Friday, December 30, 2011

Prancer is this year's most valuable reindeer

A trip home to the family for the holidays inevitably informs your holiday viewing. For me, it means a return to the tastes of my mother, as she dominates the music on the radio (always classical) and generally gets her way on the television as well. More than that, though, it returns me to the whim of the obsession of hers than heavily influenced my childhood - dance.

On Christmas Day, the BBC put out an hour and a half programme where Darcey Bussell, one of the most famous ballerinas of recent years, flexing her leg muscles again after a few years of retirement. But instead of ballet, she took on recreating four famous dance numbers from the glory days of the movie musical. Just days after the news that the National Film Registry's latest inductees include some "family home movies" of the Nicholas Brothers, tap dancing contemporaries of Fred Astaire, dance experts name-check them here. Bussell's first challenge - and ultimately her biggest - was reenacting Astaire's famous 'Puttin' on the Ritz' number from the otherwise obscure Blue Skies (1946). As the programme progressed, the documentary sections before each filmed performance shortened, so most of the technical issues of adaptating to a vastly different style of dance were included in this first passage. Where classical ballet requires clean, long lines and telegraphed positioning, tap required Bussell to loosen up and bring her body inwards - while redirecting her precision, because Astaire's performances were no less controlled and perfectly choreographed than Bussell's graceful ballet roles.

Bussell recreates Astaire's 'Puttin' on the Ritz'
This first number - pleasingly blasé about inverting the gender of the performer - turned out to be the highlight of the programme. Recreations of Top Hat's 'Cheek to Cheek' number and Singin' in the Rain's 'Good Mornin'' were appealingly staged and brightly performed, but, perhaps because she was returned to the female parts, where Ginger Rogers and Debbie Reynolds had been less technically adept than their male co-stars, they felt considerably less spirited. The fourth, meanwhile, was a curious reinvention of the famous 'Girl Hunt' number from The Band Wagon - always a highlight of the enormously talented Cyd Charisse's career. But here, its modern mishmash of a score and rather garish sets were the background to a mix of dancing styles that just didn't spark. Though Charisse herself came from a background in ballet, Bussell's lengthy background in ballet still seems to be what undid her here - her leg extensions and polished line finishes seemed uncomfortable in the louche jazz setting. But major points for trying.

Bussell stretches out for the Girl Hunt
So then, in those lingering days before the New Year in which no one is really sure what to do with themselves, I noticed that the house had acquired the new DVD issue of 1968's Isadora, for which Vanessa Redgrave was a somewhat forgotten Oscar nominee in the year of the infamous Hepburn-Streisand tie. With Redgrave back in Oscar circles this year for her fiery turn in Coriolanus, I realised I'm woefully uneducated on her career, so what an unexpected boon this was.

Isadora Duncan was a dance revolutionary. The film Isadora doesn't leave you without this knowledge, but ultimately it feels more like knowledge and not feeling - you know it because you have been told, but less because you've witnessed and experienced it. Isadora gets hijacked by Isadora's love life, and while that wouldn't necessarily be a detriment, the script quickly loses the connecting tissue between these romantic tangles and Isadora's dancing. It's there in the passionate encounters with her first lover, Edward Gordon Craig (James Fox), a theatre designer who declares "You see, I invented you". Isadora does dance in these passages, a sprightly expression of her youthful sexuality finally blossoming ("Why did nobody tell me how beautiful men are?"). A sex scene is evocatively intercut with Isadora seemingly dancing on the ceiling (left), an aerially filmed series of movements that vividly suggest the thrill, fear and lust in Isadora's physical reality.

But dance is soon relegated to merely Isadora's career, something she inconsistently maintains through her relationship with Paris Singer (Jason Robards), and away fall the intriguingly filmed dance sequences of the early passages of the film. Late in the film, as Isadora moves to Russia, dance's capacity as a political expression, and moreover a political tool, flares up as an intriguing theme, but still one which blanks on really evoking the feeling of movement. Lost too, is the briefly glimpsed Duncan rehearsing - a friction between the supposed loose heartfelt nature of her dancing style and the idea that she can still rehearse such a thing.

Isadora's vibrant Russian red confronts an American audience
Of course, a biopic has to tell the story of a person's life, and Isadora's love affairs were a huge part of her particular existence. But so, too, was dance, and her fame in this area is what makes her specifically interesting as a subject. The ultimate fustiness of Isadora leaves a lingering disappointment that the connections between life and art seemed to fall through the cracks here. Isadora Duncan herself would likely have felt better served by a filmic treatment than was less narrative and more by some sort of 'arty' evocation of the passion and feeling and torture behind her dancing.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Margaret, unthatched

You can understand why Margaret has taken five years to make it to cinema screens, as few in number as those screens were. You can understand why it was the subject of editing headaches for director Kenneth Lonergan and his editor Anne McCabe. The film has been edited into as smooth a narrative curve as it sensibly could have been (apparently by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker) , but, even though it is as close to a masterpiece as any film this year, you sense that there's a bigger, more amorphous, even more majestic film lying in pieces on the cutting room floor. Because Margaret is not about plot points or closure or linearity, not in a strict sense at least. Despite the clearly stringent editing process, Margaret still feels inescapably loose, a quietly ambitious collage of the human existence that barely makes the slightest pan or track without acutely demonstrating an astonishing understanding of the individual and their relationships.

