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I hadn't read much about the film before seeing it. Afterwards, I'd say
it is one part sexy, stoned, witty fun. One part light-hearted crime
caper (almost, but not quite, getting too repetitive). And one part
'serious issues.' The film is very loosely inspired by the life of
Part One. Howard (Rhys Ifans) goes from a tiny school in Wales to become a successful Oxford graduate, consuming large amounts of marijuana on the way (plus a tiny bit of LSD, probably a lot of sex, and a small amount of alcohol). After Oxford, he gives up drugs to become a teacher. But when a pal is stranded trying to bring a car full of resin home, he kindly steps in and finds it rather lucrative. The difference between someone who smokes and someone he deals is, as he puts it, the first smokes all they have; whereas the second has more than they can humanly smoke. He's drawn into the Secret Service in passing, who like his ability to move between borders and attract ladies.
I found Part One very funny. I have a slight problem with Rhys Ifans looking the same age at the beginning of the film as he does many years later, and after a fairly long stretch in prison. But it didn't distract me from enjoying it. His Welsh humour finds its mark, the comedic editing and timing is flawless, and for anyone over a certain age it has elements of a trip down memory lane. When David Thewlis chimes in (convincingly) as an IRA leader, Jim McCann, offering to supply planes to ferry the stuff over, heavyweight Irish hilarity meets Welsh wit. The head-on result is riotous, and yet never predictable or stilted. Add to that, my favourite fall-in-love-with-the-bad-guy actress, Ms Chloë Sevigny, and I am in for the ride.
Part Two consists of several cat-and-mouse chases as they evade capture. I did wonder if they were going to keep it up till the end of the movie, but it gives me a chance to look out for a tiny cameo by king-of-the bad-boy directors himself, Mr Ken Russell. (Look carefully or you will miss him in the background at one of the passport check sequences.)
Part Three is when we start to see what the movie's serious undercurrent is, and it accordingly leaps in my estimation. Remember Steven Soderbergh's film, Traffic? If you came out of that thinking every sensible, well-supported argument on legalising marijuana had been made and still there was no change in government policy it's time to realise that rational argument is not going to change articles of faith. Can humour help? Mr Nice doesn't make moral judgements. But the natural facts speak for themselves. The main character and his associates never use hard drugs (stated emphatically). There are no perceptible harmful effects (other than Howard and friends enjoying what they do). There are considerable beneficial effects. Especially notable is the scene where a man discovers his partner being unfaithful. We expect violence. If they had been drinking alcohol a drug with far more proved harmful effects violence would almost inevitably followed. Instead, they get momentarily outraged: then share a joint. From my limited student experience of the dope-smoking 'scene' many years ago, this is an entirely plausible reaction. The association with 'organised crime' (here, the IRA in the form Jim McCann) is clearly a result of anti-drugs legislation, not the other way around. The misery inflicted is the emphatically the result of anti-drugs legislation, not the use of the drug (Sevigny especially comes into her element with some emotionally moving end-scenes. Yes, I did shed a tear. And Sevigny managed a very nice English accent to boot).
The filmmakers must have wondered if smoking marijuana would be decriminalised before Mr Nice was released but the UK government, in one of the many pre-election scandals, ignored the advice of its own experts and continued to include hash in the 'war on drugs.' As Soderbergh said years ago, "We can't have a frank discussion with our policymakers - if you're in the government or in law enforcement you cannot acknowledge that drugs are anything but inherently evil and morally wrong." Bottom line: there is too much money and jobs tied up in 'drugs enforcement' to legalise them. But I should stress that this is my 'reading' of the film. Someone opposed to decriminalisation might reach an entirely different conclusion, and from watching the very same film.
On the downside, two hours of largely hash-based comedy could be very wearisome for anyone that hasn't had at least passing familiarity with the stuff. Other complaints might include Rhys Ifans not seeing him get his shirt off often enough (though I lost count of the number of times he did). Or whether Ms Sevigny used a stand-in for the brief times her shirt was off. On the plus side, it made me proud that Britain could turn out solid, constructive comedy. Rather than kitchen-sink drama based (as Ken Russell might say) on 'football in the Midlands.' Sometimes laughter, well done, can maybe reach places that common sense alone cannot reach.
For Godard fans, and probably Truffaut fans as well, a documentary
about their friendship, generously illustrated with clips from their
movies, sounds like manna from heaven. Godard famously said, "All you
need for a movie is a gun and a girl." A gun was definitely needed
preferably to shoot the director before he made this.
Not that the history of these two seminal filmmakers, their initial close friendship, and later parting over fierce artistic differences shouldn't be told. Perhaps it should. To examine those differences or even analysing the individual greatness of Godard and Truffaut. To show how they were originally so close, rather than a chummy accident. Such would be a service to those who love their work, to those approaching it for the first time, as a suitable section of a sixth-form media studies, or even a pleasant half hour TV documentary. That the present offering would look out of place even as a DVD extra is not only a condemnation of its artistic integrity, but singularly odd as some will take it almost as a besmirchment of the great traditions that Godard and Truffaut spearheaded.
