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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Elegy comes with sophisticated cultural ambiance. Based on a novella by
Pulitzer Prize winning author Philip Roth. A trailer peppered with
interesting academic speculation. A score dominated by Bach, Beethoven
and Satie, tastefully kept up to date with interludes of salsa or the
eclectic Madeline Peyroux's singing Cohen's masterpiece, Dance Me to
the End of Love. Gravitas imparted by Ben Kingsley as an established
professor of literary criticism and his colleague (a remarkably suave)
Dennis Hopper, award-winning poet. Elegy announces its colours by
appealing to the culturally elite. Or at least those that can tell
their War and Peace from Kelly's Heroes.
But translating the good and the great of literary acclaim into two hours of watchable cinema is necessarily a task of abbreviation, as director Coixet and screenwriter Meyer know too well, having previously worked together on The Human Stain. Pages of philosophical rumination rarely transcribe into pithy dialogue, circumscribed voice-overs, or the more visceral drama of visual image. Roth fans may come to altogether different conclusions based on subtexts gleaned from the novella. Even the rest of us may form radically different opinions. Each of us, as Kingsley's character would say, brings our own self to any work of art. We see it through our own eyes, situation, prejudices and projections, and it lives on well beyond our thoughts on it.
Do you dislike objectivisation of women in film? Penelope Cruz, the charming young student who comes into Kingsley's orbit, is relentlessly objectivised in the first two thirds of the movie. So much so that you may have formed a judgement by the time that objectivisation is finally questioned and the person behind the dazzling smile and art-book eyes revealed. Or are you perhaps a fifty-something year old single male? If so, you may feel more indulgent towards Kingsley's obsession and the film's emotional self-analysis. Or do you feel the more immediate revulsion for middle-aged teacher seducing pretty young student? Are you an art lover perhaps? Maybe picking up on the questions of how we perceive art, do we really perceive it truly at all (and maybe relate that to how people perceive each other). Only the most liberal viewer might ask if there can be any true love across the age divide, a true meeting of minds. And then apply those questions (and the underlying real perception of another human being) to the question of love when no age difference forces them uppermost.
The theme of professor-student illicit liaison is well-worn. So much so that it barely deserves a whole movie to itself. What raises Elegy above the bar is the seriousness with which it addresses its subject. Kingsley's character tries to stay a step ahead of the stereotype and what he perceives as inevitable failure, analysing it with his (married but unfaithful) friend Hopper. Belief in personal freedom is at odds with long-term meaningful commitment. After initially trying to dissuade him, Hopper comes out with an insightful key that can apply to other situations as well as Kingsley's. "Beautiful women are invisible . . . we're blocked by the beauty barrier." Like approaching a work of art, meeting another person is a case of seeing what we see (or want to see) in them. The Muse. The Blonde. (Or in reverse, The Cultural Man, the Tough Guy, the Protector, the Mentor.) Even before we add gender stereotypes. We see the sexualised side of a person we are interested in or at least not a gender-neutral persona. Roth's point is that when we meet someone who is particularly beautiful or handsome, then it can become much harder to connect to the person underneath. Age differences emphasises this (Kingsley 'worships' her beauty). And the viewer is led by the nose to see her (objectivised) as he sees her. As "a work of art." As something beyond reach (emotionally in the long term, if not sexually). She is beautiful. She dresses well. She looks good naked. She's intelligent and attentive, with a sense of artistic appreciation. And she has a disarming directness and sincerity.
Kingsley also has an on-off sexual partner, a glamorous business woman closer to his own age (played by Patricia Clarkson). They seem well-suited. But it is late on into the film that we see that they too had only gone as far as the image they wanted of each other. "Is this our first real conversation?" she asks him. Then there is his friend Hopper. A friendship for which he only just manages the sense of 'elegy', the heartfelt sense of regret that has the power to correct and connect if only there is a second chance.