Jean (J. Smith-Cameron) and Lisa (Anna Paquin)
Ostensibly the film follows the repercussions of a tragic road accident, partly caused by and witnessed by Lisa (Anna Paquin). Confused, petulant, argumentative and naive, Lisa is driven by guilt and self-righteously drives this into seeking legal action against the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) who was also partially at fault. As the film progresses, the legal processes Lisa undertakes with the deceased woman's best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin) do dominate, but even they prove more symptomatic of the tangled trappings of modern society's convoluted, emotionless systems than of any sense of resolution or finality in any of the characters' lives.

At one point, the idea of Lisa as the centre of a narrative is explicitly disputed by one character, their mouth practically spitting with disgust at the idea of such a self-centred idea. Margaret's title seems to take issue with this too - Margaret is none of the characters, not even the dead one, but a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem read out by one of Lisa's teachers. There is a sense of latent resentment as the film aligns with Lisa; passages that spend time with her mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) vibrate with a peculiar jealousy, stemming from Joan being slowly pushed out of her daughter's worldview, while her father (Lonergan) exists only in phone calls to his daughter, sympathetic but disconnected, trapped in an airless Los Angeles beach house. Students who are forced to witness Lisa's circular political arguments with a Muslim classmate yell to reinstate themselves in Lisa's narrative. Characters who are at one moment integral to Lisa's narrative fall away, her life shifting in a different direction - youthful romantic possibilities shed for starker, more cynical sexual entanglements. Among many things, Margaret is a story of a girl struggling with adulthood, a question of how a confrontation with death might mature her, and twist her self-perception.

Lisa shrinks from the world around her
On more than one occasion Lonergan abandons identification altogether, instead observing crowded sidewalks, or gliding across the cityscape to Nico Muhly's delicately sad score. These moments never feel awkward or pontifical, but an expressively cinematic way of expressing the essence of the film: the world overwhelming the individual, the multitude of tangled stories of isolated human beings. It recalls something mentioned by Glenn Close in The Hollywood Reporter's recent Actress Roundtable - the concept of "mirror neurons" and acting being a "reflection" of a scene partner. "You can elicit an emotion in someone else by how you look into someone else's eyes." But Margaret is about averted eyes, missed glances, defiant avoidance of gaze. Lisa chooses to disconnect herself from Jean, who desperately tries to draw her daughter's gaze but in turn fails to really look at the new man (Jean Reno) in her life.

Lisa's gaze rests on sympathetic teacher Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon)
Its convoluted journey leaving it a strange window into the past, Margaret's foundations are closer to post-9/11 society than the present, something explicitly referenced in the debating scenes at Lisa's school. But these moments never feel as if they're trying to elicit a particular response to anything; they are simply a more verbal example of a friction between two human beings, with Lisa and Angie (Hina Abdullah) tellingly positioned on opposite sides of the room. Margaret at once feels timely and specific yet displaced, a strange window to a recent past where the ideas seem alternately innocent and prescient.

I left Margaret in a similar way to that in which I left Melancholia - my sense of the word around me felt irrevocably different. But where Melancholia's florid, epic ambition left me on some other plane of existence, Margaret thrust me back out into a world full of people, a fresh tactility and almost hyper-awareness of all the individual stories and issues brushing past me. Margaret's lack of grand scope is what makes it so ambitious, as if it's epic qualities have been turned in on themselves, expanding within character rather than in the form of a terrifying planet. It pinpoints, finally, the difficulties of living, and the precious moments we'd all do our best to ensure we actually look at. (A)

Margaret is playing three times at a day at the Odeon Panton St. in central London until next Thursday. If you can get there at all, run.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Few Notes of a Tokyo Sonata

Tokyo Sonata begins with the patriarch of a Japanese family being dismissed, in a roundabout way (basically he costs too much and the Chinese are younger and cheaper), from his job at some nameless company. Hardly what someone currently unemployed (like me) wants from their evening's entertainment, but Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film turns out to be a deft, freewheeling, surprising portrait of a nuclear family dissipating amidst the worsening economic depression.

The urban wasteland awaits Ryûhei
Japan has been stuck in an economic downturn longer than the rest of the world, so it's no surprise that when the patriarch, Ryûhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), puts his head down and visits the job centre that the queue spirals down the several levels of building and out the door. Ryûhei doesn't tell his wife or sons about being fired, but their lives spin out of normality too - oldest Takashi (Yû Konanagi) is disenchanted with his homeland and wants to help the world by enlisting in the U.S. military, youngest Kenji (Kai Inowaki) has to develop his prodigal talent for the piano behind his father's back ("How could our child be a prodigy?"), and wife Megumi (Kyôko Koizumi) lingers in the house, her food slowly losing its power to bring the family together.

Tokyo Sonata is about the broken communication in Japanese society, the stiff traditions of internalisation and secrecy combusting in the modernised world, though it's story of masculine pride and generational divides is not unlike American Beauty. It finds human counterparts for the family's problems - Kenji runs into a classmate who is (physically) running away from his father; Ryûhei meets an old friend who is also unemployed, and keeps up a facade that involves his phone automatically ringing five times an hour - to contextualise and strengthen the issue Kurosawa is broaching.

But in its singularly poignant moments, which often blossom from the odd plot turns, particularly in the last half hour, the film sources an involving personal affection. Take this scene, where Ryûhei returns home after dining with the friend he made in the unemployed queue. Megumi is lying on the sofa, exhausted. He wakes her, turns down her offer of tempura and disappears, but he's not out of earshot when she asks:

Unheard, her arms hang in mid-air, and she lifts them further, up towards the ceiling. Whether asking her husband or some higher power, or just anyone who'll listen, the emptiness in Megumi's life is evident in her hazy, bewildered eyes as they gaze upwards.

Ryûhei doesn't touch Megumi until the end of the film.

