escape the destiny his father wants for him.

Section one tells Ryan Gosling's story. It is visually interesting, exciting in its plot and full of poignance. It includes Ben Mendelsohn, who is an ornament to any movie. Section two tells the policeman's story. It is still quite interesting, although less vivid, more cursory in its depiction of character and lacking Ben Mendelsohn, which leaves it inevitably at a disadvantage.

The events in section three take place some years after the events in sections one and two, The son of Ryan Gosling and the son of the policeman are now adolescents. They meet and their fates, like the fates of their fathers, become interwoven. Unfortunately, due to inexplicable casting, the son of the policeman appears to share no genetic make up with either his father or his mother and the son of Ryan Gosling seems mysteriously to have inherited nothing from his mother, despite the fact that one would assume her Latin heritage would be dominant and Ryan Gosling's recessive.

The film may be concerned with the way that sons are shaped and influenced by their fathers, but everything is undermined by the policeman's son's unlikely appearance, as well as his odd personality, for which we are given no real explanation. The boy is such an unattractive character it is very hard to understand why Ryan Gosling's son would want to have anything to do with him - and yet they fall in together.

The film looks good and it starts off enjoyably. Sadly, its conclusion is disappointing, although the final scene, in which Ryan Gosling's son disappears into an unknown future did make me wonder whether a kind of Easy Rider type sequel devoted to his character mightn't be quite fun. On the other hand, it seemed to undermine the one really strong impression the film had built up until then - that in America, if you are urban and born without advantage, you will remain poor, urban and disadvantaged. The image we are left with instead is that it is still possible to head off into the West and find a new life on some distant unspecified frontier.

I Give it a Year, The Paperboy, Performance/A Late Quartet

I Give it a Year

This was a film about how two people of different classes somehow got together and had a big wedding and then realised they were not suited. Given that Rafe Spall is possibly the most unattractive man in cinema today it was hard to accept the basic premise that Rose Byrne would allow him to come within five yards of her in the first place - equally implausible was the idea that anyone would spend even a tiny amount of time with the character played by Stephen Marchant, let alone be such good friends with him as to invite him to be their best man. To hide the fact that the whole thing was basically about snobbery the people who Rafe Spall and Rose Byrne eventually ended up with were both cast as Americans. The concept was an age-old mismatched lovers scenario but, instead of wit or even farce, we got to see lots of pictures of Rafe Spall's penis, all of which I dearly wish I could unsee. The final shot looked like something from a Mozart opera and made me wish I'd stayed home and watched a recording of Cosi Fan' Tutte on the telly instead. Witless, graceless, vulgar, all round ghastly. Apart from what I have to concede was a mildly amusing scene at a marriage counsellor, ugh, ugh, ugh.

The Paperboy

Fun, brightly coloured and really enjoyable. Nicole Kidman brilliantly hilarious, Zac Efron almost as handsome as early James Dean (although I suppose there isn't any other kind of James Dean, now I come to think of it), Matthew MacConaghey (spelling?) v good too and Macy Grey wonderfully endearing. Underlying themes of race relations, if one wants to get serious, but really just a big vivid movie to entertain you on a Saturday night. A couple of gory scenes and a bit of fairly unsavoury sex but plenty of advance warning so you can quickly hide your eyes.

Performance/A Late Quartet

Unspeakably ponderous attempt to portray the life of a string quartet, a subject much better covered by various documentaries about real string quartets. Several (well four, mainly, funnily enough) well-known actors pretend to be musicians and, perhaps distracted by the effort of having to manipulate their unfamiliar instruments, provide uniformly wooden performances. Of course their lines don't help: oddly, given the subject matter, the entire script is completely lacking in any kind of music, (I mean verbal music as opposed to the ever-present soundtrack, which treacles its way through any crevice in the relentlessly dreary back and forth between the protagonists).

Clunk, clunk, clunk, each slab of high-minded, portentous dialogue assaults our ears with the dreadful toneless quality of the genuinely banal and, as a result, when the protagonists erupt into violent conflict and/or sudden passion, I have no idea why I'm supposed to care. The worst of them is Philip Seymour Hoffman - who runs Rafe Spall a close second for most unappetising male lead in current cinema, even if he is, as everybody insists, a marvellous actor (I'll have to take their word for it as it doesn't strike me right between the eyes). He blunders about Central Park looking unfit and palely hairy in a tracksuit, yet ends up in bed with a sultry flamenco dancer, in a development that is a) pure male fantasy and b) one of the most stomach-turning sex scenes I've seen in years, (but then the sight of Philip Seymour Hoffman with his shirt off is enough to make me queasy).

The major aspect of interest for me in the film was the furniture in Christopher Walken's apartment. Once they started smashing that, I left. If you are after a film about music, take my advice and give this one the flick; get out a DVD of Fellini's Prova d'Orchestra instead.

April, 2013

The Loneliest Planet, Barbara, Side Effects

The ACT government in its wisdom has allowed a new cinema to be set up in a part of town that has absolutely no restaurants - it is on the bottom of a rather flash multi-storey set of flats, which has been positioned right by a freeway, at just enough distance from the city centre to ensure that the entire area is absolutely dead (apart from the drone from the freeway) in the evening.

I assume the flats come equipped with kitchens as there won't be any alternative source of hot food available nearby - despite the fact that I've read that young apartment dwellers prefer eating out these days. I certainly like to see a film and then have dinner - or have dinner and then see a film. I prefer not to have dinner at my house on these occasions, but to spend the entire evening out. Canberra's town planners, God bless them, are presumably keen for us all to get back into home cooking though - or concerned to lower the break-in rate by chivvying us back into our houses as quickly as possible.

Once again, in this overplanned city, it strikes me that things might have been better had there been no planners to prevent the place from developing higgledy piggledy. Having armies of the pernicious breed seems just to slow everything down and produce the kind of hopeless outcome that is this new cinema, place as far as possible from everything else.