Of the many expositions of the two key movies many would identify as kick-starting the French New Wave, Breathless (Godard) and The 400 Blows (Truffaut), this documentary competes for the prize of leaving the viewer with even less information than they probably came in with. An uninspired commentary gives little mention of the innovative styles and techniques, clips seem to be used at random (and often poorly at that). At best it offers the sort of history you could get in five minutes from Wikipedia. We hear much about their love of movies but with only the most superficial of clues as to why, the particular intellectual passions and insights that might distinguish them from the most moribund of cinema-goers. We have, in short, no analysis. No descriptive observation. Merely occasional waffle. Emmanuel Laurent's Two in the Wave had its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and richly recalled a similarly mediocre film from the year before, For the Love of Movies, the Story of American Film Criticism. The target audiences in both cases would be people who are avid filmgoers and want to learn or experience something deeper about the subject matter. Godard is an example of a great critic who became a great filmmaker overnight. Simply put, Laurent isn't.
Of the things I couldn't help but enjoy though, were the scenes from the movies. I managed to identify most of them, and playing 'spot the clip' gave me something to do while tuning out commentary that narcissistically imagines it is doing me a great service - even with its room temperature IQ. But what of other viewers? For an introduction to the men and their work, shouldn't the films have been identified? Or at least the relevant techniques highlighted by commentary? As an example, the back of my mind recalls a tracking shot in a clip being shown that has a jump cut. Some moments after (not before or during) the jump-cut, but immediately before switching to another film clip, the commentator says how . . . 'they were setting out to destroy the notion that you can't jump-cut while tracking.' The clip that then begins, immediately after this apparently sensible remark, is from À bout de soufflé: a film particularly famous for its use of jump-cuts. Let's watch and see which sequence they use! Mmmm . . . not a tracking shot for a start . . . and the cuts in this particular piece of film (in a moving car) are of the traditional kind. I feel one has to be particularly careful if ever making damning criticism, but this is just shoddy film technique from Laurent. I search for the section using a digital copy of the film at the festival press centre, just to be sure I made no mistake. I hadn't. The commentary refers to something you would easily miss, simply because the footage is on screen before the voice-over, and the choice and positioning of screen clips would lead any normal viewer to believe they were about to see the point made in the following section which turned out to be either a bad example or irrelevant.
Fortunately a film about Godard would struggle to be all bad. Two in the Wave comes alive in the clips of interviews with Godard himself. Apart from seeing his movies, it is one of the best ways of getting insights into them. Additionally, Godard speaks as passionately in word and deed as he does at 24 frames per second. He can probably tell us more about film-making in five minutes than all the pompous drivel that is wasted by many of the writers filling books (or in this case film) on his works. (There are many notable exceptions, though some of my favourites include writers, WW Dixon and David Sterritt and to be fair, I also suspect Laurent is capable of much better than this if he just leaves the camera at home).
Another morsel of worth was the inclusion of student riot footage, which was better than average. And helps to illustrate the rebellions against what was seen as Gaullist repression of the arts (among other things) and artistic freedom of expression generally.
A bigger shortcoming is the lightweight manner in which Godard and Truffaut's disagreement is handled, since their friendship is the film's primary stated remit. The best one can gather is that Godard was somehow interested in using film for political ends, whereas Truffaut was concerned with film as fine art, or art for art's sake. While this is correct as far as I understand it, it would have been a great opportunity to examine the arguments over which they found such passionate disagreement.
Sadly Two in the Wave is little more than a pretentious fanzine-style offering, couched in deceptively cultured tones.
I admit it, I like movies. A film that transports me to see things in a
different way, or inspires me, or explores deep and complex questions
where the language of cinema can transcend the limitations of words and
But some people I know don't think like that. What's worse, they're not stupid or uneducated or lacking in taste. They just expect a movie to entertain. Much like food stops you being hungry. You go in the cinema, buy some overpriced sweets, sit down, and switch off your brain. Simple. Maybe they've had a long day. Maybe they're on a date. Maybe they just fancied a night out. They don't care too much about the movie as long as it's easily digestible, starts and finishes at a convenient time, and has free parking nearby.
Is that so wrong? It doesn't even have to be that good, it just has to tick some boxes. A bit like this one.
The Rebound is a light romcom where Sandy (Catherine Zeta Jones) is a beautiful, smart, suburban 40-year-old mother who discovers her husband is cheating on her and takes her two children to New York City for a fresh start. She gets a new job and meets Aram, a sweet twenty four year-old graduate who's at a low point in his life - he found out his French wife of two weeks duped him into marrying so she could get a green card. Aram works at a coffee-shop but is great at babysitting. Eventually the inevitable happens and they hit it off despite the age-differences.