Tokyo Sonata seems to demonize the patriarch to excess, hating him as much as it pities him, and the way it deals with him in the final stretches, especially in comparison to the piquant sequences granted to Megumi, leaves doubtful questions hanging over the ending. But these questions linger, and perhaps they are intentional worries about how everything resolves itself. The final sequence of the film is remarkably evocative and enthralling, and the silent wondering over it only strengthens the experience of a pointed social critique. B+

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

McCabe, maybe, but definitely Mrs. Miller

At points, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a film that exists only through a fog. Director Robert Altman and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond purposefully 'flashed' the negative and several of the camera filters to irreparably distinctify the film style, but this eerie distance isn't merely achieved visually. Leonard Cohen's nostalgic compositions make moments feel consigned to myth as we watch them. The first half of the film is about McCabe's (Warren Beatty) efforts to build a new town, and so McCabe & Mrs. Miller itself builds reality out of the fog, slowly gathering an heavy earthiness as it progresses, eventually becoming overwhelmed by the elemental. It's an experience that makes the mundane disquieting, where Mrs. Miller's (Julie Christie) matter-of-fact business smarts slice through the muted atmosphere with startling bluntness.

So obtuse I had to add a white circle so you'd even notice.
Mrs. Miller's introduction is the briefest of glimpses - a purposefully obtuse concealment. It fits perfectly into Altman's filmmaking style but it's a tease. Julie Christie is a movie star and you're waiting for her. There she i- no. Not yet.

When she finally reappears, it's perched on a carriage pulled by a steam engine struggling up the hill, puffing deafeningly. An inconspicuous entrance into McCabe's life, but then she hops off and marches into the film without any nonsense. "You John McCabe? Mrs. Miller. I came up from Beatport to see ye'," she says, an astonishingly Cockney accent in the American Northwest. The accent is never discussed or disputed, and is merely an element of the difference of the character that hangs over proceedings. She and McCabe are the different, the focus, and though she's been absent for a quarter of the film already, Altman seems to inject her straight into the film's centre. As she pauses in the half-built saloon, the camera seems to take breathe with her, a short sharp shot of her at an angle 90° apart from the neighbouring frames:

When in the restaurant, the camera isolates the eponymous pair, the naturalist aesthetic retaining the sound of the community around them but this lofty angle setting them into a dark, reclusive corner, glowing in their own light. Christie's accent compounds the brisk, straightforward mundanity of what her entrance brings to the film - she yanks it back from the misty nostalgia, talks of the prostitutes' "monthlies" and greed for money and blows her nose like a foghorn. Unlike that which surrounds her, we know nothing about Mrs. Miller's past, her directness, and Christie's brusque, unfettered characterisation ensuring that her present is her sole existence for the majority of the film.

"You get out of my shot, you wanker."
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is about masculinity. It's about McCabe's bravado, his cowardice hiding behind a legend, and how Mrs. Miller cracks straight through it, leans him out of the frame and challenges his restricted dreams. She is the reality, the smart and the active; where he is the fool, the coward who has a distorted sense of the real world, of its currency and its death. It is also about modernity - the steam engine shuddering up the hill - and, as the economic crux of the film makes itself apparent in the suited agents, the film slowly gets heavier, earthier, more present. The romantic gauze of the early scenes seems to vanish, and the whistlingly nostalgic music fades away, lost and entwined in the howling wind. The physical reality of the town he built up ultimately surrounds McCabe and suffocates him.

Finally, lost in Mrs. Miller's observation too...
Mrs. Miller's own ending stares into the vibrant red and answers nothing about her feelings for McCabe. Altman frequently zooms breathlessly onto people merely observing, no answers to be found in their own face, nor any questions being asked. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an escape into a nostalgic past where people are just as inert as they were in 1971, and as they are now. As colour and music drain from the film, it is not accidental that proceedings become more realistic. This is a life without colour, and possibly without love. But it is that possibility that lingers, and where the masterpiece might lie. A-

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

LFF Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene


written and directed by Sean Durkin; starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet, Louisa Krause

screens on Friday 21st, Saturday 22nd and Monday 24th October


"I know who I am," proclaims Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) in rude defiance, decrying not only the concerned eye of her sister but the title of the film itself. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a sharp confusion of a title, one which compounds the collusion of identities that threads lucidly through the film. On first appearance, she is without a name, a silent figure setting a table which she must wait to eat at. Sexist oppression has tired for her, though, and just as quietly she slips out of the house in the dawning light, the camera ever so gradually receding backwards as she slips through the woods opposite. Then, snap; close, breathless, the camera runs with the terrified girl through the forest, wild hand held turns matching her panicked confusion. Martha, Marcy, May or Marlene: whoever she is, we're in this with her now.

Sean Durkin's debut feature is an striking combination of prickly panic and eerie calm. Once Martha escapes her overcrowded abode - which is soon confirmed to be the site of an earthy misogynistic cult headed by the frighteningly charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes) - the film establishes past and present not as distinctly separate narratives, but as inextricably entwined, constantly bleeding into one another. Echoes of one repeatedly appear in another, accomplished by quiet tricks of editing and photography. Often shocking but never cheaply utilized, this confusion craftily reflects Martha's damaged state of mind, unable to truly escape what she has run away from, and with a mind unconvinced that she even need leave it all behind.

