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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The number 174 bus may well forever be remembered as the most famous
hi-jack in Brasil. National television gave it hours of live coverage.
Rio de Janeiro police desperately tried to free hostages. The ordeal
was imprinted on the national psyche, much the way 9/11 is on
America's. First a documentary, and now this major film.
I did once experience an attempted hi-jack in Brasil. Coming off a slip road from Presidente Vargas. The same freeway where part of this film is located. About twenty young kids, none of them more than twelve years old, charge our fast-moving vehicle. They run head-on towards us in a v-formation, attempting to make the bus brake hard. Or crash. It's 2am. I'm on my way back to the apartment after late night carousing. Passengers rise in their seats. Transfixed. We wait to see what the driver will do. Instead of stopping, he accelerates towards the children. It resembles a game of dare, but with deadly intent. The phalanx of charging youngsters scatters at the very last minute. Sighs of relief. If he had stopped, the chances of being robbed at gunpoint would have been high.
The famous 174 incident ended in bloodshed. It was made into the documentary, Onibus 174, which did rather well, and also inspired this film. Last Stop 174, a feature thriller that culminates in the same event, has much to live up to.
Our action starts with Alessandro, rudely ripped from his mother's breast (quite literally). The gangsters that grab him violently are owed money by his coke-sniffing mama. Young Alessandro (Sandro for short) is soon old enough to wield a gun. His life soon intertwines with another boy called Sandro as they grow up on the streets, doing coke and doing time. They survive by armed robbery and dealing drugs. A close shave with an infamous street massacre, just off Presidente Vargas (in Rio's city centre), sees several children gunned down. Between the bloodbath of juveniles and the bus hi-jack, weave tales of maternal longing, desperate glue-sniffing, jailbreak and prostitution. Meanwhile, Church and NGOs fight to save souls among such unworthy miscreants.
As a straightforward action movie, Last Stop 174 is gritty and entertaining. The pace doesn't let up, and the central characters give a convincing demonstration of Brasil's brand of smooth-talking hustlers. But does the film have more to it than just box office returns? Our young actors do well - on many an occasion - but at other times seem noticeably stretched. It seems a good enough story; yet is really a collection of interlocking pieces rather than a smoothly flowing whole. The actual hijack is a relatively short segment at the end of the film - and it left me a little underwhelmed. I had been very much looking forward to Last Stop 174. Yet on viewing, I felt it had little new to say. In fact, very little to say at all. Additionally, my sympathies are moving towards some of the more art-house type directors from Brasil. Ones that deplore the way their multifaceted country is depicted as a violent, third-world outback.
You could imagine the anger if the bulk of mainstream film from the UK, for instance, portrayed nothing but Trainspotting and underbellies of drug orgies and football violence. The Rio city centre carnage should be shocking - since such things normally only happen, when they do happen, in underprivileged favelas, the slums of Brasil. Not in the midst of a teeming financial district. But this film sadly gives us no context to draw such contrasts. We see mostly only slum boys, sleeping on pavements and selling their heavily-cut coke. Characters outside their world of the dispossessed have little more than walk-on parts.
The plot is overcomplicated by having two boys of similar names. And there is confusion rather than mystery over who is the real mother. The mishmash result is lack of momentum for the main storyline. This should be Sandro's boyhood, culminating in a botched robbery and hijack of bus 174.
Not that there aren't fascinating details. Con-tricks used to steal a Copacabana woman's handbag. Or an ingenious ruse for the mass egress from prison, when they scam and overpower guards and staff. Earlier, Sandro loses his virginity at a tender age. To a prostitute he promptly falls in love with. Patchy performances of inspired intensity outweigh an attempt at a sustained ensemble endeavour. From the opening scenes (which have genuine shock value), the drive towards a finale is uneven at best. The film's target audience is unclear, being too well-trodden for many mainstream viewers and lacking the subtlety demanded by art-house crowds. Last Stop 174, if not quite grinding to a halt, never manages to make a smooth transition through its gears.
