Tuesday, 16 April 2013

[13th Belfast Film Festival] Days 2 & 3 - Watchtower, Radio Free Albemuth



Though peppered with a little variety, the majority of the films I have booked myself into at this years festival are new cinema from across the festivals of the world.



Watchtower (2012) 
(Gözetleme Kulesi)

Location - Queens Film Theatre

Director - Pelin Esmer
Country - Turkey, Germany
Starring - Olgun Simsek, Nilay Erdonmez
Running Time - 100 minutes
SynopsisA man and a woman seeking refuge from the world: Nihat at a remote forest fire tower, Seher in her room at a rural bus station. When their lives collide, each now has to fight their battle of conscience before the other.

If cinema can extract the beauty from the darkest of places, it can also sterilise the most wondrous of worlds. Where the likes of Terrence Malick brings out the most rapturous power in his landscapes, Turkish film maker Pelin Esmer finds nothing but indifference. Her underscored drama Watchtower is set within the beautiful mountain regions near capital Kastamonu, but her characters are so broken by life that they cannot see the majesty of what unfolds in front of them. 

Split between two primary protagonists, Esmer's film looks into the distances we put between ourselves and others as a barrier in the face of destruction. The first is Nihat, a middle aged man struggling to come to terms with the accidental death of his wife and child has taken a job as a forest fire scout, but cannot find the solace or isolation he needs through the constant radio chatter of his fellow co-workers. This simple and intrusive device never adds up to the critique of our boundaries that Esmer seemed to be applying, it instead offers a comforting annoyance to know that the world moves outside the dreary company of Nihat. The second is Seher, a collage girl left pregnant by the uncle who's care she was in and abandoned by her parents, who works at the bus company near the shops Nihat visits. Their interaction is fleeting, though the film cannot draw any empathy from the characters, their non-relation or their situation because Esmer fails to draw connections to each of the characters, opting only for parallels. 

Like the work of the Dardenne brothers, Watchtower is centered around a single, pivotal collision of moral obligation, of guilt and desperation. Here it comes from Seher's abandonment of her new born child, an act observed by Nihat, whom rescues the child and takes them both to his watchtower in an attempt to save them both.

Watchtower is over-encumbered by the weight Esmer adopts onto the shoulders of the audience. The flat digital cinematography does find the indifference of the main characters, but not the essence. There is so little hope to be found here, Nihat's attempted redemption doesn't come from an inner force, but from necessity. Likewise Seher finds so little compassion in herself as she nurses her child that you wonder if she is beyond help. As a meditation on nihilism and guilt, it merely wallows in the sterile, absence of beauty cast in the lonely shadow of the observation.  

Radio Free Albemuth (2010)


Location - Queens Film Theatre


Director - John Alan Simon
Country - USA
Starring - Jonathan Scarfe, Shea Whigham, Katheryn Winnick  
Running Time - 100 minutes
SynopsisBerkeley record store clerk Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) begins to experience strange visions from an entity he calls VALIS that cause him to uproot his family and move to Los Angeles where he becomes a successful music company executive.

Giving rise to some of Hollywood's most recently acclaimed  science fiction films Phillip K. Dick's stories have risen from underground to a house hold name. Though fans of the novelist   are sure to be less than thrilled when it comes to the treatment of his work, see (The Adjustment Bureo.) Still given that Radio Free Albemuth is being heralded by some as the most faithful rendition of Dick's paranoid vision of the world around him then maybe we should be more thankful of Hollywood's interference (okay, so we'll not go that far.) 

I'm being overly harsh on Radio Free Albemuth, this is clearly a love letter written on budget bog roll. First time director John Alan Simon has done his best to faithfully adapt Dick's story of meta-mechanics, authoritarian governments and paranoia into the cinematic form, but has clearly been so hampered by the budget that it loses itself in layers upon layers of text. Dick's story is most definitely suited to the written word, where in, with an understanding of the context (this was Dick's attempt at understanding a transcendental experience he had in 1974) the talk of religious alien visions and subliminal messages would be given a greater sense of place and personal exploration (Dick places himself as a figure in the novel.)

Though the actors try their best, the script is so clunky in its exposition and ideas that it comes off as undeniably amateurish. To it's credit however, the cheap look of the sets and laughable special effects do sell a strange and surprisingly textual unreality, a similar effect to that of Cronenberg's Cosmopolis from last year, only without the cinephile mastery of the art. A noble misfire, one perhaps aimed not at me but for the fans across the stars. 

Friday, 12 April 2013

[The 13th Belfast Film Festival] Day 1 - The Mask



And so it begins. 

This is the first entry in my coverage of the 13th Annual Belfast Film Festival. Over the course of the next 10 days I've booked myself into a lot of films, and I hope to find time to cover them all for you. This is something I'm pretty excited about, the range and quality of the films on show over the course of the festival is an example of how Belfast has developed both culturally and cinematically over the last couple of years. 

I kicked off the festival in the cosy bean-bag cinema, a snug and suitably low-key setting that fitted the vibe of our first film perfectly. 

The Mask (1961) 

Location - BFF Beanbag Cinema

Director - Julian Roffman
Country - Canada, USA
Starring - Paul Stevens, Claudette Nevins, Bill Walker, Anne Collings
Running Time - 83 Minutes
Synopsis - A young archaeologist believes he is cursed by a mask that causes him to have weird nightmares and possibly to murder. Before committing suicide, he mails the mask to his psychiatrist, Dr. Barnes, who is soon plunged into the nightmare world of the mask.

As 3D tears its way through our multiplexes with an unsupported metabolism, each new re-release and shoe-horned gimmick come with the sense of inevitable collapse. The profits are down, the release numbers are down and the interest is down. Why? There is probably a long list of socio-economic factors that could be wheeled out in order to explain the short lived fad. Yet it is in the view of this film-school romantic that 3D is losing its numbers because its lost its fun

And here we have Julian Roffman's low budget horror-schlock The Mask which doesn't just gives us all the gimmicks and silliness, it embraces them in a wonderful meta-textual exploration of audience interactivity. 

Just as The Wizard of Oz famously opened in Black and White, before blowing the world apart in a Technicolor marvel, The Mask traps us in the two dimensional reality as the suicide of a young archaeologist launches a inquiry about a missing mask. For the first half hour the film plays out like one part Scooby Doo, one part Citizen Kane. Slowly the pieces unravel as detective and psychologist move from clue to clue but it is only when the missing mask (mailed before the archaeologist could take his own life) arrives Dr Allan Barnes desk (in a moment of pure Hitchcockian McGuffunry) that things enter the new dimensional horror promised by the films trailer. 

Tempted by the enclosed letter, Barnes dawns the mask and is immediately inflicted with horrific visions. Put on the mask! Put on the mask! Put on the mask! Rings the voice over, but really it's a warning to the audience. On goes the old school red and blue glasses and suddenly we all found ourselves in a grotesque trans-dimensional nightmare. How well these sections worked almost took me by surprise, structurally they're pretty flimsy, the don't really offer anything other than haunted house sequences intended to shock the audience with vague ties to the overarching story of ancient evil. Yet I couldn't help but give myself to them completely. It brought the audience along with Dr Barnes into a new reality, giving the effects a reason to exist and the audience a reason to interact with them. Not to mention the sequences themselves were marked by creatively devilish set design and special effects, it frequently called to mind the work of Jean Cocteau, had he collaborated with Goya. 

The Mask might be a little to dreary for it's own good, there isn't enough ham to make it's rather silly and forgettable plot all that interesting, and the acting isn't great, but it isn't terrible enough to offer up more than a few giggles. But that didn't stop it from being a joyously memorable ride on an old rickety ghost train.




Thursday, 4 April 2013

For Roger Ebert

As I write this, I imagine there are hundreds of similar posts, with similar contents, being constructed by critics, fans and well wishers throughout the web. I'm not going to repeat what has been said. You'll find so many beautiful eulogies and love letters from those that knew him, from those much more skilled than I and  from well... from Ebert himself, across the internet tonight as cinema mourns one of its most beloved characters. His death, though desperately sad given a recent post about his wish to continue writing despite the reemergence of cancer, seems like a poetically hasty end to a long and difficult battle. 

