Sunday, 1 April 2012

March Films

Annie HallWoody Allen – DVD - A simply fantastic comedy, written with razor sharp wit and delivered with all the endearing neurosis of Woody Allen at his best. Some of the most memorable, quotable, Woody Allen moments in this film are beautifully balanced and facilitated by Diane Keaton’s genuinely quirky (unlike new venerations of ‘kooky’, that prescribe to the belief that a pair of unnecessary geek chic glasses and a love of The Smiths constitutes character) performance. 9/10

A collection of quotes:
 Alvy Singer: Here, you look like a very happy couple, um, are you?
Female Street stranger: Yeah.
Alvy Singer: Yeah? So, so, how do you account for it?
Female Street stranger: Uh, I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.
Male Street stranger: And I'm exactly the same way.
Alvy Singer: I see. Wow. That's very interesting. So you've managed to work out something?
[after Annie parks the car]
Alvy Singer: Don’t worry. We can walk to the curb from here.
Alvy Singer: A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.
Annie Hall: So I told her about, about the family and about my feelings towards men and about my relationship with my brother. And then she mentioned penis envy. Do you know about that?
Alvy Singer: Me? I'm, I'm one of the few males who suffers from that.
Alvy Singer: Sylvia Plath - interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.
[Alvy questions an old man on the street about his sex life]
Alvy Singer: With your wife in bed, does she need some kind of artificial stimulation, like, like marijuana?
Old Man on street: We use a large vibrating egg. 

The Tree of LifeTerrence Malick – DVD – If ever a film to seek out at the cinema…this would be it. The DVD I had even kindly suggested that the film was intended to be heard loud…so I obediently clutched the remote and, to my brother’s annoyance, increased the volume with excitable abandon. It is, without reserve, a film of epic ambition. The film creates a vastly symphonic and poetic meditation on the existence of God and creation – as inspired and explored through a tragedy of loss that befalls an American suburban family. Managing to soar through images of galaxies, solar activity, crashing waves, volcanoes and a jaw-dropping (near psychedelic) array of natural wonders, Malick tackles the history of life. Not exactly mumble-core or understatement…this could be a visualized enactment of America’s elusive desire to find the American Novel – just with added scale. A feeling underlined by Nick James’ comment that ‘Malick looks increasingly like the unconscious father of modern American cinema’, looming large like the literary heavy hitters, enshrined in the American consciousness (a la Whitman, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner).
The film’s human pulse emanates from a fractured sub urban family, played with convincing brilliance by Brad Pitt (the father), Jessica Chastain (the mother) and most notably of the three boys: Hunter McCracken (whose older self is played by Sean Penn). After witnessing the death of a friend, the boy (played by McCracken) begins to unravel gradually developing into a brooding and awkward presence, teetering on the edge of violence. At its most disturbing this begins to echo in thoughts of killing his father and uncontrolled urges of violence (at one point resulting in the unfortunate demise of a frog strapped to a rocket… pretty funny to reference, but horrifically redolent of the casual fascination with power and death that can grip children). However, at no point does this narrative of family drama and growing up play out with conventional action, or scenes of extended dialogue. Instead these scenes (beautifully shot by DP Emmanuel Lubezki) act as sporadic grounding for the tidal ambition of the film’s spiritual and cosmic scope. At its best, the film achieves an awe inspiring and jaw dropping majesty (conducive to a naf and befuddled clutching for clichés) in which sweeping classical scores (from Bach, Mozart and Brahms to Preisner and Tavener) build into crescendos of, literally astronomical, beauty. Never before have I been near bleary eyed at the sight of astronomical photography… Patrick Moore would bloody love it. At times, the sheer grandeur and visual bombast of the film comes close to moments of overkill. Instead of the abstract poetry speaking, at times the questions of nature and grace are labored; the film occasionally had me wondering how David Attenborough’s familiar tones of reverence would sit comfortably alongside the visual sermon I was receiving. To again quote Nick James’ article in Sight & Sound: ‘Even at it’s most clichéd and pious, the film is at the very least the most astonishing family-snapshot-screensaver you will ever see.’ Such moments were only ever slight and fleeting though, and to be fair, a near inevitable resonance when bravely confronting such philosophical and visual enormity. It is that bravery of vision which makes the film so impressively triumphant – to have the conviction to make a film of such magnitude…where shots of canyons, galaxies and dinosaurs glide into the surreal imaginings of memory, faith and family is…for want of a better word: inspiring. So, whether or not you feel at points like you might have slipped into a particularly melodramatic episode of Planet Earth, the masterful achievement of this film cannot be denied…and thankfully, in winning the Palme D’Or was rightfully recognized. At the end of the film, I felt an excitement for the next opportunity to watch it again…so many amazing images to revisit. Whether it was the eerie and beautiful twirling in the air of Jessica Chastain’s levitating body (recalling, with a less severely haunting tone, that memorable scene in Tarkovsky’s The Mirror), the dazzling fiery solar ripples, or even Brad Pitt’s gurning concentration as he plays a church organ, there is a wealth of moments to choose from. 10/10