Hip, hand-held and subversively hollow. If Nothing Else Works Out
challenges you for a reason to like it - while gluing your eyes firmly
to every minute.
The story follows four highly empathetic dregs of society in Sao Paulo. They meander at high speed to an inevitable bad ending and try to miss it. Leo, a journalist, has lost his job. His rent is due. The IRS is after him for wages he never received. And he has a clinically depressive plus her kid crashing at his pad. Depressive-head (Angela) has spent the electric money on 'medication.' They meet Marcin, a lovable 'middle-man' coke dealer. She has rationalised her job as 'spreading little bits of happiness.' Then there's Wilson, a cabbie wanting a psychiatrist. Nothing has worked out for any of them. But somehow everything will work out . . .
The movie starts with a quote from Rousseau: "A society is only a democracy when no-one is so rich that they can buy someone, and no-one so poor that they need sell themselves." The rest is peppered with quasi-philosophical quotes throughout. Such as, "We are taught not to steal, but we are not taught not to be stolen."
There's some clever stuff with sound and camera, and the film is genre-breaking in avoiding expected traps. But the things that set it apart are the sincerity of the acting and its dogged, if dodgy, attempt to stay true to its original premise. And did I mention a rather beautiful soundtrack as well? In fact the more I think back on it, the more I love this film. Marcin has a simple desire to be a good person even though she's not. Leo verges on being a soft touch and he knows it. Wilson barely knows what's going on. He just wants to drive his cab and collect fares.
Even Angela shows a desperate humanity in wanting the best for her son, that softens her otherwise sexy but unsympathetic persona. She desires to be checked in to rehab. She admits she can't control her urges. All four form deep bonds of affection. Who can not admire them and feel for them? There are trannies and hookers and murderous drug dealers on one side. All doing quite nicely thank you. And politicians, banks and government on the other. Both ends rich and getting richer. Both giving them no easy way out.
"What is the logic," Leo thinks to himself, "behind a poor person stealing from someone who is richer?" There's a pause, and then Leo supplies the answer roughly to our expectation: "He just wants something he can't have."
But then comes the harder question. "What is the logic behind a rich man stealing from a poor man, if he already had everything?"
It is more challenging. The government steals from him. The IRS steals from him. His employers steal from him. And, given half a chance, the cut-throat tranny at the girlie bar will steal from him. Such questions salve his conscience if only so far for he is being drawn (with his new-found friends) into increasingly illicit operations.
The 'government' is seen fleetingly in the run-up to elections. We recognise the face of President Lula. He might have been the best leader Brasil has had for a long time, but his honeymoon flavour is running out at home. Here, he is simply symbolic of 'all politicians.' (British viewers might feel a distinct resonance to the 2009 expenses scandals which similarly tarred all politicians equally.)
Marcin is endearing. Imagine someone who would genuinely help you when you are helpless late at night. She has a fragility that makes you want to take her in your arms. As if she were a child. Hold her to your breast. Protect her from the big bad world. A world that she struggles bravely to keep at bay. Not showing you her tears. She is the person you hold in your heart in a 'there but for fortune' way days after you've left the cinema. She also appeals to Leo's protective nature (though Wilson looks inclined to give her good fumble at times). Marcin's preference for girlfriends over boyfriends at least keeps some clarity in their already complicated interpersonal relationships.
Cinematography is constantly captivating. Mirroring the dislocation from life that the protagonists feel. Yet the film manages a positive quality in spite of the realist, desolate themes, making it a rare treat (even if it does seem to go on a bit too long).
"And there are no miracles, and there is something which brings us back to life I will always take with me if nothing else works out."
No fairy tale happiness stolen from make-believe of Disney blockbusters. No 'love solves all.' No collection point serviced by organised religions. But, while life remains, there is perhaps something within us that still offers options. Brasil draws on cultural roots, like the sea pounding the unforgiving shore. The drum of the beating heart. A factor infinite and unknown. The call of condomblé, the sound of one hand clapping.