No judgments are made on what possible benefits Martha might gain from either the cult - which, though a harrowing and abusive environment, seems at least to give Martha a steelier edge, a far cry from the naivety we glimpse of her before her move into the communal house - or the bourgeosie, consumerist lives of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her critical husband (Hugh Dancy). The continual suggestion is that Martha cannot reconcile herself to either world; though, since her personality before joining the cult is only briefly glimpsed, the audience can only guess whether her awkwardness in normal society was always an issue. The possibility that Lucy's way of a life is as damaging as the cult often seems overstated, particularly through Lucy's reactions to Martha's strange behaviour, which are often shaming, outraged chastisements rather than the bewildered concern Paulson otherwise emits so superbly. But fold these shifting reactions into the quiet discussions the sisters have about their pasts, and another layer of mystery is added - Lucy never really knew her sister, so she, like us, can't know how deeply rooted Martha's issues are. It's a clever, frustrating revelation that obscures Martha even further.

In Olsen, you can see the limpid ghost of her infamous elder sisters, her face a construction of ovals; eyes large pools that glass over, a face that sours and turns in on itself when Martha tries to shut her sister out, as if she's trying to remove herself from the room. It's a brave performance that interiorises the pain and confusion, which then bursts out into the film like shards of glass, thrusting into the narrative at awkward angles through the spurring of dark memories, and the shattering clarity of the sound design (a taunting phone, reverberating shrilly in the middle of the night). The teasing final shot essentially leaves Martha as a figurehead for any woman escaping an abusive environment, but due to Olsen's superb work, Martha has become sympathetic through her unknowability - the audience feels for her confusion, her instability, impressed and scared by her barbed tongue and her aloof naivety.

Durkin and his cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes develop a slow, observant style of shooting, using gradual zooms and curving pans to give illusions of perspective and shift the viewer's eye. As the film progresses, camera, edit and sound work with the script to ratchet the tension to a distressing pitch, their weaving of past and present pressurising Martha to unbearable effect. The palpable dread of Martha's situation, and of Lucy's inability to deal with it, becomes harder to watch, since we become increasingly less certain of the people we're watching. Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene - she is all of them, and she is none of them.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Woody's Witching Hour

Colour me surprised that Midnight in Paris burst into UK cinemas a mere five months after its US release, but then you'll all have heard by now that this nostalgia piece by one of America's most prolific and speediest directors is his most financially successful film ever. Earlier this year, on the delayed release of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, I wrote this piece on Allen's last two films, closing with the question, "... will he ever recover his talent for funny, perceptive human insights, or even the romantic visual sense that was once so palatable?"

You've been waiting with baited breath for the answer, and, since it was rather fittingly released into the darkening twinkle of autumn's beginning, you didn't have to hold your breath and go red and collapse with exhaustion in the meantime. Midnight in Paris is Woody's best film in years; certainly his most vibrant since Match Point, and unlike that arch and slightly morbid exercise, this feels like classic Woody. It isn't, don't get me wrong, because he's still lost his touch at writing personable, funny, truthful female characters and in the final event, Rachel McAdams' shrill fiance almost sinks the entire ship.

You'd never be able to tell they're not really in love.
But if we put that aside - and, after so many years experiencing the same (and probably worse) from him, I have to, or I'll never enjoy anything ever again - Midnight in Paris is a film that sparkles with the romance and spirit of the city its set in. Again, a revelation - Woody's managed to capture the essence of a city again, after so baldly missing anything special in Barcelona and consistently misrepresenting London. The bizarrely prolonged montage of shots around Paris that begins the film worried, then relieved me; it was as if Woody was exhausting himself and the audience of all these generic shots, before approaching his real depiction of the city through the nostalgia trip that is the basis of the narrative. The imitation of such major historical cultural figures is so daringly brash that he pulls it off, the clearly fictional imaginings lending a joyous vibrancy that reflects off the walls, the steps and the pavements. The restraint he shows in shying away from any of the iconic buildings means that, even though it's a city chased down a hazily nostalgic rabbit hole, it comes alive because the central character is so in love with the setting.

They're looking at each other. I'd say that's a good first step towards romance.
And in Owen Wilson, Woody's found a substitute for himself who really works (whatever works won't do after all), and ensures that this feels more like one of the classic Woody-starrers than the past fifteen years of his back catalogue have. He's aloof and slightly rude without being unsympathetic, his foppishness subbing well for Woody's reediness. As perhaps befits the plot, the modern day cast are of little interest (though Michael Sheen has predictable fun as a pretentious pedant), but the players of '20s Paris shine, particularly Corey Stoll as an uncompromising, darkly charismatic Ernest Hemingway. And Marion Cotillard is just a shimmer away from undoing the damage McAdams' character does - winsome, elusive, though ultimately just a little too idealised.

To return to my months-old question, I'd be hard-pressed to say that there are any particularly revelatory human insights to be had here. That's a shame, because once upon a time, Woody Allen was one of those writers who could start a scene with a joke and end it with a revelation. Woody the scribe is still stuck in convention, ending the film with a message that's far too bluntly delivered, and rather at odds with his entire career of late. Does Woody actually recognise his own situation - a writer in need of a Gertrude Stein - in Wilson's? Doubtful. But Woody the director has livened up again, and the final point is this. Midnight in Paris, for the first time since, oh, Everyone Says I Love You (just fifteen years ago! ...), is a Woody Allen film genuinely alive with the sense of its title. It might not be Woody back on his unchallenged classical form but it's a Woody who seems to have recovered a sense of the magic of cinema, of the discovery of a troubled character's ventures, and of a sense of romantic purpose. The clock has struck, and I can spy Manhattan down the street. (B-)

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Freaks in Love

Let's get this out of the way. There's only one reason people see Freaks these days. Here it is.

Scientists and I are still baffled as to how this is realistically possible, but look at that jacket! Quite swank for a duck-lady, I think you'll agree.

