Thirtyframesasecond

April 30, 2009

To Get To Heaven First You Have To Die (2006)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 2:13 pm
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Russia/France/Tajikistan/Germany/Switzerland

Director: Jamshed Usmonov

95 min

Synopsis

Tajikistan, the present day. Kamal, twenty years old, completely undresses in front of a doctor. He married his childhood sweetheart three months ago, but has been unable to consummate the marriage. Kamal sees on a woman on a train and is immediately intrigued. She meets her husband and child at the station. He sees another woman on a bus, Vera. Their hands accidentally brush, but he moves his hand to touch hers. Kamal follows her at a safe distance to where she works.

 

Kamal visits his cousin, Said, who is married but unfaithful. Said hires prostitutes for them both, but Kamal is unable to make love. He waits for a long time at the bus stop he saw Vera alight; finally she arrives. Vera takes Kamal home and they sleep together. The next morning, Vera’s husband is waiting. A small time criminal, he forces Kamal to work with him. Vera left her husband after their child died. She wants nothing to do with him. He still wants her back. Vera’s husband and Kamal burgle a wealthy house but are interrupted by the owners. Vera’s husband kills the man and rapes the woman. Kamal shoots Vera’s husband dead. He returns to Vera and they make love. Kamal then leaves, presumably to return home.

 

Review

 

Almost certainly the sole Tajik director to have attracted any attention in the West, Jamshed Usmonov’s ‘To Get To Heaven First You Have To Die’ is a mysterious, disturbing thriller than has been compared to Kieslowski’s ‘A Short Film About Love’ and is certainly more sinister than the director’s previous pair of comedy-dramas ‘Flight of the Bee’ (1998) and ‘Angel On My Right’ (2002).

 

Its pre-titles sequence feels like black comedy of the most embarrassing kind; a young man slowly undresses until fully naked whilst being examined by a doctor before they both discuss the young man’s impotence, which has prevented him consummating his recent marriage. No doubt it’s Kamal’s sexual problems that makes his following behaviour seem harmless. Whilst he might follow a number of women around, we’re aware that nothing dangerous can come of it. One woman mentions “you’re too young, you’re too strange” to thwart his advances; another takes advantage of his offer of assistance – she asks him to carry her groceries up several flights of stairs, when finally, her husband gives him a gruff send-off. We’re never sure why Kamal acts this way. Is he searching for the perfect woman who can rid him of his affliction? It’s just one of many questions the audience might pose during the film that seldom gets answered.

 

At this stage, Usmonov’s film watches like a Central Asian equivalent of a Todd Solondz film, complete with concentrated teasing about his impotence from his unfaithful, sexually voracious cousin, Said (who tells the prostitute who Kamal was unable to make love to, that he still wants something in return) yet he pulls the rug out from underneath our feet by completely changing the path the film has taken thus far. When Kamal awakes in Vera’s bed, it’s left open-ended about what might have taken place, although Kamal himself clarifies later. The arrival of Vera’s husband into the picture transforms the tone of the film completely, entering much darker territory.

 

Blackmailed into assisting Vera’s husband with his life of petty crime by reiterating over and over that he wanted to kill him as he saw him asleep with his wife; a threat that he know wouldn’t be idle, Kamal finally learns what it is to become a man, although whether this journey is convincing or just another example of art-house machismo is left open to interpretation. Kamal reveals his impotence to Vera’s husband, as a means of informing him that he never committed adultery with his wife, which makes the behaviour of Vera’s husband, both physically and sexually violent, all that much more of an eye-opener for Kamal, as if Vera’s husband is demonstrating that this is how a real man acts (he goads the husband he kills for not being a ‘real man’).

 

Kamal’s catharsis, by killing Vera’s husband and then making love to her, has shades of the Oedipal myth about it but seems an ultimately morally dubious means of finally shedding his impotence. We understand that Vera’s husband himself was a deeply objectionable individual, with the rape of the helpless wife the final straw, but it his murder any kind of justice? Or is Usmonov making a profoundly pessimistic statement about the inherently violent nature of man? For Kamal to become a man, must he become like Vera’s husband or Said? Usmonov leaves the film unresolved and open to interpretation. There’s to be no happy ending between Kamal and Vera. Perhaps she was just a means for him to reach maturity. It could have been any of the women he was intrigued by and followed – it just so happened that Vera led him on the most liberating journey of all. We’re to assume to Kamal is about to return home to his wife, whom he never see but her presence is both constant and vital. Will this experience encourage him to live a ‘normal’ life with her? There’s no simple answers in a film that promotes uncertainty at every moment.