There is no 'answer' when nothing, nothing else works out. But something inexpressible remains.
If finding the exceptional in the ordinary is the mark of a good
documentary maker, Eduardo Coutinho is positively tattooed.
Interviewing 37 residents of an apartment block hardly sounds
thrilling. Be prepared for a surprise.
It helps, perhaps, that the apartment block is Copacobana one of the most over-the-top districts of Rio de Janeiro. Brasilians often tend to be colourful people anyway, wearing their souls flamboyantly on their sleeves and decorating ordinary speech with emotion worthy of a soap opera. In Copacobana, it is an art-form. "They are ordinary (yet unique) characters like you and I," says acclaimed director, Eduardo Coutinho. If that's so, I hope that if anyone ever condenses my life into five minutes, it will be Coutinho.
Three weeks of research, one week of filming, knocking on the doors of 276 studio apartments that house about 500 people on the twelve floors. More polyphonic that any synthetic attempt at reality TV, the tales they tell are entertaining, heart-stopping, inspiring, sincere and cover the spectrum of lifestyles from the building's lower middle-class.
Sergio, who runs Master, is also a master of one-liners. "Reality is the funeral of illusions. So when they flip out, I bring them back to reality." Over the years, he has transformed the apartment block from a seedy history of hookers and dealers to one of admired respectability. There is one prostitute living there, but she is a charming and agreeable escort. Not someone you would avoid in the lift. Alessandro started escorting at 18. She blames her sheltered upbringing for the fact that she got pregnant at 14 but harbours not a trace of bitterness. The wage-rise is rather helpful in bringing up her son and (she earns the same for one 'date' as she used to earn in a month). Now, a very pretty 20yr old, she finds no shame in talking about her job but says it is humiliating work when she wakes up next to a client who's quite nice - someone she might find rather attractive - and he pays her.
Esther, an elderly, refined lady, openly admits she has fallen in love with herself. She has become the icon, just like the area in which she lives: "We live in one of Rio's postcards: Copacobana." It is certainly not the safest of suburbs and Esther, whose portraits decorate her flat, recalls being robbed at gunpoint. A white, well-dressed man forces her back to her apartment to find her credit card, then accompanies her to the bank where she has to withdraw all her money (RS8000 about £2600 at today's rates, but much more in years gone by). She feels the branch manager was a likely accomplice, as the usual 24hr notice for large withdrawals was not required. Back at her apartment, the robber gives her a bag that seems to contain folded up cash saying, "Keep it! I don't need your money!" After getting her hopes up she finds it contains no money and plans her suicide at 4am. With a slightly theatrical flourish, she produces the bag for the cameras.
One thing that holds the stories together is the compelling sincerity of those interviewed. There is no commentary. No voice-over. Only their testimony. Oldsters living and loving as joyously as youngsters. Or young Renata, with a 42yr old rich American boyfriend. Then there's teacher Daniela, interviewed reluctantly after just waking up. Socially-phobic, she avoids looking at the camera while self-effacingly being moved to tears by her own poetry.
Jasson is a samba writer and bartender. We expect to find his song embarrassing but it is surprisingly well done. Unlike Henrique, who lives alone but once met Frank Sinatra. He offers an excruciating performance of My Way. One he also sings on a street corner on alternate Saturdays. Probably getting as 'emotionally affected' as he does in this film. And there's Fernando, at 73, who has been in 30 soaps and 62 movies. Or sultry young Cristina, whose wealthy father bought her an apartment as a getting-thrown-out present (after finding she was pregnant). And Luiz, the head doorman who addresses God as 'Boss' in his prayers "cos He hires and fires us as He pleases," and who also found a baby in the stair one night. Fabiana is a fashion student with her life and the world ahead of her. Whereas well-travelled Suze sings in Japanese.