Anyway, the cinema shows lots of 'art house' movies so I am determined to support it. I like 'art house' movies. I wasn't sure if I did, but having this last fortnight been to three movies, I can definitely say that I do.

The first movie we went to was 'The Loneliest Planet'. It was adapted from a short story and concerned a youngish couple, she American, he Spanish-speaking. We were told almost nothing about them, which some in our party found irritating but I found excellent, as I think they were supposed to be emblematic of a certain kind of young Westerner, the kind who become perpetual travellers, only ever stopping to make enough money to set off again. The two in the film were travelling in Georgia and we found them at the beginning preparing to embark on a walk through the Georgian landscape with a guide.

Nothing at all happens - or very little (apparently the trailer urges viewers not to give away the big event, but I'm afraid I missed it). The Georgian scenery is extraordinary and almost makes the film worthwhile on its own.

The point of this kind of endless travelling is revealed as fairly problematic - no-one seems to be really enjoying themselves, no-one really seems to understand what they are seeing. By the end, the couple's endless wandering appeared, to me at least, to be a modern version of the old pastime of going to Bedlam and staring at the inmates. For them, the whole non-Western world seems to represent a kind of zoo whose inmates they peer at. In a bar, they dance with the locals, but all the time smirking at their outlandish foreign ways. A ball flies over a wall they are walking past and they chuck it back, only for it to fly out again. For a few minutes, they join in what they assume is a game with people they don't know and can't see. The young Spanish speaker, upon being asked about what kind of car he has by the Georgian guide, replies smugly, 'A bicycle.' The guide, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to get his hands on a nice big shiny Western car. The Westerners romanticise the simplicity they find. The natives wish to escape it, on the whole - or at least to grab some of what these young people disdain.

The next movie we went to was 'Barbara', about a dissident female doctor in East Germany in the 1980s. The doctor has been banished to a rural hospital from Berlin. The film is rather beautiful to look at and quietly reveals the banal but grinding nastiness of the old East German regime. This might suggest it is grim or dull, but it isn't; it is gripping and moving and very well worth seeing.

Finally, we went to see Side Effects. It wasn't bad, a nice little thriller, but it all seemed so frantic and flashy and shiny after the first two. Each of them sent me home in a faintly contemplative mood. Something about their slow, thoughtful camera work made me more aware of my surroundings afterwards, so that the act of putting on the kettle or washing a peach took on some peculiar kind of weight. They each in a way had the effect of a Vermeer painting, because in each the camera had lingered on small details, domestic scenes or faces, allowing you to see how each instant of an individual existence can be framed and seen as significant, how each moment has importance.

Side Effects had different intentions. It was all about exciting you and distracting you from reality. I emerged blinking from the theatre, feeling as if I'd been on one of those funfair rides that turn you upside down and whirl you around and then hurl you back to ground with a jolt.

Side Effects probably cost far more to make than Barbara or The Loneliest Planet, it probably involved far more ingenuity to construct than those two, but perhaps it was the kind of ingenuity that Les Murray describes (I think, although I can't find the reference) as 'front brain' rather than 'back brain'.

 Up the back, that's where I like to be.

March, 2013

Wish You Were Here

Sold on the line that the new Australian film Wish You Were Here was this year's Animal Kingdom, we went along to the cinema to see it on Saturday night. While neither film presents a flattering picture of contemporary Australians, Wish You Were Here, disappointingly, was never in Animal Kingdom's league.

Which is not to say it wasn't worth seeing. The film is never boring. Its portrayal of Australians treating Asia as their playground, a place to abandon normal standards of behaviour and spend as much time as possible completely ripped, is probably all too accurate. However, it didn't make the main characters particularly sympathetic. Additionally, I found the plot pretty unbelievable in a number of places. This may merely indicate that I lead a sheltered life, but it seemed unlikely to me that a couple - one member of whom was pregnant - would abandon their two small children for a week in order to head off to Cambodia for a holiday with a young relative and her boyfriend, who they had barely met. Once there, I was pretty surprised that the pregnant wife seemed unperturbed when her husband decides to indulge in a few recreational drugs. On their return to Sydney, I was even more astonished by some of the decisions taken by the pregnant wife, decisions that I suspected a male scriptwriter might believe in but that most women who have been pregnant would view as fairly unlikely - my sense is that, no matter what your own emotional turmoil may be, when pregnant you never ignore the safety of your unborn child.

The film is well-acted and beautifully shot and it provides a pretty damning indictment of a kind of thoughtless, ignorant hedonism that may be all too prevalent in Sydney - it will certainly confirm everything my Victorian relatives think about Sydneysiders. The trouble is I'm not sure the story of a bunch of extremely shallow people (and, if you don't think they're shallow, how do you explain their equanimity in the face of Gracie's unscheduled appearance, which, after delivering a momentary emotional jolt, appears to leave their lives quite unruffled) really amounts to anything, especially as the ending just dribbles out.

May, 2012

My Week With Marilyn

I have long known that I am not entirely what a film director would look for in an audience. Although I don't take it as far as the man I interviewed in Locks, the hatters many years ago, who asked me, seemingly apropos of nothing, whether I'd seen Death in Venice and, when I replied that I had, went into a moment's reverie before remarking, "Oh, the hats - what hats that film had," I have to admit that I too am prone to distraction from a film's "overarching and compelling story", (to borrow a phrase from one of Australia's former Prime Ministers).

It was thanks to this habit, actually, that I managed to sit through What Lies Beneath without a moment of fearfulness - at the time I was busy planning renovations to our bathroom, and, as a result, my entire attention was diverted from the scary story and applied instead to the "shabby chic" features of the bathroom in which many of the film's scenes took place.

