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A big budget movie with religious themes treads warily to recoup
investment without alienating viewers. Tree of Life (at $32 million)
is no exception. Even with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. It succeeds not by
pleasing a mass audience but by being sufficiently wonderful to
behold so enough people will come to stare. Each scene is almost a
master-class in sound and vision.
Malick is true to himself, and draws a central line with philosophical sleight-of-hand. On one hand Tree of Life is a semi-biopic of a 1950's, God-fearing, small-town family in America. On the other, momentous special effects look at the 'God question' in cosmological terms. God as the formlessness from which all things spring (including the Big Bang); versus an anthropomorphised Old Testament God that lives in the sky. Christians can well enjoy the large-scale attention given to their beliefs in general terms. Tolerant atheists (as opposed to Dawkinesque evangelical ones) may appreciate the spectacle, and honest commentary. Just as one marvels at Gothic architecture or gargoyles, without condoning the questionable practices and beliefs of the mediaeval Church.
Malick's stated approach posits a fundamental choice between grace and nature. (This is a red herring: the film is conceptually broader than these two 'options' from the voice-over.) Standard religious questions (and answers) fall from the mouths of the characters. The 2001-Space-Odyssey style visuals might suggest God (if he/she/it exists) is light, from whence cometh all things: evolution, the world, disparate beliefs, and so on. By adroitly avoiding the biblical Jesus, Malick gets reasonably close to harmonising science vs religion camps, as well as the more atheistic creed of early Buddhism (to which Pitt often seems to give more than the occasional career nod).
But on to our story. A Christian reading needs no interpretation. The struggling family (by middle-class America standards) is raising their three young boys. They 'do their best,' go to church, deal with bereavement, and look at their own shortcomings as parents. The story of Job is recalled as inspiration.
Brad Pitt plays Mr O'Brien. A strict, controlling father. Although there is only one instance where O'Brien verges on violence, the (well-intentioned) power he emanates is still intimidating. Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) is housewife-mother, exuding a simplistic love-and-peace. She leaves hubby to deal with the harsh realities of the world - and lets children (and hubby) walk all over her. (Critics of Judeao-Christianity might observe that the father epitomises faults of the Old Testament Jehovah, and the mother many of the faults of New Testament Jesus).
Our oldest son, understandably, makes hard work of his Oedipal journey. He reacts against Dad's unbending discipline. He fails to respect Mum's lack of backbone. Mrs O'Brien, with the luxury and frustrations of a 50's kept woman, opines that love is nevertheless smiling through all things. "The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by." Of course, she doesn't find true love or such meaningful and lasting reflection of it hubby. True to New Testament thinking, her love is one of self-sacrifice (though the angels do offer her some comfort).
Mrs O'Brien's "giving" of her son to God, as a way of mentally coping with bereavement, struck me as unrealistic. Compare, for instance, Nicole Kidman's character, faced with a not dissimilar loss, in Rabbit Hole . . . (soothing voice): "God had to take her he needed another angel ." (seething Kidman in reply): "Why didn't he just MAKE another angel!!?" Similarly Tree of Life feebly tells us that the suffering of bereavement will, "one day go away." Whereas Rabbit Hole (with a script far more worthy of shouting about) says more realistically, "At some point it becomes bearable. It turns into something you can crawl out from under, and carry around like a brick in your pocket."
With or without love, at 139 minutes, Tree of Life doesn't flash by; and a lot of people in the screening I went to walked out. Although I felt entranced for almost its entirety, I admit, nothing much 'happened.' This is a warning to cinema-goers demanding 'a good story.' There isn't one. You could write it on the back of a communion wafer. But more precisely, there is no plot development. Mrs O'Brien recalls the Julianne Moore character from The Hours. Trapped 50's housewife. But whereas Moore made a break for self-enlightenment and freedom, O'Brien doesn't. The Tree of Life is not so much a story as a painting, a meditation, a beautiful canvas. The result is truly magnificent. Its staggeringly gorgeous visual collage of ideas is used almost to convince us that the Heidegger-like approach to the phenomenology of religion isn't full of holes. Serious viewers might recall that this elision of God and Nature was done with far less profligacy in Tarr's recent Turin Horse (which also managed to discard it with Nietzschean frugality). It's almost like an enthusiastic preacher saying, "If I play the beautiful Mozart Requiem captivatingly enough, will you please believe in my God?" The Tree of Life offers little in the way of answers to the deep questions it pretentiously tries to raise: yet that should not stop you meditating on them or even just enjoying the wonderful spectacle.