 

For a low-budget film cast with unknowns and relatives, and using a sparse, semi-improvised script, there’s no doubting that Usmonov has impressed with the resources available to him. The work of the experienced French cinematographer and editor who both worked on Usmonov’s previous features is impressive and the director himself captures a cool, clinical aesthetic that Tarkovsky, Bresson and Ceylan have all made their trademark. That said, ‘To Get To Heaven First You Have To Die’ works well when it explores the aimless, rootless existence of the young Kamal as he seeks to explore the problems of his impotence, nicely injected, whether deliberately or not, with touches of humour, but as the tone shifts into thriller mode, it persuades us less. Certainly an imperfect film, though it’s degree of ambition shouldn’t be overlooked.

April 23, 2009

Day for Night (1973)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 10:37 pm
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France/Italy

Director: Francois Truffaut

115 min

Synopsis

Nice, the 1970s. A street scene. A man slaps his father. The director calls ‘cut’. A series of vignettes about the filming of ‘Meet Pamela’, a melodrama about a young man who brings his new bride home to visit his parents, then the bride falls in love with her father in law. The first scene is repeatedly shot. Cars are asked to be repainted. Ferrand, the director, is asked a series of trivial questions by his crew, which he becomes bored of answering. He attempts to watch the first day’s rushes, yet a power failure at the lab has resulted in them being destroyed. The opening scene needs to be re-shot with 150 extras.

Séverine, an aging actress, now insecure and dependent on alcohol repeatedly fluffs her lines during a key scene. The film’s insurers are nervous because Julie Baker, the British leading lady, is recovering from a nervous breakdown and there will be no film without her. Another key actress is discovered to be pregnant and her cast-iron contract prevents her being fired. Julie finally arrives to a flurry of press interest about her recent marriage to her doctor, a much older man. Leading man, Alphonse, is having an affair with a script girl that makes him behave erratically. Pamela’s death is shot with an English stuntman, with whom the script girl runs off to London. Alphonse threatens to leave the set but is persuaded to stay by Julie, who sleeps with him. Alexandre, who plays Alphonse’s father, dies in a car accident, which means his role is scaled down. Eventually, the shoot is completed.

Review

“What is a film director?”

“Someone who is asked questions all the time and about everything. He even knows some of the answers”

After the staggering success of ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’ and ‘Jules et Jim’, Truffaut entered a creatively lean period, preoccupied by the Antoine Doinel cycle and numerous underwhelming thrillers inspired both by Hitchcock and film noir (‘The Mississippi Mermaid’, ‘The Bride Wore Black’). ‘Day for Night’ was a temporary renaissance for the director whose career seems to have unfairly overshadowed some of his less well-respected peers, possibly because his brand of cinema is more accessible than the likes of Malle and Resnais, though his first few films aside, it’s certainly no more original. For the esteemed critic and cinephile, what else could inspire Truffaut more than cinema itself, which had rescued the director from a life of juvenile delinquency? When Ferrand, not just Truffaut’s alter-ego but also performed by him, has dreams about breaking into a cinema as a child to steal promotional photographs of ‘Citizen Kane’, we know this was a genuine incident from his past. This single scene from Truffaut’s entire body of work summarises not only his love of cinema, but the power of cinema.

What is ‘Day for Night’ if not a love-letter to cinema? Not necessarily the cinema of the quality of Truffaut’s inspirations, which are unsubtly revealed when Ferrand browses through books on Bunuel, Dreyer, Hitchcock, Rossellini et al, but cinema in its entirety, in all guises. There’s no pretence that ‘Meet Pamela’ is even an especially impressive film. We’re to believe that it’s a trite and clichéd melodrama, but it’s the enthusiasm of the director and crew that we’re supposed to admire. As the film’s coda asks, “we hope everyone enjoys watching the film as we did making it”. ‘Meet Pamela’ represents cinema of a bygone era that is rapidly dying out because of Truffaut himself and his contemporaries.

The nostalgic voiceover continues that films are now shot in the streets without scenarios. There are to be no more films like ‘Meet Pamela’, studio-based with elaborate sets, employing all sorts of cinematic techniques, usually unknown to the audience, but are laid bare by Truffaut, not to expose the blatant artificiality of cinema but to demonstrate the great complexity of film-making. The film’s title refers to the process by which scenes shot during day are made to appear as if occurring at night. Other tricks of the trade that become apparent are electric candles, soap suds representing snow and artificial rain.

We watch films that are decades old and can spot errors a mile off; notably during any driving scenes, but what we don’t appreciate is the detail that went into attempting to replicate such scenes. Technology is all too readily available to make films appear more realistic, but films like ‘Meet Pamela’ are examples of how film-makers had to get around such technical issues. Even though Truffaut himself would have dismissed a film such as this (which would have been ironic given his own lapses into melodrama and sentimentality), there’s no doubt he displays a real fondness for those involved in the film-making business, those who love cinema, even if their own talents don’t match up to what they’d wish to achieve.