Ebert gave himself to cinema. He presented it with honesty and frankness as he searched for something, for anything in everything. He didn't find one truth, he found thousands in the works of the filmmakers he loved. But it isn't what this post is about, Ebert's writing style has been a great influence on so many critics and writers down the years but for me it was something else.  

After surgery complications Ebert's lower jaw was removed and he never spoke again. And this is where his influence on me, and thousands more is best felt, Ebert turned to blogging. On his own site he turned out reviews with a consistency that would put most to shame, despite his age and fading health. Few older critics adapted so keenly to the net as the new hive for film journalism, but Ebert made it legitimate. He bridged the gap; ushered in a new life, new style and a new generation. 

So Mr Ebert, I am forever thankful to you. Not just for your passion, not for your intelligence or your soul... but because you gave me the reason to try.  

Only one quote remains, from his review of La Dolce Vita - a film, perhaps fittingly, that I don't even like: 'There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.'


Roger Ebert
(1942-2013)

Monday, 1 April 2013

[Review] Good Vibrations - Heart Strings

Good Vibrations (2012)

Director - Lisa Barros D'Sa, Glenn Leyburn
Country - Northern Ireland
Starring - Jodie Whittaker, Richard Dormer, Dylan Moran
Running Time - 102 minutes
Synopsis - A chronicle of Terri Hooley's life, a record-store owner instrumental in developing Belfast's punk-rock scene.


Cinema has not been particularly kind nor has it been entirely accurate in the portrayals of Northern Ireland and its people. Occasionally demonized, frequently generalized, above all else we are stripped of our nature. The most recent example being Steve McQueen's artistically rendered critical darling Hunger, a methodical poem of destruction that captured the nuance in its stillness, but not the spirit and the noise of its people. Too often it is only the context, the history, the violence and its far reaching affect that is seen, not the self-deprecating wit, the passions and the unbridled hospitality.

But Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn's story of home-grown legend Terri Hooley, known as the father of Belfast Punk and founder of the Good Vibrations record label and shop, are here to show the world just why Belfast was and still is a fondly remembered hot-spot for so many of music's greatest talents.

A dreamy pre-credits sequence of young Terri skipping through his idyllic rose garden and discovering his passion for music in 50s folk, before his eye is shot out by an arrow fired from a neighbourhood kid because of his father, a trade unionist, has him dubbed a 'communist.' It's an important scene, it capsulate everything the film is about - the overarching tone running through Northern Ireland during that time (and this) and the reason for Terri's miniature rebellion, all wrapped in the films delicious black wit. Good Vibrations attempts a contemporary look at 'the troubles' (a word Terri finds as equally useless as 'revolution') with home footage and newsreels scattered throughout the running time in various forms. They don't gel with the films digital look, compared to the likes of Argo in which Affleck used lenses from the time in order to create a textual political tone. But they do provide the context needed to give Terri's campaign a sense of weight most music films fail to achieve.

Terri, played with a charming energy from Richard Dormer, represents a very important and largely ignored outlook in Northern Ireland, one of political apathy born from 60s counterculture. He explains early on that he used to belong to group of political and social radicals that soon disintegrated into just two sides when the first shots were fired. This is what attracts him to the power of punk, and convinces him to produce a band he hears at a local gig. From then on in it is a roller-coaster at the expensive of his long suffering wife played by Jodie Whittaker whom is acts with saintly patience and restraint beyond the limits of my understanding. Perhaps she realizes that Terri is man of his place and time, to withhold him would be to deny the country a much needed outlet. But as he closes his hand to money, signing his bands off for no more than £500, it proves too much for her and their child, they separate  leaving him to his own destiny.

Taking the boys on tour proves a minor success, but when they're stopped by the army upon return to Belfast they are quizzed on their motives. 'You mean some of these boys are Catholics and some are Protestants?' Says the Sargent upon discovering where they all come from. 'I didn't think to ask.' Replies Terri. 'You ever think about becoming a politician?' Jokes the Sargent before waving them on their way. The real life Terri Hooley has turned down a career in politics despite avid support from a Facebook fan page, saying that 'There are enough fools in Belfast City Hall, they don't need another one.'

Though it lifts the majority of its structure and scenarios from the long history of music films, from grimy locals to music-video style montages, Good Vibrations cleverly undercuts the sub-genre by giving itself entirely to the music and saying balls to the rest. The label's only real success comes half way in through the film, with The Undertone's Teenage Kicks. What looks to launch Terri and his extended musical family into stardom is in reality, their peak. There are no false promises, no forced optimism, sometimes it is best to make do with what you can - and in that case, D'Sa, Leyburn and all the rest have got you covered.

Terri himself is beyond saving, something he accepts at the end as he takes the stage to bless his ever
lengthening guest list. His path is one of a comet in a head on collision with the earth, tailed by a relinquished passion for music and what it brings together. However localized, that is his victory, to burn up into the world with the brightest of blazes. So what is there left for him to do other an illuminate as many as he can, leading the apathetic-angst ridden Punk rebellion to the anarchy of Belfast's streets, after all, New York may have the haircuts, London may have the trousers but Belfast has the reason.

Good Vibrations has closed and reopened time and time again since its launch we are informed through a text box that sits below the last image of Terri looking down upon his followers, his friends and his people. And so it goes, and so it goes, victory is variable. But that which Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn hold is of the most triumphant order. Good Vibrations is a heart-filled ode to music, it's cross-generational, cross-national unitizing power and its ability to define and to lead an era. It is also an unapologetic chorus to the self-lead apathetic rebellion that in more ways than one, has held this country together over the years. Above all else though, and at time more relevant than any other, Good Vibrations is a love letter to the fiery heart that tears through the under belly of this fair city.


4/5


Friday, 29 March 2013

[Review] The Croods - Stone-aged.

The Croods (2013)

Directors - Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders
Country - USA
Starring - Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone
Running Time - 98 minutes
Synopsis - After their cave is destroyed, a caveman family must trek through an unfamiliar fantastical world with the help of an inventive boy.



As film productions moves rapidly into the digital space, a migration sealed with Hollywood's approval in the Academy's awarding of Ang Lee's Life of Pi the 'Best Cinematography' award in this year’s Oscars, it marks the latest trek into uncharted space for many of 'traditional' filmmakers. Like sound, 16mm and CGI before it, this new digitally rendered camera opens up so many possibilities that were previously impossible and many directors tend to reach too high. Ang Lee's Life of Pi is one such example, who's tacky over-composed shots and weightless movements do very little to communicate the dangers and wonders of the subject matter, another such example would be Peter Jackson's The Hobbit which also lacked the tangibility that made The Lord of the Rings as success.

Such an issue is not present within the animated features of Pixar and the more recent Dreamworks pictures, most notably their 2010 film How to Train Your Dragon which offered up a jaw-dropping sense of aerial traversal and fight scenes that played with the concept of physical weight in a way most directors can only hope to achieve without losing its audience. Indeed The Croods too has a keen understanding of perpetual motion. In an opening set piece as the Crood pact attempt to make off with a giant egg for breakfast, the resulting chase is delightful exercise in cinematic perpetual motion and kinetic characterization.

Bearing that in mind, one can't help but see a Meta edge to Dreamwork's latest work The Croods, a story about a family of cave people forced to adapt in a new, unfamiliar environment with the help of a young but well adapted 'modern' boy.

Live by the rules of the ancestors. That is the only way to survive in the world of Eep, a teenaged cave-girl belonging to the Crood breed, the last of the cave-men. They are led by their father Grug, a man who teaches them always to be afraid as fear breeds survival. But one day Eep sneaks out and discovers Guy, a teenage wonderer, a modern man, filled with ideas on how to live in the wild, against the impending cataclysm of the forming continents.