Similarly, last night, when I went to see My Week with Marilyn,, my mind went off wandering, despite the fact that I found the film quite enchanting. Even though I loved every minute of it - especially its insight into the foolishness of men and the way that good looks are a mixed blessing, a weapon handed to a woman, without any accompanying instruction, and removed from her just as she is beginning to understand the exact nature of her dangerous power - the whole thing was spoilt by the niggling fact that over the door of the pub called The Dog and Duck, where one of the main characters is housed for the film's duration, the sign advertising accommodation is misspelt.

I'm not mad enough to say don't go though - it's a really lovely film and I wouldn't have missed it: Michelle Williams should win a prize for her performance, if she hasn't already, and Kenneth Branagh is superb, as always.

February, 2012

Animal Kingdom

The award winning film Animal Kingdom opens with a sequence intercutting detailed close-ups of a mass-produced copper-coated bas relief of lions, hanging in a suburban interior, with black and white CCTV stills of an armed robbery. The images are accompanied by hauntingly ominous music, composed by Antony Partos. They may be clues; they are certainly all we are getting. Once the action gets under way, no concessions are made to our lack of knowledge about the characters we are being introduced to. Not for us an Attenborough voiceover to guide us through the strange new habitat we are being shown. We are simply plunged in, forced to make judgements based on what we see and hear, without commentary or expository dialogue to fill things in.

The film is set in suburban Melbourne - with one excursion to a property near Bendigo - and centres on Josh, a seventeen-year-old who is forced to leave his mother's flat and start life afresh with his grandmother and his uncles, the Cody brothers. Josh, it quickly becomes clear, has fallen among thieves (or possibly been thrown to the lions). The Cody brothers inhabit a world that alternates unsettlingly between mayhem and death and backyard barbecues and suburban Chinese meals. They are criminals and thugs. They have no books, no aspirations, no interests other than the conflict they are engaged in with the Victorian police. Televisions flicker away in the corners of their kitchens and loungerooms: the images they display may distract the characters, diluting their understanding of reality, but they bring no awareness of life outside the bubble of violence and crime in which they live - nor, in the case of Josh's girlfriend and her family, do they give any warning that the Cody's world exists and may impinge on theirs. The Cody brothers are beasts, Melbourne is their territory and the story of the film is about how Josh finds his place within the shifting power alliances of his new herd.

Not unexpectedly, given the activities and outlook of its main characters, the film is fairly grim. This is not to say there aren't laughs - there are plenty, not least: 1) the scene in which Weaver complains about how difficult it is to find the positive in a particular situation; 2) the moment when, after it is agreed that a meeting must be held in a place where no-one any of the characters know would ever go, you see the chosen venue; and 3) the wonderful conversation between Pope and Barry about investing on the stockmarket. The acting too is brilliant. Ben Mendelsohn in particular is mesmerising as Pope, whom he portrays as a strange, wild, prowling psychopath, somehow even managing to transform his eyes into those of a mad kelpie at times (can this really be the same actor we saw as a sweet ingenue in Spotswood and nice young Eddie in Mullet?) Jackie Weaver is also breathtaking.

And yet, and yet. The film is gripping but there is something about it that makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps it is the fact that the people it attempts to portray are the kinds of people who would never be part of its audience. This gives the enterprise a slight sense of a trip to the zoo - it becomes an opportunity for the middle class to press their noses against the glass and peer at the underclass in awe and wonder. There are also a couple of dud psychological notes in the plot - the behaviour of one or two characters (notably Nicole, Josh's girlfriend and her parents) is pushed beyond the plausible to serve the theme of unavoidable and all-enveloping rampant animal power. For me, the film's authenticity was momentarily undermined by these little tin-eared flaws.

Nevertheless, although perhaps it is not quite as clever as it it thinks it is, the film is utterly absorbing and the way that it plays its cards close to its chest works particularly well in our understanding of Josh. We form our judgment of him based purely on what he says and does. As a result, his behaviour as the film progresses often surprises us. Only later, looking back over the initial scenes, is it possible to recognise that there were hints strewn about that might have made it easier to predict what he does later on. This is a film you turn over in your mind for days after you've seen it. Despite the minor quibbles I have about the plot, the movie's ability to linger in the mind is a testament to its strength and power.

June, 2010


Somewhere tells the story (if it can be called that - very little actually happens in the film) of a man who seems to have stumbled into the role of a Hollywood movie star - and indeed appears to be stumbling blindly through his life.

We first clap eyes on him about ten minutes into the movie, emerging from a car we have just seen him drive around and around - and around and around and around and, yes, once again, around - a race track (the film is littered with similar lingering shots - people have compared them to the work of Antonioni, but they recalled to me very dim and distant memories of Jean Luc Godard films [which I saw thanks to the marvellous Colin Crisp, who inaugurated a French cinema course in the French department at Australian National University, before being whisked away to Queensland to become a professor of cinema studies there - he was a really tremendous and entertaining teacher]).

Anyway, the man driving the car, whose name is Johnnie Marko, appears on the far side of the vehicle, revealing himself slowly, moving dazedly, almost as if he is asleep. He takes two steps forward and then stands before us for a moment, looking off to the right, into a distance that is hidden from us. Through his posture alone, he manages to convey a weary disappointment, a stranded boredom, a sense that he is missing something.

Subsequent events appear to bear this out. We watch as he staggers on through various scenes, some more startling than others - he falls asleep while blonde twins pole-dance at the end of his bed, he falls downstairs drunk and fractures his arm, he passes out shortly after flopping into bed with a woman he has just met (before actually doing anything very much with her). Most of his time though is spent alone, indoors. During these periods of solitariness, he appears to have no clue about how to spend his time. As far as we can tell, he possesses no inner resources and has no clear ambition. He just sits on his own, drinking beer from a bottle and smoking, staring into space, like a child waiting to be told what to do next.