Traditionally, films about the film industry (usually Hollywood) are caustic affairs, revealing the cynicism, desperation and back-biting that exists beneath the glossy surface. Although there’s a nod to one of the greatest of these examples, ‘Sunset Boulevard’, with the alcoholic Séverine, whose career has been in decline for many years and despairs at how film-making has changed, ‘Day For Night’ is mostly a witty and touching depiction of life and relationships on a film set; never over-romantic, just honest. There are pretty arguments and tensions and brief relationships amongst the crew – both of which are the natural result of spending a length of time together in close quarters. Each of the leads have their personal problems that jeopardises the prospect of ‘Meet Pamela’ being completed, whilst Ferrand is drive to despair and distraction in his attempt to get the film finished. The drama that occurs off-set is every bit as melodramatic as the drama that’s supposed to be occurring within the film, if not more so. Although Truffaut’s comic touch was prone to being maudlin at times, here he gets the tone right. ‘Day for Night’ is one of the finest films about the film-making process and almost certainly Truffaut’s finest since ‘Jules et Jim’.

April 21, 2009

State of Play (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 10:06 pm
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UK/USA

Director: Kevin MacDonald

127 min

Synopsis

Washington, D.C., the present day. DeShaun Stagg, a drug addict is murdered by an unseen assassin. Sonia Baker, political researcher for Congressman Stephen Collins falls under a train. Collins discovers this news whilst sitting on the defence committee he chairs, which is investigating PointCorp, a company seeking to obtain defence and security contracts. It emerges that Collins had been having an affair with Baker. Collins seeks the help of his college friend, Cal McAffrey, a journalist for the Washington Globe, a newspaper that has recently been bought out by MediaCorp, and whose editor, Cameron Lynne, is being asked to chase sales. McAffrey and a young blogger, Della Frye, investigate the death of Baker. She died where CCTV was not present, and Stagg had contacted her before her death. McAffrey discovers from Stagg’s friend that Stagg had stolen a briefcase from the assassin, which had contained a gun and photographs of Baker.

McAffrey and Frye discover that Baker had been the lead researcher on the defence committee and had been paid by PointCorp to spy on Collins, although this ceased when they started an affair. McAffrey and Anne Collins, former college lovers, almost reignite their passions. McAffrey has a source at PointCorp, whose information seems to be a trap to drive McAffrey to the hands of the assassin. Dominic Foy, a friend of Baker’s had been hired to place her on Collins staff and reveals that Baker was pregnant when she died. McAffrey links the assassin, Robert Bingham, to Collins, who had saved his life in Kuwait. Collins confesses. McAffrey writes the story of his guilt.

Review

The 2003 BBC television series ‘State of Play’ was one of the greatest British television achievements of recent years; a perfect synthesis of writing and acting talent at their best. Writer Paul Abbott had worked on ‘Cracker’ and would follow this with ‘Shameless’, whilst the stellar cast included John Simm, David Morrissey, Bill Nighy, Kelly MacDonald and James McAvoy. Its success made a Hollywood remake inevitable, but adapting television series into full length features has its obvious problems. A six hour series has been condensed into a two hour film, but MacDonald has been able to retain the strong narrative and give or take the odd exception (where for instance is the brilliant but troubled editor’s son?) the set of characters that had been fleshed out perfectly by Abbott.

Since the running time of the feature film is shorter, a few corners have been cut with characterisation. This is exacerbated by the decision by the film makers to bring the film right into the digital media age. There is a complete lack of subtlety about the audience’s introduction to McAffrey. As one could probably tell from his name alone, he’s Irish-American. However, this has to be reiterated to us by watching McAffrey singing along to Irish folk-rock whilst driving. McAffrey’s maverick nature as a journalist is made evident by his unkempt appearance, his exceptionally messy desk (later scrutinised by Frye with great intensity as an unsubtle reminder) and his 16 year old desktop computer (slightly stretching the realms of plausibility). McAffrey is clearly being set up as the complete contrast to Frye’s perky young blogger, referred to as a “bloodsucker” by McAffrey and someone who spreads gossip rather than investigative journalism. Naturally of course this odd couple develop a grudging respect, and for Frye’s own personal development, she must of course learn a number of lessons from McAffrey (who even signs off his story with Frye as joint-reporter). This relationship has been intensified from the original series, whilst other characters have been overshadowed or abandoned, and it doesn’t seem to have done the film any favours. The relationship just seems to develop in a rather clichéd fashion.