The style has similarities to Sex and the City in pacing and heavy sprinkling of sexual innuendos, but really succeeds around Catherine Zeta-Jones, who soon reminds us she is an Oscar-rated actress even in this most undemanding of roles. Justin Bartha is reasonably amusing as Aram. The other characters are more two-dimensional. Zeta-Jones commands the stage and has some nice fluffiness for us to contemplate meaningfully as we search for the car park ticket on the way out. "I think what's endearing and universal to the piece is that divorce and break-ups don't just happen to women and neither do the emotions that come out of them. The Rebound shows us these events and emotions also happen to men. I also like what the script says about relationships. When they break up everyone thinks there's no hope in hell that you will find love again, but you can."
I am a bit at a loss to explain why a woman who can act, sing and dance as well as Catherine Zeta Jones should put herself through such silliness, but she is quick to explain. "My character goes through this horrific dating process and I've heard countless stories from my girlfriends who are the same age are in this position. When you're married you think your life is complete forever, then you get divorced and you have to start over again and go out into the marketplace, for want of a better word. At some point you just have to laugh at all these situations that happen when your life turns around on a dime and The Rebound helps us see this."
That is just so horrific and I feel deeply moved. I'll get the giant popcorn next time. But to be fair, unlike Sex and the City where males are mere bit-players in the big scheme of things, Aram could strike a chord with any guy that would love to fancy his chances with a woman that is of a considerably different age and richer than he is. Never mind if you can't take her out and pay pay pay in the style she 'deserves' just go to a really awful theatre where your terrible acting friends are producing a boring play. Being a dream lady, she will not only sit through attentively, be polite to your geeky friends, but practically eat your face off on the dance floor afterwards.
You become parted irrevocably but, as Catherine says, your life will suddenly turn on a dime and the fairy godmother of happy endings will make everything right before you have to get home for the babysitter. Don't tell anyone, but I enjoyed it. I know I shouldn't . . .
I suspect that many people who have passed briefly through Manila have
had a similar thought to myself: how to get out again as quickly as
possible. Manila is almost unique among major Asian capitals in that
the sense of being a horribly oppressed, overcrowded, underfunded,
third-world rat-hole of a city bears down pretty mercilessly. Take the
hard rural life of battling elements and poverty, and transfer it with
concrete legs to the city of a population crushed together. Don't even
think about good days and bad days. To say 'life sucks' would make
light of it. A general rule of day-to-day life is that it won't be
pleasant: it might be worse. Get used to it. With many poor countries,
there is some redeeming feature. The cultural traditions. The beautiful
colours. The music, the dancing. In the Philippines, forget it. Nice
parts are for rich people, well fenced off.
The only abiding beauty is the bond between people who share the same fate and aim. Perhaps not to be anything as high and mighty as 'good' but at least different to the scum of the canal and all who merge into it.
The theme of our film is two grandmothers ('Lola' means 'grandmother' in Filipino). Using the singular asserts their commonality something that is so precious, so necessary, and for which each has to strive, even when every shred of their lives would wish them otherwise.
The film opens amid harsh wind and rain. The driving rain that makes short shift of umbrellas. An elderly woman battles against this weather through a dirty concrete square. Graffiti peers down. It is not a nice area or a particularly safe one. She is aided by a very young boy, related to her, and who helps her walk. The scene (and most of the film) is shot in verité style. There is no sense of watching actors or stage sets. Merely a camera 'happening' to catch the scene as it unfolds. Harsh visual effects are underlined (again, for most of the film) by harsh sounds. Clipped, slightly screeching voices of lower-class urban Filipinos, traffic, and the general noise of life that forces itself into any vestiges where one's peace of mind once stayed.
The grandmother is Lola Sepa. She has lost her grandson. He was stabbed the other night. She finally says to the boy, "Here will do." With difficulty, they light a candle.
There is something intensely spiritual about the moment. Remember that poem by Kipling that starts, "If you can keep your head when all about you . . .?" There is a quotation from Taoism that equally fits: "The shock terrifies for a hundred miles, and he does not let fall the sacrificial spoon and chalice." This old woman, who struggles just to walk, has risked coming to the scene of the murder in horrible monsoon conditions, just to light a remembrance candle (that is doubtless going to be blown out a few moments later anyway ) for her dead grandson.
The other life story we follow is that of the murder's grandmother, Lola Carpin. We follow them for nearly two hours until their lives converge and find a resolution that is the most unsaccharine you could imagine. The squalor and corruption of daily life are not glamorised or dramatised. They just are. Lola is a harrowing, claustrophobic, stressful film that makes you long for a quiet night and a hot bath. The horror is not so much graphic as a relentless wearing down. It will stay with you. As will Lola Sepa (She will always be for me now a real character I have seen, not a fiction.) There are a few lighter notes. You can soak up much about the Philippines. The trademark jeepney buses originally leftover US jeeps in which passengers pass their fare one to another until it reaches the driver. The delight that accompanies (for reasons hard for Westerners to understand) duck eggs or fish. Sewing money inside your clothes for safety. A corrupt and underfunded infrastructure that you don't complain about you just get on and make the best of the life you have. And where a good heart still counts for something. Especially if it is backed up with 50,000 pesos.
