Stranger than Fiction – Marc Foster - admirable aspirations, bland and disappointing execution – Charlie Kauffman without the self awareness and intellect. Not as interesting as it clearly wants to be. 5/10
Mona Lisa Smile – Julia Roberts plays a subversive modern art teacher in a conservative New England school in the 50s…plays out like The Dead Poet’s Society for gender equality. Unfortunately, Julia Roberts unveiling the progressive experimentation of Jackson Pollock to over privileged and under challenged American students feels about as convincing, worthwhile and uninformed as Jason Statham articulating the nuanced virtues of Avant-Garde poetry, to dedicated fans of the Transporter films… Unexpected and quite interesting, but ultimately clumsy, superficial and very far from enriching. 4/10
Songs from the Second Floor – Roy Anderson – Part of a proposed trilogy including You, the Living (which I’ve seen, but created less of an impact on first viewing – will revisit). Takes the form of interconnected vignettes (closer to ‘windows’ or remote sketches), with each shot allowed to play out as a single long take-the camera remaining static. This cold and composition-conscious style is maintained throughout. A town of grey oppressive towers, concrete blocks and derelict space, falls prey to an unexplained eternal traffic jam; cars crawl along a road, inching with a sense of futile inevitability toward an undisclosed sense of apocalypse. A large man, his bloated shuffling form wrapped in a ash smudged coat, despairs that his business has burnt down…only to reveal it was he who burnt down the shop. His son has ‘gone nuts from writing poetry’ and is sporadically visited in the sterile corridors of an asylum. To mark the millennium a business contact decides to stock buy/sell crucifixes…only to realize the absurdity of his impractical business ambitions. A magician calls a volunteer onto the stage, the crowd looks on with amiable good will, the magician then proceeds to actually saw a man – his trick going horribly, predictably, wrong. Generic businessmen, ill fitting drab suits and perennial briefcase clutching intent, populate the grey universe of Anderson’s bizarre creation. An anti bourgeois lament of the conformist routine of economic gain, where human interaction is drained and stifled by market values, and where insomniac eyes peel, unseeing through the drudging, endless, absurdist working day. This is a theatrical, sobering and morbidly humorous blend of Kafka’s clinical existentialism and the tragicomedy of Beckett’s ‘end of the world’ conjuring. A truly eccentric, individual and surrealist (without ever needing to rely on visual effects) drama on pathos, despair, the absurd and the frightening…all in the trudging of every day towards some, never seen, never known, abyss.
The camera’s fixed positioning, which allows each scene to evolve around a static, unchanging, viewpoint, demonstrates an artful sense of depth and an intriguingly painterly composition. Imagine Edward Hopper, drained of colour (Diners for the dead) and marinated in a near biblical volume of melancholy…then twisted with a mischievous slap of bleak comedy. There is also the way in which Anderson subjects each figure to a whitening make up; all the faces are cadaverous, sweating and unnervingly chalky. Often a character will stare out to the middle-distance/camera, like a disillusioned model in a Francis Bacon portrait…just without the brush strokes of movement. Everything unfolds with the natural and yet paradoxically otherworldly movement of an interrupted still life, the postures of adopted realism, warped and shuffling out of place. The expressions of Anderson’s actors are pained, waxy, and tangibly physical masks. Each face made grotesque, each character both relatable and opaque, and each unraveling story grimly set in the fatigue of sweating, smelling, wrinkled, fat, flawed and ghoulishly human existence. 9.8/10
9 – Shane Acker – Set in a dystopian future vision, so beloved to filmmakers, in which the archaic, bleak and rusty stands alongside laser technology and newly fangled futuristic robotic oddities; a steam punk wasteland set after an apocalyptic war between man and machines. Standard. Except that this is an animation, the protagonists: small zipped fabric creatures endowed with life. Imagine Tim Burton (who produced) designing a computer game (a sort of Medal of Honour infused with fantasy friendly quests) with sock puppets - and you can imagine the film’s prevailing aesthetic. Unfortunately, for a fairly alternative animation landscape, the film is devoid of any sense of development or character. Instead it feels like a half cooked amalgamation of Lord of the Rings (Elijah Wood is the voice of the main, distinctly bland, character) with an industrialised Mordor, The Matrix with man and machine in grubby combat and various other less notable influences, stumbling around without a script. The pace is flat, the characters are archetypal and functional, and, worst of all: the screenplay, an uninspired monosyllabic void of humour, interest, insight, wit…or in fact anything that makes dialogue anymore than an obliging chore, arduously punctuating one unexciting action sequence to the next. 2/10