This is a shame because ‘State of Play’ makes a number of relevant points about contemporary journalism and media. The Washington Globe has been bought by a multinational corporation, probably by a Rupert Murdoch figure, whose demands are sales and getting the news out there first, not spending more time and money than is necessary to get the story correct. It’s the kind of environment that allows bloggers like Della Frye to flourish and might be the death knell for old-school journalists such as Cal McAffrey. As the death of Sonia Baker emerges, the online media goes into a frenzy, with speculation about her death being either suicide, murder or an accident, whilst rumours about Collins’ private life go into overdrive. Updating the original series into the present day allows MacDonald to make these observations, also including those involving the relationship between politics and the press and the indendence of journalism, which he also does regarding the current political situation in the US. There’s far more a conspiracy factor about this version, with thinly veiled references to organisations such as Haliburton, who have been involved in both the destruction and reconstruction of Iraq. Perhaps it feels as though there’s more at stake here, that the impact of the potential conspiracy is greater, although in a true twist of storytelling, MacDonald copies Abbott’s conceit of pulling the rug from under our feet.

One can’t help but draw comparisons between this feature film and the original series, and where this version suffers most is with casting. The troubled production history of the film has been well-documented, with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton originally having been cast as McAffrey and Collins respectively. To Crowe’s credit, he probably surpasses any expectations we might have had of Pitt, who would have made a more clean-cut version of McAffrey, who’s supposed to be a throwback to a bygone era. Affleck, however, creates a rather blank depiction of Collins, supposedly a politician of conviction, albeit with lapses in personal judgement. Supporting performances are also mixed; ranging from Jeff Daniels as a corrupt colleague of Collins to Jason Bateman’s bizarre performance as Dominic Foy. Of course given, the high calibre of acting talent in the original television series, it’s not surprising that the performances don’t quite match up. ‘State of Play’ remains an entertaining but uneven remake of an exceptional television series. Some aspects of updating the story have worked, some haven’t. Perhaps it was always on a hiding to nothing but if the press ever needed a film that reaffirms its value in a changing, multimedia age, ‘State of Play’ is that film.

April 14, 2009

The Baby of Macon (1993)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:08 pm
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UK/France/Germany/Belgium/Netherlands

Director: Peter Greenaway

122 min

Synopsis

Italy, the 17th century. A morality play performed before an audience. Set in a barren land, plagued with famine, no woman has given birth for many years. An ugly, old woman finally gives birth. Since no-one would believe that such a woman could mother such a healthy child, the woman’s daughter claims to be the mother, despite being a virgin. The daughter starts to exploit the child’s birth, selling blessings to the desperate townspeople. The Church resents the power the daughter has over the town and doubts the validity of a virgin birth, despite the daughter’s reference to the Nativity. The child begins to predict danger ahead for both himself and the daughter.

The daughter offers to prove to the son of the Bishop, who was especially sceptical, that she is a virgin. They start to make love, observed by the child. The child then instructs a bull to gore the Bishop’s son. The Church take the child into their care and exploits the child even more so than the daughter had. The daughter suffocates the child. Since she remains a virgin, the daughter cannot be hung. Instead, she is sentenced to be raped 208 times before being hung. It is then implied that the rapes occur for real; that it is no longer a performance. The Church carve the child’s body and sell parts as relics. Famine once again falls on Macon.

Review

“You can stop acting”

“You wanted this role so badly, you ought to see it through”

The enfant terrible of 80s British cinema, Greenaway directed a series of intellectual but increasingly distasteful films; the epitome of which was 1989’s ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’. Even more notorious and controversial was ‘The Baby of Macon’, which shocked critics; many of whom have declared it a misanthropic and misogynistic film and was given a limited theatrical release, and remains relevant to this day, recently appearing as a reference point in a recent Guardian article on a Keira Knightley/Joe Wright domestic abuse advert. However, the film has its supporters, who argue that it subverts what its critics accuse it of. Even by Greenaway’s standards though, it remains perhaps the most divisive film of his entire career.

The most intriguing factor of ‘The Baby of Macon’ is its unique form, which makes it all the more confusing for its audience. Not confusing in the sense of understanding what is taking place, but who it’s taking place for, but in the method in which we react. The film ostensibly appears to be a rather objectionable morality play, invented by Greenaway himself, but adds drama and extra layers by referring to the audience that is watching the play, and showing the actors performing and acting naturally, backstage. It’s this confusion between what’s acting and what’s real that contributes to the confusion surrounding the film’s most troubling sequence – when the daughter is sentenced to 208 rapes. Even within the context of the play, this is a pretty difficult punishment to comprehend, though no doubt in keeping with the Jacobean revenge dramas that Greenaway is so fond of. But now I refer to the quotes that opened this review.

