A Royal Affair – Nicolaj Arcel – A well acted, powerful and poignant drama. This historical drama is set in the court of King Christian VII of Denmark (18th C) and explores the adulterous affair that the queen pursues with the royal physician. All of the three main leads are strongly performed, Mads Mikkelson effortlessly exhudes his own, at times unsettling, intensity and charisma. Mikkel Følsgaard, as Christian, portrays the king’s mental instability with an exciting amalgam of adolescent vulnerability (at time redolent of Tom Hulce’s portrayal of Mozart, in the epic Amadeus) and a debauched libertine defiance, one that becomes increasingly reckless and inappropriate, given the expectations of royalty. As the royal physician begins to realise his power with the king, the potential to wield genuine influence encourages a risky pursuit of liberating (previously censored and repressed) renaissance ideals. Exploring the evolution of culture, held back, warped and distracted by structures of power in the tension between between humanist aspirations and the decisions of a governing body, seems particularly relevant in recent times of econmic crisis. Here, the film hinges upon Christian’s court freeing itself from a beurocracy of tradition, in order to culturally advance with renaissance values. Right now, with wide spread cuts to the humanities, closing down libraries and denying the wider public access to cultural experiences we are arguably allowing the collapse of economic capital to justify the disentegration of our own cultural capital. In A Royal Affair, infidelity and illicit regal sex aside, we witness a man and woman fight for the importance of free speech, artistic innovation and the support of cultural ambition. And yes, it may seeem like tenuous soapbox indulgence, but right now, with increasingly damaging and widespread cuts to education, support and facilitation of ‘the arts’; Britain is allowing a short term levelling of financial problems to eclipse the more long-term injury to this nation’s cultural health...In light of which, a film like A Royal Affair can become a deceptively contemporary meditation. But then I belong to a generation (he said, misrepresenting millions with a brush of incrminating presumption) that have been stagnating in political apathy for a long time, settled in a coma deepened by the coalition, and only ever gently awoken by satirical comedy or a decent film. 7.5/10
Seeking a friend for the end of the world – An interesting one…Keira Knightly and Steve Carrell in a ‘sort-of’ offbeat, ‘sort-of’ comedy about the end of the world. In cheap conclusion… it’s ‘sort of’ interesting. Peter Bradshaw observed that Carrel, with his middle-aged sensible jumpers and disconnected awkwardness, has the unintentional (?) aura of a creepy serial killer. Similar to the unnerving energy of Adam Sandler (perfectly realised by P.T. Anderson, in Punch Drunk Love), Carrel does have a cold and unreadable dimension to his acting, reminiscent of his meloncholy turn in Little Miss Sunshine. The film is at its best and most enjoyable when exploring the widespread panic and unravvelling of suburban American lives. With straight faced black humour we are shown a painfully revealing dinner party, in which marriages wrench themselves apart to reimagine some kind of romanticised pre marital sexual liberty. In the knowledge of the world’s imminent end, suddenly the conventions, structures and rituals of middle class American existence are revealed as absurd, empty and unfullfilling. It is here that the film should have stayed, revelling in the anxiety riddled bachanalia of renouncing normality, escaping the mundane and realising the daily routine for its stifling reality – it takes the end of the world to wake up and smell mortality…and this, this could have been interesting. Meanwhile Carrel is resolutely dull and Keira is kooky, consequently making the end of the world seem an inviting prospect. 5.8/10
Berbarian Sound Studio- A film I was really excited about seeing…then inevitably missed at the cinema. God bless Tyneside for a cheeky, one off, second screening. Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a sound artist/engineer for films. He is invited to provide the soundtrack for a bizarre Italian horror (entitled Equestrian Vortex, reminiscent of the mad and extravagant gore of Lucio Fulci…and yes, I have not yet seen any of these…nor Argento…need to track some down and catch up!) and unsurprisingly it soon turns out to be a somewhat unsettling experience. The first half of the film enjoys the subtle and dark humour of deconstructing a horror soundscape: plentiful stabbed cabbages and closely microphoned frying oil etc. The cinematography is impressively delicate; capturing the reoccuring image of a spindly spider, making its hair legged way across a landscape of the minute. Atmosphere is also brilliantly concucted, joining the accreuing nightmare of sound with an ambient pallete of intimate lighting and shadows. The second half of the film explores the disintegration of sanity, as Gilderoy seemingly loses the ability to distinguish between what is filmed and what is lived, and we, the audience, try to decipher whether what has happened is psychological or actual. Navigating such territory obviously ends up evoking Lynch (Laura Dern facing the image of herself in