And from time to time he is, in fact, given instructions - and, to give him his due, he carries them out dutifully, fronting up for publicity events, ferrying his daughter to skating and, hilariously, allowing a full cast of his skull to be made for use as part of some future movie's special effects. This last activity involves his entire head being enveloped in a thick white goo, which has two holes made in it for him to breathe through. In a shot that does not move except to draw slowly closer to its subject, we watch as he sits patiently, docilely, submitting to this indignity without complaint.

And then his daughter - who has already won our hearts in a poignant scene in which she practises her ice dancing routine with a slightly clumsy seriousness (made all the more touching because of the way it echoes the jerks and grinds of the earlier, sleep-inducing pole dancers) - is thrust upon him for an extended stay. Like Saffy in Absolutely Fabulous, she turns out to have more of a grasp on reality than her parent. She is active and engaged. She is interested in testing herself and trying out new things. She cooks meals, rather than ordering room service. While her father lolls idly on the edge of an indoor pool, she dashes back and forth through the water. When there is nothing to do, she pulls out her sudoku book and diverts her mind. She does not just wait for things to happen to her. She does not submit to boredom.

The days pass. The pair go to Italy for a TV awards ceremony. They return. Their car breaks down and they have to call a mechanic. They lie by the pool of the hotel where Johnnie lives. They go to Las Vegas. The daughter leaves for summer camp. The film ends. Nothing dramatic occurs. There is no sparkly Hollywood epiphany. All the same, we realise that something has happened, although it is nothing spectacular. The daughter has coaxed her father out from behind the walls of the hotel into the sunlight for a brief time. In her company, he has become dimly aware that he is not just a mote of dust drifting through time and space. What will come of this vague step towards understanding we cannot tell. There is no sense at the end of the film that a great redemption has taken place. He may not yet be ready to be master of his own destiny. All we can say is that, whereas at the beginning of the movie he emerged from his car after driving around and around in circles, in the closing scene, looking almost purposeful, he emerges from it after driving in a straight line.

Which is not to suggest that the film is pointless. While it is pretty uneventful and could not be said to move at breakneck speed, it is intriguing. Although some critics have argued that the main character is not only fairly unsympathetic, but also represents a tiny privileged elite and therefore has nothing to tell us, I disagree. Johnnie is certainly infuriating - has he never heard of reading a book (or even a newspaper or, indeed, an article on the internet - there is no sign that he has ever come across a computer) - but the irritating aspects of his personality are also the ones that connect him to the rest of the population. It is not only film stars who have been duped into believing that the meaning of life is to be found in material objects and distracted hedonism, in vivid sensation and high-speed cars. The irony is that Johnnie is part of the system of myth-making that has helped create the false assumptions that have led him to his current emotional dead end. In a similar irony, the film, while set in Hollywood and the shallow outposts of its empire, is itself a thoughtful alternative to the dangerous myths that Hollywood - with Johnnie's help - creates.

February, 2011


The idea at the heart of Inception - that what we think is reality might not be reality - is interesting, but the film about that has been glued onto a movie that wants to be part of the Bourne series and then the whole thing has been put together by someone with a huge budget and a very good special effects machine. Just to make sure we get our money's worth, every possible feature of that contraption is demonstrated during the course of the narrative - the manufacturers could use it as a sales video. The trouble is all those dazzling visuals interrupt the flow of any thought. Complexity is thrown away in favour of chase scenes in markets in Mombasa and on remote ski slopes. Michael Caine makes a cameo appearance as a genial professor - though what he is professor of is unclear (architecture possibly). The film is so long that even the makers must have realised they'd gone overboard - perhaps as a consequence they dispensed with credits at the start. It reminded me, strangely, of Artificial Intelligence - both films take a fascinating concept and then, as if afraid of it, proceed to go on and on and on, bombarding us with expensive imagery but no content to speak of. Both films, if my memory of Artificial Intelligence is correct, involve cars underwater too. The characterisation in Inception is almost non-existent, which makes it very hard for the viewer to feel involved. Eames comes closest to being anything more than a gadget for providing information about the inception process, but that is not saying much. Each time there was an attempt to build tension, I found myself wondering why I should care. At the end, it is not entirely clear whether the outcome for the main character has been good. The trouble is, despite my great fondness for Leonardo di Caprio who plays the central figure, it didn't matter to me either way. After two and a half hours, I just wanted to go home.

September, 2010

The Old School of Capitalism

We lived in Belgrade between 1985 and 1988. The day we left, I said to my husband, 'I never, ever want to come back here again.' I haven't changed my mind, but enough time has passed for me to be mildly curious to see what the place looks like now, provided I can view it from a cinema seat rather than having to actually visit.

Which was why I chose to go to see 'The Old School of Capitalism' at the Melbourne International Film Festival last night. I suppose I don't regret buying the ticket. After all, I met a very nice Hungarian from the Vojvodina and his charming Irish wife. Also, it is always interesting to discover that a new benchmark for utter hopelessness has been set.

For 'The Old School of Capitalism' is almost certainly the worst film I have ever seen. The acting is breathtakingly terrible and you couldn't say the thing has a story or a plot. Instead, without explanation, the film plunges us into the lives of a collection of muddled people who are having a lot of financial problems. We watch as they attempt to resolve their problems by all shouting at once and then smashing down a building, shouting some more, shooting at each other, shouting again, tying up some of their number, shouting again, and eventually ploughing, possibly inadvertently, one amongst them into the ground. The scenes of shouting are occasionally intercut with arguments about Communist theory between the character who is eventually ploughed under and another character, unrelated to the main action, who runs a left-wing magazine in Belgrade, funded by the proceeds of his father's career on Wall Street.