The daughter’s punishment is shown to the audience through curtains, at which the “actress” tells her “rapists” that “you don’t need to act any more, the audience can’t see you”. Yet they persevere, carrying out their “roles” for real. Her screams, heard by everyone outside these curtains, would just be interpreted as ultra-realistic acting, whilst only those within the boundaries of the curtains know what’s taking place. The actress genuinely is a virgin as well, hence she repeats the get out clause that she uses within the play; that a virgin cannot be hurt or punished. Soldiers are thrown in every few seconds to carry 0ut the punishment to the number, shouted out with great relish. Greenaway thankfully doesn’t leave his camera on the events that occur, although the screams are all too audible. Even those in the acting troupe and audience who think it’s just a performance find it all a little squeamish. Even more so than the carving of the child, a reference to ‘The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and His Lover’, this scene is the most troubling in the film and indeed one of the most troubling one is likely to witness in film. This ambiguous line between what’s real and what’s an act is handled with some skill, although one wonders what the main purpose behind it was. Certainly one feels it just provides Greenaway’s detractors with more ammunition.

Much like the rest of Greenaway’s work, ‘The Baby of Macon’ is a highly stylised film, directed from an artist’s perspective. The elaborate camerawork defies the theatrical basis of the film – it’s not static filming of a play but almost filming around a play. As the audience settles in to watch the drama, we first become aware of their presence, and the circular movement of the camera observes the audience between acts. Greenaway uses numerous tracking shots and cinematic techniques that contrast with the norms of theatre, as if to emphasise the artificiality of the project. The audience also interacts, cheering the jeering the action accordingly. Prince Cosimo Medici, a member of the audience, actually participates in the play at one point, whilst not only do the performers bow to the audience, but the audience themselves bow to us, the cinema audience. We’re reminded at every turn that what we’re watching is something where the distinction between what’s real and what isn’t is uncertain and it’s this that lends ‘The Baby of Macon’ its considerable power and impact.

A religious satire that uses the Nativity as its basis but uses it to mock human and ecclesiastical greed (note how the daughter’s reference to Mary’s virgin birth even receive the scorn of the Bishop and his son) and mass hysteria, ‘The Baby of Macon’ is an incredibly provocative film, albeit one that possibly has been misunderstood by its critics, who have preferred to consider the film’s excesses rather than its intent. Greenaway’s fortunes have subsequently declined, as he now struggles to finance his projects. British audiences and financiers had probably always considered him a difficult proposition. Perhaps ‘The Baby of Macon’ was something of a last straw, which is our loss and also indicative of the fact that we tend to chase away or ignore domestic film makers with an ounce of intellect or the desire to make difficult films.

April 9, 2009

In The Loop (2009)

UK

Director: Armando Iannucci

106 min

Synopsis

London and Washington, D.C., the present. Simon Foster, Minister for International Development is interviewed by the press and accidentally declares that war in the Middle East is ‘unforeseeable’. Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s foul-mouthed Director of Communications is enraged since war is in the planning stages. US assistant secretary for diplomacy Karen Clarke, whose staff have prepared a report that discourages war, attempts to exploit Foster’s statement with her ally in the military, General Miller. Tucker sends Foster to Washington, D.C. whilst working with the neo-con Linton Barwick to produce an intelligence dossier to support the move towards war. Foster’s researcher, Toby, accidentally reveals to a friend who works for CNN that Barwick has a secret war committee, which prevents Clarke being able to sabotage it as planned.

When the case for war is presented to the UN, Toby asks his ex-girlfriend, Suzy, to leak Clarke’s report to the BBC. Tucker’s deputy, Jamie goes on the warpath in the Foreign Office to discover who leaked the report. Foster deliberates over whether to resign, although he becomes distracted by a constituency issue where the garden wall of his office is threatening to collapse into his neighbour’s garden. Tucker encourages the BBC to run with this story, rather than the leaked report and re-edits the report to make it appear more supportive of war. The UN Security Council back the Anglo-American resolutions, and Miller revokes his support for Clarke. Tucker sacks Foster for the constituency issue and is replaced by a new Minister.

Review

‘The Thick Of It’ has been one of the highest regarded British comedies of recent years. A satire of contemporary British politics, it reveals with frightening honesty, what probably transpires within the corridors of power. At its heart was Malcolm Tucker, loosely based on Blair’s own Director of Communications, Alistair Campbell. A foul-mouthed Scottish bully, Tucker sets the political agenda, intimidates Ministers and civil servants alike and manipulates the media, all for the benefit of the New Labour government. Contrasting Tucker’s efficient means of getting things done was an incompetent Minister; in ‘The Thick Of It’, it was Hugh Abbot (Chris Langham), in ‘In The Loop’, it’s Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), who can’t help but put his foot in his mouth. Not content with describing war as unforeseeable, despite the government’s wish to support an American invasion of the Middle East, he complicates things even further by attempting to get himself out of his own mess (“to walk the road of peace, sometimes we have to climb the mountain of conflict”).