The Serpent’s EggIngmar Bergman – DVD – Having seen Through A Glass Darkly, Persona and Wild Strawberries, this was a pretty large let-down. Still, even David Lynch made Dune – so, in conclusion: being a genius is not mutually exclusive with the capacity to cock up. The film feels muddled in its story and confused in its tone. Only his second film to be in English, the dialogue suffers- feeling both clumsy and uncharacteristically devoid of developed thought. Character’s are left feeling shallow and blunt, even concluding with a painfully stereotypical Nazi villain (sparkling blond hair and dubious medical theories). The male lead, played by David Carradine, plays an out of work acrobat mourning the suicide of his brother. It is a bizarre premise for a character that, while intriguing as a concept, becomes impressively ignored by the film (in terms of its exploration and depth). Ultimately dull and, considering Bergman’s status and other work, an all round disappointment. The opening sequence, juxtaposing a slow motion black and white crowd (a sea of shuffling faces), with ridiculous jazz, was perhaps the film's most inspired moment. 3/10

Ivan’s ChildhoodAndrei Tarkovsky -  Tarkovsky’s first feature film follows an orphaned child who is desperate to help in the war effort and is subsequently used for slipping, unnoticed, into German lines. Requiring far less patience than Tarkovsky’s later work, it offers intimations of the ambition and style he would later develop. Beautiful shots of Russian landscape, the dreamy spindling limbs of silver birch trees, swamplands and the desolation of war’s destruction, make the film a consistently visually engaging watch. 7/10

The RiteMichael Håfstrom – This film feels heavily reliant upon Anthony Hopkins’ presence, which, although impressive, is not enough to carry a dull and uninspired film. Low on scares, lacking in depth, riddled with nauseating and unnecessary Americanisms that feel discordant with the attempted sombre tone, and a frustrating example of a great actor denied great material. Shame…could have been much more interesting, with more attention to building up a darker exploration of excorcism/being possessed/paranoia…and less distracting, flimsy character details it could have attained a bit more force. Highlights: Hopkins’ use of a welsh accent in a demonic context. Low points: the cameo of a donkey demon with red eyes to constitute the film’ scare factor. Optically odd mules and an abundance of (cute) frogs do not make for convincingly chilling viewing – or even interesting viewing. 3/10

The BroodDavid Cronenberg – DVD – This essentially dull film, interspersed with psychopathic dwarfs wielding steak tenderizers and laughably clumsy dialogue, left me disappointed. Following a similar structure to his later (and more entertaining) film Scanners, The Brood maintains a solemn tone of suspense in which the audience is left waiting for a cathartic sequence of drama or climactic shock. Unfortunately the final sequences really don’t merit the badly acted, badly scripted and frustratingly absent ‘bodyhorror’ FX that Cronenberg later pioneered (at their best in Videodrome, The Fly and Naked Lunch).
       Following the therapy sessions of an unstable mother, manipulated by the sinister presence of stern therapist Oliver Reed, it is revealed that [Spoiler] our erratic female protagonist has spawned a homicidal clutch of, pretty pissed off, dwarfs. The eponymous ‘brood’ exists in correlation to her moods, becoming increasingly murderous if she gets angry. The psychosomatic spawn live in Oliver Reed’s attic, in what looks like a budget boarding school dormitory, leaving only to avenge the mental turmoil of their frizzy haired and melodramatic mother: jumping from cupboards, wandering into school with murderous intent and scrabbling from under the bed. The problem being (overlooking the immature pseudo psychoanalysis and awkwardly blundering portrayal of complex emotions) that The Brood never delivers the horror of its potential. Mutant children enacting the repressed desires of a mother loosing her sanity, the sinister encouragement of a dubious therapist and the vulnerability of the mother’s original and ‘normal’ child, could conspire to create a disturbing epic.
        Instead The Brood is a yawn inducing and highly unsatisfying missed opportunity. The only elements that hint at the film’s true potential manifest in the commanding presence of Oliver Reed and the final scene [Spoiler]: the mother lifts up her top (a bizarrely Roman-esque diaphanous gown) to reveal her warted body and the bulging amniotic sack that protrudes, in alien fashion, from her stomach. Her externalized womb, drooping like a diseased tumor, is then torn open freeing a motionless and bloodied fetus. She then begins, oh so naturally, to cradle the wee brood baby and lick the blood from its body. This shocking moment seems to align the maternal figure with a nightmarish deity; she kneels surrounded by pillows, the wings of her gown spread like ceremonial robes drawn apart to present the majesty of her creation. Or perhaps even a vampiric nuance, with the blood licking and bat-like sleeves. Either way it is an inventive and memorable scene that, rather than justifying the weakness that precedes it, reminds us how brilliant Croneberg can be and, consequently, how disappointing the film is. For more Cronenberg fleshly freakery seek out Videodrome and Naked Lunch. Although both of these films also struggle with dialogue, the effects and imagery are enjoyably innovative and make the stunted human portrayals worth enduring. 3/10