And what of Kingsley's son (Peter Sarsgaard)? His appearance highlights one of the greatest weaknesses of the film. Kenny bursts onto the scene to tell his father that he has been having an affair shock, horror! Kingsley, polite and fatherly, is really far too involved in his own dilemma to care that much. It reminds us that we have spent far too long angsting over who he is playing the double-backed beast with (a literary allusion which is given second-hand accuracy in the film, which attributes it to Shakespeare, who of course stole it from Rabelais). Unless we are voyeuristic, the question of who-is-shagging-who is one of the most uninteresting story lines for any film. But the emotions can hold some value if well addressed. Yet they are not here addressed with the depth of a novel. We have to make several additions ourselves, analysing the throwaway words of wisdom. The interchanges with Hopper have been underused. Too many viewers will have been lost gazing at Cruz's breasts. And the life-changing event that puts her and Kingsley on a deeper level is due to external circumstance rather than any astute self-analysis.
Elegy deserves respect for the heights it aspires to. But Coixet and Meyer need to make Roth more accessible to achieve the recognition for which they so yearn.
If there hadn't been City of God, then Elite Squad might have made even
more impact. But although it milks similar roots (the violence of Rio
de Janeiro's poor areas), it at times feels as if it is doing just that
milking it even if the details have been meticulously researched
Prior to the visit of the Pope, the Rio authorities try a clean-up operation so there is no danger to his holiness (who wants to stay among the poor). Ironically, the Pope's visit thus engenders a spate of violence as gangs battle with the elite 'BOPE' police squad. BOPE has additional problems with the regular police, who are endemically corrupt and keep the peace through a system of gentle bribery. Given that a policeman earns about the same as a bus conductor, the 'bribery' is arguably less awful (for the most part) than it sounds, especially when kept within decent levels.
It should be added that the drug squads who run the slums not only police the slums (by and large) more effectively than the police do the regular areas, but are largely beneficent for instance paying hospital bills or doing other kindnesses. They have only two rules don't sell drugs on my patch and don't do anything to arouse police attention (such as mugging tourists in the slums). Many slums are therefore safer than the main tourist areas like Copacabana, and this is both from my own observation, visiting Brasil for many years, and from the accounts of people there. It is a two tiers society that, for the most part, live entirely separately. But, "when honest cops go into the slums, bad sh*t usually happens." (The main city, away from slums and tourist areas, is much like any other modern metropolis for safety, facilities, the arts and business.) It is perhaps no wonder that, however accurate the film is, it has aroused the ire of independent filmmakers in the famous carnaval city. As I sat in a restaurant on Copacabana beach, two independent filmmakers explained at length how they deplored the image that such films pumped out at the world (Elite Squad did rather well at the Berlin Festival). It is a far cry from the more balanced, but now dated, look of such films as Black Orpheus. As most people are unaware of the richness of Rio, it might be compared to making films exclusively about Bronx violence if no-one knew of the greatness of New York City.
Further ironies go unmentioned. The 'drugs problem', seen by westerners as stemming from South America, is seen by Brasilians as an American one (caused by American user demand). In Rio, American guns are traded for Colombian drugs. Neither are of great interest to Brasilians. And although the country is predominantly Roman Catholic, the papal visit to the slums can also be seen as an attempt to make inroads on the (more) indigenous and non-proselytising religions like Candoble that survive in such areas. Operation Holiness is 'plain foolishness.' One policeman says he would rather use his own money to pay for a good room for the Pope in Copacabana than protect him in the badlands.
One of the good moral points the film makes rather well is how rich kids who deal in a little weed are ignored. Whereas those in the slums are brutalised. The disparity is highlighted by a classroom discussion.
Elite Squad is a gritty, realistic action-heavy fight between 'good guys' and 'bad guys'. A lot of ordinary people in both camps get murdered and tortured along the way. The problem with Elite Squad is not the authenticity of what it includes but the relevance of what it leaves out.