How someone with the sheer levels of ineptitude of Foster managed to get promoted to Cabinet level isn’t the issue. Iannucci’s point is that in these media-fixated times with detailed arguments replaced to soundbites and image being everything, Foster is perhaps the archetypal New Labour minister; handsome, well-meaning, but ultimately with no substance whatsoever. Even the final scenes, after Foster has left office and is replaced by a “Blair babe”, with whom Tucker is dissatisfied with in just a couple of minutes, suggest a conveyor belt of similarly talented politicians but with the real power wielded by civil servants and unelected advisers.

It’s no coincidence that Judy, Foster’s own Director of Communications is by far the most well-adjusted and intelligent of the film’s protagonists and is the source of the temporary hubris dished out to Tucker, when he has to go crawling to her to discover just what Foster is up to in Washington. For the benefit of extending the farce that plays out in Washington, Judy is left behind in London, and Foster is accompanied by Toby, who demonstrates a sense of opportunism and betrayal that means he might well get ahead in politics. Unfortunately, this means that Judy’s role is slightly underwritten, just there to favourably contrast with the idiots and sneaks she works with. We’re used to these characterisations from Iannucci’s previous work. It’s how he portrays those in the Washington corridors of power that’s interesting. Where Tucker, and consequently Foster and Toby speak in inventive profanity-ridden tones, the Americans talk in riddles, renaming committees to exclude those who’d derail conflict. But like in London, there’s just as much double-dealing and exploitation going on, with even the sceptical Miller changing his tune when the political wind rushes headlong into war.

What ultimately will be disturbing about ‘In The Loop’ is that the events depicted within the film reflect those in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iannucci smartly doesn’t refer to Iraq specifically, just intervention in an unnamed Middle Eastern country but the parallels are certainly there. Tucker invokes the suicide of David Kelly by telling Foster he’ll hound him into an assisted suicide after he screws up once too often and also “sexes up” the intelligence dossier put forward to the UN security council, which is treated with the utmost disdain by the British and Americans. If one imagines that this is how the war that has cost billions of dollars and cost hundreds and thousands of lives was decided upon and planned, with a combination of incompetence and cynicism, then we ought to be worried. Of course Iannucci probably uses a lot of dramatic license for both his comedy series and his film, and always views things from the low levels of government – you’ll notice that we never see the Prime Minister or President or any Cabinet meetings – but those characters involved here are involved in decision making that has enormous consequences.

There’s also a concern that comedy series with short episodes haven’t always translated into successful full-length features in the past. Iannucci manages to navigate this problem with some ease and he doesn’t actually have to stray at all from the filming methods used for ‘The Thick Of It’. ‘In The Loop’ is produced in a docudrama style, with handheld camerawork, and even features the same writing team from the original series. Because there’s no direct American money involved in the film, Iannucci has been able to remain independent in his vision and hasn’t had to make concessions to American financiers or the American market. How it plays over there though might be another issue, although anti-Bush cinema has proved successful in the past. However, in post-Blair Britain and post-Bush America, perhaps Iannucci’s timing is a little off. Given the wave of optimism in the States after the election of President Obama, who knows whether the cynicism and honesty of ‘In The Loop’ will capture the public mood?

April 5, 2009

Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 8:13 pm
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France/West Germany

Director: Louis Malle

104 min

Synopsis

France, 1943-1944. Julien Quentin, a young boy from a wealthy family returns to his Roman Catholic boarding school despite his protestations. This term, there are three new pupils. One, Jean Bonnet, is the same age as Julien but is immediately picked out for bullying because he’s bookish and not overly sociable. One of the priests asks Julien, a popular and respected student, to look out for Jean. Some students are curious about Jean, deciding Bonnet isn’t a Protestant name and ominously, Jean is allowed to bathe at the public baths separately from other pupils. One evening, Julien discovers Jean’s secret as he overhears Jean reciting a Jewish prayer. Julien later discovers Jean’s prayer book and candles in his belongings.

Julien and Jean are lost during a game of capture the flag and are returned by Nazi soldiers, which frightens Jean. Julien’s mother visits, taking the boys out to dinner, where they witness the humiliation of an elderly, distinguished Jewish gentleman. Joseph, the kitchen boy, is caught selling the school’s supplies on the black market, encouraged by some of the pupils, and is fired. The Gestapo are subsequently informed by Joseph that the school are hiding Jewish children and they come to take the children away, including Jean, whose real name is Jean Kippelstein, as well as Pére Jean. The pupils say goodbye as Pére Jean is marched out of the school, to which he responds in turn. A voiceover then reveals the tragic fates of the priests and the Jewish children.