The great love story with full-on eroticism has never sounded like the
sort of the thing the British do at all somehow, much less do it well.
Director Ashley Horner set out to put that right.
His protagonists are two freewheeling youngsters that are 'In Love.' So they spend most of the 97 minutes of this film 'Having Sex.' Manchester is a sort of would-be photographer and Noon is a self-confessed taxidermist. Their sources of income, if any, are not particularly clear. But such details could after all complicate the heady sense of falling for someone you have heady sex with. Especially at an age where hormones are high and responsibilities are low. Things can get complicated. Such as when Manchester leaves his lovingly lensed erotic photos in the local boozer. And they are picked up by someone with a slightly more commercial eye for such things.
The good things about Brilliant Love are quite a few. Seeing the two leads with all their clothes on for the Q & A at least reassured me that they did an decent job as actors, and weren't just a couple of hippie-types that had wandered onto the set. The film is shot in a very warm and natural way without being cheesy. There is none of the attempt to desexualise (the quite graphic) sex as is so common in art-house movies which want to prove they are 'high brow.' People in Brilliant Love are meant to look warm and sexy in a nice way, and actually achieve that. There's plenty of natural, inoffensive full-frontal nudity along the lines of two people who might wander around half naked anyway, and happen to be young, and happen to be physically good-looking. No penetration close-ups in case you are getting hot under the collar. It doesn't seem to be pushing UK censorship boundaries, for instance, and so doesn't have particularly to wave a flag that justifies it in the name of art. The only thing a stuffy person might object to on the nudity count would probably be the sheer quantity. The filmmakers should also be complimented on turning out a decent job on what was probably a non-existent budget. The script is as natural as the acting, and it generally has all the warm fuzzies that go with saving small furry animals from a night in the cold.
But if Brilliant Love succeeds in making a fully British erotic love story, it doesn't quite manage to make a great one. Except for competent demonstration of technique, one might question whether it was worth making at all. It is hard to care about the characters that deeply, or whether they are in love. 'Nice-ish kids' is about the best you could say. There is no perceptible intellectual connection in fact both of them seem a Rizla paper short of a spliff at times and any emotional connection seems based more on the devotion arising from good physical chemistry and easy-going natures. Such shortcomings alone would not ruin a film, and indeed the last ten to fifteen minutes manage to salvage much of the dramatic tension. But the story is weak. Grand end statements try to assert the seriousness of the affair sadly, using standard three-part formula of, love, break-up, and reunion. Overall, Brilliant Love is just a little bit too inoffensive to really get our teeth into.
What particularly worries me is that it is being held up as a very British offering. Films that are different and have something to say in some way need to stand out more. At least 9 Songs divided opinion. Not that sexy, but it had shock value and an unusual, segmented composition which I personally rather liked. Erotic and explicit love stories do seem to come from abroad. Whether major hitters such as Breillat's beautiful Brief Crossing, the wistful hedonism of The Dreamers, the aesthetically engaging romance and eroticism of Sex and Lucia, the controversial love-tragedies like Irreversible or Antichrist, Cronenberg's fetish love (Crash), or the simple shock-value graphic love in The Brown Bunny. All these films, love them or hate them, are worthy of serious attention. Sadly the harshest thing one might say about Brilliant Love is that it is just . . . well . . . 'quite nice.' The ideal market might be the age-group where people are losing virginity with weekend pocket-money at the cinema. Getting swept up in waves of strong first emotion or infatuation and definitely passion. Where they might strongly identify with the characters. Ironically, the ubiquitous soft-porn warmth of 'erotic love' so constantly on screen will possibly classify this film as 'unsuitable' until they are of an age to have refined their tastes or cooled their ardour. There again, a lot of people in the audience seemed to quite like it. Maybe I'm just an old fuddy-duddy . . .
You know that question, "What would you like people to say about you
after you're gone?" We answer with either, "I don't care," or maybe a
short litany of qualities and our small contributions to the world,
trusting our mumbled tone and contrite expression suitably convey an
appropriate degree of humility. Then the follow-up kicks in, "So what
sort of things do you do now to be that person?"
Director Steven Soderbergh admits he is probably more character-driven than plot-driven. The 'who' not the 'why.' The person, and the inner strength they display. And in this uncommented documentary, we share his fascination for one man. A man who in turn examines his own life or that of others in such a absorbing way that, seen through Soderbergh's crystal lens, it may probably cause you to ask your own ghosts, "But aren't you part of my life too?"