The diversity is equalled only by the high density of people living so close to each other. "I know when the downstairs neighbours are cooking," says Cristina, noting a very common phenomena in Copa apartments joined by a deep kitchen ventilation shaft. You hear everything.
In many ways, the characters are reminiscent of Brazilian soap opera stars. Their real lives are all bigger than anybody's real life has any seeming right to be. Their stories are addictive. It makes me wonder why westerners are so hooked on not showing emotion. The emotional outbursts on telenovas seem to feed the inspiration of ordinary people, ever keen to dramatise their lives. The actions. The words. That the people in the film could have been coached seems improbable. That coaching oneself to tell a good story is a national pastime seems far more believable. And daily life here is full of good stories.
Edifício Master is an apartment block near the beach in the Siquera Campos area of Copacobana. The director himself once lived there many years ago. Now it hums to life in a way that makes you take its inhabitants to your heart.
Cinema is a language of deception. The set we see, the mise-en-scene,
is what the director wants us to see. Conditioning us visually before
an actor even speaks their lines. In costume dramas, the historical
clothing is a further weapon to impress a specific artistic vision on
us, further cloaking any subtext, whether the transformation of a
marriage market story into 'rom-com' (Pride & Prejudice) or consciously
travestying the past (Moulin Rouge!, Marie Antoinette). French cinema
has achieved respected and less controversial use of costume with films
like Jean de Florette and Manon des sources. In these examples,
beautiful, nostalgic settings were contrasted with dystopian visions of
the hard life. When we move to the biopic, cinematic techniques are
routinely used to persuade us of 'what really happened.' Séraphine
continues the proud French tradition of costume and historical drama,
yet in a very accessible vein. It tells the (true) story of a minor
French painter, Séraphine Louis (later known as Séraphine de Senlis,
after the village where she lived.) Our story picks up Séraphine
working as a maid for Madame Duphot. This lady of the house also rents
an apartment to a German art critic-dealer, Wilhelm Uhde. Uhde believes
in the 'primitive' artists and takes a liking to some of the maid's
work he spots. Yolande Moreau's assured performance gives weight to
what may be an unvarnished account. The discovery of the peasant
woman's talent, her humble charm as she goes about collecting the
ingredients for paint (wine, mud, fruits, flowers) as she goes about
her chores as a domestic servant. Everything draws us sympathetically
into Séraphine's world.
Udhe nurtures Séraphine's embryonic talent, ensuring it is seen worldwide. But as war hits the economy, support evaporates. Séraphine's inner voices of inspiration lead her to psychosis and she meets her demise in an insane asylum.
The painting itself is of the so-called 'naïve' style, characterized by childlike simplicity. (One of the most famous exponents, according to some, is L. S. Lowry.) The style seems natural to the childlike (if brilliant) personality of our peasant woman, although of course many naive art painters, including Lowry had, unlike Séraphine, plenty of schooling and formal knowledge of art technique.
Production values in the film are high all round. Costume, acting, direction, all achieve a high standard, as evidenced by the many awards heaped on it in its own country. The overall effect is touching without being sentimental.
Séraphine is a continuation of one woman's barely recognised legacy. Any subtext is about serving up a fine character from France's past, a commemoration of national greatness from the early 20th century. (Visits to the exhibition of her work in Senlis have, predictably, quadrupled since the release of the film.) If there is any ideological weakness, it is simply that held by the character herself, a Christian attitude of sacrifice and acceptance of fate. There is no strong judgement on whether Séraphine could have lived her life differently. No real analysis of her painting style. It is, after all, a classy and enchanting fairy tale hung on the hook of a historical person, a harmless deception perhaps. The viewer, should she or he wish, can make their own judgement. Just as they can on the deeply religious and fairly distinctive artworks she left for posterity.
How do you do some good in the world? And is it for the person you want
to benefit? Or is it really about being honest with yourself? Little
Soldier makes us face some of the hardest questions we may never want
to answer. One is war. Another is human trafficking. As Harriet Harman
pulls scare figures on trafficked sex workers out of a hat to boost her
government's failing public support (and push through another 'tough'
bill), this quiet Danish film digs to a level of reality that we maybe
didn't want to visit.