I'd seen Freaks a few years ago and somehow managed to forget this deliciously insane revelation, so I do admit, I rolled up for a packed screening in the centre of London with slightly embarrassed anticipation at the madness I'd blanked on. What I recalled from my first viewing was a rather frightening climax where the freaks move like terminators through sticky midnight mud, preceded by the most boring and stilted machinations concerning circus freaks that had ever been filmed.

But lo! What I found on second viewing were the most stilted machinations concerning circus freaks ever filmed, that somehow had a tragic romance at its heart. Real-life husband and wife Harry and Daisy Earles bagged the plum roles here, as Hans, the rich midget taken in by eventual duck-lady Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), and his girlfriend Freida, powerless to prevent that gold-digging whore!! from stealing her man. Despite the awkward, halting manner in which the pair deliver their dialogue, there is something affecting in their performances, particularly Daisy's. As Freida becomes increasingly forgotten by Hans, the faltering speech even adds to the devastation she feels and that we feel for her.

Mostly, though, it's in the facial expressions. Harry Earles is certainly expressive - watch as he mimicks Cleopatra's sycophantic pretence - but the emotional power of Freaks is almost entirely in Daisy Earles' melancholy faces. Observe.

I think this unexpectedly beautiful shot telegraphs the tenderly tragic, and surprisingly straight, romance at the film's core, though.

Although if you've not seen the film, that probably just looks like two people facing away from the camera. AMATEURS.

P.S. Of course, none of this is as wonderfully 'hilare' as the scene where the suitors of the Siamese twins discuss how they should visit each other sometime. Just imagine the sexual intercourse.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Curtain Rouge

This post is a contribution to the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series at The Film Experience.
Another mindless crime... behind the curtain...
 Part of Baz Lurhmann's 'Red Curtain' trilogy (the effervescent Strictly Ballroom and the searing William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet precede it), Moulin Rouge! is like the mama's boy to its director parent, the teacher's pet - it opens with a red curtain. And there are red curtains behind the red curtain. The film's melee and mishmash of songs, styles and the sheer speed of the editing make Moulin Rouge! such a dazzling spectacle that it's hard to know where, if anywhere, the show stops. But just as freedom, beauty, truth, and of course love are layered into the range of pop songs interpolated and performed, they are similarly hot-wired into every shaking skirt and wavering note.

The Red Curtain throughout: as Christian walks out on the
tango, the curtains separate that performance space.
Trying to take shortcuts (I'm pressed for time, and I watched the film not a month ago just because I wanted to), I did some quick thinking about the scenes that stick out in my memory, and this sequence is one of them. It's filmed with what seems like a hand-held camera, generally used these days to signify a greater 'realism', but here it seems to add instead the frisson of danger that proves to be a valuable warning: Zidler (Jim Broadbent) spots the careless lovers, Satine (Nicole Kidman) and Christian (Ewan McGregor), on the walkway above. 

I love the empty, clean lines on each side of this composition, framing the frantic, lusty mess of Kidman and McGregor in the centre.

Or this, focusing in on the beauty of the messy kiss (if you don't love this pair, you don't believe in love at all!) with the block of light grey in the centre separating them from the mess of the main auditorium.

My pick for best shot.
Perhaps Satine's final moment of happiness; this is just before Zidler appears, spooking her and telling her it has to end. Here, he's already metaphorically creeping up on her, the bottom left of the frame filled with darkness, a gilded kind of black; but she's lost in the stars in the red canopy above. They meet in the centre and on the diagonal, a singular moment where the rosy happiness and desire of the red crosses diagonally and horizontally with the black. And they meet on Satine, too: her dress is intoxicatingly dark to conflict with the thorough red of Kidman's hair (a key focus of the photography throughout). It's a darker colour scheme than is often typical of the movie, but a perfect reflection of Moulin Rouge!'s dark drama and its vibrant infatuations.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Last Tango in Youth, with Death

Major spoilers included.

Infamous butter fingers precede Last Tango in Paris. I was hardly expecting the screen to be slathered in it, of course, but such cultural definitions of a film inevitably colours expectations of it as a whole: not narratively, but emotionally, certainly. So anticipating a dark erotic thriller, instead unfolded a funny, melancholy, farcical tragedy. Bernardo Bertolucci's film is that occasional piece of cinema that manufactures its situations in such a completely barefaced manner that you have to allow for the unreality of the formation to comprehend the emotional truths that are revealed as it progresses.

Last Tango... has many obvious dichotomies - male and female, youth and death, America and France - but it never feels like these are being forcefully played against each other, despite the chemistry and friction between the central characters. Marlon Brando forces Maria Schneider into his life, and though the initial bizarreities of their meeting seem completely foreign to my own sensibilities, the whole project of the film is really occupying some kind of gulf between frankness and mystery. Schneider might lie there, her bare breast filling half the screen, a carefree smile on her face, but the question lying (metaphorically) next to her is whether Brando's insistence on their not sharing names could ever actually mean that they don't know each other as well as Schneider and her fiancee Jean-Pierre Leaud do.

It's hard, in a way, to take thoughtful resolutions as any kind of truth in a film where Brando monologues about climbing up the "ass of death". But personally, the fact that Last Tango in Paris has such an absurdist, ridiculous way about its characterization makes it a fresher pill to swallow. Sobering conclusions feel more organic when the film doesn't expunge the unbalanced possibilities for lunacy and laughter and sexual abandon that might come from dealing with a great tragedy.