Chloe is a high class prostitute whom Catherine, a married woman, hires to tempt her husband, to see if he can be tempted, and because she suspects him of having an affair. It is not a good plot. But in this case it is brought a higher level by exquisite acting and direction, not to mention a screenplay by acclaimed writer Erin Cressida Wilson, who scripted Secretary, and Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. Those were not exactly everyday 'believable' scripts either: but they were made believable within context. So although the film is an erotic thriller, it has more in common with studies such as Godard's "Two or Three Things I Know About Her," or Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience." It is a collection of ideas, woven into a tapestry that makes a story that is more 'watchable' than either of those two films, yet develops more insights into suppressed sexual tension, the uses and abuses of fantasy, and the needs for love, quite often unsatisfied, experienced by people in very different situations and walks of life. Chloe is a remarkable movie from an acclaimed art-house director. Viewing it in standard (passive) entertainment terms will not work so well. May I also strongly recommend the DVD to readers? Rather than the usual DVD rubbish extras, it contains quality interviews with the three main stars, background information and, most importantly, deleted scenes and alternate endings that throw great light on the different themes within the film itself.
The Secret in their Eyes is a tale of undeclared love, laced in a
complex murder mystery that spans 25 years. The details are so densely
packed that I almost would have nodded off had its beauty and skill in
the telling not kept me shocked in wakefulness. It is a story of
remembering. And how that act of remembering can change the present.
What is that timeless quality that we sometimes see in a person's eyes?
A look that can hold maybe more than anything, and how it can arrest
our thought as they travel a sea of faces; a torrent of years. If they
'express the inexpressible,' is there a reason that stops the lips from
forming the words? And if that barrier could be removed?
Beating such notable competition as Haneke's White Ribbon for the coveted Foreign Language Film Oscar was no small task. That the Secret in Their Eyes fathoms profound emotions (for want of a better word!) perhaps goes some way to explain its appeal.
Benjamín Espósito has been employed by the criminal court all working his life. Now entering retirement, he begins writing a novel. The story will be that of a tragic case he once investigated, the brutal rape and murder of a beautiful woman. The legal system in Argentina is not free of corruption but still a highly developed one. The court secretary, Irene Menéndez Hastings, is Benjamin's immediate superior. He is secretly in love with her, but she is far above his social station and he has no hope of being together with her. As he writes the novel, he goes back over events. Including his unfulfilled relationship with the woman he is still in love with after all this time. A love of justice propels the movie forward but at a pace that accepts some things can take a lifetime. Or a single moment.
The murder case is far from simple, even with Benjamin and Irene's pooled determination. Benjamin looks back on his life seeking meaning. Both in his own relationships and lack of them, and in the small successes (but greater failures) that accompanied the investigation. As he replays his memories will he be able to re-write his future? Or are there things to which his eyes will forever remain closed? Juan José Campanella's two hour film can occasionally seem affected. But as anyone who has visited can confess, that is true of life in Buenos Aires today anyway. It is still the bastion of European manners from a bygone age and The Secret in Their Eyes sometimes feels like a period piece (even though the film is set in 1974 to 2000). The subtleties of gentlemanly flirtation, the delicacies of social interaction, they present a careful, often unhurried formality through which we must finesse our way with perseverance and appreciation of good taste. We delicately unpick the knotted past so that it does not reap problems for our futures. Does the real life we have lead reflect our inner life and turmoils? The other way round? Or are they not connected? Memory is a powerful thing and can knit together more than just our imagination, our hopes, dreams, and insights. There are clues we have maybe failed to acknowledge. Through stupidity or 'blindness.' And what are the secrets? How do we see them as they really are; spot the clues before our eyes? One secret it's cracked is box-office success. The Secrets of Their Eyes is already a blockbuster in Argentina and enjoying huge triumphs at international festivals. It will probably be one of those 'timeless classics,' as they say.
Pelican Blood is a small budget indie film that most certainly will not
be to everyone's taste. It will require an exceedingly open mind to get
involved with (rather than repelled by) the story, which concerns two
teenagers that met on a suicide website probably something like
'slashmywrists.com.' Its sexually charged, unpredictable plot, and
unravelling, testosterone-fuelled emotion, will give you a drug induced
high as it rips your heart to shreds and offers you a few pieces for
This film is fast and funky and deadly serious, and massively flawed, yet just about succeeds in its difficult central premise. There is none of the arty at-a-distance feel of Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides. There's no chance of treating it as an aesthetic exercise, intangible and distanced from any sense of close reality. Pelican Blood's protagonists are full-blooded, off-centre youngsters that are in a compulsive love affair, both with each other and the idea of their own eventual extinction. If you have ever been caught in a relationship that you know is 'wrong' for you both but equally inescapable, you will have an idea of the obsessive love tantalisingly portrayed. If you were in their place, you can imagine feeling the same. A punchy soundtrack and attractive, highly competent young actors help to make Pelican Blood unsettling yet compulsive viewing.