The 'story' is of one Spalding Gray. Probably the foremost of autobiographical monologue raconteurs. He slips with passionate and articulate ease, from living the moment, to observing himself living the moment. Gray's method, as he describes it, is to recount real stories from his (both happy and tortured) life until they become embellished with innuendo and hyperbole. He jokes that it is almost like 'reverse Method Acting'. Instead of throwing the emotional reality of a past intense experience forward into a present dramatisation, he takes the vagaries with which we view memories, and uses them to make his life narrative at once compelling, honest and instructive. "I like telling the story of life better than I do living it," he says. Gray acknowledges he is a 'born actor,' in the sense that he lives his life as a stage. And yet it displays a sincerity and wholeness that makes one think, "Am I as self-aware in my own life?" And if, after all, you were trying to encapsulate your life while living it, how exactly do you go about it?
Gray is no new-age super-guru or remote larger-than-life character. By occupation, a successful experimental actor and solo performer. But still as a man that struggles his whole life, not only with the sort of challenges each of us face, but with the added burdens of hereditary depression and bipolar tendencies. He is foremost a human being. His 'dark underbelly' is as important as his achievements. Normally hidden ordeals a difficult upbringing, sexuality and relationships, thoughts about death and suicide are used positively as foundation blocks. Where many of us would ignore, Gray embraces, analyses, and ultimately transcends.
Soderbergh's low key technique is instrumental. Without it, we would have an entertaining and dramatised monologue (such as the 1987 film of Gray's play and book, Swimming to Cambodia). With it, we get closer to the core of the man's psyche. It's almost a handbook on getting there. Probably the most minimalist of Soderbergh's movies, And Everything is Going Fine has no talking heads, no voiceovers, no perceptible agenda. Points from Gray's stories are illustrated with relevant segments from interview footage. Soderbergh almost goes back to the early roots of Sex, Lies and Videotape, making us acutely aware of the filmic process and then letting us get caught up in it. Everything is Going Fine opens with a sustained fixed shot of an empty chair and desk, using grainy film. It is an image that may well long be associated with Gray, his chosen podium of storytelling. The disparity between what is acknowledged as 'performance' yet capturing truth is a dilemma of the cinematic process itself. Yet here it swiftly becomes a memorial to the fine art of documentary film-making: to become a lens for the truth instead of focussing our attention on the story filmmakers want us to see. In terms of techniques, Shirley Clarke's equally penetrating Portrait of Jason at first comes to mind, or Herzog's Grizzly Man; but whereas Clarke and Herzog expose a truth, Soderbergh's subject is both complicit, self-reflective and ennobling. Every frame is pre-existing footage rather than shot anew for cinema.
To counter inevitable loneliness produced by a work ethic that makes an art form of self-examination, Gray starts to interview others on stage. He demonstrates a rug-pulling capacity to get at a person's innermost demon, probably because he has lived with and conquered his own. He asks a woman if she has ever contemplated suicide. When she says no, his surprise is as if she had said she has never eaten chocolate. Further probing, although never intrusive, reveals that she has indeed contemplated suicide. The interview becomes an enthralling conversation between two people who find they are quite comfortable discussing the most harrowing of personal events.
Gray's self-honesty produces the words that Soderbergh uses in this epitaph to a life lived. Gray captures his own past, prophesises his own future and his life becomes a poem.
Steven Soderbergh's films have frequently obsessed over identity, the way we perceive it, project it, define it. How we make ourselves into the character which we play in our own life story. Defining someone in terms of their sexual experiences (Sex, Lies and Videotape). The plastic medium of an amorphous personality (in his much underrated, The Girlfriend Experience). And observing emotional drive without dramatising the emotion (as in Che). Is it always entertainment? Probably not. And in this case, even the humour, replete as it is with literary references, is aimed more at the educated audience and one that will think well beyond the screening.
For anyone who ever doubted Soderbergh's artistic integrity, this unassuming film is a minor monument to excellence of execution and the enduring validity of his work. And an eloquent eulogy not even just to one man, but to the struggle for excellence and self-actualisation in all of us.
Premièring at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which is
'rebranding its focus on discovery,' Donkeys, with its quirky
provenance of Dogme and Advance Party thinking, appears to be just the
ticket. With its characters and storyline produced independently by
different people - an inventive process that spawned Andrea Arnold's
highly triumphant Red Road, anticipation is high.
The narrative brings us a disjointed and estranged family in working-class Glasgow. Alfie, a street-market seller, is 64, not very likable, and in failing health. He desperately wants to be reunited with his daughter and granddaughter. Many of his increasingly complex attempts to achieve this, backfire humorously or miserably.
Donkeys is the first feature film from director Morag McKinnon, whose short film Home won both a Bafta and a Best British Short award at Edinburgh's festival over ten years ago. After a stint in television, she returns to the big screen with a work that defies convention in the making. Advance Party (II) is a concept from Lars von Trier, and based on an experiment of making a set of three stories: each having the same pre-devised characters but with separate and distinct stories. Perhaps to avoid any scriptwriting tendency that distorts characters to fit a developing plot.
The basic 'rules' governing Advance Party film-making:
1.Scripts can take a starting point in one or more characters or they may be subjected to an external drama. Characters can also participate in a form that is governed primarily by neither characters nor plot.