 Leaving aside the unfortunate ploughing incident, the events of the film did not seem all that different from what I observed of daily life in Belgrade - no planning, no structure, no vision, just a lot of shouting. I found it pretty wearing - and, once I discovered that the men shuffling about in their pyjamas fingering things in our local supermarket were actually patients from the infectious diseases hospital across the road, I really felt I'd had enough. Leaving the theatre last night, I felt exactly the same way.

August, 2010

Russian Lessons

This film, made by Olga Konskaya and Andrey Nekrasov, sets out to examine the war in South Ossetia in 2008. Through interviews with eye witnesses and visits to the area, they mount a strong case for the possibility that Russia and not Georgia was the main aggressor and perpetrator of major casualties and destruction in the conflict. They then delve back into what happened at Beslan and in Abkhazia, establishing what appears to be a strong case against Russia and suggesting that Putin should be treated as no less of a war criminal than Milosevic.

Leaving aside the human response of disgust and outrage at the abuses that have been allowed to take place in these remote places, from the west's point of view there are two very troubling aspects to the documentary. The first is the revelation that BBC 24, the BBC itself and the German channel ZDF happily took footage provided by Russian sources and presented it as evidence of Georgian atrocities against Ossetians in Tskhinvali when it was in fact footage of Russian atrocities against Georgians in Gori. Nekrasov and Konskaya painstakingly go through the footage in question, to demonstrate that there is no doubt of its provenance or what it shows.

The other is not really a revelation, but something we forget too easily - the fact that Putin is a very dangerous man and parts of his army behave without any humanity or honour, carrying out acts of bestiality and depravity that remain unpunished by Russian authorities and ignored by the rest of the world. The major Russian lesson we learn during the course of the film has nothing to do with the source of the title - an exercise book found in a bombed Georgian house, belonging to a fifth grade student of Russian language; the major Russian lesson is that it is a good idea not to live in a country anywhere near Russia.

While I have a few reservations about one or two slightly cheesy aspects of the way their film was put together, Konskaya and Nekrasov are brave and should be applauded for somehow breaking out of the brainwashed patriotic viewpoint of the majority of their fellow countrymen. I would very much like to see an earlier film they made about Litvinenko. That film is banned in Russia; it would not surprise me if this one suffers the same fate.

August, 2010

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu is a very long film (180 minutes), made entirely from propaganda and news footage of Ceausescu's time in power. There is no commentary and no attempt to shape the material into any kind of structured narrative. It is less an evening's entertainment than an endurance test - at the screening I attended the exodus started as a trickle but, as the images flowed on and on, the numbers of viewers leaving the theatre grew and grew.

Sadly leaving was not a choice available to most Romanian people. Possibly, this was the goal of the makers of the film - to give an impression of what it was like to live in a country where broadcast information was controlled, where the truth you were shown in the media bore no relation to the truth you saw around you in your daily life. If so the method was quite effective. I visited Romania several times at the height of Ceausescu's worst excesses and saw with my own eyes that the shelves in the shops really were bare and people were cold and miserable and things were about as bad as you could imagine. Even so, after watching Ceausescu tour shops stuffed with bread and meat and fish and fruit and vegetables - sometimes with visiting international politicians (de Gaulle, Nixon, plus the usual Soviet suspects), sometimes by himself, (one of his interminable birthday celebrations appears to have included an all-day round of food shop visiting - inadvertently one section of this footage includes an off-camera frenzied conversation about whether or not the fish has arrived yet so that the usually empty cabinet can be hastily made to appear full), I was beginning to wonder if I'd allowed my memory to exaggerate just how bad things had really been.

The film includes footage of Ceausescu's overseas visits. The North Koreans and Mao-era Chinese produce dazzling displays of frenzied joy at his arrival. The British wheel out guardsmen and state coaches, but the Queen looks as if she is trying to stifle the desire to be quietly sick. Jimmy Carter looks unimpressive, as usual. Brezhnev strokes Ceausescu's face and Gorbachev complains about the heat.

What the film does not do is give any insight into Ceausescu's personality. Did he really believe the dreary Marxist Leninist drivel he spouted repeatedly? Could he possibly have been fooled by his own propaganda? Did he understand what suffering was being endured by his people? And what did the delegates to the annual party congresses think they were doing, rising as a man to yell support for him in unison - at the XIIth party congress even turning on one individual who was brave enough to challenge Ceausescu's unscrupulous manipulation of the system? Where are those people now? How do they live with themselves?

I don't think I could recommend The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu, not only because it is so very long. The most remarkable and ultimately pointless thing about it is its utter neutrality - without previous knowledge, the viewer could leave the cinema no wiser about who Ceausescu was or what had brought him to the film's final scene, cornered in a country police station, refusing to answer questions and looking afraid. I suppose in that context, the film's achievement is that the audience has grown so heartily sick of this unimpressive little man that they are glad to be rid of him. What is missing though is a proper explanation of just what harm he did - boring people was the least of it. Because of this missing wider context, the film, despite some interesting and even comic moments, seems to me an exercise in futility - like Ceausescu's own endeavours, I suppose.

August, 2010


I used to know some Knights of Malta, which was why initially I wanted to go to see the film called Lourdes. My knightly friends, who lived in Vienna and had business cards printed with 'Knight of Malta' as their occupation, used to go to Lourdes to help disabled pilgrims a couple of times a year. This was just one among a number of things that intrigued me about them (another was whether it was really possible to be a full-time professional Knight of Malta in the modern age). Seeing Lourdes, I decided, would give me a clearer picture of what their trips to the shrine were all about.

The film is the work of Jessica Hausner, an Austrian director who worked as Michael Haneke's assistant and claims Tati as a major influence. The opening scene, a shot of a hotel dining-room being prepared for a meal for a group of pilgrims, certainly resembles something from Tati, but also evokes memories of Fellini's Roma (as does much of the film which, like Roma, has moments of great beauty - most striking perhaps the tableau in which several women anoint Christine, the central character, with holy water, which is reminiscent of a Caravaggio painting - and Fellinesque moments of grotesque comedy, not least the announcement of the prize for 'Best Pilgrim' .)