A Taste of Honey – Tony Richardson – An adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s play: the humorous portrayal of a working class girl who lives with a homosexual male friend, after becoming pregnant with the child of a black sailor. For 1958, arriving alongside the ‘Angry Young Men’ movement in theatre, Delaney provided her own progressive perspective on social ‘restlessness’ explored, as ever, in the industrial inauguration of kitchen sink drama: the North of England. Set in Salford, much of A Taste of Honey’s reception was dictated through brash contextual condescension. Delaney was only 19 when she wrote it, consequently most reviews focused soley on her youth, her gender-and her working class ‘authenticity’. Thus a warped identity of Delaney obscured that of the play, substituting sincere critical appraisal for veiled sexism and socially patronizing voyeurism. Moving on from its existence as a play, Delaney worked with Tony Richardson in constructing the screenplay. The film carries the black and white adherence to social realism, characteristic to much of British New Wave cinema. It interestingly has a carnival scene which, similar to the sequence in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning introduces an interlude of more stylized aesthetics. In A Taste of Honey, Jo (the female protagonist, played memorably by Rita Tushingham) enters a hall of mirrors at the fair, a brilliantly realized moment of confused self analysis. It is a sequence that, in its implied departure from the every day realism of Salford existence, offers a telling indication of the more navel gazing subtext that runs beneath its robust realism. It is a compelling and tragic narrative, a daughter perhaps socially condemned to the same cyclical entrapment that her mother has so gracelessly inhabited (the social climbing, sex exploiting and deeply unreliable mother – ‘Helen’ – is portrayed excellently by Dora Bryan), which is approached with a genuine energy, one that avoids ever succumbing to the theatrical temptations of misery. Perhaps much of the play’s strength, and similarly the film’s, lies in the tension between a resounding positive humanism (in the character of Jo) and the disillusionment with a society that weathers such positivism. Class is a condemnation to be endured, while social mobility is to be gained only through the expense of morality. 7/10
Square du Temple/ The Invention of the World / Neither Eve Nor Adam – Michel Zimbacca – A series of rarely seen short surrealist films, screened at the Star and Shadow Cinema. The first film (Square du Temple) paralleled the aristocratic history of a grand house’s tenants (specifically their love lives) with the shuffling courtship of two pigeons on a telegraph wire. After the male pigeon briefly mounts the ruffled submission of the female, we are shown a group of boys playing in a nearby park. One boy is inspecting a small rifle. Before the pigeon has a chance to finish any post-coital cigarette (that I imagined…no avian smoking is shown…unfortunately) or apologise for the brevity of his performance, we see his lifeless body drop from the trees, shot down by the boy. The camera lingers on a bloodstain left on the ground, after a passing policeman removes the feathered corpse. We see the boys gather for an unexpected photo-like a troop of underexperienced hunters posing for an akward trophy portrait.
The second film (and longest): The Invention of The World was more of a crude film essay, a montage of tribal artefacts, with a voiceover detailing the notion of some vague evolution of symbolism-or a kind of global formative mythology. This was combined with a very intriguing soundtrack of hypnotic drums and repetitive mantric sound – half way between abrasive and transcendental. The film uses the words of surrealist poet Benjamin Péret, producing some beatufully absurd and aresting lines: ‘we implore the wind blown ostrich’; ‘I, the bear’; ‘I am the crow bride, the wings open each side of my head’; ‘the moon nibbled by a rabbit in the rain’. Several phallic spearheads later, one looping climax of discordant chimes and drumming (as we watch the rotating statue of some elaborate, many limbed deity) and it’s over. Although the fetishised worship of odd and beguilling objects is well accounted for by Breton, his ideas of ‘objective chance’ and trips to the flea market ending in strange purchases brimming with latent revelation…it is still hard to dispell the suspicion of a disquiting imperial tourism, in this veneration of tribal artefacts.
