Thirtyframesasecond

October 18, 2009

The Time That Remains (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 8:32 pm
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UK/Italy/Belgium/France

Director: Elia Suleiman

109 min

‘The Time That Remains’ is the third part of Elia Suleiman’s trilogy about the place of the Palestinian people in the modern state of Israel, following ‘Chronicle of a Disappearance’ (1996) and ‘Divine Intervention’ (2002). It’s his most ambitious film to date, tackling the sixty year history of Israel as seen through the eyes of the Suleiman family, based on the diaries of his father and his own memories. Its structure is loose and episodic, concentrating on a handful of pivotal moments in Israeli history, such as the collapse of the Arab resistance in 1948 and the death of Nasser (the President of Egypt and ‘leader’ of the Arab Nation) in 1970, and using the Suleiman family as a benchmark of the position of Palestinians within the state. Suleiman smartly doesn’t go in for showing the “bigger picture”, but shows how these events affected people on a more basic, domestic level.

Suleiman plays a thinly veiled version of himself, who remains a silent, passive observer to what occurs around him, though his presence is vital as a foil to more active characters. His performance hangs on a series of mannerisms and gestures, coupled with his hangdog expression, and is completely in keeping with the absurd and blackly comic nature of the film. Its surreal approach to serious history is similar to that of Emir Kusturica, and even someone like Beckett couldn’t invent its sheer strangeness. As the film develops, a sequence of bizarre events take place, more so in the current day, as if Suleiman is suggesting nothing could change in the area. A young Palestinian man speaks on his mobile phone, oblivious to the fact a tank is about five minutes away and its cannon is pointed right at him! As he walks around and changes position, the cannon subtly shifts, never losing its focus. A crazed neighbour attempts to commit suicide every day but fails, and has interesting logic about the political situation. The Israeli Army and Palestinian civilians fight over a wounded Palestinian on a hospital trolley. ‘The Time That Remains’ could have, in lesser hands, been a worthy, didactic, political film about the history between Israel and Palestinian, but Suleiman’s approach succeeds – mainly because it would have been impossible to do it justice in a more conventional fashion.

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June 8, 2009

Looking For Eric (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:02 pm
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UK/France/Italy/Belgium

Director: Ken Loach

116 min

Synopsis

Manchester, the present day. Eric, a fortysomething postman crashes his car on a roundabout after driving erratically. He tries to discharge himself from hospital to make his early shift but is dissuaded from doing so. He returns home to his two stepsons, Ryan and Jess, from a failed marriage to Chrissy, who ignore and disrespect him. Eric’s colleague, Meatballs, tries to cheer Eric up through various self-help techniques; laughter, meditation etc. One evening, Eric smokes some of his stepson’s marijuana and speaks to the poster of Eric Cantona on his bedroom wall. Cantona emerges as a real person in his bedroom.

Eric reveals to Cantona how his accident occurred, having seen his first wife, Lily, for the first time in decades. He left her and his daughter, Sam, at a young age. Ryan gets involved with local criminals, who he hides a gun for in his bedroom. Sam, with a young child, is studying at university and asks Eric and Lily to help with babysitting whilst she completes her studies. Eric decides to repair his relationships with his ex-wife and daughter. He also asks the criminals to take the gun back, but they refuse, humiliating him in the process. Armed police raid Eric’s searching for the gun and arrested the entire family, who are eventually released. Eric’s friends decide to get their revenge by going to the main criminal’s house wearing Cantona masks and destroy his house in the process, forcing a confession, which is recorded.

Review

Playing in Cannes to a rapturous critical response (well, Cantona was an iconic French footballer after all), ‘Looking For Eric’ has already been considered fresh territory for Loach. Usually a director of social realist dramas, this takes elements of the genre and adds a dash of magic as well as aspects of romantic comedy. It has all the ingredients to make it the most accessible Loach film to date; no doubt performing well in Europe, where much of the financing of the film came from, but also picking up a genuine audience in the UK, attracted by the presence of Cantona, who executive produced the film.