In the first scene, against a background of ecclesiastical music, we watch from above as waitresses wearing fresh white aprons enter the frame, pushing metal trolleys. In time with each other, they lift chrome bowls from their trolleys and turn to place them at the centre of the cloth-covered tables beside them. They turn back, still synchronised, and continue to the next tables, where they repeat the same gestures, as if engaged in some kind of ritual dance. From our remote corner, we watch their progress. We observe them with the detachment of someone watching fish dart about an aquarium.

The group of people who arrive in the dining-room shortly afterwards are the characters we follow through the rest of the film. As time passes, we learn that they have come to Lourdes for a variety of reasons - some to be cured, some to get out of the house, some to alleviate their loneliness, some out of boredom. They are cared for by members of the Order of Malta, whose motivations are equally varied and not always entirely sweet. We follow them as they visit the Disneyesque chapel at Lourdes, go to the grotto that is the site of the supposed miracle of Lourdes, attend various services of healing and take the waters at the shrine.

I had expected the Catholic church would be the film's main subject. I had imagined the director's central purpose would be to ridicule the whole enterprise that Lourdes represents. To my surprise, while Hausner does nothing to prevent the church from doing its own excellent job of revealing how much of what it offers is essentially tawdry, her focus lies elsewhere. Similarly, although one of the film's achievements is the way it highlights the plight of the disabled, giving us a glimpse of what it means to lose dignity and control, to find yourself utterly vulnerable and at the mercy of others, surrendering to the helplessness of infirmity - and also showing us how even the best-intentioned carers rarely manage to treat those they care for as true equals - this is not her major preoccupation.

Instead, what lies at the heart of the film is a fascination with the overarching absurdity of most human activity, directed as it is by the belief that we can achieve a constant lasting happiness. It is happiness the visitors to Lourdes believe a cure will bring them. They put their faith in God or Jesus or the Virgin - or, in the case of the enigmatic Christine, who becomes fixated with one of the Order of Malta carers, they create their own earthly saviours - and they believe that in return happiness will be theirs. Miracles do happen during the film but by the end the unavoidable conclusion is not that happiness is attainable but rather that life is mysterious, (as are many of the characters, most particularly, in my view, the elderly woman who shares a room with Christine), death is the one absolute reality and happiness is as easy to grasp as smoke. To underline the point, as the final evening of the pilgrimage draws to a close - and with it the film - an ageing singer and the prettiest of the carers belt out a song called 'Felicita', while Christine and her companions subside back into their loneliness.

July, 2010

The Hurt Locker

Everyone told me how good The Hurt Locker was. And they were right. It is a very good, gripping, moving, harrowing war saga. I was totally swept up by the characters and – a sign of a successful bit of story telling – in my head I remained in the reality of the film when I came out. All the way home, I was still on alert, just like the main characters, taking note of parked cars and open windows and watching passers-by for any sign they might attack.
But, as well as being an entertaining war movie, The Hurt Locker is also insidious trash. This is because its intention is not primarily to entertain us. While Katheryn Bigelow, like all good propagandists, is prepared to be entertaining in order to suck her audience in, what she is really after is getting across a message. What she wants to do more than anything is shove an argument down our throats.
The argument she is so keen to press on us is one of the central ideas in a book called ‘War is a force that gives us meaning’, by New York Times journalist, Chris Hedges. The book, which deals almost exclusively with the Balkan wars, argues that ‘war is a drug’. It is that phrase - war is a drug – that appears on the screen right at the beginning of the Hurt Locker. Not until we’ve had a chance to read it are we allowed to meet the characters, not until we’ve had a chance to absorb the phrase’s message is the action of the film allowed to begin.
This opening alone is proof enough of the film’s failure. It is, in essence, an admission by the movie maker that the film is not articulate enough to get across what she wants to say without having it spelled out at the start. Don’t tell me, show me, is all I can say – I don’t want my story framed by the moral I must draw from it. What is more, I don’t come to the movies to read, thanks; I can do that at home.
And, as it happens, I have read Hedges’ book – which, bizarrely, begins with a quotation from Wilfred Owen’s Pro Patria Mori; surely no poet was ever less addicted to war than Owen - and I think its arguments are muddled and unconvincing.
In the book, Hedges rails against war in lush, seductive language, presenting a kind of romanticised version of battle, which, he says, ‘provides excitement, exoticism, power … and a bizarre and fantastic universe’. Surprisingly, he says the book ‘is not a call for inaction. It is a call for repentance’. He insists that war has ‘an enduring attraction.’ He claims that ‘Even with its destruction and carnage, it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living ... a grotesque and dark beauty.’ Speak for yourself, ducky - who exactly is this 'we'? The bulk of the population in countries in the West are pretty content to lounge on the sofa watching telly and eating chips, in my experience.
In the film, the character who expresses Hedges’ view is Staff Sergeant William James, a bomb disposal expert. He is fearless and brave, he keeps the fuses of the hundreds of bombs he’s dismantled in a box under his bed, he takes no notice of army discipline, he puts his team mates in danger – and when he leaves the war zone and goes home he rapidly tires of clearing leaves from his gutters and making decisions about breakfast cereal and goes right back to get another fix of the one thing he really loves – good old war.
There are so many things to say about this character (the puke-worthy way a completely pointless plot line about a small boy he grows attached to is inserted to demonstrate that there are chinks in this warrior’s emotional armour springs to mind – and the whole sequence where he runs unprotected through Iraqi streets defies belief) but first and foremost is the profound unlikeliness that such a person would be tolerated in a professional army. A very senior officer is shown going out of his way to meet him and congratulate him for being ‘a wild man’, when any decent soldier would be clapping him in irons for completely unnecessarily endangering his fellow men.
Those who do have to go to war – and most, as I understand it, join up not because they are looking for kicks but because they need to support themselves and their families – are changed forever. That is unavoidable and true. They are required to endure terrible situations and do appalling things. While in conflict zones, they live with the knowledge that death and pain are constant possibilities. They experience the most intense exhiliration when they survive against the odds. When they come home, they are usually struck by the narrowness of the horizons of those who have stayed behind. They find themselves isolated by their extreme experiences and scarred by what they have witnessed and what they have had to do. They no longer belong among the innocents who have not been where they have been.
These things are true – but if, unable to fit back into their old lives, they return to the battle, it is not because they are addicts; it is because the world they come from has not understood or cared for them enough to make a place for them. The argument that war is a drug is glib and insulting. If anything, it is precisely because of this kind of view - and the resulting lack of any real recognition of the worth of their activities - that many soldiers return to the world of army and war. Uneasy with the knowledge of what they have done and seen, they are rarely made to feel that their contribution is appreciated in the outside world; in fact, they are often criticised outright for going at all. I suspect this is the reason that so many Vietnam Veterans appear to have had such complex problems since the end of that conflict
War is a horrible human enterprise in which, often, important things – above all, freedom - are being fought for. Nowadays in the West there is a tendency not to take sides, to suggest that violence of any kind is reprehensible and the ‘war is a drug’ argument is terrific in that regard. There is no longer any need to examine the issues behind a conflict if ‘war is a drug’. And, of course, once we’ve accepted that ‘war is a drug’, we no longer have to honour or worry about those who go to fight wars for us. After all they are all just hopeless addicts.
And it is this that seems to be the most reprehensible aspect of The Hurt Locker and of Hedges’ argument: if those who take on the task of fighting our wars are mere addicts, we can dismiss their achievements. We can turn our backs on them instead of having to admire their heroism. For there are no heroes now – that’s the most important thing to grasp. There are only these weak, undisciplined, pitiable creatures we once so foolishly imagined as heroes, these people who can’t control themselves, who are actually only happy when shooting up on war.