Nikko survived a recent suicide attempt and narrowly avoided being sectioned. "I once went out with a girl and we were both going to kill ourselves. Turns out one of us wasn't serious," he declares at the beginning of the movie. He used to self-harm, but gave it up by promising himself suicide - which 'sounds better, more real.' He doesn't take medication as it 'turns him into a zombie.' He can't bear the thought of going back in the loony bin barely repressed tears convince us of his sincerity. Nikko's not 'nuts' he just doesn't want to live. Nothing against life - just that, "If life doesn't work out for you then going through the motions is the biggest tragedy." He is a geek. His only outlet is birdwatching. Something he also does very seriously. Each sighting noted down with meticulous detail. When he gets to 500, he's promised himself the big treat. And he's at 498.
Stevie is a girl that any red-blooded man could fall in love with at 500 paces. It is only later that we discover that she is bi-polar and also suicidally fixated. (Which maybe helps explain why she's attracted to a no-hoper like Nikko.) Stevie's an extreme animal rights activist. Throwing protest paint-bombs from high buildings and with no safety rail gets her high. Nikko's pals call her 'the bipolar whack-job.' (She calls his ornithology mates something even less repeatable.) His idea of a date is (quite unsurprisingly) going to a bird sanctuary. She almost has to beg him for a kiss (but he does eventually put his hand down her pants as she holds the binoculars). Stevie really couldn't care less about spotting birds - but she will happily go ballistic to thrash someone they catch stealing eggs. When Nikko and Stevie have sex, they enjoy 'suicide games' for afters. Sharp blades or helium. They're in love and the chemistry is electric.
Pelican Blood is a fast and queasy affair bolstered by a good soundtrack and predictable (if none the less effective) montage and other standard teenflick formulae. Their love affair escalates from deep romance dance-y music to sombre black rock; and descending half tones to ratchet up the sentimental bonding while macho talk from Nikko's mates keeps the cheesiness at bay. This is a constantly unsteady balancing act and veers dangerously into becoming clichéd. I also found I couldn't quite hit ecstatic heights at seeing honey buzzard (number 499), even when its devotee is leaping through fields in slo-mo and a poetic voice-over extols the wonders of this rare flying biped. Needless to say, accidents will happen and things do not go smoothly for ill-fated lovers. It's not exactly Virginia Woolf and The Hours, but is the pain of illness any the less real if he's a buckle short of a straightjacket? The ending has a beautiful bitter-sweet twist and rescues the film from the seemingly inescapable nose-dive into a black hole. Too weird to be called a romcom, it will need some clever marketing to find packed cinemas.
If you think this film isn't going to work out for you, it probably won't and you should avoid it. But if you can handle sailing into unknown waters with a stellar young cast and a fearless director, go for it. And don't worry about the title you can look that up afterwards.
ps an excellent soundtrack by the way. I hope they release it.
Not quite your average day out in the Ozark Mountains. This gutsy, hard
to categorise, steadily paced, noir-ish thriller set in the rural
badlands of America could even be an early Oscar contender. Gruesome
murder-mystery or girl-makes-good-against-the-odds, the inscrutably
titled Winter's Bone maintains a sense of deep menace as it weaves its
way towards a suitably restrained yet gruesome conclusion.
Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly tries to track down her father, who put their house up for his bail bond and then disappeared. If she fails, Ree and her family will be turned out into the Ozark woods. Challenging her outlaw kin's code of silence and risking her life, Ree begins to piece together the truth.
The carefully drawn characters and dense plot are drawn from a similarly creepy book of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, who coined the phrase 'country noir.' The pacing reminded me of Mystic River, but the unusual location and strange people persuade me it is something new. Many of the adults in the local community live in disgusting conditions, often using drugs quite openly. But they are not stereotypical drug users. There have clear-cut rules and codes of honour, as strong and enforceable as any mafia network.
This is good entertainment, with sufficient plot complexity to keep serious viewers on their toes. There are endless questions to which you need to know the answers. Such as how to avoid ending up eaten by hogs (which mostly involves not asking awkward question of the people who feed them). The humdinger that keeps the end-stage of the movie on edge is, How do you prove you are dead?