The last film: Neither Eve Nor Adam (1969) was my favourite. A couple entwined in bed turn to the side of the bed and pull out a large mirror. After staring at themselves, as a conversational pre-requisite to much meditative indulgence, the woman declares she wishes to be immortal. The man gets out of bed, climbs beneath the bed and then begins to produce bones-which he piles beside the bed. In the corner of the frame we are shown the date, revealing the passing of years, in which time an entire skeleton is produced-from where, and how, is cheerfully unclear. This is all done by the man, in pursuit of immortality for his wife, so that, he explains: ‘your skeleton isn’t waiting for you’ (obviously). After this impressive effort by the man (in which the concept of ‘boning’ is re-defined), he returns to bed, whereupon the woman promptly asks him to ‘rape’ her. It’s around about here we encounter a particularly inspired phrase: ‘Ravish my dream, rape my life’. Dynomite. What follows is a brilliant and theatrical hallucination of a grave-side rape. This sounds far more brutal and morbid than the sequence actually is. It involves the artist, Jean Benoît, in a camp and highly elaborate costume-playing the ‘Necrophilliac’. He looks essentially like a large castle piece from a game of chess, with the make up of a Halloween devil. The woman from the bedroom swoons lasciviously in his arms, beside her own open grave. Meanwhile, the soundtrack machine gun fires with the non-diagetic sound of a pneumatic drill…all very penetatrive…and enteratining!
Saturday Night, Sunday Morning – Kare Reisz - Based on the novel by Alan Sillitoe, this is rightly considered a classic of British New Wave cinema. Creating the iconic ‘Arthur Seaton’ and launching the stardom of Albert Finney, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning is a comical, quotable, painful and poignant depiction of defiance, class and masculinity. In the immortal words of Mr. Seaton: ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down…’ a sentiment for all occasions. Finney’s performance manages to be effortlessly charismatic, while retaining the inherent ambivalence of a character at once roguishly charming and destructively selfish. Cinematography is a consistently superb, with a particularly stylised turn in a scene at the fair (in which carosouel dodgems – if such a thing exists – become nightmarishly emblematic of a paranoid wheel of the inevitable, spied on by two military sentinals of justice/the law/comeupance). Arthur is the archetypal ‘Angry Young Man’, an avatar of the middle class perception of working class anger and authenticity, or, more sincerely, an everyman resisting the stifling domestic expectations of ideological expectation, while weathering the grind of the working week. The final scene is heartbreaking, the character of Arthur Seaton seeming at once durably symbolic and somehow irresistably honest. A despicable, pathetic and transparent figure, that in spite of such attributes is also undeniably magnetic. The film also has a genius jazz inflected soundtrack, its reocurring motif moving from a cocky swagger to the more meloncholy pace of a hangovers and reflective doubt. 8.5/10
Keyhole – Guy Maddin –In an article in The Guardian [http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/aug/30/guy-maddin-keyhole] I encountered the pleasingly bizarre revelation that, in preparation for Keyhole, Maddin staged ‘collage parties’ to help generate script ideas: "I invited the best young up-and-coming scene-grabbing artists, in various cities. I would prime their pumps with a few words – 'electric chair', things like that – and supplied a stack of old melodrama magazines, a stack of porn, and a few kegs of bourbon. We embarked on a very peaceful and therapeutic and yet disruptive process of snipping paper into blizzards of nipples." As far as cinematic foreplay goes, a surrealist ‘blizzard of nipples’ - snipped so judiciously in flurries of glossy flange and snowing scraps of forgotten…well, I could get carried away with the imagery (delving unecessaryily into scatalogical digressions and misguided anlogy). Anyway, once the phrase ‘blizzards of nipples’ has been given time to comprehensively settle, this unorthadox practice makes a lot of sense. I would go into further detail, but I plan to burrow excitably into this particular direction for a different project of research-and so shall restrain from mapping many a tangled association…another time, another time…