the cinema-INLAND EMPIRE, the repeated mantra of ‘Silencio’ from Mullholland Dr. – seen here in the flashing of the studio’s sign, even a proliferation of Lynchian red lamps). It’s hard, as a result, not to be reminded of how Lynch’s films are in comparison far more immersive, compelling and genuinely unsettling. As this is the director’s second film this is perhaps an unfair comparison to draw, and it was interesting, it’s just I think I wanted more. There was a turning point in the film, in which Gilderoy’s ability (and ours) to securely discern cinema and reality is lost, and it can’t be denied – this is done with an exciting and innovative audio and visual flare. I wanted the rest of the film to be as simarlaly bold-and it wasn’t. It may be needlessly harsh (for a film that was both artistically and conceptually relatively adventurous), but it eneded up feeling like an advert for a better film, the tantalizing glimpse of something bizarre and exciting-not fully realised. I wanted it to be stranger…but then, this is probably my fault and not the film. I have never been a great coniseur of restraint. 7/10
Drag me to Hell- Sam Raimi – Resurrecting the goofy horror of The Evil Dead films, Mr Raimi proves with gleeful abandon he is still partial to a joyously dumb, tongue in cheek, slapstick horror/comedy. Christine Brown is a (naturally very attractive) bank assistant/insurance sales [insert generic bland job title] person who refuses to extend a customer’s loan, thus forcing them out of a house. Except that this particular customer is a spiteful gypsy with a demon-raising curse, just waiting to be brandished. Raimi wastes no time with character details, there are none, and the plot excitably hurtles into a pantomime of fortunetellers, poltergeist rattling, pitch shifting vocal warping (so integral to any and all evil spirits), a sacrificial kitten, a satanic goat, tidal nosebleeds and Justin Long playing her hapless boyfriend – trailing around like an adolescent Keanu reeves, with his uncomplicated heart resolutely in the right place. All the tropes of ridiculously hammy horror are tickled, from deadpan bad acting, to preposterously unimaginative motifs of unspecific devilry. But then Raimi is not looking to create subtle atmosphere, unnerving tension or a genuinely disturbing vision – this is the man of Bruce Campbell, tree rape and a fondness for using stop motion animation, in the depiction of swiftly decaying zombies…in short, he couldn’t give a flying gypsy corpse whether any of the plot, acting or effects really hold up – it’s about the unabashed enjoyment of unthinking, unchallenging and ultimately unthreatening horror/comedy adventures. So, if you fancy dusting off an old book in the cellar, discovering dark incantations, finding an eternally doomed trinket (be it button, creepy necklace or a reappearing sinister housefly), while the predictable misadventures of a young couple stumble amidst jets of blood, ambiguous bodily gunk, screaming, rustling leaves and the essential deep chants of off-screen monks…then this, this will be fun. But ‘fun’ is definitely the artistic ceiling here. 6/10
The Return- Andrey Zvyagintsev- Two young boys are re-introduced to their estranged father, he returns without explanation and takes them on a long and arduous car journey – its purpose undisclosed. The father, shrouded in a brooding silence that suggests latent violence, weathered russian stoicism (of the stereotypical, greying, gritty, working man…distant, cold and capable of shouldering large logs) and possibly some criminal secret. The road trip gradually turns into a ritualistic test of masculinity, the father challenging his sons to step up and prove their endurance and physicality. Warm fuzzy father-son bonding, this aint! The sparse and unyielding wilderness reflects the father’s emotional severity, a sternly punishing spectrum: harsh and empty. The child actors are terrific, each boy portrays the nuanced confusion and difficulty of the situation with their characters remaining equally compelling as events spiral and the drama darkens. The film has the haunting poetry of a minimal and bleak parable – the meaning of which is not immediate or clear, but lingers after viewing. 7.8/10
Pride and Predjudice (1940 version) – Robert Z. Leonard – Starring Laurence Olivier and with a screenplay written by Aldous Huxley, by all accounts this is most probably a classic. The film varies from the source material in several ways, both in narrative and costume. I found it irritating and dull, all elaborate costumes, unfunny social dithering and over theatrical charcter depictions. With more time, better critical knowledge and an interest I was severly lacking Im sure this is (in whatever way…) a classic of some sorts….I mean, it does have 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Not my cuppa. 4/10
Faust – Alexander Sokurov – The camera swoops down from a high altitude, through wisps of cloud, down over the wrinkled teeth of mountains, down further into the grouped roofs of a small town, down further, finally arriving through old barn doors into a grimly dank space. Chained to a large vertical slab is a corpse, the camera finally finishes its epic introductory zoom, to settle in clinical scrutiny upon the cadaver’s limp penis. As opening sequences go, it’s admirably mad and unexpected.