You are, of course, meant to enjoy it without asking too many questions, just like the man says. For instance, how does a girl like Ree, whose mother is insane and whose father is a druggie, come to be an ideal teenager? She has every decent quality you can imagine, combined with humility and guts. I wonder where she learnt those if not at America film-script central? She's no dumb cookie, raises siblings of six and twelve years old, teaches them everything from spelling and arithmetic to how to shoot a gun and skin a squirrel. The perfect character for audience identification and who will uphold decency, family values and lead us to salvation from the filth and corruption all around. It's well acted, and just the story we want to hear. But apart from exposing the conventional structure beneath its seeming indie exterior, there's not a lot to find wrong with the film. It boasts high production values, a haunting, outstandingly atmospheric score by Dickon Hinchliffe, perfectly evocative of the region. The best spin is making the chief protagonist a young girl. The basic plot would be a western with a strong minded man triumphing over evil, whereas Ree transforms it into a rite of passage to assert her adulthood. It might be the stuff of fantasy, but it's still a fine movie about surmounting your fears.
Some people have asked what the title means. By way of just one possible explanation, I'd like to quote from the book, which will maybe also give you a good taste of the film: (vegetarians look away now)
"Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two or three nights so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavour, sweeten that meat to the bone."
Fancy a taste anyone?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
So a science-type woman starts having 'prophetic' dreams of her own
demise? The blurb nearly put me off. I'm pleased it didn't.
Director Amy Hardie is not that particular brand of scientist that sees death coming and has a sudden conversion to faith or superstition. Nor one that, with the most basic of investigative tools, gets hoodwinked and later vulnerable to ridicule (as were many scientists who 'believed' Uri Geller until stage magician James Randi did exactly the same tricks but openly proclaiming them as professional performance). She's not even a scientist, so more credit to her for taking a scientific approach open to any sensible individual. Amy Hardie makes science instructional films. Edge of Dreaming shows she can also makes an excellent feature documentary. But if the film can be judged a success on its limited exploration of dream phenomenon, it can be judged an equally successful film in the way it creates a sense of intimacy with her beautiful family, and the emotional involvement she elicits in their home in the Scottish Highlands.
Amy has one of those dreams one night that is so vivid you stand up and shake yourself. She's dreamt their horse is dead. She goes outside and sees the horse has indeed keeled over (although observant viewers will notice a discrepancy of detail). Amy is shaken. They've had the horse for a long time. Added to which the dream was pretty upsetting. Her logical mind recognises there could be logical explanations as well as coincidence something that is borne out later when speaking to a neurospecialist. She would have probably picked up subliminal signals both regarding the horse's poor health and also the horse's own sense that it was dying. As I recall, the horse had fallen on the opposite side to the one mentioned in her dream, which would further count against any 'supernatural' information received in her dream. Her feeling shaken by the loss is compounded by the dream.
The next dream is a prophecy from her previous partner, who died at a young age, telling her she will die in the coming year. Amy's health suddenly deteriorates. She discovers she has fibrosis of the lungs, which are operating "at about 60%," so the oxygen supply to the rest of her body is reduced. She stars reading Jung, a leading source of early dream psychology, and doesn't find it very reassuring. At one point she becomes bedridden. Firstly she recognises that, "things start to look very different when you're ill for six weeks." She rationally discount the dream but realises after some discussions (with what appear to be responsible scientists) that her brain especially her sleeping brain is still 'hard-wired' to believe it after what she's been through. This in itself could be having a psychosomatic effect.
Her illness is getting progressively worse. One particularly illuminating discussion is with a neuroscientist who explains the action of the frontal lobes and areas of the brain that are active or non-active in different states, including dream sleep. The dream has set up a damaging pattern inside her head and she wants to somehow 're-enter' the dream state and change the neural pathways.
Many people at this point might have experimented with hypnotherapy or any manner of fringe practices. Amy is more used to taking control of things herself. She is aware that some individuals can shut off their waking mind through meditation or other forms of trance. She discusses this with the doctor, who confirms that brain patterns have been verified for such states and that brain activity at those times is radically different enough to support tentatively a number of hypotheses. She goes, with us and the camera, to a Brazilian shaman. The shaman helps her enter the dream state (it looks a bit like hypnosis to an outsider except she is fully aware throughout and experiencing the process with the shaman). The shaman prepares her by emphasising she must be fearless again, it seems psychologically sound how else would she challenge an imprinted pattern? Once she has re-entered the dream state, Amy challenges the 'prophecy' and its power over her brain. Afterwards she also realises that she never had the chance to 'say goodbye' to her first husband, the one who appeared in the dream. Psychopathology is always healthier after the cure has been completed.