The film is thinly plotted, hitting all the predictable notes in the correct tone as if the Croods and Guy's journey to 'tomorrow' are merely new lyrics to accompany a well-trodden piece of sheet music, complete with montage rifts and collective harmonies. Just as animations are getting bolder in their film making, they seem to becoming softer in their spirit. Just as Pixar frequently pushes themes of mortality and discontent, before chickening out, The Croods does nothing to communicate its sense of time and place in the same way Ice Age did 10 years ago, or The Land before Time in my age.

 However with the character's established roles and the film's narrative path so firmly trodden in front of it, the directors are now free to deliver some gorgeous and creative world design. Borrowing from all walks of life; the sea, the desert and the jungle the world that the Croods inhabit is one that is both familiar yet devilishly creative at times. You'll gaze at the strange hybrid of what appears to be a pig and blue whale, but will laugh in shock as it’s devoured by a flock of piranha parrots.

But there are earthly wonders here too, the magic of fire or ethereal power of the stars are captured with a childlike bewilderment here that even the likes of Terrence Malick could hope for. That is, until the Croods try to capture and eat the fire leading to the world’s largest popcorn bucket. The film strikes a nice balance between its visual wonderment and comical characterization to ensure there's never too much of one and not enough of the other.

A fact only helped by the terrific voice work from its cast. Emma Stone as Eep applies the tonality of a modern teenage girl onto the stone-age protagonist suggesting how little our family dynamic has changed really. Roamer turned unwilling boyfriend Guy (Ryan Reynolds) on the other hand is a modern man. His concerns lie not just in survival but in his metrosexuality, one must out run the apocalypse but they must also do it with a tipped fringe and low-cut jeans. This is to the horror of father Grug, played by what can only be described as an expressive Nicholas Cage. His generation is based on strength not style and intelligence, but he must now realize his world is disappearing, but his place is not gone yet. In one scene he tries to steal a little of Guy's popularity with a few ideas of his own. His invention of sunglasses and wheel among other modern utilities things are met with raised eyebrows and slapstick humor; how necessary to our survival are these items? Are we to far gone as a race to revert to the caveman?

The supporting cast fill out the quota of comic relief, understated mother support and animal sidekick, but they do their jobs admirably ensuring that there is enough laughs for both parent and child. A personal favourite is the running gag between Grug and his ancient mother-in-law whom he constantly wishes for her timely demise only to be disappointed by her triumphant 'Still alive!' The world and the people may change, but the family dynamic is here to stay.

The Croods isn't going to lead us to the 'tomorrow.' It isn't the ideas man but neither is it the caveman. Instead, it finds a cute middle ground; opting to follow a path well-trodden in order to stop and show us some beautiful sights, have a few laughs upon the way and remind of the places cinema can take us, digitally rendered or otherwise.

4/5

Saturday, 9 March 2013

[Review] Stoker - The Family Blood

Stoker (2013) 

Director - Park Chan-wook
Country - South Korea, USA
Starring - Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman
Running Time - 98 Minutes
Synopsis - After India's father dies, her Uncle Charlie, who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother. She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.

Throughout his career, Korean director Park Chan-wook's films have each been centered on a single punctuated moment, a scene in which his protagonists come to a moment of pure, cataclysmic awakening. Often sexual, often violent, more often both - it represents an ultimate realization in the world Park Chan-wook belongs to, a point of no return at the loss of innocence and humanity itself, he gives his characters no choice but to give themselves to it. It is in the crazed eyes of Dae-su Oh when his nemesis twists the knife in one last time, or in the reinvigorated, reborn Sang-hyun, a Catholic priest turned vampire who finds himself enslaved by his desires. In his first English language film, Stoker, it is the soapy hands of Mia Wasikowska and never before has it been so rapturous, so alluring.

India is a girl who can 'see and hear what others cannot' whether that is a spider inching itself up the back of her leg, or the ominous presence of the uncle she didn't know she had, lurking on a nearby hill at her father's funeral. Soon after her mother announces that Charlie (as he is known) will be coming to stay with them triggering a series of disappearances and pushing the not-so-concealed matriarchal narcissistic envy to fever pitch.


Written by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller, Stoker was named on the 2010 Black List, a list consisting of the top unproduced scripts circulating Hollywood before it eventually found itself in the hands of Park Chan-wook. The director, best known for a series of films dubbed The Vengeance Trilogy certainly brings a visceral theatricality the films proceedings. Regular collaborator Chung-hoon Chung adds an unparalleled vampirish tone to the pastoral coloured walls in the Stoker household. Soft lighting, canted compositions and frayed movements distinguish the film with a degree of 'modern-gothicism.' An IKEA based form of expressionism, where twisted sets and heightened shadows have been replaced by the muted furnishings of the flat-pack. Though, like the ritual family dinner it is really all a surface facade. Just as their formal suggestions of post dinner entertainment and passing remarks about ice cream swirls mask ulterior motives and paternal resentment, the block colours and grand rooms give way to the cobwebbed and decaying basement (where, naturally, the aforementioned ice cream is kept.)

Sex and violence is what Park Chan-wook belongs too, as two sides of the same coin. For India, the girl with a fear of being touched, her growing attraction to Charlie thrusts her into a psychotic, twisted form of womanhood. The film moves into a state of male paranoia, as the female sexual awakening represents something much more dangerous. This doesn't so much seep into the films design, as it is soaked in it. Stoker is made of a direct, symbolic flamboyance that calls to mind the likes of Brian De Palma. De-leaded pencils dripping in blood, an abundance of sultry close-ups and a heightened creaking sound design deliver a thunderously charged atmosphere. 

Though the main influence is none other than Alfred Hitchcock, borrowing heavily from his 1943 film ,Shadow of a Doubt. François Truffaut once said that the Master of Suspense shot murder like a love scene, and a love scene like a murder - the same can be said for Park Chan-wook. But where Hitchcock had to skate round censors, here it has an abrasiveness that has carried over from Park Chan-wook's routes. This is made most obvious in an explicit shower masturbation scene, where the once cleansing act has been reversed into a surrendering to our primal desire. Thankfully the excellent, off-kilter yet quirk-free performance from Mia Wasikowska gives India the unsettling edge needed to back up the distanced and tested mother played by Nicole Kidman. Rounding out the performances are a surprisingly tongue-tied Jackie Weaver and a twinkly-eyed, soft spoken Matthew Goode who will no doubt be soaring to the top of every casting list for the next big Vampire flick.  

For all its artistically sculpted crafting, Stoker never manages to light the spark it sets. Miller's screenplay is too hinged on implausibility and one tell-all and ultimately underwhelming flashback. We are left waiting for that final twist of the knife that never comes. Instead, we get the creak of a belt, the aim of a scope and a splatter of blood too easily cleaned from the muted tones on which they plastered.

3/5 


Thursday, 28 February 2013

[Review] Mama - Domesticated Demon

Mama (2013)

Director - Andrés Muschietti 
Country - USA
Starring - Jessica Chastain, Daniel Kash and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Running Time - 100 minutes
Synopsis - Annabel and Lucas are faced with the challenge of raising his young nieces that were left alone in the forest for 5 years.... but how alone were they? 

The notion of motherhood is one that has lent itself completely to horror down through history. The bond between mother and child is derived from such an intense physicality that the unyielding devotion and intimacy is so easily reversed and fractured. Through nature alone maternal relationships have a degree of specific psychological conditions; envy, overbearing narcissism and reflective anxieties that are ripe for the picking for any budding screenwriter. The surrogate mother removes this physicality, replacing it with more external and social factors that also been prayed upon in the horror genre. Look to Jack Clayton's 1961 cinematic translation of Henry James' Turn of the Screw, The Innocents, a ghost story created from sexual frustrations and hyper active custodial psychosis. It implemented these factors into the Freudian qualities of the set design, the harshness of its high-key lighting and the manic performance by Deborah Kerr to give us an atmosphere of psychological-frenzy, in other words, it's an intelligent ghost story born out of step-parent anxieties.