Perhaps it's because, as I become older - now, almost 23, I can certainly be classed as an adult - I don't feel "grown up" in the way I think children expect they eventually will. When you're a child, adulthood feels like an entirely separate plane of existence. It might be something you look forward to or something you want to keep away from as long as possible (I'm afraid the time period is pretty much set, kids), but the world of responsibility is a foreign one to the majority of children. So you expect some sort of switch to flick in your head at some point, and so suddenly you're an "adult", capable of coping with managing money and maintaining relationships and facing the long walk towards death. Alright, so I must have realised at some point in my teenage years that it was hardly going to be that simple, but I still didn't come to the obvious conclusions that I'd have to actively learn and struggle to do these things, and that childish impulses don't just get washed out of your brain, and that you have to figure out whether any of that attitude can be integrated into your existence as a functioning adult.

The point in relation to Last Tango in Paris is that it understands this crisis. Provoked by his wife's suicide, Marlon Brando spins into a head-space where he wants to abandon responsibility. Adult virility mixes irrepressibly with his infantile spirit and he throws himself without warning at Maria Schneider - who, for her own reasons, cannot resist, and seems to engage just as wilfully as he does. Brando's insistence that they not use their names, or indeed discuss their lives outside of the apartment, suggests his longing for a childhood where freedom reigns, where friendships are pure enjoyment, not emotionally demanding. Names, other people, locations - they're all restrictions of the world of responsibility.

Maria Schneider happily engages in all this, because, so close to her own childhood, she can still sense it and recall what it was like; but her sexual encounters with Brando also have the allure of the freedom from childhood, from the restrictions imposed on her - restrictions that Brando's nostalgia seems to have forgotten. And the whole apartment block seems to be a place free of rules. The landlady, a manically cackling black woman, has no idea when people move out and in; and rats run free, Brando morbidly teasing Schneider when she finds a dead rodent lying on their mattress.

Reality is inescapable, of course. Ironically, the freedom of their sexual relationship must be contained if it wants to be free - within the apartment, still surrounded by the city, still bound by their lives outside so that maybe, when they arrive, the other isn't there to be free with them. And though they are happier together, they are ultimately not entirely free while together; and Brando realises that he doesn't want to be free, but wants to be with Schneider, to know her name and everything about her.

So the ending. Brando's foetal body, dead on the balcony, is the infantile frozen in immobility. For Schneider, it is her enjoyment of freedom simultaneously crystallized and consigned to the past. Brando will always be her reminder of the childish freedom she enjoyed, hence why he dies in that particular position. But dead, and, as she deliriously rationalizes, without name and identity to her, Schneider can 'forget' him, can proceed to adulthood and responsibility without guilt, for all she did was shoot a stranger intruding into her private adult space.

The film itself almost sees the linear regression of Brando, indulging in ever-more vulgar infantile behaviour and language, with big boy words like "pig-fucking" and smirking puns like "my hap-penis". By the time of the titular scenes in the dancehall, his relationship to Schneider has shifted to a maternal one: "I get to milk you twice a day. How about that?" His final desperation to live with her, then, is not wanting to love and care for her, but to be loved and cared for by her, his attachment relentless in the same way a baby craves for its mother's breast.

Schneider's inconsistent attitude towards Brando starts going batshit in the final part of the film, but it's not bad direction or Schneider losing grip of her performance. Her dilemma is exactly that of the young adult, stranded between looking over their shoulder at the irresponsibility of childhood and looking forward to the allure of adulthood's new adventures. While she's happy with Brando, it's because he is giving her a glimpse of both at once - childish games and newfound sexual liberation. But then she becomes engaged to Leaud and faces the responsibility of marriage, and is simultaneously confronted by Brando's growing attachment to her, which is in itself both a reflection of Leaud's demands and the allusion to the further responsibility of motherhood.

Our last moments with her are her disorientated rationalizations, and so we are left with the question of how she'll function now, free of the man whose name she may not know, but will perhaps be forever tied to all the stronger for that mystery. Their last tango fittingly ends in a sharp shock of tragedy, characters frozen in separation, but forever transformed by their dance.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Source Code is...

... 30% bullshit. Let's face it. All the explanations we get in Source Code are completely fanciful claptrap that don't really make sense if you think about them for more than five seconds. And that's completely fine and dandy until it starts taking everything so seriously in the final act, and pulls some sort of magic time-bending trick out of thin air that exists on the exact basis that it can't really be explained. It's a bit like in Duncan Jones' previous feature, Moon, when the fun sci-fi concept got all heavy and serious and drained all the life out of Sam Rockwell. It's harder to suck the life out of Jake Gyllenhaal here, since that's already kinda happened, but it's essentially the same situation. I don't mind a dramatic conclusion. But try not to craft it at the expense of the fun you've already been having. It depresses me.

... 20% Jake Gyllenhaal. 2010 was the year when Jake finally got thrust into the carrying a mainstream movie ballpark, with the highest-grossing video-game adaptation EVER in Prince of Persia, and the quite-frankly execrable "romantic" "comedy" "drama" Love and Other Drugs. But Source Code feels like the first time he's really holding a feature by himself, being responsible for the entire mood of the thing, convincing us of its scientific and romantic leanings - basically, he's the one selling the thing. And he does a rather good job. It helps to be so swoon-fully good-looking, of course, but we already knew, too, that he has charisma in abundance, and most crucially he sells the difficult mental journey Colter Stevens is forced to take, constantly thrust back into the same section of time over and over again while simultaneously learning, or remembering, his own reality. The "bullshit" takes over in the end, but it's Jake's sympathetic smarts you'll remember.