"The universe is everywhere," as the title, Paris, comes up. Binoche is
speaking to her children but it also creates the sense of Paris as a
microcosm. One that will be explored through the lives of some of its
characters. A heartbeat scan is reminiscent of an embryo scan. And if
we 'zoom in too close we can't see too much.' Binoche's brother, still
a young man, has a heart problem. An ex-dancer, he starts (with
sister's help) to draw his life in around him. There are various other
story threads. A historian who has an infatuation with a student. His
brother, an architect who uses animation software to see his completed
parks and buildings (in a great dream-scene, he enters into his own
The characters are skilfully, meticulously and movingly drawn. It is probably the best soap opera since Magnolia. Moments of humour abound as Binoche tries to get her brother laid. There is an accident you see a few seconds before it happens and I wanted to scream at the writer, "You didn't have to do that! I liked that character!" But of course they did. Death seals life as surely as does birth. And we see all its meaning in a mother's reflected expression to a new father.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I always have some difficulty with films that are unashamedly brilliant
yet difficult to watch. Not in the sense of mentally and artistically
challenging (although Savage Grace does this) but in the sense of being
The film follows the (true) story of a mismanaged inheritance, complicated by incest and matricide. It is a compelling character study of a young boy left with no sense of direction, no reliable role model and, in an atmosphere where he can seemingly want for nothing, having no-one whom he can trust. Julianne Moore plays the mother with all of her practiced skill, switching from heavily interiorised emotion to outbursts of rage. A complex character, she is desperately trying to find herself, to find some meaning in her existence. An existence where she constantly affirms a society role of being at the crest of a wave. The bisexuality of a man she trusts as a friend later becomes a factor that helps to sheer away her moorings.
Savage Grace is a dark, dark film. For strong constitutions only.
The enthusiasm which has greeted this film is for the large part so
very well-deserved that nothing should be said to take the edge off it.
The 'Batman' comic series has evolved into a adult-orientated crime
thriller, pitching cops against crooks and the caped vigilante. The
star turn of Heath Ledger (as the Joker) frighteningly transforms a
once comical character into a sinister psychopath reminiscent of
Silence of the Lambs.
The technical scope of the film (using IMAX cameras for the opening scenes) is impressive, and the script is scintillatingly up-to-the-mark far outperforming usual expectations for action films.
The weak points are that it will be overly long for some viewers. Other than Ledger, the star cast of Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Maggie Gyllenhall is woefully underchallenged; whereas Christian Bale as Batman is less than convincing for someone who should have peak physical and mental alertness, even with a vast array of 007-like gadgets. It should be clear to anyone that director Christopher Nolan (of Memento fame) is more likely to make good blockbusters than original art-house movies such as his early promise showed. But at least they are good blockbusters!
Dark Knight succeeds by reaching out to viewers that would not normally go to see a Batman movie and satisfying them. There are many political and moral subtexts which some viewers will find challenging. This is a definite cut above the average Saturday night entertainment.
Like L'Adolescente, Lumiere is an attempt by the gifted French actress
Jeanne Moreau to take her place behind the camera. It suffers at first
from a similar feminine (almost claustrophobic) syrupiness, but has
much to recommend it, from beautiful (and frequently symbolic)
mise-en-scene to realistic girly-chat and excellent touches of humour.
"Why do brides wear white?" they joke. "To blend in with the kitchen."
The overload of pink (visually an metaphorically) changes abruptly as we return from the countryside to Paris. Moreau's character is an actress, which gives us the excellent opportunity to see the difference between the 'woman's woman' and the projected reality of pouting and flirtatiously confrontational behaviour. We realise that the latter is a deliberately invented trademark. The call of, "Lights, action!" (expressed by French film directors as the word, 'Lumiere!") becomes almost a metaphor for the change of attitude women must take. In the countryside relaxing with each other, they can be 'natural.' But in the city, in the 'real' world of business and business with men especially it is all about attitude.
Sarah (Moreau) is in the process of splitting up with one man and entering into an affair with another. She is a strong, intelligent character, and interprets the man-woman flirtation as a strictly hunter and hunted business (whichever way round). It is almost an essay on the push-pull of passion. "No-one is safe," she says to her close friend, "married or not."
My main criticism might be that the continuous rapid-fire dialogue as they battle out their emotions with themselves and each other can get a bit wearing. But at least it is real and intelligent, and in stark contrast to many modern films with similar themes.