Now in 2013 we have Mama, by Andrés Muschietti, where any symbolism and psycho-analysis has been replaced with deathly clumps of hair and evil wallpaper.

Since her breakout performance Jessica Chastain has become signified with the role of the mother figure, most obviously in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life where she became the manifestation of grace. Her face houses a calming naturalism and unquantifiable homeliness. Something that she managed to shed completely in the critically acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty, a film that highlights the unique force of the maternal instinct by it's total absence. Mia as she is known in that film, feels incomplete as a human because she has no family. So Mama then should feel like an extension of her cinematic undertakings thus far. She plays Annabel, a tattooed guitarist in a rock band hastily thrust into the role of a parent without ample preparation when her boyfriend's nieces show up five years after their homicidal father kidnapped them.

Chastain's jet black fringe and Misfits T-shirt fail to convince as she awkwardly strums a bass guitar whilst chugging down a bottle of Becks. Yet, as the burdened and disinterested carer she slips into the role pretty confidently, as if a reversal of her character in The Tree of Life - spending less time frolicking in the garden and more time pacing around the house, half-assedly doing menial chores. The film successfully rejects the formulaic responses of modern suburban horror films such as the Paranormal Activity series in which the light of day casts out the nightly bumps and the world returns to normal. Domestication is the real horror here as Annabel suddenly finds herself having to contend with snooping Aunts and accident prone kids. Chastain looks legitimately uneasy preparing dinners or loading the washing machine, and the lifeless cinematography does nothing but further our restlessness.

Inevitably, as one would expect when adopting forest dwelling children, creepiness befalls the household in the predictable fashion of monster closets and flickering lights. Not to outdo it's contemporaries for too long, it borrows a couple of floating blanket scares that no longer unite the audience through a chorus of 'Ohs' and 'Ahs.' Still, Mama has a number of tricks up it's withered sleeve, one of which being the feral kids crawling around on all fours similarly to Andy Serkis' Gollum. A base technique that manages to be pretty discomforting, especially in one early and quickly forgotten dream sequence. If only the director had taken the time to expand upon the underlying animalistic imprint that runs ingrained into our genetic code as a grotesque, outward projection of our development. But alas Mama settles for jump scares and monster closets, some well crafted, some not so much, but enough to ensure you're suitably on edge for the duration of it's running time. Yet one can't shake the feeling of directorial apathy. 

As the film's plot descends into melodramatic nonsense, including one rather harebrained psychiatrist who loses all notion of child psychosis or mental trauma in favor of trekking through the woods under the cover of darkness to contact the dastardly specter, it loses it's foothold in reality and descends into cliche. When the elongated, CGI-monstrosity that is 'Mama' begins to show up all the more frequently, most of your fear will diffuse through the overblown, over-Gothic design and silly audio effects. Though as unconvincing as the film's monster is, the ending is quite the opposite. Making a point about the unbreakable bond between child and mother at the most important age, it feels neither cheap nor out of place. But in the grand scheme of things it only hints at the ingenuity and intelligence that attracted Guillermo Del Toro to the project, just as he was The Orphanage back in 2007.

A great man once said a horror film is measured by its scares, and Mama is virtually over-encumbered with such a variety that it was sure to succeed in one way or another. Disappointingly it fails to draw upon the psychological issues that underscore the subject matter, and that have produced some of the genre's most beloved classics (see Rosemary's Baby.) It's neither as self-consciously clever as the likes last year's Sinister or immaculately precise as emerging-auteur Ti West's recent output. However the solid performances and interesting ending make sure it nestles comfortably above whatever passes for average in the American horror landscape, now isn't that a scary thought?

3/5

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

[Review] To The Wonder - A Valediction: For Whispering

To The Wonder (2013)

Director - Terrence Malick
Country - USA, France
Starring - Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Amy McAdams and Javier Bardem
Running Time - 112 minutes
SynopsisAfter visiting Mont Saint-Michel, Marina and Neil come to Oklahoma, where problems arise. Marina meets a priest and fellow exile, who is struggling with his vocation, while Neil renews his ties with a childhood friend, Jane.

Filmmaker turned philosopher Terrence Malick has never had what one would define as a consistent production output. Between his debut Badlands in 1973 and 2005s The New World he released just four films (with a twenty year gap in there as well.) Yet, against his character, just over a year after the critically acclaimed Palme D'or winner The Tree of Life was released, his newest film To The Wonder arrives in cinemas this week. 

Since Days of Heaven (1978) Malick's films have increasingly been geared away from conventional narrative and towards existential musings on faith, love and nature. This style built towards the grandiose The Tree of Life which charted the beginning of time itself to the end of existence through the point of view of a child growing up in 1950s Texas. Though majestically constructed and cinematically important, it wasn't a perfect film, the height of which was a horrifically misguided sequence involving  dinosaurs that would be dropped from a Land Before Time sequel. Though it was the ambition of his sentiments that firmly secured it as a fascinatingly flawed masterpiece. For me, it was the summation of these elements that should have marked the end (or at least a break) of this movement in his career.

Instead, To The Wonder sees Malick push further into poetic montage, presenting us with a story of crisis, one of love and one of faith... that is to say love and faith, as Malick conditions it. 

The film opens with what would go down in history as the most artistically shot phone camera footage as lovers Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) travel across France. Malick is known for his beautiful 35mm canvas-like compositions, so this opening is a way of playing with his established style just as to invite the audience into making personal associations with the grainy intimacy of iPhone visuals. Still, I found it hard to take seriously as an expression of smitten playfulness when Affleck is busy lining up his shots to the rule of thirds. Their voyage through France is presented with as much restraint as an over-excited Nikon advert. The graceful rolls and tilts of the camera as he moves into and passed the lovers become an extension of passions that the audience cannot share in, they feel removed and even naive. He constantly looks to the sky for answers, but is more frequently met with the loneliness of a plane cutting through the sky, as a motif it feels unwarranted and coincidental, brought in through in the editing suite as a vague way of capturing interest.

Europe ends and when Neil invites Marina and her ten year old daughter to come live with them on a housing development in Oklahoma. They spend their time frolicking gleefully through fields, curtains and supermarkets, when their relationship comes under strain the two strut round the house in silence, as if on isolated planes of existence. All the while Kurylenko's ethereal voice over rambles aimlessly about the nature of their love and her own discontent. To put it bluntly, this constitutes so much of the film that it crosses into unintended self parody. Increasingly Malick's characters have become less a defined person in their own right and more a channel for his own existential concerns, here they lack any form of identity at all. There is so little progression, development or narrative exposition that any profound point on the nature of relationships and love Malick is trying to capture is totally lost as the character's become figures, shifting weightlessly between passions, continents and partners.  

Just as The Tree of Life was led by a reflective, autobiographical tone, To The Wonder feels like a personal confession manifesting itself as a convoluted experiment, Malick splits himself between two male figures; Affleck's Neil and Bardem's Father Quintana. The former is a man struggling with committing to, and defining himself within, his relationships. He offers Marina warmth, affection and support but cannot give himself completely to her, and when her Visa expires he refuses to marry her resulting in her deportation. His attentions then turn to childhood friend Jane (Rachel McAdams) in a brief middle section that fails to offer any supporting weight to the narrative. Quintana is a community priest who's relationship with God has been strained due to the economic and social disintegration of his neighbourhood. In an interesting move Malick moves to a Neo-Realist style as Bardem moves from house to house interacting with local residents. Although the more engaging of the two, Malick fails to unite the narratives other than a few shots of Marina and Quintana together. As a result the methodical lines plucked from his sermons lack any significance with Neil and Marina's story and his resolution unmoving. Even worse, as Malick begins to indulge in scenes with drug addicts and the disabled the film moves past earnestness and into crass exploitation. 