... 17% Quantum Leap. I did a sad little squeal of geeky delight when I spotted Scott Bakula's name at the end of the cast list as the credits rolled up. In a delicious little nod, he supplied the voice of Colter's father. My mother was a massive Quantum Leap fan, so while I couldn't name you the episode Jennifer Aniston guest-starred in, I still hold a certain fondness for the show. Of course, the constant jumping back in time to another person's body is basically stolen from Quantum Leap, and, like Dr. Sam Beckett, Colter's task is to "put right what once went wrong". Not a plagiarist, Colter actually says this line, and Bakula's cameo is begun with the show's other trademark line, "ohhh boy". Source Code isn't nearly as good as Quantum Leap, but it's a lot shinier.

... 13% The War. Bombings ---> terrorism ---> wars of the Bush regime. It's a simple, inevitable chain, and though the actual bomber doesn't fit into this pattern, he might as well do. Point is, Colter is haunted by his war experiences, and as such, reacts to the idea of a bomb, the suspects on the train, and the actual bomber, in the mindset of a soldier. Again, before it becomes all heavy-handed, this approach is quite cleverly used, a sharply realistic view of how both soldier and public function in this post-9/11 society, yet still in the guise of a pulpy thriller. After, it feels like you've been smacked in the face with a wet chain of bullets.

... 10% North by Northwest. Those credits, gliding diagrammatically over Chicago's streets, remind of the angular credits of Hitchcock's famous thriller. The music, by Chris Bacon, is very menacing bombast, with the low, growling horns and panicked flourishes of strings, and percussion generally going a bit bananas. And quite a bit of both takes place on a train. I mean, it's basically the same film.

... 5% completely obvious clues that probably don't even matter. You might not have seen Source Code yet, so I won't spoil it... but I figured out who the bomber was from the moment (s)he did that possibly-inconsequential-but-really-quite-important-if-the-identity-of-the-bomber-is-even-important-which-I'm-not-sure-it-is thing that (s)he does.

But like I said, I doubt it matters.

... 3% Vera Farmiga. From the moment she first announced herself in 2004's Down to the Bone, Ms. Farmiga immediately established herself as the best thing in any film she deigns to appear in, and it would be the same here if she had just a smidgen to work with. Throughout, she supplies an unsuffocating melancholy to her role as the Air Force Captain instructing and advising Colter through his mission, but what really gains her points is how she almost manages to sell that unfortunate final act of the film. Gyllenhaal is largely incapacitated and the burden of the film's emotional thrust, inevitably stepped up, falls to Farmiga, and though she could do it in her sleep, she makes the dilemma at the core of the film's conclusion seem painfully uncomfortable. Give her your best salute.

... 2% slow-motion explosions. I mean, what is this? A Zach Snyder film?


Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Thor is...

... 35% Chris Hemsworth. I doubted. I narrowed my eyes and I didn't believe that this hunk- no, this slab of a human being could possibly have the charismatic smarts to pull off this role. If I'd been paying attention, I'd have remembered that he impressed with hardly any time at all at the beginning of Star Trek, but I don't get paid to write these things, and until I do my attention will be vague and inconsistent. (I'll just wait here for the offers to come flooding in.) But not only does Hemsworth prove to have a superb sense of comic timing, a surprisingly sparky chemistry with Natalie Portman and a fist that could knock a hole through walls if it wasn't so busy swinging that bloody hammer, but he manages to be that self-important Norse god without condescending to the fanciful folktales (... oh; forgive me, great King Odin! I did not mean to anger you. But these mere mortals... they do not understand...) that the script revels so gamely in, and playing obnoxious without obscuring why he's the hero here. Basically, he's pretty much perfect here. Go figure.

... 20% complex villainy. What seems to give Thor a slightly distinctive edge in the somewhat overstuffed superhero sub-genre is its central villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Loki is Thor's brother, and from the very beginning, Loki's unbrotherly attitude to Thor is pretty much signalled with flashing neon warning signs. But that's just it: we're meant to be suspicious of Loki, but the nature of that suspicion shifts constantly throughout the film, and the film's often awkward movement between the Earth that Thor is banished to, and the Asgard that Loki remains on, means that Loki is as focused on as Thor is. Being family, of course, the deepest depths of Loki's villainy are suspect to the idea that maybe, possibly, they're not as dastardly as they might seem. Even the reasons for his darkness are toyed with to confuse us - oh so that's wh- oh no, he's just evi- oh, wait, maybe not... Hiddleston sometimes hits discordant notes in his performance (and his haircut wasn't going to fool anyone), but as a character concept, at least, it is finely realised.

... 16% phallic symbols. Men playing with their swords. (Thor has a hammer, of course, but we'll get to that.) It's a long-accepted metaphor for men comparing penis size (or something like that), and even when they don't have swords, they can freeze thin air and stab you with their ice penis. Idris Elba's gatekeeper might have the mightiest penis - I mean, er, sword, of all, since he can plunge it into the middle of a big hole and open a gateway to other worlds. And if that's not a metaphor for an orgasm I don't know what it is.

Asgard is also pretty much built out of giant phallic buildings, although, to be fair, buildings mimicking vaginas are probably better for some kind of underground society.

... 15% The Avengers. "Thor will return in The Avengers." So we were told at the end of the credits, and though I'm surprised they had the restraint to leave it until most people had long left the cinema, I am quite excited about it. The whole series of Marvel films have shown a superb knack for casting - Robert Downey Jr. stands imposingly in a dapper suit above everyone, but Chris Evans is always charming, Mark Ruffalo is a daring choice for the third Hulk in ten years, and I personally liked Scarlett Johansson in Iron Man 2, so shut up. Thor doesn't hammer (sorry, that was inevitable) the franchise idea too hard into your face, but there are moments like a wink to Tony Stark and the slightly shoehorned inclusion of Jeremy Renner's (future?) Hawkeye to back up the deadening line when Thor promises Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) that even though he might be off to a battle he can't return from, he'll definitely be part of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team from now on! Gee whiz. (Oh, and then that's whole bit at the end of the credits. So maybe ignore the lights flaring up and the cleaners staring impatiently at you, and stay seated.)