The narrative itself is nothing too original, nor complicated. Eric is a down on his luck postman who tries to turn his life around, with the help of his friends, all well drawn-out, and of course, the Gallic superstar himself. Cantona is on good form, nicely sending up his own persona and skewering his own reputation as one of the more erudite and philosophical footballers. After one proverb too many, Eric is quick to ask Cantona to cease his advice if it’s going to be so abstract. There’s even documentary footage of Cantona’s famous speech about seagulls following the trawler as if to reiterate the point. There’s constant doubt whether Cantona was attempting to be profound or attempting to wrongfoot his critics. Cantona is willing enough to make fun of himself and these are the most impressive aspects of the film. The lack of any stability in Eric’s life has led to his hero-worship of Cantona; watching Cantona in his pomp filled this gap. Ergo, Cantona is the only person who can help Eric in his moment in need now. To Loach’s credit, he never makes Cantona’s presence in the film mystical; it’s just a dope-fuelled illusion and nothing more dramatic than this, though there’s a nice touch in the final scene where one of the Cantona mask-wearing mob is revealed to be Cantona himself.

When Loach veers into more dangerous, traditionally social-realist material, the entire tone of the film changes, not necessarily for the better. We’ve been used to whimsicality; now we’re seeing something more real. Cantona can help Eric with his romantic woes, but is nowhere to be seen when Ryan meddles with local gangsters. Maybe it’s something Eric has to sort out for himself. The episode feels like something designed to win Ryan and Jess’s respect. They’ve previously ignored Eric, making him feel like a stranger in his home, but when they really need him, he comes to their aid. Although the revenge against the gangsters turns to farce and humiliation later, the whole plot twist just feels a little dropped in. The denouĂ©ment, where everything is neatly resolved, is surprising for Loach, who doesn’t seem the type of director who’d settle for a conventional, more crowd-pleasing chain of events. However, when the gangsters are humiliated, it’s a nicely sympathetic act of solidarity and one can forgive Loach for this.

The performances are impressive. Steve Evets (not an especially experienced, let alone well-known actor), in the central role, captures his everyman role, convincing as a man at the end of his tether, trying to deal with a multitude of problems. John Henshaw, as his pal, Meatballs, who’s the jovial self-help guru of the group, provides much comic relief. The remaining cast are little-known actors working mainly in television, so this ought to provide some welcome exposure for actors who seldom put a foot wrong in the entire film. Intriguingly, watch for Evets’ reaction the first time he spots Cantona in his bedroom. Apparently Evets was unaware this was going to occur so his response is completely spontaneous and honest.

Interesting to note how ‘Looking For Eric’, like many previous Loach films acquire most of their funding from continental Europe. This is no doubt partly a reflection upon how his films perform; barely causing a ripple at home but doing decent box office numbers abroad. Although the UK Film Council and Film Four are involved in this production, the fact the so much overseas money contributes to the film should cause discussion about where public money is going in the UK, spent mostly on populist films desperately chasing a mainstream audience rather than more artistically worthwhile projects. Still, Loach’s films are more than capable of standing on their own two feet (‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ grossed $23 million worldwide).

‘Looking For Eric’ is hardly new territory for Loach but neither is it the work of a director operating in his comfort zone. It’s more light-hearted than previous material, though it has its moments when the subject matter is more serious and hard-hitting (though it’s questionable whether this actually helps the film), but it’s not proof of Loach selling out or making concessions to make his film for palatable to audiences. For the most part, it’s hugely entertaining, often highly amusing, especially in the superb interplay between the two Eric’s. Too trivial to have been a genuine contender at Cannes this year, it’s nonetheless very impressive work indeed.

Boccaccio ’70 (1962)

Italy/France

Directors: Mario Monicelli, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio de Sica

205 min

Synopsis

Italy, the 1960s. Four stories inspired by Boccaccio. In the first, ‘Renzo e Luciana’, the two eponymous lovers conduct an affair without their work colleagues knowing as they would both be fired. They marry, but find living with Luciana’s family too overcrowded and search for any privacy. Luciana is pursued by her boss, Osvaldo. She suspects she might be pregnant but it’s a false alarm. Renzo is accused of harassing Luciana at work, but she reveals the truth about their relationship. They might be unemployed but they have each other.

In the second, ‘Le tentazioni del dottor Antonio’, the morally upright eponymous doctor throws stones at copulating couples in the street, accusing them of turning Rome into a brothel. He interrupts a theatre performance to protest and asks women wearing loose fitting clothing to cover up. A giant billboard advertising milk featuring the actress Anita Ekberg, is erected outside his apartment. He asks the Church and local authorities to intervene and he vandalises the billboard. One night he has crazed and delirious dreams where Ekberg comes to life and taunts him.