Dogtooth – Giorgos Lanthimos – DVD – A mother and father confine their three children (two girls and a boy), who are aged ambiguously around their late teens/early twenties, to the isolation of their house and garden. Language is reinvented (a ‘pussy’ is a lamp, a ‘zombie’ is a yellow flower), cats are said to be the most dangerous animals in existence, fish are born in swimming pools, aeroplanes are flying creatures that occasionally fall from the air, and bizarre games (with stickers for rewards) are played to create a sense of hierarchy and loyalty. They are told that only when their dogtooth falls out (the canine) are they ready to leave the house and see the world.
The film’s style is comprised of static and clinically executed shots, often framing characters oddly and cutting off limbs or faces from the camera’s field of view. We are never told or shown the parents’ inspiration for the cruel and bizarre imprisonment of their children, which only serves to increase the film’s emotional opacity. Often described as an ‘icy’ or ‘cold’ film, it unflinchingly portrays scenes of violence, blood and perfunctory sex, without emotively preparing the viewer. Thus it becomes closer to a sterilized documentation, surveying the absurd charades of warped behavior with detached and unquestioning objectivity. It has the feel of a black satire, or a twisted fable, both of which refuse to confirm or appease any certain sense of message. Although uncomfortably dark (with scenes of graphic incest and violence), Lanthimos proliferates the film with brilliant absurdist comedy. One of the most vividly bizarre scenes occurs in the family’s celebration of the parents’ wedding anniversary. The brother plucks a classical guitar with a mournful repetitive melody while the two sisters contort in variously awkward dance moves. They start off dancing together like robotic cartoons of Broadway imitation, before one girl gets carried away and busts out some hammer-style, frantic dance tantrum. All the while the parents are sitting without comment at the dinner table, the composition (held beautifully throughout) of garish balloons and lights, enhances the girl’s display of mad, inappropriate and impressively energetic dance, until persuaded to sit down she collapses on the table. Seconds of exhaustion pass before she, just as frantically, begins to devour the pudding in front of her.  It is a moment in which words such as ‘bizarre’ and ‘absurd’ fall short of communicating such a crafted glimpse of madness. It is by no means an entirely pleasurable film to watch; veering towards uncomfortable and strange, and stoically remaining there for the film’s duration. It is a concept and film so uniquely weird that its story, shots and atmosphere linger long after viewing.
Lanthimos’ next film, Alps: has been described by the director as more dark and more funny than Dogtooth. It revolves around the idea of a company (‘Alps’) that provides the service of replacing loved ones. If a close relative or lover dies, actors can be hired out to replace the deceased, acting out scenes from their life and, supposedly, helping with the mourning of loss. A decidedly grim and odd idea that suggests Lanthimos may prove to be an excitingly strange director to follow!

Killer of Sheep - Charles Burnett – DVD – With a stunning soundtrack of bluesy soul ( Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, Scott Joplin, Elmore James – and plenty of others), black and white visuals and naturalistic (often sparse, or to hard to hear) dialogue, this film creates an immersive near documentary portrait of a black community in urban L.A. It is the sense of unadorned reality that makes the film such a beautiful watch: scenes of quiet discontent, relationships that need work but that are ultimately fine, kids playing in the street and the boredom of everyday, all conspire to evoke a very real and relatable community. The song that serves as the film’s emotional backbone finds its form in Dinah Washington’s chilling and moving ‘This Bitter Earth’. A song that has been powerfully reimagined, with the added emotional gravitas of Max Richter, for the final credits in Scorsese’s Shutter Island. 7/10

Wings of DesireWim Wenders – DVD - An existential and unapologetically poetic film that meditates upon the notion of angels, suggesting that angels wander through the world of the living (seeing only in a sepia tinged monochrome – naturally, an arty and melancholy palette for the afterlife), while always hearing the spiritual and cognitive monologues of mortals. The cinematography is consistently stunning, and the dialogue is maturely philosophical and thought provoking. The first half of the film is sometimes overbearingly elegiac and poignant at times, feeling as though Wenders’ vision lacks a touch of cynical humour or relief. However, this is probably symptomatic of an age/generation that lives and breathes irony, cynicism and pastiche… that ol’ ‘postmodern’ lack of familiarity with unadulterated poetry and pondering, uninterrupted by the nervous tick of some cultural reference or neurotic self-deprecation. A generation that navigated the awkwardness of growing up through documentary reality, the social studies of David Brent, the introspection of Peep Show, and the cinematic compass of Tarantino. An insular screen based existence of self imposed defining tags, unending playlists, favourite films, favourite music, the ‘relationship status’ and a general reluctance to confront character or life, unless through a series of quotations and cultural references. [Great article on this here]. Anywho…to return to Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire is a beautifully filmed, well acted and philosophical film that I certainly want to revisit. Also has an unexpected performance of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds! 7.5/10

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