2.Films take place in Scotland but, apart from that, writers are free to place them anywhere according to geography, social setting or ethnic background. Their back-stories can be expanded, family relations can be created between them, they can be given good habits or bad, and secondary characters can be added if it is proper for the individual film.
3.Interpersonal relationships of characters differ from film to film and they may be weighted differently as major or minor characters.
4.Character development in each story or genre does not affect the other scripts.
5.All of the characters must appear in all of the films.
6.The various parts will be cast with the same actors in the same parts in all of the films.
How well does Donkeys deliver on its goals? Jackie, our CCTV operator from Red Road, has a different job and backstory. It's a gritty performance. Her husband is dead. Jackie blames her father, Alfie. Who also 'peed on the telly' ten years ago. The twelve-year-old daughter is perhaps the most redeeming and redeemable character throughout, untouched by bitterness, joblessness, or despair. The moment in the film that moves me the most is when she stands in the doorway of her mother's bedroom. Jackie, as always, is inflicting another round of isolating hurt and anger upon herself. Jackie's daughter, with the simplicity of a child or even that of an angel, looks at her with wisdom beyond her tender years and says, "It's all right to let folk in . . ." But will Jackie ever be able to open up and let people in? And will they be the 'right' people?
Central to the story is the friendship between Alfie and his best mate, Brian, another one of life's elderly employment office rejects. It is a close but strained relationship. Alfie "patted Brian's dog to death" and helped bury him. The mood swings from the light comedy reminiscent of the TV series, Still Game, to morally challenging scenes of death and dying. And what can you leave to those you love when no-one in the world loves you?
Although characterisation in Donkeys is strong, I found it a strain at times to care about anyone long enough to work out the complex family relationships and feud. Episodes that lacked credibility (like the opera singer letting loose in a chip shop for them) beggared belief, and sapped reality from the main players. There were times when I was tempted to agree with Jackie that certain people might just as well get on and die. But for all its exchanges of sourness, Donkeys manages a high note as its finale. "The final rule," says producer Gillian Berrie, "was that the films must make you laugh, make you cry, and have an uplifting ending."
Advance Party is an experimental tool, not a formula in itself for success. Donkeys is an interesting experiment. But its script is patchy, and at times strands the excellent performances in a wasteland of poorly defined relevance. Its drift from comedy to edginess achieves only limited success. Its look at death is less poignant and much less entertaining, for instance, than writer Scherfig's (Dogme) masterpiece, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself. It has none of the seat-gripping qualities of Red Road, and counters the minimalism of its Dogme ancestry with unwanted music telling us how to feel, or an overload of dramatic devices (such as terrible illness and accidents) to propel the story forward. Yet seen as part of a determined effort to break new ground, it is a treasurable, if flawed, film. Artists must to be free to experiment if movies are to break free of hollow but bankable formulae, and that means there has to be a few eggs broken along the way.
Positive or negative, a reaction is almost inevitable as your eyes scan
the words, "Chase the Slut." Ticket sold, bottom on a seat,
attention-grab has to extend quickly to prove you're not just dumb and
without taste. Fortunately it does.
A comic church congregation, with furry rodents among the faithful, segues back and forth with desaturated scenes of funky fishnets. Preacher and parrot, versus groping hands and the smell of sex. This might be the point to release your inner teenager. Tibby the pretty rich girl and her red-hot pal are funky, intelligent, wild and wanton young women. Virgin boys, including good 17-year old Gabe (and his brothers of similarly chaste persuasion) are members of the Disciples of Noah. They each have a pet animal, regarded as an extension of their soul. The lads get engaged to untouched ladies through a mating ritual in which each young woman offers a dog bowl of food and waits to see whose animal 'picks' her. Yeah, right! So who, exactly, is doing the 'chasing'?
My philosophical meanderings on this are suddenly grounded as I realise 'Chase' is just the name of Tibby's penniless best buddy. She happens to need $1500 to fix her car. (I am almost disappointed where is the inverted game of men just 'thinking' they do the chasing - when really it's the other way round?) Tibby bribes Chase, daring her to bed unbeddable young Gabe, and offering a bounty that will pay Chase's car bills.
The merciless lampooning of Noah's disciples is edgy and darkly humorous. Gabe's self-righteous, overbearing mother, for instance, will add booze to her milk then secretly nip to the bathroom for a spot of self-harm. In the parallel world of Chase and Tibby, we are treated to fast, witty and intelligent teen banter. The entertainment factor is looking good. It could all go Pink Flamingos, if not quite as subversive as Andy Warhol's Heat or the outrageous Thundercrack! A pleasantly retro soundtrack (that reminds me of early B52s) reassures me that this film was the right choice after all.