... 6% hammer. If I had a hammer, I'd a-hammer in the morning... Only Thor's hammer isn't for hammering out love. It is, as you might expect, a mighty hammer, Thor's calling card, and it is he - and only he - and only he when he deserves it - who swings it and throws it and bashes it through mens' abdomens like they're not even there. (Except it makes quite a noise, so they probably are there.) The sword-in-the-stone moment is quite a hilarious one, although my personal favourite hammer-related moment in the film was the beautifully blunt thwack it made against the high-pitched clank of Loki's shining spear. Yeah, 'cause there might be all of those phallic symbols, but all that masculine insecurity exists for a reason - Thor's the man. He's got the hammer.

... 5% eyes. Anthony Hopkins, bearable for the first time in years thanks to the similarly scenery-chewing Kenneth Branagh being the director in charge here, has a strapless eye-patch, which is really quite cool, and I'm even considering gouging one of my eyes out so I can have one too. But eyes aren't just a cool accessory to lose in battle - they function as somewhat of a metaphor. Odin (Hopkins) loses one in a fierce battle where he gains a son - and it is his sons, intentionally or not, who weaken him. And then there's Elba's eyes - that glowing orange sign of life, sign of hope.

And then there's Hemsworth's eyes, which are terribly blue. Terribly.

... 2% crop circles. Or at least that's what the markings that the arrival of Asgard residents upon Earth landings looked like to me. Natalie Portman agrees; forget the man she just hit with her car, she needs to draw that bloody marking!

I'm not sure Thor really makes the most of the human reaction to conspicuous alien landings, but this type of film is often overstuffed. If this was a stand-alone film, without the necessary basics for connecting itself to The Avengers, it might be able to feel a bit more fleshed-out - the Asgard sequences feel more fully realised, although slightly less sharply directed - but something had to give, and Thor plays a good enough hand in this area with Stellan Skarsgard and...

... 1% Kat Dennings. I can't deny my Kat at least one hundredth of this post. She's in the film less than I'd like, and gets saddled with a few lines that make her character sound like an idiotic twat, but she's still funny and I love her. The end.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Beauty's In The Eyes

This post is a contribution to the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series at The Film Experience.

Before I sat down and watched Beauty and the Beast for this entry, I managed to stumble, completely by accident, on an essay that discussed how the film might function as an allegory for the AIDS crisis and how it plays with ideas of gay male types. These ideas had never occurred to me, but they make complete sense - note particularly how the screenwriters have changed the attack on the Beast to be motivated by the general threat to the townspeople and the children he might snatch, whereas the original story is a much more enclosed, personal battle between the lead characters.

But, watching the film again, this wasn't the only suggestion that Beauty and the Beast subverts the traditional, conservative ideals that are generally attributed to Disney's empire. It's very easy to dismiss the film's ending as throwing its laudable moral - love is more than skin-deep - out the window as the Beast transforms back into a handsome white prince, but this ignores not only the groundwork the film has continually laid out, but the very expressive work we can see in the scene of the transformation itself.

On Belle's forbidden visit to the West Wing, the film establishes the key trope of eyes. In contrast to Gaston, who is constantly being distracted by his own reflection, you sense Belle has never really looked in a mirror. Here, she does, and in the cracked glass, she's confronted with about a dozen of her eyes looking back at her. While Gaston, and indeed the rest of the town, conceive of Belle as the 'Beauty' of the title, this shot, early in her time at the castle, sidelines that idea. As the Beast learns to love, Belle learns to see the value in the reality of the world around her. Here, she seems shocked to realise that she even exists, and the multiplicity of eyes reminds her of the value of looking.

It also makes for an intriguing visual correlation with this shot, just moments later. The Beast has ripped apart his portrait, reflecting the mangling of his own beauty by destroying its painted image, but crucially, the eyes remain in-tact. Belle goes to lift the hanging scrap, but she doesn't complete it, suggesting that complete physical beauty is always an afterthought for her.

My pick for best shot.
Which we see in these scenes, essentially of the Beast's 'death'. I'm not sure what it says about my state of mind that my favourite shots from Beauty and the Beast were of characters dying or crying, but it's rather apt and helpful that I really found the beauty in the beast in this shot. I don't think it's accidental - it's designed as a picturesque portraiture, Belle caressing the side of his face delicately. Moreover, it centres the eyes as the bright focal point - so much expression through drawing, a wistful love in the blue. As a frame, it's as carefully designed as the following one of Belle, looking down at him:

If anything, Belle, the supposed 'Beauty' who Gaston basically wanted to frame and preserve rather than love, has less of a portrait than the Beast, though the caressing hand is a poignant visual match to the previous shot. By having Belle looking straight at the 'camera', it positions this shot as a point-of-view shot, as opposed to the portrait of the previous image. But above all, once again, it's the eyes that are the key to the image - bigger pools on Belle's face than the slits on the Beast's, they seem to shine with concern. It's the character design of the entire faces that does the work for both characters, of course, but the images draw focus to the eyes, connecting the couple in what they think are their last moments together.

Finally, crucially, after the Beast has transformed back into the Prince, Belle doesn't care about the handsome new figure in front of her - she finds the answer, that he's still the same being, in his eyes.

Bonus: the geometrical matching of eyes to bodies in this shot of Cogsworth and Lumiere always tickles me.