A young, disillusioned female soldier returns from Afghanistan. Lotte's psychological numbness is with herself as much as with the world around her. With her own ability or lack of it to make a difference. To somehow make the world a better place. Beneath an incredibly powerful fighting frame, she yearns to re-discover her feminine kindness. But war has brutalised her. And when she returns home, the bond she hoped to discover with her father, throws her isolated, war-weary, and unemployed remnant of the woman she has become, against an ineffectual old man on civvy street. He runs a kindly escort business with trafficked women, exchanging a vanload every so often and keeping their passports in his safe.
It is all so horribly everyday. So horribly convincing. Chilling. Yet reality keeps unfolding like a series of Chinese boxes. Each revelation is more realistic than what has gone before. We reach a credible, emotionally charged plateau, only to have it swept from under our feet by an even more believable explanation of what is happening all around us.
Lotte befriends one of the prostitutes, Lily. Her father's favourite. He trusts Lotte to act as driver and bodyguard (a role which Lotte's military training lets her perform a little too well at times). The two women become close, realising they share similar psychological scars. They have become welded to a life they cannot leave. Saving another's soul becomes a heart-rending admission of one's own needs. Needs which can blind.
The brutal honesty of this film reminds me of another movie about war and violence, also directed by a woman (Kate Bigelow's, The Hurt Locker). Both films, without moralising, look at the psychological reality while depicting 'male' violence at its most hard-hitting. In Little Soldier, Lotte has been masculinised, first in a desperate attempt to get attention from her father, and then by being a soldier. Lotte and Lily have nothing but contempt for each other, yet their needs draw them ever closer together. Director Annette K. Olesen peels back the fabric of salvation a drive that makes us want to save individuals or save the world. Worlds and individuals that are far less sure of their need to be saved than our need to save them. Says Oleson, "Saviours are good. And in fairy tales they are altruistic. But can they expect to be saved too? Can you save somebody who doesn't want salvation?" Little Soldier is another fine feather in the cap of Zentropa, the Danish film company founded in 1992 by director Lars von Trier. And while it has great depth, it is not aimed solely at the art house crowd. Heart-warming, profoundly moving, shocking and violent, Little Soldier is a film that will fight to stay in your memory.
Motor-mouth director, Quentin Tarantino is rather good at killing
people. Fast. Slow. Or slo-mo. But always inventively. Death may be
delayed with deviously droll asides or a bit of creative torture. An
ear deliciously sliced off in Reservoir Dogs. An all-girl singalong
with action replays of our fatal car-smash for Deathproof. Wedding
massacre in Kill Bill. Or death requiring an internal carwash in Pulp
Fiction. Inglourious Basterds is no exception. Death is nasty, funny,
almost operatic. But never boring. One could almost write an outline
based on who dies and how.
Brad Pitt (Aldo Raine) leads an unconventional group of Jewish Americans behind enemy lines in World War II. Their fighting style includes Apache Indian tactics to terrorize the Nazis. Graphic violence is mixed with tongue-twisting wittiness in Tarantino's peerless signature style. The dialogue is developed to delay inevitable slaughter with ingenious irreverence. Stock characters are engineered with comic book gusto - and are so colourfully convincing that departures from historical fact seem mere details. A mesmerisingly multilingual special officer, Hans 'The Jew Hunter' Lands (with an award-winning performance from Christoph Waltz) is main antagonist to Brad's 'Basterds', as well as two other camps (French Jew Shosanna, and Churchill's Brits plus Diane Kruger) who similarly plot to blow up Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and the big bad guys. All in a giant conflagration of dynamite, double-agents, guns and plenty of old nitrate film. This happens at an old cinema which is showing a triumphant Nazi propaganda movie-within-the-movie, coincidentally directed by (Jewish) Eli Roth. Who coincidentally plays baseball-bat-bearing Donny Donnowitz, 'Bear Jew,' and who dispatches Nazis by beating them bloodthirstily to a pulp.
