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.