We begin this unorthdox adaptation of the Faust legend, in a makeshift morgue: Faust closely inspecting a corpse, the light dim and natural, sawdust scattered on the damp floor, dishevelled costumes and architecture - suggesting anything from (as Peter Bradshaw suggests) the 16th Century of Marlowe’s Faustus…or, as Wikipidea assuredly asserts, the 19th Century. Clarity is not a prioritised mode, and, unsurprisingly (given Sokurov’s audacity of innovation – Russian Ark) the film looks very distinctive. The image occassionaly warps, as if stretching and contorting the ratio, not dissimiliar from the reflections in fairground mirrors. Conversations meander as Faust and an impishly deformed incarnation of Mephastophiles wander through cramped attic spaces, dirt addled impoversished alleys and mountainous landscapes. Colours are parched and faded, perpective is constantly changed and confused, meanwhile any sense of purpose or narrative-structure is evasively stumbled into claustrophobic corners, or lost in peripheral confusion. All of which makes for a peripetetic and disorientating journey.
The film navigates between an exhausting and slow sense of directionless boredom and moments of incisive epiphany. Suddenly conversation trails away, as if in correspondance to your lapsing attention, and then, with a dream like fixation, the camera hovers on a face – its expression/eyes/mouth/features – and suddenly you are transported to a different plain of attention. It feels as though, quite without warning, everything hinges upon this moment, this passing glance or incidental expression. In these lingering, most often silent shots, the visuals become mesmeric. Facial expressions are imbued with ineffable significance, which, in contrast to the ambling oddity of Faust’s surrounding wanderings, become islands of startling and unsettling power. It is a truly odd, singular and beguiling beast; without its monotony, perplexing pace and visuals, it wouldn’t be capable of providing such arresting (though often fleeting) beauty. A complex film that I definitely need to see again at some point. In conclusion: Sukorov… you cryptic enigma, you nomadic Russian seer, you purveyor of human truth…obtained, blurred and illuminated via the darkly scenic and indirect path. 8/10
Archangel – Guy Maddin – Set in 1919, in the port of Archangel, Russia. News of the war’s end has not yet reached this community and so, oblivious to historical change, the distinct Maddin imagining of war rages on, with gleefully cracked melodrama. A grainy black and white recreates a 1920s silent era aesthetic. White rabbits tumble into a trench, soldiers are strangled by entrails, and recognizable themes that characterize Maddin’s other films emerge: masculinity, absurdity, memory, a father figure, melodramatic love…all rendered and explored with a host of intriguingly odd touches. 7.5/10
Sunset Boulevard- Billy Wilder – From its opening, in which our wise cracking, smooth talking narrator is face down in a swimming pool…to its unforgettable last sequence, with Gloria Swanson descending down an elaborate staircase and into the huddled cameras of journalists and waiting police…this is an enthralling slab of darkly comic entertainment! But then, the status of Sunset Boulevard, as a long established classic, hardly needs to be argued. Its tone falls playfully between the psychology and shadow-strewn pallette of film noir, and the less predictable strain of absurd humour. All of which is twisted with a theatrical air of gothic melodrama... primarily driven by the unforgettable and skellatol drama of Norma Desmond. Faded glamour, Hollywood, memory, a dead chimp, artifice, love, madness and, of course, death – all spun together with a witty and self consciously filmic attitude. A cautionary tale of stardom’s demise and the damaging delusion of fame, coiled between humour and hysteria. Billy Wilder’s vision, supported by a hypnotic and unsettling performance by Gloria Swanson, makes for a deliciously warped memento mori of cinema: its power, the worship it inspires and the ghosts it creates. 9/10
Matador – Pedro Almodovar – A lurid, sensual and enjoyably ludicrous melodrama. The narrative has the heavy-handed feel of a warped morality play, in which conventional morality is gleefully substituted with a decadent appetite for transgression. The film follows the fate of Diego (Nacho Martínez), a famous matador who retired after a violent goring. We are first introduced to him, slumped in an armchair, eyes glazed, lips curled in concentration, watching various scenes of elaborate torture: we see the cheap ‘video nasty’ footage of blonde women decapitated, hung up, stabbed, attacked etc etc. Meanwhile, the heavy breathing matador, shown sliding down the armchair is feverishly masturbating. And thus, with its graciously subtle introduction, Almodovar’s exploration of death, via sex begins. In parallel to this opening sequence we are introduced to the matador’s female counterpoint, María Cardenal, a female lawyer (Assumpta Serna) who comes to defend one of Diego’s students (played by a young Antonio Banderas). It soon becomes clear that María has not only idol worshipped Diego, having avidly followed his bullfighting fame, but also shares his morbid sexuality. The first time we are introduced to María, after the delicate portrayal of Diego’s necro-wank antics, is a deadly sex scene. After mounting some unfortunate victim, she pulls a pointed metal hatpin from her hair and plunges it between his shoulders and below the neck – in imitation of the matador’s killing of the bull. Then, like some crazed praying mantis (the female decapitates the male in copulation…imagine Attenborough narrating that!), she straddles his newly dead body, still writhing in shudders of murderous ecstasy.