Undoubtedly Olga Kurylenko is the central character of the piece, with Malick himself regarding it as 'her film.' His camera leans into her sensuality, capturing the curve of her neck and the elegance in her movements to the extent it borders on voyeurism. This is made all the apparent by his total disregard for Amy McAdams who is presented more flatly and distanced. In a strange scene, Malick drowns out her back story with Marina's voice over, illustrating his lack of interest in Jane's character. Yet despite this focus, she is still is nothing more than an ideal, a representation of love that Malick can only grasp at, but not retain.

In my research on the film I was enlightened to know that those invited to the Press Screenings of To The Wonder were given notes on the characters, time frames and pollution subplots which is all but brushed aside in favor of the overly enigmatic mess we are left with. Given the films problematic production with actors dropping out, characters being removed completely and shooting beginning without a finished script, it becomes clear that this is a shell of Malick's intended vision. To an extent it excuses the lack of substantial structure to the narrative, but none the less, To the Wonder is still an indulgent and overblown exercise in tedium. The whispered spiritualist romanticism's of his script fail to amount to any tangible thoughts on the fervent desires and illusions of love nor faith and therefore feels obnoxiously preachy.

2/5

Friday, 22 February 2013

The Oscar Round Up - Thoughts and Predictions [Updated]


The Oscar Weekend is upon us! With the 85th Annual Academy Awards airing this Sunday, I thought I'd cash in on the moment by offering my thoughts on the nominees, the overlooked and the predictions for the top prizes. 

[Disclaimer - All of these predictions are based on personal opinions and ideas. I have focused on the major awards and those I have seen  three or more of the nominees. But will offer a prediction for the others based on my knowledge.]

It's common knowledge among most film lovers that the American Academy Awards have a distinguished criteria that is not always indicative of the films quality. That isn't to say that an Oscar is meaningless, most certainly not, but it is not something I feel the need to measure a films standing by. Cast your mind back over the last 85 years and you will find a very long list of talent from every film making corner omitted from the proceedings time and time again. Least of all being the likes of Alfred Hitchcock who, despite five nominations, was never bestowed a statue of his own. 

To return to my initial point, throughout the years the Academy has defined its particularly favored 'formula' for a Best Picture winner, to point where the value of the award has been weakened to a degree; think of the soft core The Kings Speech taking the home the coveted award in 2011 against much stronger and higher valued opposition. Yet with this years list of nominees there is a distinct lack of traditional 'Oscar-bait' (a term designed to blanket award hungry performance pieces) in the nominations. Instead we are given a larger diversity in the nominees ranging from younger directors just finding their footing, some well established back for a second or third time, and perhaps the most renowned filmmaker of all time. 

So with that in mind, I will offer some thoughts and predictions on the nominees for this years ceremony.

 

Best Feature Film:

 

If I was a betting man, it would be Ben Affleck's Argo that I would be backing for top prize. Yes the lack of a 'Best Director' nomination to go along with it is curious, but I have a reason for that I will get to later. Argo's momentum continues to grow after successive triumphs at the BAFTAs, AFI and Golden Globes, it looks set on cruise control to sweep up this award. Why? Well for starters its from a new found Hollywood talent, someone who made the jump from acting to directing smoothly with three critically and commercially successful films in a time when America cinema has been come under fire for being either one or the other. But the real reason is simple; Argo isn't just a story of true-to-life American triumph (one achieved through clear-cut, fellow nominee Zero Dark Thirty) but a triumph in which the real hero, is Hollywood.

For what it's worth the film itself is a competently directed little heist film, that looks and sounds the part, made all the more dangerous by it's demonetization of the entire Iranian nation in order to the amp the tension unnecessarily up to number eleven. Affleck's direction draws to mind the works of Sidney Lumet with his textual workmanship, but it misses a distinct opportunity to provide any form of commentary or deconstruction of the duality between the Hollywood and political systems, or even the sheer global dominance of Hollywood's productions.

Still the Academy has a fondness for upset, in which case I think the most likely winner would be David O. Russell's 'drama-dy' Silver Linings Playbook. Taking serious mental illnesses and reducing them to a series of personality quirks is infuriating in it's own right, but the films overarching message that America itself is just one big madhouse is borderline insulting. Still Russell is another figure of new talent, his last film The Fighter was also an Oscar nominated, thinly disguised social drama about inner city communities, it was better than this but I feel Russell wont hit his stride until he drops the framing device.

The other favourite is Spielberg's Lincoln, too hastily dismissed as 'Oscar bait' it manages to be proud and respectful of the former president despite and actually because of his ability to bend the rules of the system he swore to serve. Like Argo it too plays out like a heist film, a race against time gather enough votes in order to secure the ultimate diamond briefcase - the end of slavery. The Academy may downplay this one, fearing that it may be too expected but if this is 'Oscar' bait' then consider me hooked.

 

Best Achievement Direction:

 

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest Michael Haneke might actually get this. The most acclaimed director of the last decade, his films are difficult and often filled with cruelty, but Amour is so very human. Perhaps too difficult and harrowing for a Best Picture statue, Haneke manifestations of his own insecurities about mortality and death is directed with an acute artistry. Maybe this is just wish fulfillment on my part I do confess, but I cannot think of a more deserving film from the nominees.

 

Best Performance from an Actor in a Leading Role:

 

Admittedly as of yet I haven't seen Flight, so I can only reserve comment on Denzel Washington's performance in Robert Zemeckis' redemption flick. 

At this moment I'm going to name Bradley Cooper as the one to watch on Sunday. Whilst Daniel Day-Lewis has, once again, transformed himself physically and mentally to recreate Abraham Lincoln as a measured, living sculpture, he has two of the gongs under his belt already, and I suspect he could be the victim of backlash, with academy voters who feel that people expect it. Still despite how ill conceived the film may be, Coopers performance has much to admire. He adopts the manic thought process erupting in his mind into his physical performance with jerky mannerisms and manic eye movements, only to gradually steady over the course of the plot. It's a performance of physical development as much as it is character. 

The other incredibly physical based performance is Joquin Pheonix's turn as the dangerous war vet Freddy Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. My favourite performance (and film) of the year. I fear for the Oscars though he is far too difficult and unlikeable, plus I'm sure there are some who are still reeling from his performance stunt in the mock-umentary I'm Still Here. Ball is in your park Academy, surprise me. 

 

Best Performance from an Actress in a Leading Role: 

 

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest Emmanuelle Riva from Amour. At 85 she is the oldest Oscar nominee and her performance one of complete disarming power. As Anne, an upper-middle class cultured piano tutor who gradually wastes a way after suffering a stroke carries a dignity that could easily have been pure exploitative. Just as Phoenix and Cooper inhabited a physicality to their roles, Riva's reverses - her life is increasingly stripped from her. So remarkable is her performance that it becomes a figure of reassurance in the encompassing face of death. 

Though Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain have received wide-spread acclaim neither performance is as effecting or universally relatable (though one cannot undersell the brave and important turn produced by Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.) Though they are also too newly discovered Hollywood talents that received nominations for earlier efforts, though in this case I think it may boil down to a matter of 'next time.' 

 

Best Performance from an Actor in a Supporting Role:

 

As much as I would love to give the award straight up to Philip Seymour Hoffman as the fascinating Lancaster Dodd, very few actors could harbor the key to unlocking a person in the trembling vein on their neck. I think the most likely winner will be Lincoln's Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stephens. The heart of Spielberg's biopic, it has all the hall marks of an Oscar performance; brimming with snappy courtroom comebacks and self deprecating humor ('This is the face of someone who has fought long and hard for the good of the people without caring much for any of 'em. And I look a lot worse without the wig') but most importantly he's an Academy favourite - an unsung hero.

 

Best Performance from an Actress in a Supporting Role:  

 

Although I haven't seen The Sessions yet, I'm going to back Helen Hunt for this one. A frank, but confident film dealing with sexual surrogacy, a program designed to teach physically disabled or restrained about how to have and deal with sex. Helen Hunt has been met with universal acclaim across the board for her performance. Again the Academy is prone to backlash, which Anne Hathaway may feel the wrath of, but maybe not. She's a great actress who's been doing excellent work for a number of years, and her turn in Les Miserable could have been excellent, but Hooper's inept direction sees nothing past the tears.