Edge of Dreaming is a valuable contribution to such researches. It is instructive in demonstrating superb film-making with the most meagre of material. The variety of techniques used, both in terms of technical expertise and developing intimacy with the viewer, is instructive. It also produces rapt interest from beginning to end as one of the sanest and most balanced depictions of good family life in the frequently snowbound highlands, beautifully photographed and without sentimentality. It is interesting for its reflections on death and dying, both Amy's coining-to-terms with her own mortality and little gems like her sister who keeps some of their mum's ashes in a small decorative box and finds them comforting.
It touches only on the smallest area of its proclaimed subject. Several artists, for instance, have developed formal techniques for using the state in between sleep and waking for finding creative solutions (for example, choreographers seeking to fit components of a dance). There are other questions it sensibly avoids tackling, and there is no serious analysis of dream symbolism. But it is refreshing to see the scientific approach used to examine what is commonly termed fringe 'science' and the life-and-death immediacy gives it a sense of personal urgency. Details of the experts she consulted are on the film's website, making for transparency. The tension to see if she survives is maintained to the end. Having survived both her illness and the year that the 'death threat' applied to, Amy says, "I still love science. It's just a bigger world, that's all!"
Of all the films I saw at the 2010 Edinburgh International Film
Festival, this is the only one (apart from Savage Messiah) that
deserved, for me, repeated viewings. I'm not implying it's the best
ever Werner Herzog film. Or the best David Lynch film (if you feel his
'producer' role influenced it that much, as many did.) But I was
captivated by what 'My Son' had actually done. Even though it is
obvious from the start. Less obvious though is the Greek tragedy
playing out in his mind which, in his head, is mostly what he's
actually doing. Apart from that, I wanted to re-watch so many scenes.
Crazy stuff that is made believable simply by the conviction with which
it is presented. The first viewing had me gripping my seat in
open-jawed amazement throughout, only to breathe a sigh at the end and
wonder what I was getting so excited about. Flamingo hostages? Give me
a break! (Even if you are supposed to call them 'eagles in drag.' Or
ostriches.) God is in the kitchen. On a tin of oatmeal to be precise.
But this isn't comedy (though you may laugh) and consider, if you will,
that, "The cruel bitch of female passion can break apart the yolk that
joins a pair; and force apart the dark embrace of beast and man alike."
Now we're getting somewhere, and it's hypnotically arty, fiendishly funny, upsettingly evocative of nasty dread around the corner, and aren't you pleased that dreams are only dreams and this is only a film.
Story One. The Truth.
The film is based on the true story of Mark Yavorsky, a San Diego man who stabbed his mother to death, inspired by his recent role as Euripides' Orestes in a production of The Eumenides at University of California, San Diego. Or was it Aeschylus' version. Or maybe it was Electra, by Sophocles. (The Truth isn't very interesting anyway, so you can skip this bit.)
Story Two. The Cinematic Truth.
Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon) is maybe in his late twenties but lives with his eccentric and overbearing ("You know you like your jello!") mother. Brad adores mum (played by Grace Zabriskie) with a Norman Bates like unhealthy shine. This being a Herzog movie, it goes with saying that he's crazy, although the line between 'crazy' and 'madly inspired actor-artiste' is deliberately nebulous. He is engaged to a very normal girl (played by Chloë Sevigny, whose characters do seem to specialise in dubious boyfriends, don't they?). Their shared passion for theatre somehow makes this believable. Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña are bizarrely and beautifully caricatured Lynch-style detectives for whom the unusual is just another day's work. Rather more interesting for them is a tale of the plain clothes policeman getting busted for speeding by another plain clothes policeman. They're about as normal as the blood-related cops in Tarantino's Deathproof. If a murder won't fit on the report sheet, it will by the time they've finished with it. They are also about the sanest thing we've got short of lovesick Sevigny or an exasperated theatre director.
So Brad doesn't get to kill mum on stage cos he's far too 'inspired' to be managed by the director and gets kicks off the cast. He runs the stage sword (which is meant to be Greek but isn't, because Brad prefers it that way) through his mother several times as they are sitting down for morning coffee with their nice neighbours. This occurrence is treated in a fairly routine way near the beginning of the film, so we can enjoy the rest of the time in extended flashbacks to understand what really happened and why.
Story Three. The Real Truth.
Orestes (with whom Brad identifies) is the last link in a bloody line of godly nastiness. Tantallus had been hard done by, and invites the gods to dinner to see if they are real. When they turn up, he serves his son in a stew (They didn't have jello in ancient Greece). The gods puke, but the bits of half-chewed flesh live on to father more cannibals. Only Orestes can lift the curse, but has to kill his mother to do it. If that sounds crazy, it probably was. But Orestes is something of dramatic symbol for anyone whose crime is mitigated by extenuating circumstances. Mad or not, you do what you have to do. "At least some people act a role," says Brad, "others play a part." Historically, it's about replacing matriarchy.