In spite of its flaws and annoyances, Lumiere is a sophisticated film that deserves repeated viewing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Described by her autobiographer as 'very personal', this film directed
by Jeanne Moreau beautifully evokes the rural charm of central France,
'the land of sleeping volcanoes'. And then goes on to look at the
coming of age of a young girl.
Simone Signoret is a solid anchor for the other performances and helps us overlook the film's weaknesses, which include syrupy music, and a content that is heavily laden with childish silliness for an adult audience but maybe too frank (at least in their parents' eyes) for younger viewers.
It concerns a young girl's growing pains, her horror and embarrassment at periods, her infatuation with an older man, competition with mother for his affections, and eventually choosing the right path for the wrong reasons. As a role model, the girl (Marie) is complex and illustrative rather than exemplary, although it handles the need for separation from a mother's influence more realistically than most films would.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In snowy West Virginia, Mulder and Scully are called back to active
duty to solve some murders where the chief informant and suspect is an
old paedophile priest, brilliantly played by Billy Connolly. Like its
cinematic predecessor, I Want to Believe never quite reaches the
heights of its famous TV genesis. The excellent question of needing to
believe in a hypothesis, even a supernatural one, is fatally undermined
by the fact that police, given the usefulness of material being
uncovered, should play along with the informant whether he claims to be
having visions or not (and whether they 'believed' him or not). The
supernatural element having been made irrelevant, matters go from bad
to worse when the question disappears into religiosity and the Lord
working in Mysterious Ways. This apparent updating for modern (divided)
American audiences awkwardly backfires as we become clearly out of the
genre set by the original.
On the other hand, it works quite well as an understated police drama. Connolly's acting is superb, and I even learnt to smile at the clichéd clickety-clack of the supposedly modern keyboards (which should have been silent). An enjoyable film, but you need to believe in rather a lot to make it happen.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In announcing the Audience Award for this film at the Edinburgh
International Film Festival, Sir Sean Connery described it as one of
the best three films he had seen EVER. With that heavy recommendation,
I was well-primed to disagree. I'm not sure about the numbers, but it
one of the best and most worth-while documentary films I have ever
seen, if not the best.
The synopsis hardly impels people into the cinema. So let me tell you how it won the audience award. Into entered the chart at the top and stayed there, beating various mainstream releases scheduled for release instantly. The effect on audiences is remarkable. It touches people.
The great philosopher Wittgenstein said he went to fight on the front line, so that, as a philosopher, he could have a better comprehension of life and death. For the Frenchman in this film, it is about art. An artistic accomplishment that is serious. A high-wire walker/dancer that pictures himself as a poet, conquering beautiful stages. And from the age of seventeen his ultimate dream-stage is the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. His passion for life is like that of the early mountaineers. An exaltation of the human spirit. A triumph of skill and daring. Life and death in the same frame. Asked why, he replies, "There is no why."
Placing a tightrope between the towers is, of course, illegal. So he plans it as carefully as a bank robbery. An interesting reflection on rules being there to be broken is cast up - but neatly parallelling the contemporaneous Watergate, we ask, to what end? Balanced along the 200 feet between the towers, a quarter of a mile from the ground, he dances back and forth eight times. We are left breathless and moist-eyed. And then he is then duly arrested and sent for psychiatric treatment (an amusing comment on how the American system can treat greatness).
Man on Wire is a beautiful film. An inspiring film. A film of a human being totally committed to his calling. And in a very small way perhaps, a crowning tribute to the magnificence of the architecture before it was destroyed.
Do you go to the movies expecting to exhilaration, emotion? Maybe this
film is not for you. Godard once said, "I don't think you should FEEL
about a movie. You should feel about a woman. You can't kiss a movie."
The film does have enough spice to tantalise prurient tastes (middle-class part-time hooker). Yet our storyline is no tempestuous avalanche of excitement crashing to a windswept climax. Godard uses it as an attack on fiction itself. In doing so he questions how we fictionalise our very lives. Buying into lifestyles or accepting dominant themes in merchandising and politics. "Pax Americana: jumbo-sized advertising," as a voice-over proclaims.