March, 2010

Shutter Island

I went to see Shutter Island yesterday. It is not, as I'd been led to believe, a horror movie, but a psychological thriller, with a plot that requires the viewer to try to believe ‘six impossible things before breakfast’, as the White Queen said. Although some scenes have a slight look of The Others, a comparison with that film does Shutter Island no favours at all. In addition, the use of Dachau to add a bit of narrative interest is morally pretty questionable – or so it seems to me.
In the credits at the end, I was intrigued to see that the film’s highly intrusive big orchestral score was presided over by Robbie Robertson – I assume that’s the Robbie Robertson who so many young women fell in love with when they first saw him in The Last Waltz (also by Scorsese – presumably that’s how they met) and then recoiled from five years later when they saw the film for a second time on telly and realised he was a pretentious git, (and, yes, I could be speaking from direct experience here.)
In its favour, the opening twenty minutes of Shutter Island are really very beautiful and, as always, Leonardo di Caprio gives a terrific performance throughout. He is an exceptional actor, I think - and he seems to have aged rather less than some amongst us (and yes, again, I do mean me.) The film is quite an entertaining thriller, with an excellent central performance and some visually gorgeous moments. If you have nothing better to do and nothing else to look at, it’s not a total waste of time.

March, 2010

Up In the Air

I went to see Up in the Air last night. It is an odd film. The central character is a man whose home is a studio apartment with a view of an enormous air-conditioning unit and whose job involves spending almost all his time somewhere other than the apartment, sacking people. At the beginning of the film this man, played by George Clooney, is happy with his life, spending his time in airports and hotel rooms and hire cars and limiting his ambition to the accumulation of loyalty points. He has few possessions and no attachments.
There are lots of things to say about the film - not least that it can't decide whether it is a Soviet propaganda film, depicting the merciless brutality of a capitalist corporate world, or a clunkingly cliched Hollywood piece of schmaltz, celebrating the dull virtues of small town bores - but the number one problem I had with it was that the central character seemed implausible. 'There is no real person who is so utterly cut off from normal human life,' I thought. Today though I read an extract from a book called Why People Fail by Simon Reynolds, and I began to wonder if I'd been wrong.
Mr Reynolds kicks off with the absurd statement that 'if you're not achieving all that you'd like in life, it's probably because you haven't established a daily ritual'. He then goes on to advocate a 'success ritual' that should be practised every day, consisting of 'three intelligent steps or actions', so that by the end of the year you move '1000 steps towards your goals', something he describes as 'an extraordinary achievement'.
In the extract I read, he provided an anti-procrastination ritual (which inevitably - the sort of bread and butter of all self-help - involved visualising your goals,) and an industry-mastery ritual which suggested daily reading of 'an industry book (20 minutes)' and 'industry magazines, websites and blogs (10 minutes)' - I love these precise allotments of time - and 'Quarterly: have a coffee with one industry expert'.
Finally came the 'Social-Life-Improvement Ritual.' According to Mr Reynolds 'Anything can be quickly and easily improved with the right daily ritual - even your social life. Make a list of the friends and acquaintances you'd like to see more of and read it each morning. Set a target of one social event including one of these people each week (coffee, lunch, movie, etc). Make one call or email each day to say hi or to arrange a catch-up with friends. Do this, and within a short time, you'll have three weekly social appointments. Easy.'
Imagine being part of someone's target number of 'social interactions', imagine needing to have that list of possibilities - '(coffee, lunch, movie)' - spelled out for you - or indeed needing to make a list of friends and acquaintances and read it each morning (and why do you have to do that - is it in case you forget who they are?) Imagine living a life where you had a goal for the number of 'social appointments' you had each week. Imagine describing meeting your friends as 'social appointments' (and what about if that one call or email each day produces the response, 'Piss off'?) Only someone as completely out of touch as the guy in the film could write this drivel - or take it seriously enough to publish it. Which means that, after all, such people must exist.