In the third, ‘Il lavoro’, Count Ottavio returns to his home beset by scandals involving call girls. Speaking to lawyers and colleagues, he realises his wife, Pupe, hasn’t returned home, but she sneaks back home whilst he’s in discussion about silencing the press. Pupe reveals she’s been to visit Ottavio’s call girls. She plans for her future, to get a paid job, although she finds it difficult to reject her life and do so. Pupe realises that prostitution is all she might be cut out for.

In the fourth, ‘La riffa’, Zoe, a carnival booth owner, auctions herself in a lottery to pay for her back taxes, which is popular amongst the local, lecherous men. She has a fling with Gaetano after he rescues her from being attacked by a bull (when she was wearing a red blouse), but he grows jealous when Caspar wins a night with Zoe from the lottery. Although nothing happens, Caspar returns to the village a hero, whilst Zoe is reunited with Gaetano.

Review

The portmanteau film was a curious cinematic phenomenon of the early 1960s – see also ‘Ro.Go.Pa.G’ (Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, Gregoretti), in which top European directors made loosely connecting shorts, compiled and released together. For the producer of ‘Boccaccio ’70’, no doubt the appeal was to showcase the talents of marquee names such as Fellini, Visconti and de Sica, though he clearly didn’t mind undermining the fourth director, Mario Monicelli, whose short was removed from the international release, which led to the remaining directors boycotting the presentation of the film at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. The portmanteau art film was a short-lived experiment; perhaps rightly so, since neither of the two mentioned have acquired a sterling reputation. One supposes the nearest Hollywood example would be ‘Four Rooms’, the universally derided Miramax release from the mid-1990s when the seeds of Quentin Tarantino’s descent into self-indulgence began to grow.

The format itself makes it difficult for any of the individual directors to flourish. The brief is simple; present an approximately 45-50 minute film on modern love inspired by Boccaccio, author of ‘Decameron’, which itself would be filmed by Pasolini in a decade or so. If Ponti had displayed any kind of foresight, then perhaps Pasolini might have proved an inspired choice to direct a segment, though his plans for the Trilogy of Life might have been some way off.

Even though Fellini and Visconti were probably at their creative peak, the restrictions placed upon them and their colleagues don’t especially help. The Boccaccio remit is probably no more than a gimmick to frame the film around. Each of their films seem personal and not overburdened by respect to the film’s inspiration. The short running times for each film, around half a feature length, means that each film feels rushed and not fully realised. There’s probably enough material in each to extend them to full length features but pressure to reduce the running time mean that ideas aren’t fully developed and narratives contrive too quickly and conveniently.

One of the more ironic factors to emerge is that Monicelli, slighted by producer Carlo Ponti, probably actually produces the most interesting and cohesive short. It’s a sweet tale of two young lovers who find themselves under pressure from family and employers, which threatens to tear them apart but of course resolves itself neatly. Marisa Solinas, in her first role, delivers a nicely understated performance and the overall sense of modesty is actually a welcome change from the excesses of the remaining short films.

Fellini’s short maintains his nascent interest at this juncture in dreams and the subconscious as he wittily punctures the pomposity and hypocrisy of a self-appointed moral guardian but is prone to lapsing into self-indulgence at every turn. Visconti’s short is a detached and remote account of the emotional and romantic woes of the upper bourgeoisie where the wife strives for independence but realises she can’t abandon her life of privilege, yet Visconti makes it tough to care for this self-absorbed married couple. de Sica showcases the acting talents of Sophia Loren in full-on sex-kitten mode but relies too much on exploiting this persona, with all too frequent cuts to lecherous old men leering at her when she bends over or removes her blouse. It’s simple and cheap attempts to gain laughs, nothing more.

More than anything though, these films are a tribute to women. They’re smart, sassy and sexy, constantly in charge of the men they’re involved with, who’re constantly given the runaround. They strive for independence and sometimes find it difficult to attain, but they’re empowered nonetheless. With this in mind, Monicelli’s short seems all the more distinguishable from the others. His Luciana is merely trying to be an equal to her man and navigating the problems that society’s imposing upon their relationship. She’s not the equal of Anita, Pupe and Zoe. So Monicelli’s short becomes something of an unnatural fit, not really working in the overall context of the anthology but almost acting as a standalone film that’s been surgically attached to the others. One could never claim with any justification that any of these shorts are amongst the greatest works of the respective directors; they’re light, often enjoyable but ultimately trivial shorts that pique one’s curiosity but never leaves one really satisfied.

‘Boccaccio ’70’ was released on DVD on 1 June by Mr Bongo films.

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