When you expect violence, you get just sardonic wink. When you don't, you get full-on, glorious, extended, blood-and-guts. Femme Fatales meanwhile deconstruct stereotypes and inject fashion into daring mise-en-scene and plot-devices. Shosanna (Melanie Laurent)'s enviable red dress kicks off a climactic chapter with feminine visual splendour and predictably subverts the traditional macho of war films. Obscure soundtrack references are abandoned for Bowie's more visceral Cat People which explodes into our eardrums, and the fire of the Fuhrer is threatened with a heavy dose of gasoline. Zoe Bell leaps invisibly from Deathproof leading lady to stunt-double for Laurent and Kruger and the action finale delivers pay-off for a rather wordy middle section.
There are more historical and cult film references (of varying levels of difficulty) than you could shake from a shibboleth of war movies. It is very clever. It is very Tarantino. It is very art-house. But is it good entertainment? Stylistically, it recalls Pulp Fiction more than any of the director's other work. But the extended inter-action dialogues sometimes flag more than in his earlier glories. It still has great commercial appeal - fortunately for Mr Weinstein, whose flagging production company needs shekels to offset 500 million dollars of debts. But is it Tarantino's masterpiece that has been ten years in the making? For some, Inglourious Basterds could seem like Tarantino-lite. Perhaps more blood-letting and less word-games would have better satisfied our lust for passive cinema, big stars, three-second cuts and more explosions than obscure eponyms. And for serious cinema-goers, while acknowledging Tarantino's nod to French New Wave, are we not entitled to ask if his films are going to have a point? "We're French. We respect directors in our country," Shosanna quips. Yes, but should they not also demonstrate substance to deserve it? Godard shot a lot of film just to question film-making styles. Only later did he seek to make films of depth. Each of Tarantino's films is like the arrival of a new voice in cinema. Yet having found his voice, what exactly does he want to say? Any new ground with Inglourious Basterds is firmly in the realm of genre manipulation. I didn't feel it said anything new about Jews and Germans. And questions of race or language seem necessary conceits within the film rather than earth-shaking profundities. Tarantino can justify every aspect of the film to anyone who listens. Maybe I'm making ungrateful quibbles. Maybe our children's children will speak of him with reverence. And if you are a Tarantino fan like I am, you will probably watch it twice anyway, whatever it's faults. Does a film need any further justification?
Showing at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, this film
preceded a panel discussion which was one of the best things I'd
experienced all week. That it should spark off such animated dialogue
is only one of the good things about For the Love of Movies. I also
adored the title, promising a documentary that has never been done
before. The only other thing I liked was the last of the end-credits.
When the entire film had instilled in me the excitement level
equivalent to reading an ingredients list on a packet of Cup-a-Soup.
The audience and distinguished panel were less enthusiastic. Less enthusiastic than possibly the world's most renowned popular-press critic, Roger Ebert. Who apparently said, "I enjoyed it immensely, I learned a lot. Very well done, edited and researched and narrated!" Roger Ebert does coincidentally feature quite heavily in this film. And presents himself better than most, it must be said. One critic not featured is Gerald Peary. Pearce, however, is the movie's director.
So there are different views. It compels me to explain that this film is not to be avoided lightly. Make a determined detour, if necessary, to avoid it forcefully. At all costs. Petition your local cinema to show it only on condition that noted academics discuss the subject afterwards. Then go along for the discussion alone.
EIFF's discussion featured critics who are in a different category to newspaper opinion-makers. Editors of Sight & Sound, and of Screen. Both industry magazines. Both devoted to analysis, rather than popular criticism. And both rather good at their jobs. One espoused the view that 'preview' criticism the sort that newspapers publish is dead. The future for critics is more one of post-viewing analysis. Where a film-goer might want a deeper understanding of certain aspects. Preview reviews can suffice as a short paragraph: Is it your sort of film? If there a consensus for or against? Or an alternative reading you might relate to? Stuff you can get online. Without buying a paper.