The film, taking place in a haunted house, begins as a pastiche of gangster noir wih the house surrounded by cops and their streaming flashlights…and then slowly twists into a more ghostly and bewildering meditation on the space of memory. Near the beginning of the film one of the gangsters orders ‘everyone who’s dead to face the wall’ (or words close to that) to discern between the living and dead. Not dissimiliar to children reluctantly conceding defeat in an imaginary game, the ‘ghosts’ confess to their spectral nature and slope out of the house. It is a brilliantly simple and humourous moment, in which both genre expectations and existentialist musings are shrugged off in the joy of a well-timed joke. Maddin consistently punctuates the dense, busy and haunting film with absurdist humour. The dead are just as eccentric as the living; a spectral acquaintance wanders corridors slurping from a glass of milk, the sprinting nude formless form of a woman dragged by a careering poltergeist poodle; an old man, the ghostly patriarch, kneels to fellate a cock-that just happens to be perpetually poked in eternal erection through a dusty wall…the ghost of an old man fellating a disembodied cock…yup, it’s fair to say that Maddin has excercised a gleefuly liberal imagination with commendable talent!
Following the tale of Ulysses, the film takes the hazy shape of a father’s journey. Ulysses makes his labarynth-like pilgrimage through the old house, a repetitive, uncanny and odd enactment of visiting and revisiting the past. The various rooms of the house hold memories, vividly imagined as naked, demented, debauched and disturbed ghosts, all wandering in restless tribute to lives left unresolved…or simply animated by the curiousity of reflection. Who is living and who is dead, what is real and imagined, occupying the present or presented in remembering, all become spirallingly confused in the film’s flexible subversion of the early comedic distinction. At the start of the journey ghosts were told to put their hands up and admit their ghostliness, by the end of the film the mesmeric circulation of memory haunts the living with the dead and vica versa, until such a distinction seems immaterial.
An unreal communion with family members manages to lend the film both an intimate tone of introspection (as Maddin has often cited seeing his father in his dreams-and the influence this holds on his approach to memory) and a more expansive, ambitious and textural essay on the past within the present.
The psychology of architecture, repressed rooms and imagined passageways all become churned up in an oneiric rhythm, one that becomes wholly immersive. From the beautifully theatrical opening, an octagenarian man (wearing noubt but Y-fronts-looking unnervingly like the escaped flesh embodyment of a Lucien Freud painting) plodding a lace curtain across a mysterious stage, to the final thunder crash and whisper of melodrama, the film maintains a compelling momentm. Significantly memory, like dream, reacts to and communicates the unknown depths of the unconscious, and so the film is populated by eroticised flesh, sex, hysteria, sadness, pain and the inexplicably unexpected. Tuned constantly between two stations, Keyhole soaks its haunted noir palette in Maddin’s own beguiling, home- brewed static. A shifting portrait that begs repeated viewings! 9/10
Skyfall – Sam Mendes – The 50th anniversary Bond film is a fascinating beast. Retaining the more human development of the last two films, through an exploration of Bond’s age, Skyfall introduces a streak of previously absent humour. At first, my initial reaction was apprehension – the ‘could Bond have its cake and eat it’ scenario – balancing the more mature gravitas of psychology and ‘grit’ (heralding comparisons to Nolan’s re-invention of Batman) with the pantomime punning of old…could this hybrid exist? This question, of whether or not Bond can, or even should, exist, provides the film’s momentum and its intriguingly insistent gesture towards analogous meanings. During the opening sequence Bond is shot, we then discover he has been subsequently residing on a tropical Island, playing scorpion-based drinking games and indulging in vigorous beach hut sex (a must for any wounded and existentialy challenged ex-spy in search of resurrection). This is a weathered, older Bond. Daniel Craig’s unshaven, granite hewn facial features and red-rimmed eyes, present a man who may have lost his ability or capacity to perform in the field. Thus, what follows is a sort of resurrection-a need to prove that an old dog can be taught new tricks.