Performances are excellent. Cinematography has plenty of Godard's hallmark, arresting features. The film integrates a political kick more successfully than many of his attempts. But the real thrill is an intellectual one. 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her appeals to the philosophically inclined. For this viewer, it is a film to watch and re-watch many times, enjoying the test of ideas. A work of great beauty. It also transports Godard to being more than just a filmmaker.
An exemplary demonstration and examination of Brechtian technique, it is more than a purely cinematic use of Bernold Brecht's 'alienation' effect. Godard uses it to make the viewer examine the nature sensory perception and the almost existential convenience of any definition of truth.
Peter Wollen, in his essay 'Godard and Counter Cinema', described how the director was working towards a political rationale for his attack on fiction. Fiction=mystification=bourgeois ideology. But Wollen acknowledges that initially Godard's fascination is more connected with, "the misleading and dissembling nature of appearances, the impossibility of reading an essence from a phenomenal surface, of seeing a soul through and within a body or telling a lie from a truth."
The basis for all this is a story of Paris it could be the 'her' of the title. Galloping consumerism. Policies determined by economics, not people. Demolition and construction at an alarming pace. While the ordinary decent person cannot keep up. "If you can't afford LSD buy a colour TV."
Our 'ordinary decent person' is an attractive woman on the balcony of high-rise. Our voice-over describes a few things about her. As she turns her head, he describes her again. Same description. Different name. The first time, the real actress (Marina Vlady). Then she is the character, Juliette Janson. "Her hair is dark auburn or light brown," says the voice-over, "I'm not sure."
The voice-over (Godard himself in a conspiratorial whisper) switches back and forth between politics and Juliette's situation, leaving us in no doubt over parallels. The two are then linked diegetically: "The government is disrupting the nation's economy, not to mention its basic moral fibre."
Johnson's futile bombing campaigns in the Vietnam also come under attack. One of Juliette's clients is a war reporter. She does a 'double / all-nighter' with her colleague Marianne which includes parading naked with flight bags over their heads. We are treated to intercut pictures of napalmed victims.
Although it is one of Godard's cleverest and most rounded attacks on capitalism, the film comes into its own as he questions the nature of reality, neatly linked up using gender politics. "What is language, Mummy," asks Juliette's youngster. "Language is the house man lives in," she answers. Examples of male-dominated language pervade the film, from street hoardings to bright signage (both used as intertitles).
Language is not 'objective' and defines how we view things rather than just what they 'are'. Juliette's husband is proud of how clever she is, finding a car at a 'bargain' price. She doesn't reveal to him how she is helping things along.
Juliette is objectivised, both in the story with our conscious collusion and by her habit of turning to the camera to address us directly as Vlady, the actress commenting on the character, speaking about her and through her.
Yet Godard attempts to rise above male-orientated perception. "Should I have talked about Juliette or the leaves . . . since it's impossible to do both at once?" Perhaps our use of language extends to our thinking, where it can be equally subverted. "Now I understand the thought process," says Juliette, "It's substituting an effort of the imagination for an examination of real objects." A more precise definition is developing. What is an object? It is something we pass from subject to subject to allow us to live together. Arbitrary agreements, a language, an arbitrary 'reality.'
But it is not all dour. Take love. "True love changes you, false love leaves you as you are." Juliette seems unaffected by her double life as a hooker. She applies garish red lipstick before servicing a client. (But her studied indifference would tend to make her, one must assume, a rather unappealing prostitute in real life.) And as Godard lifts our spirits more with thoughts of leaves and children than of the depredation he has critiqued, we are lifted to savour the divine inspiration of a seeker after truth. "One must always be sensitive to the intoxication of life." He says. Which can be taken both ways. Both the leaves and Juliette, "trembled slightly."
A particularly beautiful sequence is when Juliette says, "You can describe what happens when I do something without necessarily indicating what makes me do it." She sheds a tear. "This is how, 150 frames later . . .."
2 or 3 Things I Know about Her also contains perhaps the most legendary close-up of a cup of coffee ever made. Foamy swirls appear only to disappear again. Visual metaphor appearing and dissolving.
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