So, it is not exactly a restrained or nuanced drama…it is willfully theatrical, abstract and governed by thematic curiosities as opposed to character naturalism. Underpinning the inherently dark subject matter there is a bizarre sense of comedy. It is not as simple as a ‘blackly comic’ vein, but closer to an absurd enjoyment, one which derides its energy from the unabashed and enthusiastic, almost naïve, abandon with which Almodovar pursues his subject matter. 7/10
A History of Violence – David Cronenberg – [SPOILERS] I feel pretty mixed about this film, quite likely because I have already seen it a long time ago-in a context not conducive to absorbed immersion (drinking and talking was a distracting happily eclipsed concentration). Therefore, perhaps said unsatisfactory inaugural viewing has somewhat detracted from the story’s impact. Viggo Mortensen plays a seemingly regular ‘family man’, Tom Stall,in quiet America. The apparent normality of his existence is disrupted by the appearance of two criminals who attempt to hold up the diner he works at. Without warning ol’ Tom Stall (‘regular joe’/ ‘honest servin’ American’) whips out the unexpected violent capabilities of a professional hitman, swiftly dispatching with the criminal threat and becoming a local hero. Which, as the plot inevitably thickens, prompts the threatening memories of a hidden past to unravel the identity of Tom Stall. Viggo Mortensen is undeniably strong, as he usually is in central performances. Michelle Williams, who plays his wife, also delivers a convincing and palpably harrowing turn.
The problem I think I had with the film were perhaps also hallmarks of its mastery, and, due to my lack of patience – with a story I half remembered – were duly overlooked in their potential intelligence. I felt Howard Shore’s soundtrack to be intrusively sentimental, overbearing a film which was perhaps better suited to letting nuanced performances breathe.
However, having said that-I feel that so much of the film could be understood as a deconstruction of a lot of ‘Americana’ and family ideals. We have the troubled son at college, locker room bullying from jocks and the visceral paroxysm of violence with which the bullied finally snaps. Different levels and understandings of violence bristle alongside each other: the criminals with which the film begins nearly collide in a road accident with the arrogant jocks-who soon realizing, on giving the middle finger in adolescent rebellion, that they are faced with a different league of alpha male. The two criminals in the red truck stare with unmoved hostility at the pathetic ‘middle finger salute’, wordlessly reducing the charade to embarrassing infantilism – they drive off. These criminals then meet with Tom (or Joey, with a criminal history from Philadelphia…as is soon revealed), who greets their attempted hold up at the diner with stoic professionalism and an unflinchingly athletic commitment to, well, killing.
In many ways much of the intrusive soundtrack and heavy handed establishing of relationships (one particular scene, in which Michelle Williams slips into a cheeky cheerleading outfit to treat her husband to the teenage fantasy they never shared) is probably developing the obvious sense of artifice at the heart of Tom’s role. This ‘family’ construct is lifted from a bad film, the fantasy is a recycled pornographic cliché and the son’s high school anguish is a parody of every American teen drama that features bullies pushing nerds up against lockers. A friend of mine (who knows the film a tad better) also suggested the importance of subverting tropes of noir.