Else where Amy Adams' turn in The Master is just as remarkable as her co-stars, but I suspect most chance of the coveted statue was flushed away with the remnants of her kung-fu handjob on Hoffman. Weaver is brilliant as always, but she's not given enough to do in Silver Linings Playbook and as impressive as Sally Fields is as the First Lady, it simply doesn't offer as much as the rest in the category.

 

Best Cinematography:

 

I haven't been able to see Anna Karenina, so I will withhold judgement on that film's visuals, though the mixed reaction might sell it short.

The most common choice here will fall between peoples cinematographer Deakins and his excellent work on Skyfall and Claudio Miranda's mythic painting in Life of Pi. The former must be thinking his time has finally come after receiving ten nominations (including two in 2008) without ever being granted a victory. Skyfall's flamboyant theatricality added to the Greek tragedy workings of the plot, as well as embodying the a suitable visual styling for Bond, setting him apart from the shaky-cam proceedings of today's action stars. 

Life of Pi
however has the benefit of using the new three dimensional computer camera; now this brings forward arguments about cinematography's very nature. Can we praise and reward the work of something that doesn't exist? Personally I found the film tacky and overcomposed, lacking an urgency or roughness to expose the harshness of reality and letting the spiritualism work itself out in the background. 


Lets not overlook the work of Robert Richardson in Tarantino's Django Unchained. I said before the films visuals lacked an anger bubbling below its vistas and charismatic zooms, but its desire to draw upon the heritage of the beloved American western might do enough to tip the edge in his favor. Janusz Kaminski's softly lit Spielberg biopic might be the one to take this, if my predictions come true, Lincoln's victories might be limited to the technical categories. Not to sell the film itself short, its just as deserving as the other films in the category with Kaminski sculpting light and even time itself around Mr Lincoln, it embodies the respectful gaze that the film takes up when looking into the past. 

 

Film Editing:

 

The work of Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers on Silver Linings Playbook act as one of the more interesting elements on the film; extending Cooper's mental state into the film's editing patterns to create a manic and confusing opening half is a clever approach. One that develops over the course of the film to become more rhythmic and constructed. 

Though my own pick would undoubtedly be Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg's incredible break down of the editorial device in Zero Dark Thirty. This might the award that the film deserves most, on one level it deconstructs all boundaries of cinematic space through a rhythmless chaos presenting the world as a cannibalistic mess. This carries through into the film's structure, creating huge juxtapositions and by extension frustrations, it wears the audience down before producing the most flatly terrifying action sequence in years. 

 

Best Writing from an Adapted Screenplay:

 

I'd expect Life of Pi to take this award due to the source material being touted as 'unfilmable.' Still this is one of the more diverse selection of nominees, perhaps the Academy will offer it to newcomers Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin with Beasts of the Southern Wild, a coming of age modern day fairytale set within the beautiful Mississippi that is faux-Malick combined with half-assed social commentary of a world that only an outsider-looking-in could provide. 

Then again, Argo is based on a real story. And we know how much everyone loves those...

 

Best Writing from an Original Screenplay:

 

With only the one nomination, I'd like to see Moonrise Kingdom take this award. Wes Anderson's film story of adventure, love and boy scouts is charmingly romantic and surprisingly personal (it was written for the directors girlfriend.) It encapsulates every boy's dream of childhood as an emancipated freedom against the unrest and unsatisfied adults. 

Though I fear Tarantino may be chosen winner, if for anything as a substitute for best director should he not be victorious in that field. Though the film's heavy handed and excessive discussions of slavery amount to nothing, the ideal of blending blaxsploitation and American freedom may tip the odds in his favor. 





Best Animated Film:Frankenweenie 


Best Costume Design:
Lincoln or Les Miserable 

Documentary Feature Film:
Five Broken Cameras

Foreign Language Film: 
Amour

Make-up and Hair Styling:
Les Miserable 

Music Original Score:
Life of Pi 

Music Original Song:
Skyfall - Adele

Production Design:
Les Miserable

Sound Editing: 
Skyfall 

Sound Mixing:
Les Miserable 

Visual Effects:
Life of Pi

For the full list of nominees you may go to the official Oscar Site (Here) where you can also vote for your own favourites. 

See you Sunday!

Sunday, 17 February 2013

[Essay] - Summer With Bergman

Summer with Bergman

'The Summer Trilogy'

  • Summer Interlude - 1951 / Ingmar Bergman / Sweden
  • Summer With Monika - 1953 / Ingmar Bergman / Sweden
  • Smiles of a Summer Night - 1955 / Ingmar Bergman / Sweden

This week I took the plunge back into Bergman with three early films that come together to create his 'Summer Trilogy' (a self-imposed title, but much like his 'Faith Trilogy' the films are connected by an underlying theme and in this case setting.) The period in which the trilogy is made, beginning in the mid 1940s to the late 1950s Bergman was in his most diverse phase, experimenting with film structure and genre before we see the emergence of the key ideologies; women, religion and art, that would define his canon. Even over the course of the four year span that this trilogy was produced there is a noticeable shift in attitude and cinematic techniques as we will come to examine. It is the series of summer films that are responsible for putting Bergman on the continental and eventual international film-making map with the initial controversy surrounding Summer with Monika eventually leading to an American release of under the title Monika: Story of a Bad Girl! by Kroger Bob (a regarded exploitation presenter) with a new running time of 62 minutes now focusing on the films erotically charged shots of Harriet Andersson. But the real success came in the 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night which won 'Film of Best Poetic Humor' at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.

The seasons are an important element of Bergman's work, they would feature again in the titles for Winter's Light (1963) and Autumn Sonata (1978). They become associations of the films thematic state, autumn is driven by an overarching mortality, winter one of crisis and ultimate devastation. In that sense they each become a stage in the life cycle that Bergman's world operates on. Although it would feature less prominently spring is a vital component in this time-scale as a figure of birth (even rebirth) and unsoiled life. This new life will grow rapidly into a fully developed, yet inexperienced sexuality exposed by the romanticism of the summer. Yet, summer is the cruelest of all seasons; marked by the intense but short lived euphoria of love, that leads us into heightened passions through the falsities of sun baked countrysides and warm midnights. For Bergman, the season of summer is blanketed in the most wretched beauty, blinding us from the hostilities of the world it offers us a freedom and optimism to its characters that it has no regard to keep.

The first two films in this series, Summer Interlude and Summer with Monika take place across the season, allowing the characters to be thrust into isolation and by extension emancipated, they lose themselves in each other and their surroundings. Interlude is defined by a state of bliss that extends into us, only to be sharply and quickly torn out. It would never return, the second entry Monika, is defined with a distrustful restraint. The final film, Smiles of a Summer Night came from Bergman at his lowest point, a period comedy of wit, it condenses the span of the season into just a single night. Though lighter in tone than both of its predecessors it uses the crisp beauty of a summer evening to install a sense of gamesmanship-based humiliation in the face of love and perhaps most remarkably, it closes the trilogy with self-deprecating, if not entirely convincing positivity.   

Summer Interlude, which he made in 1951, is undoubtedly the work of young director, one who is still reeling from open wounds. Bergman regarded this film as an important milestone in his own career as it was the first time he felt an understanding of what he was actually doing. The romance which the bulk of the film is hinged on between dancer Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson) and student Henrik (Birger Malmsten) is one of hopes, pleasure and naivety. Yet Bergman is hesitant to share in their joy. The camera lingers closely, but it feels at odds with the two. Almost withdrawn, in one sequence as they make love for the first time, the camera pans to the boys dog looking weary and uninterested. Less an extension of their passion, it becomes a presence, observing with an almost cynical foreboding. Shot on the beautiful summer spot Dalarö, the film is drenched in an idyllic summer haze that when coupled with the films segmented structure takes the form of a visual sonnet. Wild strawberries and warm seas are presented with a pure romantic quality through high contrasted tones and defined compositions. Yet in time the mask of summer will crack and through it seeps a dark cloud, the shriek of an owl and the howling wind. Together they condemn this love to tragedy. It comes too quickly, Henrik's death leaves us winded, disarmed and confused. It culminates in Marie's outward and spoken rejection of God at the films climax. It is a rash response to a great and immediate pain that only someone as callous as God could be responsible for. 