Review

Thirty years into his directorial career, which had included a brief excursion in Hollywood, Louis Malle had developed the confidence and will to make his most personal film. Based on an episode in his own childhood, when a number of Jewish children and teachers at his boarding school were rounded up by the Gestapo and subsequently deported to Auschwitz and murdered, ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’ represents an opportunity for Malle to come to terms with his past and understand an incident that was probably too traumatic to comprehend fully as a child, especially given the guilt he felt for unwittingly giving away the identity of one of the Jewish children. It’s therefore the kind of film that could only have been made by a mature film maker and represents the best of Malle’s later period work and follows ‘Lacombe Lucien’ (1974) as an exploration of French history during the Second World War.

As an autobiographical film, with Julien as the director’s alter-ego, it’s certainly not a flattering interpretation of himself, perhaps in recognition of his own adolescent character. At the start, Malle shows Julien returning to boarding school against his own wishes. As much as any of the pupils, Julien is selfish and myopic, and picks on Jean who immediately stands out as someone different – not because of his background, which is unknown at this point, but because he’s intellectual, self-absorbed and bookish; all the characteristics of someone trying to keep a low profile. In contrast to the hardships experienced by the school; rationing, blackouts, air raids and lack of heating and the sacrifices made by its teachers to save Jewish children, the children, who are predominantly from wealthy backgrounds, use their supplies from home to sell on the black market, rather than use for the common good and threaten to complain to their parents that they’re not fed well enough.

Malle is honest and forthright in examining attitudes to Jews in France at the time, uncovering a surprising amount of anti-semitism, despite France obviously being at war with Nazi Germany. Some of Julien’s classmates claim that Jews and Communists are worse than the Germans, whilst Julien’s brother informs him of what a Jew is and what being a Jew means (“they’re smarter than us and they crucified Jesus”, to which Julien replies “wasn’t that the Romans?”. When a Jew uses the public baths, one fellow bather exclaims “that guy’s got a nerve”, whilst Julien’s mother claims that she has nothing against Jews personally but that Blum (the Jewish Socialist ex-Prime Minister who defied the formation of Vichy France) can hang! Joseph, the sacked kitchen boy, remains practical in his explanation for selling out the school to the Gestapo – that they’re just Jews! Exposing this prejudice might be controversial to an extent but it’s important for Malle to do so; because Julien accidentally became privy to Jean’s identity, he had his own eyes opened to the way that people can judge others, children even, for characteristics that can’t be helped. But for the rest of privileged French society, fighting anti-semitism wasn’t strictly an issue – nor was strictly repelling the Nazis (Julien’s brother who informed him of the crime of the Jews still is a vocal critic of both Nazis and their collaborators). There was a large amount of collusion and adaptation, and a worrying extent of sharing of values just to maintain their own position in society

Perhaps at its heart though, ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’ is a touching and tender exploration of a childhood friendship. True to form, Jean and Julien start out as academic rivals; Julien resents Jean’s brilliance at piano (note how disinterested the teacher looks during Jean’s lacklustre performance but immediately perks up when Julien starts) and his distance from others, whilst Jean resents Julien’s inquisitive nature about his past and his family. However, once Julien discovers Jean’s true identity, the friendship turns from something encouraged by the priests into a genuinely sympathetic one, with Julien trying to understand why his friend would be considered such a pariah. The final scenes are especially devastating in nature, when Julien accidentally gives Julien away when the Gestapo arrive, demanding to know which of the children are Jewish (though there’s a certain amount of humour when one officer removes the pins from a map outlining the Allied fightback). Attempts by the other Jewish children to hide are quickly thwarted and their inevitable, tragic fate is explained in a narrated epilogue. Only with time could Malle film these events with a sufficient sense of detachment, avoiding sentimentality and an overuse of piety. His characters are flawed and his homeland’s own prejudices explored. It’s an incredible work of great maturity and faithful to the director’s past.

April 2, 2009

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

Canada

Director: Atom Egoyan

112 min

Synopsis

‘The Sweet Hereafter’ features a non-linear narrative, including flashbacks. In a small Canadian town, the present day. Mitchell Stevens, a slick lawyer, is called by his estranged daughter Zoe. He questions why she’s calling and tells her he doesn’t even know who she is anymore. Stevens visits a town that recently suffered the death of many of its children in a bus crash. The grieving parents are approached by Stevens, who offers to represent them to find answers, sue whoever’s responsible and obtain a large cash settlement. Although initially reluctant to pursue a legal case, Stevens visits each family in turn to persuade them to do so as the best means of coping with their grief, although one bereaved father, Billy, resists and asks Stevens to leave the community alone.