In a playful inversion of the traditional charcterisation, ‘Q’ is presented as a young, boyish, cardigan-wearing, geek-chic, laptop prodigy. Gone is the white haired mad scientist eccentricity, Ben Whishaw inaugurates the film’s acknowledgement of a post-Apple generation. When Bond is first introduced to this newly imagined Q, both are sat in the national gallery, looking at Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire’. Q offers the observation of the painting’s poignancy: the old ship, once majestic, towed away as scrap (a less than subtle metaphor for the ageing Bond). To which Bond replies, all he sees is ‘a bloody big ship’. The question of Bond’s validity extends beyond the immediate narrative, bringing up the question of why we need, or would want the Bond films now? Why, when Ian Flemming’s charcter was founded on the casual veneration of misogony, the concerted celebration of imperialism and a worshiping abandon to all things indicative of phallic prowess, why would filmmakers and audiences consistently support such ideologically regressive material? This is the question that, rightfully and competently, Mendes seems to engage with.
Diluting the seriousness with more humour, and various references to older Bond films (thus furthering the reflexive nature of Skyfall’s nature) feels as though, through the cleansing reinvention of Casino Royale and Quantam of Solace, the Bond franchise had earnt its return to comedic roots. The bold departure had been the cinematic equivalent of a confession, that the legacy of Bond was obviously problematic, it could not have continued in the same way. No more could un-ironic hammy puns signify the smug superiority of imperialism, no more could the continual pageant of ‘bond girls’ be marched – bikini-clad- out of the rolling surf, and no longer could espionage be portrayed as a gloating form of suave sex tourism, with occasional gunfire between shags. Since Daniel Craig, the films have exchanged the objectified female for the objectified male (Craig’s torso and blue speedoes replacing pussy Galore and pals), extended gunfire and the dismissive slaughter of henchmen was exchanged for more visceral scenes of grappling and uncomfortable violence, and Bond’s libidinous conquests were superceded by crying in a shower, vulnerability and a more psychologicaly nuanced portrayal. Having experienced this evolution, much needed after the bearded Brosnan/ice/madonna travesty of Die Another Day, Mendes is able to return to the more playfully comedic elements, safe in the knowledge that the previous two films had made clear the anachronistic absurdity and offensive reality of much that is Bond.
As a result Skyfall has some genuine moments of comedy, able to exist because never complicit or ambiguosly jeapordised by questionable connotations. This is a film that embraces the dated nature of Bond, incorporating it to the extent of a plot device. Britain and empire become reocurring motifs, with much of the action in London’s antiquated underground system. Javier Bardem brings the tradition of extravagantly camp villian back with relish and memorable, show-stealing, ability. His theatrically aryian follicles mischevously subverts the actor’s Spanish identity and creates a genuinely entertaining villian, redolent of the sort of sinister creation that would appear in League of Gentleman. Another exciting touch is the inclusion of Albert Finney, made all the more special by his ‘delicate’ reference to Daniel Craig as ‘a jumped-up little shit’. The cameo of Albert Finney (fresh from me watching Saturday Night, Sunday Morning ) resonated effectively with the film’s meditation on age and the alpha male – also on the notion of a filmic ‘old guard’ meeting the new generation – Finney’s shotgun wielding charcter also enjoys a cinematically appropriate chemistry with the, simarlaly prestigious (‘British Institution’) acting stardom of Judi Dench. A Bond film that simulatenously interrogates and celebrates the Bond legacy, and in doing so, creates an enjoyably triumphant justification for why: James Bond will return. 8.5/10