What I viewed as a cruelly, even unfairly cynical film was made all the more effective upon learning that the film is based off an intense but short lived summer romance Bergman had at 18 with a girl who later contracted polio. The films 'dance rehearsal' framing device becomes a form of confession, Marie has distanced herself from her fellow dancers and lovers to shield herself from possible pain, focusing entirely on her art. And art, like everything in Bergman's world is marked by mortality. Her time as a dancer is limited before she is brushed aside and forgotten, as the ballet master caked in clown make-up reminds her. He is reflective figure of self-doubt, lingering behind Marie and Bergman in the mirror. The dance itself is shot with a fragile, softly lit 'music-box' tint, bringing it down to a personal delicacy. A truly beautiful sequence it success is Bergman's own, as his style is now developed and his technical understanding proficient. The film's ending is similar to the later Wild Strawberries; ambiguous, though positive in tone with Marie turning to her current boyfriend who (after reading Henrik's diary) now has a better understanding of her. Will their relationship survive? Probably not, but it is the step towards her personal catharsis that is important. The open wounds have begun to mend, though they will never heal completely. 

That spark of optimism that Summer Interlude ended on has since disappeared when we open Summer With Monika (1953). The film follows the relationship between shop assistant Harry and factory girl Monika who run away together for a summer. The film made a star of 20 year old Harriet Andersson, whom Bergman was having an affair with (one that would last three years.) This immensity of his passion for her seeps into the intense sexuality that leads his camera. He shoots her mainly at mid-shot to frame her curvy figure or in soft focus close-up, to capture the sultry sensuality in her eyes and mouth. It was hugely controversial upon release for featuring a highly erotic nude scene. Andersson exudes a natural vitality, and the film still sizzles 60 years from its release. There is a sexual emancipation brought about the rejection of society by the main characters. Yet occasionally a harshness enters Bergman's tone as a group of children run passed calling Monika 'chubby.' It is a reaction to Andersson's beauty brought out by the masculine insecurity that dominates this films proceedings and his other 1953 work Sawdust and Tinsel.

The films opening act takes place within Stockholm, which is shot with a claustrophobic and smothering vibe, silhouetting the buildings as ominous sky boxes and trapping the characters with cramped sets, dim lighting and physically and morally corrupted people. Their escape to the Archipelago comes as a visual relief, featuring a similar, although more restrained, rhythm and tone than the earlier Summer Interlude. This restraint is illustrative of Bergman's older and more distrustful gaze but also of the couples inability to free themselves from this society. The summer itself is colder and their constant need to better their situation or look for food leaves visible weathering on the faces of Harry and Monika. Yet the real reason for their return to the city and eventual cause of unhappiness is brought about by Monika's pregnancy, is Bergman suggesting this is the price to pay for fleeting passion and sexual emancipation? (He himself had five children by the time of this film.) Or is it merely the rule of his world that love is a brief performance before the curtain is pulled back on an otherwise uncaring reality. I find it quite a suspicious film, in one incredible close up Bergman condemns Monika and by extension Andersson to infidelity. He holds this shot as she turns from her lover to look past the camera, her gaze is one of acknowledgement. She recognizes the camera as our judgement, she accepts it with her guilt but it doesn't matter, this is what she has to do be free. There is a striking reflectivity Bergman imposes his desire to leave commitments behind onto Monika's flight, and our reaction of biblical damnation is Bergman's own perceived shame.

After the release of Monika Bergman found himself in a bad place, riddled with pains and weight loss, both his affair and marriage were ending, he was threatened with dismissal by his production head because of the financial failings of his work. It was while in Switzerland he decided to write a film 'just for fun' based on an ancient Chinese proverb; a son who falls in love with his fathers second wife. The result was Smiles of a Summer Night.

Though with this final entry the summer itself takes a back-foot to the main theme of 'life's a theatre', the links between the films remain as tangible. Summer becomes a stage for the events to unfold filtered through the three 'smiles' of the hazy northern light. The film echoes the structure of a 19th Century scandal comedy with the upper middle class couples trading partners throughout the course of a party in a large country mansion. (Think Rules of the Game without the politics.) Though the film is undeniably a comedy in the classical and contemporary sense; the tone is one of theatrical wit and the ending is one of perceived happiness, it is birthed from the conflicting anxieties and pain that Bergman was experiencing at the time of it's conception. Each of the characters, with the exception of Desiree (who is in a sense perfect) suffer a form of humiliation, one that is usually of a sexual nature such as Fredrik's son Henrik's failed sexual encounter with the free spirited Petra. With that in mind the film can be read as an expansion on the suspicions that Bergman was forming in Summer With Monika, the women here are seen as conspiring gods, forming alliances in order to trick their men with sex being the obvious reward by which it is measured. The film is littered with sexual connotations and imagery, from the virgin Anne being brought through the secret tunnel and into the arms of Henrik to the charged Russian Roulette becoming a vehicle for masculinity. These images amount to an insecurity on Bergman's part, one that coincides with the break down of both of his relationships. 

It is stagecoach Frid who presents us with the films key discussion of summer. His tiered 'smiles' break down the season and tie it with Bergman's earlier summer films. The first smile is for the young lovers of the world, which Frid reminds us is a curse just as much as it is a blessing once the euphoria has worn off. With this film it obviously a direct relation to Anne and Henrik but one cannot overlook this as a reflection on both Marie and Henrik from Summer Interlude and Harry and Monika from Summer with Monika. The second smile is for the jesters and fools, represented by Petra and Frid, there is an element of jealousy in Bergman's tone in this second smile. Through their lack of education and concern they achieve a sort of workmanship happiness that frees them from the problems of the middle class. This smile is something which Bergman idealized, but could never achieve as a very shrewd thinker. A fact he attests to through the falseness of Frid's proposal to Petra, is Bergman punishing the characters through his own frustrations, or does he believe that they will eventually succumb to the mortality of love just as the rest of the world? The final smile is for Bergman himself, it is a sobering dawn only witnessed by those frightened of love. It is, in essences the end of Bergman's summer. The haze that blinded us to the harshness of the world has been lifted and a bitter coldness now settles in it's place, with it will come the smog from the city and the cruelty of the world.

There is an obvious development that charts its way through Bergman's Summer Trilogy, from Marie's reaction to Henrik's death at the end of Summer Interlude, the series is marked by a complete absence of God. For Bergman love is merely an earth-based pleasure, and just like summer, it is one of mortality. The wounds inflicted upon him would never truly heal, and the negativity of Monika would begin to spiral out of control and into his personal life. Yet remarkably he channels it into a reflective and even distanced piece in Smiles of a Summer Night. Though less interesting than it's predecessors as a cinematic piece, it is an absolute necessity in Bergman's canon; the movie that allowed him to keep making movies. The summer may be a cruel season of intense passion and false hopes but one must take solace in its existence. When it ends, take the hurt, the betrayal and the humiliation and meet it with as much serenity as you can. Should there ever be a fourth summer smile, it will be another one for Bergman, a reflective smile from film watcher to film maker, one of complete immortal gratitude.


 






Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Valentines Day Alternative Romance Flicks

Here at The Image Loft I like to take every opportunity I can to expand on the holiday movies in order to spare the usual seasoned classics from being tiredly wheeled out time and time again. I offered some alternative spooks for Halloween and festive treats at Christmas. Yet it is perhaps Valentines Day that this little segment is most applicable for. After all since its invention the cinema has firmly been at the route of many a budding romance (myself included.)