Stevens’ case rests on the testimony of 15 year old Nicole, who was seated at the front of the bus when it crashed and is now paralysed. However she accuses Dolores, the school bus driver, of driving over the speed limit, therefore causing the accident. Although Stevens and the community know she’s lying, only her father knows the reason why but he cannot say. The case collapses because of her testimony.

Review

A multiple prize winner at Cannes (as well as the recipient of two Academy Award nominations), ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ was Egoyan’s first attempt at a mainstream picture and the first adaptation he’d made from external material, following a series of low-budget, personal films. Relocating the Russell Banks’ novel’s original setting to rural Canada, he remains otherwise faithful to the narrative, although he’s more coy about certain plot developments from the novel to allow us to make assumptions about relationships between characters and what has taken place in the past.

For instance, Banks is quite unequivocal about the incestuous abuse against Nicole by her father. Egoyan merely hints rather subtly. The first instance we see the pair together, we might easily mistake them for lovers. There’s an age gap for sure, though her father has a youthful appearance and their body language suggests something more than just a father-daughter relationship. Nicole’s sudden utterance of the word “Daddy” changes everything. This is almost the complete opposite of what happens in ‘Exotica’, when the relationship between Francis and Christina initially seemed paedophilic but actually had a more tragic and innocent dimension. It’s one of many ways in which Egoyan keeps us guessing. However, this is in keeping generally with Egoyan’s teasing approach to film making.

Like his previous ‘Exotica’, the narrative here is fractured and non-linear, told through the perspectives of Stevens, Dolores, Billy and Nicole – the latter three describing their accounts of what caused the crash, although it’s the failure of the three of them to gain a consensus that makes any legal action ultimately futile. Events occur out of sequence and what we think we see in certain scenes only becomes clear later on when other information is given. It never feels as if Egoyan’s repeating a technique used in previous films for its own sake. It’s no gimmick. Much like with ‘Exotica’, ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ deals with the aftermath of tragedy and how those involved come to terms with it. The grieving process, which involves memory and recollection in order to make sense of what’s happened, is best served by Egoyan’s non-linear approach.

Motivation has always been an important feature of Egoyan’s work; why people behave the way they do. Take Mitchell Stevens. Why does he offer his services for the case? Although he announces his fee, one third of anything won, he doesn’t appear to be financially motivated. He’s not your standard Hollywood lawyer, searching for redemption after a professional career wasted. We see flashbacks to his turbulent relationship with his daughter, a homeless drug addict who claims she’s HIV positive, but it’s the flashback of the younger Stevens that is crucial – when Zoe almost died as an infant. Whether Zoe knows about the incident herself or not, it’s evident that Stevens is storing a huge amount of guilt about her near-escape from death and also at being unable to stop her going off the rails as an adult – but then Egoyan never clarifies how this happened. Maybe it’s unimportant. Stevens has lost his own child so perhaps he can empathise with the community who’ve lost theirs, but of course they don’t know this.

Egoyan indicates however that ultimately Stevens’ presence isn’t good for the facade of the community and that the promise of money won’t compensate for their loss and will only re-open old wounds. Stevens first visits the owners of a local motel who seem to have nothing good to say about anyone, although the irony is that the wife is secretly conducting an affair with Billy. There are numerous intrigues within the small town; each interviewee that Stevens meets had a point to score against someone. The big secret of course, of child abuse, cannot be told. If there is nothing that Nicole can do about this, especially now that she is paralysed and dependent on her parents (note how ominously her father asks her to “not try to remember” when she leaves hospital as if other memories might be suppressed), then she can scupper the chance of a large financial payout. That’s the best revenge she’s able to claim. Even to the end, with the accident underplayed and shown in such a matter of fact fashioned, the truth is never clear as to what really happened, although Egoyan’s devotion to withholding the truth from his audience is now his stock in trade.

‘The Sweet Hereafter’ is justly referred to as one of the finest films of the 1990s and demonstrates that Egoyan can adapt his standard themes and cinematic techniques within a more conventional, mainstream (if still low budget) framework. He brilliantly captures the communal grief of a small community, yet reveals the cracks beneath the surface and realises that gaining any kind of closure on the accident might threaten to expose what’s really there. The recurring theme of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, read by Nicole to Billy’s children in scenes prior to the accident are intriguing; do they refer to the impending loss of the children or the arrival of Stevens to save the town? It’s just one of many unexplained questions in this mature, highly successful film.

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