Chase infiltrates the god-guys' camp and surprises Gabe on a male-bonding session. Male disciples are macho-bonding by beating up garbage bins. Vanessa Claire Smith (Chase), who also scripted the movie, does an excellent job of moving through three levels of performance. Her initial persona is iconic, almost a comic strip character. Then she starts to seduce Gabe, and we become aware of two sides of her. The promiscuous tomboy we already know, but also the skillful way in which she lures her man without seeming to do so. Most expressions of this are formulaic at best, and I was very impressed with the careful dialogue and sharp delivery (Juno meets Deathproof?). Later still, we will see the 'real' Chase, with her heart firmly on her sleeve.
As we get to know Chase, we find she is 22 years old, has a degree, underachieves, and writes fairy tales. There is just enough material here to let the mind wander and ask, is romance itself perhaps the 'mental storybook' that allows us to envisage more lasting relationships? Moments of sincerity and passion, convincingly injected by Smith, take our story to another level of seriousness. We can even imagine how she could be emblematic of many young women, especially those with a wild and independent nature (think, gorgeous university students, boozed up on the town at the weekends).
Seventeen year old Gabe on the other hand, lives in a state of altered reality. His character is more one-dimensional: an extra weird version of more extreme American 'born-agains.' With so much going for it, it's regrettable that so much goes wrong (although mainstream viewers might not notice or care, and they may well be the target audience with which to fund the next movie). The film's blurb says, "The last thing everyone expects: Chase the slut falls in love." Wow. Except we do expect it. This is the far too-obvious plot-development that had to be avoided. Rebellion turns to convention, divesting the film of its early counter-culture promises.
Chase the Slut is a typical fun film-festival movie: low budget, brimming with talent, and almost assured of at least a small select theatre run. It's both gutsier and more maudlin than similarly budgeted breakthrough films on oddball dating. Such as (the successful) In Search of a Midnight Kiss, which I could forgive for selling out to mainstream; or the less successful, Good Dick, which I couldn't. (Perhaps romantic titles work better than ones that seem vulgar?) The regrettable subtext is lamentably mainstream, but I enjoyed the first half so much that criticising it heavily would be uncharitable.
With a dose of David Lynch or John Waters to keep the film on track, it could have been a cult classic, rather than forgettable in a year or two. It's still a great film, but there were times at which I yearned, in Chase's words, ". . . for something a bit more grown up."
The Ghost is the story of a ghost writer who wins an assignment to tidy
up the memoirs of a recently ex British Prime Minister to turn them
into a best seller. It's set in the United States, and revolves around
unproven accusations of allowing suspected terrorists to be extradited
and tortured. The previous ghost writer has been found dead.
I found this a tense thriller with the added attraction of that pointed economy of execution for which Europeanised Hollywood (of which Polanski must be one of the leading exponents) is famed. As was often the case with Hitchcock, the story, camera framing, and a sense of mounting anticipation, produce more suspense than any amount of car chases, expensive stunts, intrusive music or grandstanding of stars.
Polanski's choice of stars is interesting, particularly as the two lead parts Pierce Brosnan (as former Prime Minister, Adam Lang) and Ewan McGregor (as the ghost) are known more for their 'star-appeal' performances than any detailed character acting. Yet they are perfectly cast, both for their on screen personas and for the space given them to develop. When Brosnan comes alive in sudden fits of rage (almost recalling Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon) we become more aware of his considerable strength as an actor, allowing the character deliberately something of a stereotype to shine through. The ploy is somewhat less successful though with Kim Cattrall, who seems forever in her Sex and the City persona. or Tom Wilkinson, who sadly seems to have just been wheeled in just to read lines from a supporting role. A less recognisable face in the formidable array of stars is Olivia Williams (Miss Stubbs in An Education, and also making a return in the new series of Dollhouse). So when Williams, as Lang's wife Ruth, shows unexpected fire and passion we are taken by surprise without any of the voyeuristic appeal of watching Ewan McGregor bare his bottom as he, or his double, does quite readily.
The Ghost can be watched on two levels. Firstly it can be enjoyed as a straightforward thriller of a traditional sort. Aimed at modern audiences, it has plenty of sudden shocks but less twists and turns than, say, Chinatown. Even the ending has been simplified from the original script, which would have given a further meaning to the title and the whole film: but at the risk of being perhaps a little too clever.
But for those who want to draw unsettling comparisons, there is a fairly heavy-handed likeness to accusations about Tony Blair's complicity in what have been termed war crimes. And as Adam Lang, ensconced on an island off the east coast of America, far from the reach of the International Court of Justice (to which America does not subscribe), is pulled deeper into the plot of conspiracy theorists, another reading is easy to find: Polanski's own isolation for alleged crimes committed many years ago. For those that want to follow such parallels, there is a US Secretary of State that looks worrying like Condoleezza Rice. And when Lang refuses an invitation to go to London for fear of arrest, it might possibly recall Polanski's comment, "The last time I went to a festival to get a prize I ended up in jail." The Ghost is a beautifully 'hand-crafted' film, almost belonging to the age of noir, when characters were shadows and revelations exposed with dramatic force rather than loud bangs. Perhaps not as flashy as masterpieces such as Chinatown or Rosemary's Baby, The Ghost is still a welcome addition of quality and sleek design when the market for such dramas is swamped with bad stories and cluttered execution.