This is a film where you are entranced throughout, awaiting the dark brooding fury or the mother's 'vengeful hounds from hell.' (Or at least an ostrich that steals yours glasses while you're cleaning them.) It even has a dwarf. At the end, you might wonder what on earth you were getting so worked up about, but it's hard to deny you enjoyed the ride. Analyse it too closely and you might not like the extended freeze frames which are ludicrously pretend (you can see Sevigny moving, understandably, as she tries to eat her horrid jello). I did, but for someone people who spotted it the first time round, the joke had worn off. For others, it might be a re-hashing of Lynch/Herzog staples without breaking radical new ground. I suspect I may have to change my 'rating' to five stars if I slink back and see it yet again.
Third Star could almost be described as viewer reverse-engineered. Once
you've seen the ending, it's fairly easy not only to justify the tedium
of the rest of the film but to see meaning and relevance in material
that almost sent you despairing to the nearest emergency exit. Several
people even walked out in the press screening I attended, which is
unusual. If I had just gone out for a nice evening's entertainment, I'm
sure I would have headed off or even used my seat to grab a quick nap.
I'm relating this in case you find yourself in a similar dilemma: if
you do, my message is, DON'T LEAVE BEFORE THE END.
Four 30-something male friends set off for a remote area of Wales. One of them, James, is seriously ill with cancer. His mates are taking him for a holiday send-off in his favourite part of the world. External events soon make it plain they have bitten off more than they can chew. They have to surmount their insecurities to come clean and build a deeper level of trust based on total honesty. But that is only the start . . .
This is a film dedicated to the iPod generation. The society of urbanites who are more concerned with whether their iPhone will sync across several platforms than matters of life and death or even whether relationships need to be ideal when most people can, after all, "just settle for something that will do" and so let them get on with the day-to-day business of 'life.' Perhaps some people can relate better than I can to the bulk of this movie (some people did chuckle at the occasional humour). I love the beautiful opening, with the air blowing through the grass, the seawater, the fire of birthday candles flaming and then being extinguished. From thereon it seemed all horribly downhill until the end scenes which, in total contrast, practically induce a state of shock.
Characters are routinely introduced, their backstories rather artificially introduced into the dialogue. They go off on their rather boring adventure, have boring little interludes such as a village fete turning into a brawl, and a meeting with a daft beachcomber searching for washed-up Daath Vader memorabilia. Of his parents, James says, "Sickness may be mine but the tragedy is theirs." And mine too, I think, for sitting through this stuff. Hair-pulling inanities abound in the trivial conversation. How can intelligent men mouth off such superficial rubbish? I allow myself to be distracted by the nice (if totally unoriginal) sunset photography. Halfway through, as a further treat for sitting there that long, I let my mind dwell on the most fascinating thing so far, a ferry price list that says, "Ferry £3. Return £6.50." This occupies me long enough to get through the next round of male hissy fits as they argue over individually failing lives. Another bit of pleasantly contrived photography comes up as they get to their destination dancing and splashing in the sea, sunlight reflecting and sparkling (whoopee) classically off the water. Sound and vision is generally faultless, I should mention, and there's some good incidental music. What a waste (or so I thought).
Then the plotwinder kicks in with a vengeance. Dilemmas presented with frighteningly diminishing time-scales. Third Star is here fulfilling a major practical use of narrative art: making us ask, what would I do in such a situation? Any preliminary conclusions are rapidly challenged, as events shift the goal posts. Superficiality in the long lead-up becomes both a necessary factor for the denouement catching us off-guard; as well as providing commentary on how we push important questions aside for another day that (we think) never comes.
Third Star was shot in Wales on a budget of £450,000 using Super 16. Talented director Hattie Dalton and deviously clever scriptwriter Vaughan Sivell have, by accident or design, done annoyingly well. If you find yourself in a cinema watching their film, I advise you to either enjoy it or sit through it until the end. DON'T give up. Like James, 'feel the fight' in yourself one last time. You know it'll be worth it.
I am reminded of another excellent movie from a totally different genre that succeeded in misleading audiences just as as well as this one. Horror fans will recall Audition, an apparently laid-back, low-budget Asian effort. It lulled me into a sense of being able to handle with one eye shut anything such patently 'struggling filmmakers' might come up with. Only to revise my opinions with large helpings of humble pie that stuck firmly in my throat. I can't quite put Third Star in that category, but it is a damn clever movie. Even the less-than-shattering revelations mid-film, retrospectively become like the car backfiring in a noir movie (heralding a gun going off) or a door slamming in a slasher movie (heralding a bigger fright to come). But Third Star's issues are not from other-worldy fiction: they are a commentary on how we live, and how we routinely refuse to communicate on deep levels until almost too late.