February, 2010

Last Station

We had the Budget last night so telly was wall-to-wall finance blah. Fed up, I decided to go to the pictures.
The film I saw was Last Station, which claims to tell the story of Tolstoy's last days. As I spent rather a lot of time studying Tolstoy about three million years ago, I suppose I ought to know whether it gives an accurate account of events. I'm ashamed to say I don't though.
Actually, am I ashamed and ought I to know? After all, I was studying Tolstoy's novels; I never signed up to investigate his life. And isn't going off and poking about to get bits of gossip about someone who wrote a few books a long time ago just another version of the whole celebritisation of the author phenomenon - which I hate (although I do recognise that Tolstoy was possibly the first real example of that phenomenon)? Aren't writers' works supposed to do the job of expressing what they want to express - trying to find out how the writers got on with their families is just being nosy, isn't it? If his book works, who cares if the author is a little too friendly with his dog or his goldfish (not that I'm implying Tolstoy or anyone else for that matter engaged in anything untoward with their pets).
I think it's time to return to my original focus - the film and what it is like. It has some beautiful landscape scenes, particularly one featuring Countess Tolstoy being conveyed through the peasant-speckled countryside in an open carriage pulled by a pair of grey horses that perfectly match her meringue shaped hat (very My Fair Lady [the scene at the races]) and cream coloured dress. It has too much distracting music - hidden orchestras strike up every time anyone is left alone in a room, ditto any time anything romantic is about to happen or a steam train appears, (although I'm glad to say that the steam trains aren't used as a visual euphemism for anything romantic actually happening - that would be pushing it).
The story concerns Viktor Chertkov, the moving force behind the Tolstoyan movement supposedly (no, I didn't know there was such a thing either). In the film he is portrayed as the kind of person Brit characterises excellently here. James McEvoy is hired by him to be Tolstoy's secretary. McEvoy plays the role by giving his now celebrated impression of a gulpingly shy young man. Although he's good at it, he should probably drop this from his repertoire before too long - it's beginning to resemble a slightly tired party trick on his part.
McEvoy is given a love interest called Masha, who, despite living in the world's first hippy commune, never appears without hair that looks as though it's just been blow dried by a very skilful hand - and she is badly served by a script that has her use the word 'tightarse', which, to my ears, jars in a 19th century context. Helen Mirren plays Countess Tolstoy, clad almost constantly in pale blue (I suspect she's had her colours done - someone told me it was the best investment they'd ever made, which is quite a statement.)
Mirren gives an absolutely wonderful performance - she holds the whole film together. She is its powerhouse. She also proves definitively that she deserves to be on the list of the world's most beautiful women, even if it was compiled by a bunch of cynics, who, recognising modern demographics, decided to please their growing middle-aged readership and reject most contenders under 30, (thus, it seems to me, redefining at one stroke the notion of beauty that has been flogged to us for years - something that is quite hard to absorb, when you've spent several decades being brainwashed into thinking a) that youth and loveliness do not so much go hand in hand but are in fact Siamese twins and b) that hanging onto youthfulness is something you should strive for at all costs.)
For mercy's sake, get back to the point, ZMKC. To conclude, the film is entertaining. It - or rather Helen Mirren as the hapless Countess Tolstoy - made me blub once or twice, which is fine by me. It's nicely shot - sort of Merchant Ivory pretty. I don't totally understand why the subject matter inspired Jay Parini to write a novel and the film makers to make a film from the novel (a film of a novel about a novelist), but the odd sequence of events leading to Tolstoy's death does seem to hold a fascination for artists - Rose Tremain wrote a short story called The Jester of Astapovo about the same thing, but told from the point of view of the station master who gives up his bed for the dying Tolstoy, and there was a painting of a scene from the same events in the recent Sulman prize exhibition. I imagine that almost everything has now been wrung from the incident, although possibly some mileage could be dragged from looking at the thing from the perspective of Tolstoy's daughter Sasha (I may only think this could be interesting because of Ann Marie Duff's excellent performance in the role [she is good in almost anything, although even her dynamism couldn't turn George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan into an entertaining evening as far as I was concerned {I wonder sometimes if time is going to transform Tom Stoppard's plays into the dry, dull ideas-vehicles that GBH's now appear to us to be.}])
In short, the film is absorbing and enjoyable but it is a fictionalisation of actual events about which I know little and I cannot work out whether it should be judged on fictional grounds or as a documentary. If you judge it purely as a fiction then it tells a story of love, expressed by the Countess Tolstoy character, opposed to calculation, expressed by the Chertkov character. The trouble is, because these were real figures and some at least of the events did happen in one form or another, it is harder to accept that the conflict was as clearcut and straightforward as the one we are shown. In fiction, things can be presented more starkly. In real life, I suspect the opposing personalities were neither as appealing and good nor as straightforwardly unpleasant as the ones in this film are presented as being. If they were fictional, we would have to believe whatever their creator told us about them - because they aren't, I, at least, expect them not to be mere emblems but well-rounded, complex, good and bad flawed people. Chertkov in particular emerges from this film as a one-dimensional villain - if he existed only in the minds of the film-makers, I would accept that. Because he actually existed I know that I can go and find out more about him and I'm sure it will turn out that he had many different sides. Funnily enough the one really big flaw in War and Peace for me is the insertion of Napoleon into the text as a character - a real figure popping up amidst Tolstoy's fictional creations sounds a really dud note, in my view. The film makes me uneasy in a similar way. It is not a documentary - and yet it is about people who lived and things that really happened, so it is not a fiction. Perhaps it is a moral question that is bothering me - liberties have been taken with real characters. They are helpless to fight back about the way they have been portrayed.

May, 2010