Actors have been known to sit on their laurels. Some would argue that,
with Oscar, Emmy, and Tony as best mates on the mantelpiece, Al Pacino
can do just that. Do we respectfully think that all his truly great
performances are in the past? Godfather, Michael Corleone? Or Scarface,
Tony Montana? Happily we can think again. Seeing You Don't Know Jack,
we know it's the film Pacino fans have waited for.
Opening scenes give us Dr 'Death' Kevorkian. Before he invents his famous assisted suicide machine. I look closely at this point. I have to reassure myself it is indeed Pacino, not a docu-drama cut-in. For Pacino looks more like Kevorkian than Kevorkian does. Face, body language, tone of voice, the works.
The first achievement is to captivate with the character himself. Not the divisive issues he represents. Bypass the hazards of predictable biopics. Or monotonous 'message' movies. This is quality mainstream film-making and at its best. It doesn't seek to change views, and the spiky Mr Kevorkian leaves plenty of room to disagree, isolating himself often from even his own supporters. This is a passionate man who has little time for other people's views in any general sense. "Who cares what other people think?" he exclaims. "It's what my patient feels." This is not the first time director Barry Levinson has astounded audiences. Slick approaches shaking up accepted thinking. Wag the Dog was to be a wildcard that would embarrass Clinton's government. The Oscar-winner, Rain Man, was criticised for creating a misleading stereotype (Is every autistic person a closet savant? Of course not.) But what Rain Man did do was raise awareness. Make it OK to talk openly about autism. And perhaps this is the secret You Don't Know Jack could have a similar effect just because it is just as funny, just as entertaining, just as engaging and just as challenging. We so get many different emotions in fast succession on the screen, until we're primed to consider , "How do I really feel about this?" Real people (including death scenes with Kevorkian's patients) are more gutsier coathooks for feelings than the vague ethical constructs debated in every high school.
If movies learn anything from TV, it's how to keep audience attention. And You Don't Know Jack is suitably punchy. It dismisses any thought of getting up for coffee. No boring arguments for or against euthanasia. None of those Clint Eastwood, long and meditative, 'Million Dollar Baby' moments. Susan Sarandon even brings some of her own caustic lines to a film that often brims over with dark, surreal humour. "Is that Santa Claus stepping on a baby?" she asks casually at an exhibition of Kevorkian's bizarre paintings.
There are powerful performance in abundance, not least from the underrated Danny Huston who plays Fieger, Kevorkian's larger-than-life attorney. (Immediately after the movie first aired, the real Geoffrey Fieger announced he will 'maybe stand again' for governor.) Fieger is a colourful, over-the-top character in real life, perfectly suited to Huston's strengths. After watching Danny Huston's talent wasted in lesser films, such as the well-intentioned Boogie Woogie, it is a joy to see him shine.
Bare-knuckle scenes in You Don't Know Jack are explicit. Both in the physical acts of assisted suicide and in their emotional intensity. Kevorkian recalls his own mother's death to Janet Good (Sarandon). "She told me, 'Imagine the worst toothache in the world now imagine that toothache in every bone in your body." He is almost penniless (for he never charged) and, with scientific precision, he at one point tries to save on lethal gas. He places his emphysema patient in a plastic hood (to catch the gas, rather than using a face-mask). But the patient panics and it is nearly the last straw for friend and assistant Neal Nicol, played effortlessly by John Goodman. Such scenes are not for the squeamish.
The sense of sincerity and conviction which Pacino gives the role could make it rather uncomfortable viewing if you disagree outright. But this intense, yet sidelong glance at a deeply polarising topic, seriously tackled but deftly relieved with a sharp witty screenplay, might just give new life to a debate that suffers from political hubris set against rather static public opinion.
You Don't Know Jack reveals a person a long way from popular conceptions. Even if you read his autobiography and see him in interview, as I have, he was and still is, a hard person to fathom. An egocentric or to use a word he suggested himself a zealot it often seems that Kevorkian believes in himself to the point of being inaccessible. "You're gonna need some business cards you know!" chides his sister. For this driven man who is happy to live on a pittance and then go on hunger strike, the importance of such details can, it seems, easily be missed.
At over two hours long, the movie occasionally verges on repetition. Levinson, back on form after several also-rans, maintains the pace with intelligent humour and inventive cinematography. "You understand what prison is?" Judge Jessica Copper asks Kevorkian, who seems oblivious of the potential consequences of his actions. "Did you see The Shawshank Redemption, Sir?" During the hunger strike, a fast montage of slamming doors and uneaten foodtrays makes an impression on our ears and eyes faster than any amount of words and also provides a welcome change of tempo.
This is cinema of the unexpected. With subject matter that should have been unbankably inauspicious. Yet You Don't Know Jack triumphs to take your breath away. Even without a plastic hood.
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