Savage Messiah is not the easiest of Ken Russell's films. But it is for
me the one that deserves our enduring respect as well as the most
worthy of securing his place in film history. This is in no small part
due to the very articulate script by the great Christopher Logue and
glorious sets by Derek Jarman; as well as the impassioned performances
of the three main characters. But it is to the director that goes
credit for pulling together the artistic vision. We could point out
many flaws from specific (more familiar) perspectives; yet the overall
film succeeds so admirably in its primary thrust that many such
'criticisms' would be little more than evidence of the viewer missing
The story is a loose biopic of Henri Gaudier, an important and exuberant artist of the early 20th century, who developed a rough-hewn style influencing 20th century modernist sculpture. He abandoned highly finished, polished styles of classical sculpture in favour of an art that is raw and passionate. An 18-year-old self-taught Parisian of great talent and rash, grandiose outbursts, he develops an intense but platonic relationship with Sophie Brzeksa, a cultured woman much older than himself. Their relationship is one of highly charged but unconsummated sexual attraction.
Moving to London, Henri takes his partner's last name. His fame increases as he forefronts Vorticism (which has similarities to Cubism and Futurism). But Gaudier's genius was only recognized after his death at the age of 24, falling in WWI, as a French Army hero twice promoted for bravery. In the film, Russell concentrates on the source of his creativity, his zeal to express his vision, the passionate rage that filled him. Brzeksa's antithesis and in a way his 'second' muse is the suffragette Gosh Boyle. Fiercely sexual in a very practical way, Boyle is almost (but not quite) Gaudier's 'Kundry.' While he is a very sexual young man, his art, and his passion for his art, fortunately always comes first. At one point when Brzeksa is refusing his advances, he demands of her five shillings for a whore. Although they are almost penniless, she gives it to him. He pays the whore and uses her to pose for life drawings. But Gosh Boyle is not simply a society siren. In a scene that burns itself on the brain, Helen Mirren, as Gosh, descends a staircase of magnificent Jarmanesque grandeur. It is quite simply perhaps the finest nude scene in film history. Mirren becomes the Greek goddess. Visually she epitomises the height of Greek art that Gaudier nevertheless wishes to break away from. Sex with Brzeksa (if it ever happened) would be a bonding at the creative level. Sex with Gosh is simply two nice individuals sharing their sexual needs (with good taste).
Brzeksa is writing a book entitled, "Truth a novel of the Spirit." Gaudier tells her, "You're a genius!" Adding, "I know that cos I'm a genius too." Early scenes have Gaudier publicly making fun of famous sculptures, grabbing stone breasts and so on, leaping around exhibits as if they are playthings, taunting museum security while delivering a tirade. "Art is sex and art is revolution!" Dialogue comes fast and furiously, debating art, the meaning of art, its value, creativity and the sources of creativity, whether art begets art and whether anything is truly original.
As a sculptor, Gaudier speaks of the stone 'leading the artist in.' But his passion for the work is like the fusion of hydrogen and oxygen, creativity exploding on the viewer with unstoppable force. He is the 'mad' artist whose madness rents the veil of the world. One night he captivates a dinner party and Bond Street gallery owner with his ideas. They excuse his atrocious table manners in the name of art, but insist he produce a torso that he has so eloquently described. He arranges an appointment with the upper-class potential buyer at 8am the next day, steals stone from a cemetery, and works feverishly all night to produce the bust. If artistic licence is used to portray 'facts,' it is done to convey the spirit.
A key to understanding the flamboyance of Russell is the work of Antonin Artaud, both his philosophy and his studies of film theory. Artaud sought a cinematic experience powerful enough to throw the viewer beyond their civilised self and rediscover their primitive instincts. Like Gaudier's denunciation of classical art, he rejected the polished result of mainstream cinema that, in many ways, tries to replicate reality or become a variation of the literary/theatrical experience. He also rejects the verité style that can be devoid of emotion. Artaud proposal is diametrically opposed to Brechtian distanciation. Artaud, who was a strong influence on Russell, was the opposite: he would seek to overpower the audience with sensory input and thence achieve a sort of trancelike state. His technique is often referred to as 'theatre of cruelty,' stripping away the veneer of civilization, disturbing audience by revealing the forces of nature. Russell's Gaudier also strips away rose-tinted social fallacies. "You know the public if an artist isn't miserable, he's nothing!" He prophesises the effect of the war: "If the war comes it will kill the artists but not the dealers." The enthusiastically polemic tone can be tiring for the viewer. There are points where we want to sympathise with his critics and tell him to "shut up and grow up." We would like Russell to offer up Gaudier for our delectation in more traditional or intellectual style. But to do that would not only be untrue to Gaudier and the creative spirit described. It would be untrue to Russell.