What, if not the cinema, inspires passions so deep inside us we want them for our own? Since it was first captured by Edison in 1896's The Kiss, love has been changed by cinema. Molded by light, glamor and beauty it is been transported across entire histories, countries and worlds and we are fueled by the spark it ignites. No longer does it imitate reality, it is reality that imitates the cinema, to a monumental effect.

So amongst the falsities, the hopes and the tragic here are six wonderful alternative films that explore the true, deeper meanings of love. 

1. Sunrise: A Song for Two Humans - 1927, F.W. Murnau 

One of cinemas earliest and most classic love stories, Sunrise tells the tale of a couple who have lost their way, but through the very darkest and lowest moments find the spark that brought them together. Sunrise may look a little croaky to some with its silent era over acting and bold make up, but stick with it and this is one of the most earnest and triumphant of films. Murnau's city awakens as the lovers do, basking in light and activity, it becomes an explosive urban poem - a fever dream of love that one cannot help but be completely and utterly won over by.




2. Brief Encounter - 1945, David Lean

Perhaps putting the most famous cinematic infidelity on a Valentines Day films seems a little flawed, but I've written before on the real love that lies at the heart of Brief Encounter, one that anyone in a lasting relationship will attest to. At the heartbreaking end to middle class housewife Laura's unconsummated affair with Dr Alec Harvey she returns to her life and to her unremarkable husband, completely broken. Yet it is her unremarkable husband who saves her by giving her the most remarkable of gestures - a simple thank you for coming home.

3. Summer Interlude - 1951, Ingmar Bergman 

Although a rather cynical film, it comes from a very real place. Bergman's story of a summer romance between Marie a young dancer and student Henrik on the Swedish Archipelago is based on an intense experience the director had at 18 while vacationing with his family. The girl he was involved with would later contract polio. Therefore the bitterness that presides over the careless lovers, like a singular dark cloud against a sun soaked sky, feels much like the pain from an open wound. It is a film that exposes us of the wonders love can open us up to, but also the damage it can cause. Yet the final message is profound, Bergman urges us not to make the same mistake he and his characters did, he reminds us the pain is a necessary and worthy risk to take.

4. Paris, Texas - 1984, Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders reminds us that love is not a closed linked between two people, but an open circle that spreads itself across families, and that goes for the negatives too. A worn, tragic call to love and sacrifice for the good of a child and his mother is at the heart of this sultry road movie. Harry Dean Stanton gives one of the most weathered and romantic performances of all time as a man who now recognizes everything that went wrong and what needs to be done to fix it. This is an intimate tale of the damage a fractured love can cause spread across a grand Western odyssey, and for that reason it makes this list; it encapsulates the momentum and bravery of someone taking the first steps forward to change.

5. In The Mood for Love - 2000, Kar Wai Wong

This beautiful, vintage romance is a film made of candle lit delicacy. Love unsoiled by love. Two neighbours, who bond over their partners infidelity gradually develop a captured passion for each other. Every shot, movement and hair is composed to such a measured perfection. In the Mood for Love reignites the intensity of chaste, toying with us, excites us and eventually burns through us. In a sexually loose world (both societal and cinematically) it is both refreshing and disarming to remind us that the build up to a kiss, to a touch can be just as sensual as the touch itself. When it's over, we have to turn to any hole we can find, whisper our emotions and then cover it up.

6. Blue Valentine - 2010, Derek Cianfrance 

Although heart-throb Ryan Gosling has already starred in one of the most popular, and undoubtedly over-watched romance films of all time. One that I suspect a thousand and more unwilling partners will be subjected to by their significant other on February 14th. But if you're tired of The Notebooks rather manipulative and overblown melodrama, then I recommend Derek Cianfrance's unflinching look at the disintegration of a marriage. Doesn't sound too romantic? Well whilst it is true the films dual structure flicking between past and present does come down on the bleak side, the relationship between Gosling's free spirit and Williams committed medical student will undoubtedly strike a chord with anyone who's been in love. Yet it preaches something much more important to everyone, the antidote to many a cinematic false promise; in a relationship there is no easy fix, love doesn't conquer all, it needs support, understanding and communication.

So there you have a small handful of films that will give you a look at every side of love, they aren't something to measure yourselves by, instead let them guide you to one of the most universal and human experiences of all.

To Cinema, With love. 
 
Or should that be...
 
To Love, from Cinema? 


Monday, 11 February 2013

[Screen Log] Across the Universe Edition (Week 03/02/13 - 10/0213)


It's been an interesting and diverse week of cinematic venturing over here, one that has ranged from 2013 Oscar nominees, to Star Wars and even Heaven itself. However it all ended in a bang when my Blu Ray player died right in the middle of Jean-Luc Goddard's Weekend, he probably wouldn't have it any other way. 

Screenings:
  • Argo - 2012, Ben Affleck 
  • Star Wars: A New Hope - 1977, George Lucas 
  • The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums - 1939, Kenji Mizoguchi
  • A Matter of Life and Death - 1946, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
  • The Music Room - 1958, Satyajit Ray 
All these reviews have been taken from my Letterboxd.com Profile, available here: http://letterboxd.com/mervynmarshall/

Argo - 35mm, Movie House Cinema
In the run up to the Academy Awards many of my local theaters have been cashing in on screening all of the Best Picture nominees, and I took the opportunity to see those I had previously missed (something I have come to regret.) Ben Affleck's true-to-life tale of the CIA and Hollywood collaboration to smuggle 6 escapee hostages during the 1980 Iran crisis. A rather unremarkable thriller that unnecessarily relies on artificial techniques and blatant xenophobia to raise, the already sky-scrapper high, stakes. The result is a film that looks the part with accurate period detail and awful haircuts but fails to capitalize on the incredible stranger-than-fiction event. Somewhere a more talented director could have utilized this scenario to explore the duality of film and real-life but we are left with a competently entertaining piece of Hollywood propaganda. 

In short, bland enough to be the front runner for Best Picture.

Star Wars: A New Hope - DVD Projected, Queens Film Theatre
A rather flat and frankly childish film, far from worthy of its praise or position as a genre defining piece. There are highlights here and there, particularly some enjoyable set and costume design, but this does very little to develop the political and social boundaries that run through imagination of the world.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums - Blu Ray, Criterion Collection
Though the print is in dire shape, this is easily the best of Mizoguchi's earlier works. A second-rate actor who relies on his Father's name falls in love with the woman who is honest with him. From then it depicts their struggle to be together, and a woman who sacrifices everything to help her husband succeed, including her health. This is a long and draining film, beautifully captured through Mizoguchi's gliding takes and intricate staging. It ends on a tragic image of sacrifice, and a warning to every artist.

A Matter of Life and Death - DVD, ITV Movies
More than anything else this is a key example of film architecture. Not just in design but in its structure and textual visuals as well. The Archers and their cinematographer Jack Cardiff tell this wonderful meditation on life without love. David Niven is a WW2 pilot who jumps from his plane only to miraculously survive and fall in love thanks to an error within the bureaucratic office of the powers that be. Seamlessly moving between marvelous technicolor and sterile black and white with terrific time-stopping effects. The film opens with the horrific and saddening destruction of the war, before exploding in all its glory through the eyes of someone who is awakened to it all; someone in love.

The Music Room - Blu Ray, Criterion Collection
Ray's film is soaked in culture but remains completely human. It tells the story of Biswambhar Roy, one of the last Indian aristocrats, he spends his days staring vacantly over his eroded land and attempting to compete with the new wealth by throwing lavish parties, paid for by the family jewels. The decaying lavish setting and Ray's high contrast visual symbols move through the films text, and into the reflections, the lights and even the portraits on the wall - creating a real sense of past-time. But this is a film all about music. It is the key motif in illustrating the fading, overstretched power of the Roy and his family name. It is the last section of the film, the music turns from entrancing to disruptive and the visuals and imagery become so heightened it enters the realm of a horror film. The destruction of a once great class, through the psychological disintegration and blunt, violent death of its last patriarch.