Perhaps one of the strongest dramatic sequences is when we witness Tom and his wife (Edie Stall), in powerful contrast to the earlier ‘dress up’ sex, grapple on the staircase. In a moment in which Edie realizes her complicit vulnerability/criminal culpability with Tom, and, as her knowledge of him is nightmarishly wrenched from trust and familiarity: they have uncomfortably physical sex. Is this Edie enacting a deeply entrenched American fantasy? Her husband now mystified as the cinematic outcast, the gun-toting enigma – an outlaw, a ‘wanted man’…a dangerous man, a killer. Does this sequence confront and dispel that mythical desire with a bruising reality? Or, now both characters have been exposed and the illusion of ‘knowing each other’ no longer exists is this sex the painful realization, the clashing of real and estranged bodies? Or is it more simply a quick escape for both of them – another kind of violence – the obliteration of the orgasm? I feel there is probably a lot more to be found /appreciated in this film-that, for whatever reason was not drawing me in. Perhaps next time, I shall return, less encumbered by the shadow of ‘not really watching/liking it’ the first time round and encouraged by my intrigued ambivalence of the second viewing …who knows. 7/10
Great Expectations – Mike Newell – Handles the expansive narrative pretty effectively, only occasionaly evoking a classy BBC drama, and enjoys a cast of impressive names: Ralph Fienes, Helena Bonham Carter, Robby Coltrane and an unexpected David Walliams. Jason Flemyng stands out with a particularly natural and convincing performance as Joe Gargery. In a manner perhaps less faithful to the original tone, in which she is a disturbed upper class lady (and not the fully fledged gothic figure of poignancy now often conjured), I wanted Miss Havisham to be more memorable. Mark Kermode rightfully praised Helena Bonham Carter’s restraint here, bringing her portrait of Havisham closer to Dickens’ depiction, and yet, and yet…I couldn’t help wanting a flash of melodrama, or at least a bit more charcter in the cinematography. Instead of dim lighting and the occasional blurring around the edges of a shot (very in vogue for a lot of TV series aspiring to arthouse credentials…Misfits comes to mind…as if blurring the periphary of every shot somehow renders it more interesting, more mysterious, more achingly artistic…) it would have been more satisfying to have witnessed more thought in set design, more lingering on details, more adventurous use of sound…granted, I can see the merit in Carter’s controlled performance, but when twinned with unadventurous direction and visuals,it can help but feel like an oppurtunity missed. On the whole, fine acting and perfectly enjoyable…just not world changing. Then again, I feel for Dickens to really work cinematically, his inherently serial narrative structure would have to be radically re-imagined. 6.8/10
The Hobbit – Peter Jackson - I did not see this in 3D, or HFR…fortunately, as that would engender an entirely different discussion. It is pretty long and, unless you are a keenly enthusiastic Tolkein enthusiast of unbounding enthusiasm – you will probably notice the length. That said, it was enjoyable, exciting and very entertaining. I am a massive fan of Lord of the Rings, in all its ‘da, da, daa, da,da,daa,da,da,daaa!’, glory. While I cannot necessarily imagine the three part structure being a masterstroke for the adaptation of a book, similar in length to one of the LOTR books – it was still very enjoyable. The faults it has are, for the most part, the same problems I have with the book (its more whimsical tone, the abundance of dwarfs and their exhaustive family backgrounds etc etc). So, disregarding the potentially patience testing expansion into three films, and the unrelenting sense of chase-after-chase-after-action-after- chase (as Gandalf wryly comments ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’) it is a success. No one depicts monsters, be they orcs or goblins, like Peter Jackson. The Goblins in the mountains…are brilliantly realised – like smaller, amphibious, diseased orcs. The leader of the goblins is an amazing visual creation, looking like a morbidly obese toad, in possession of a tumescent double chin, - wobbling his flesh like a scrotal landslide. Then there is the glorios reappearance/introduction to a certain pallid, ‘precious’ stroking smeagol – the Gollum sequence (the riddles scene) is stunning. It is a sequence that interestingly, along with the goblins, demonstrates an advance in CGI artistry. In addition to which Martin Freeman makes a very competent Bilbo, using his comic timing and everyman charms to perfectly embody the reluctant and uprooted Baggins. It is not in the same cinematic league as Lord of The Rings, being more akin to ‘balls out fantasy’ – ‘here come the dwarfs with funny facial hair’ – ‘Dungeons and Dragons orgy’- sort of a genre. What shines through is Peter Jackson’s love of Tolkein’s world and his commitment to the source material, which whether dwarfs are your thing or not, should not be forgotten in conjuring the film’s genuine passion and enjoyment. 8/10