This self-financed film was a commercial disaster for Russell. Yet he still describes it as his best film and the one for which he would most wish to be remembered. If that is to happen, it will, at some point, need to become more readily available.
Postales (two and a half stars) Cuzco, Peru. The historic capital of
the Inca empire. So high in the Andes that visitors can initially
suffer oxygen deprivation in the thin air. A visually splendid film
location, it is the doorway to Machu Picchu and other world heritage
ruins; as well as exotic colours, local traditions, and a new world to
explore. Director Josh Hyde admirably foregrounds local poor people as
the principal characters before getting the main story underway. By the
time a family of Westerners arrives, soon to lose their wide-eyed
innocence each in different ways, the audience has been primed to see
things from radically different viewpoints.
Young Pablo pays 15 Sols (about £3.50) for 50 postcards at cost, selling them on the street to get pocket money and pay for food. Meanwhile, his teenage older brothers go for bigger bait, using looks and charm to fleece foreign girls after sleeping with them. Plus the odd bit of mugging. Mum poses in a square with a llama a great photo opportunity that visitors will pay for to take home that 'authentic Peruvian look.' Dad has just lost his job. He chews coca and gets drunk. The family is due to be evicted: from a house that is little more than a hovel.
The youngest of a visiting American family is Mary, stereotypically slightly disempowered by her unconsciously authoritarian parents ("You're ten! What do you know!?" scolds mum. We don't really know, but Mary does show grit. "I'm twelve!!" she replies). Mary bright and responsible, constantly taking photos and hoping they can all go to Machu Picchu soon. She bumps into Pablo who is a similar age to herself. He has a pet frog in his pocket. Pre-teen imagination bonds the two kids as they share tender feelings for the frog. Their young 'innocence' mainlines them as heroes of the story.
Pablo reluctantly goes with his older brothers on a 'job.' They pick someone at random; a likely target. Pablo distracts with a persistent attempt at selling postcards, while the other two creep up to give the gringo a beating. And steal a wallet. Pablo is uncomfortable at accepting a share of the takings. By a rather unexplained and remarkable coincidence, the victim turns out to be Mary's father.
Mary's older sister, Elizabeth, lies to their parents so she can date and have sex with a young man she meets at a disco. By another remarkable coincidence, he turns out (unbeknown to her) to be one of the boys who gave her father a kicking. While the parents are at an art gallery, Mary, somewhat out of character I felt, ignores her parents instructions to 'stay put' and goes off with Pablo. Eventually all is dramatically revealed and a happy ending achieved without sacrificing character (if not narrative) credibility.
Postales is a warm, easy-to-like film with overall high production values. Characterisation is excellent, but the narrative lost me half way through. The muggers were rather careless for kids used to the street. But out of a city the size of Cuzco, coincidences were a laid on a little heavy for my liking. It is an easy to watch film but one that left me unimpressed in cinematic terms.
I have edited this review subsequent to its initial appearance. The reasons are as follow. I considered the review balanced. Having posted over 900 reviews on this site alone, I have no ax to grind. My review was the first one to appear on IMDb, publicising the film's strengths and weaknesses as I see them. Immediately afterwards, a considerable number of people registered on IMDb. Apparently for the sole reason of supporting the director's view, which he has explained to me at length but without changing my opinion. These posters, in the reviews, the message board, as well as anonymous posters in the synopsis section, have so far limited themselves to posting about a single film, so I leave readers to make their own conclusions. Reviews should not be about discussions, but as more than one of these 'independent' reviewers have attacked what I have written rather than just writing independently, I shall re-state what I said originally: The film struck me as heavy on coincidences. It is not a massive flaw, but it lessened its worth for me personally. The director can explain these coincidences, which is fine. Perhaps they passed me by. My own view is that they are not sufficiently explained in the film.
A film that is subtitled relies to an extent on an art house market unless it is outstanding. But Postales is neither outstanding nor does it have the content generally associated with the art house market. So far it has not been heavily reviewed. I could only recommend it wholeheartedly to someone going backpacking to Peru and wanting a brief introduction. Or possibly as a 'date' movie. I urge readers to check other independent reviews by people who write about many films, on here or elsewhere. That way you will get a balanced idea. Or take a chance and just see the film for yourself.
(This review is based on the version shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival)
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