Pearce asks, would more people read the critics if they could see them? Personally, I am unable to convince myself of this. And Pearce doesn't really bother. Apart from parading them. Critics are not film stars. Or catwalk models. They are hardly objects to idolise. Many are neither charismatic in the flesh nor easy on the eye.
As online media takes hold, many critics lose jobs. This is presented as regrettable. Hard as it sounds, I'm not sure I agree. If no-one pays money to read their columns, such critics might find more productive work. From the film, most do not even seem great graduates of film studies. They are fans. People who love movies and are lucky enough to get a nice job. No serious analysis of how they disseminate cinema. The film is a mere descriptive showcase in historical lecture format. Soundbites and trivia.
The film would not make me respect the likes of James Agee and Susan Sontag had I not read them. The simplistic description of Agee as, 'an early proponent of auteur theory' says little (there are better proponents). No mention is made of his deeply humanistic, everyman approach. Or his bravery in dismissing a whole week's worth of films as unwatchable. (Newspaper critics, of course, generally provide a set number of words, however bad the current crop is.) Susan Sontag, one of the greatest American thinkers of recent times when it comes to analysis of the arts (and many other things, including the nature of criticism) is here reduced to a mere name flashed on screen ("Goodbye Sontag").
"My first desire," says Pearce, "is for an audience to become intimate with the reviewers behind the bylines, so it can be understood how critics think about and see movies." This is well-intended, but the film doesn't show it. It feels like an ill-judged attempt to hold on to jobs for newspaper hacks. Knowing that Roger Ebert loves films so much he watches them in his spare time doesn't tell me how he writes about them. How he structures his reviews entertainingly. It might have given him immense narcissistic pleasure to see himself on the big screen. But this particularly self-serving Love of Movies really presents him rather shoddily. (Roger with respect if you thought this horrendously slapdash editing was a job 'very well done,' you must have seen a different cut. Or been on a lot of medication.) For the Love of Movies is an incredibly unlovable, boring movie. Excruciating to sit through. The Friday Night with Jonathan Ross chat show is Pulitzer Prize material by comparison. The editing has as much bite as a bowl of soggy cornflakes. Ironically, Pearce does seem to have interesting ideas. He suggests in the discussion how film criticism can help to contextualise and make foreign-language films more accessible. But his good ideas are not contained in his film. If Mr Pearce is hoping to change careers any time soon, for whatever reason, I sincerely hope he finds a job more suited to his ability than directing.
The post-film discussion winds up with a rather cheap parting shot. Pearce, obviously aggrieved by the lack of enthusiasm, somehow infers that good critics say nice things about his film while those lacking in taste say nasty things. Apart from the rather pathetic psychological blackmail implied (even if unintentional), or the fact that 'good' critics quoted in the trailer have conflicts of interest, my duty is not to Mr Pearce and his estimation of my taste. But to the film-goer who might get little more than a torn-up ticket stub as reward for spending money on this poorly made effort. As a nice gesture to the director's friends in the business, it might possibly go down quite well. As a defence of why we need film critics at all, I am rather less convinced. I deeply suspect it is rather less successful on that score.
There was considerable publicity over Baraboo as it premiered at the
Edinburgh International Film Festival. The Festival's Artistic
Director, Hannah McGill included it in her advance picks, saying she
was very excited about the film. And with every reason, it would seem.
The director, Mary Sweeney, is the long time editor and producer for
David Lynch, and won a BAFTA for her work on Mulholland Drive. The film
follows several people living in a typical Midwestern town motel and
how they interact.
Speaking of the small town life, on which the movie is based, director Mary Sweeney says, "I love the immediacy and the intimacy and the directness of that kind of human contact." Certainly Baraboo has a warmth and a charm. Most of the actors are local. It unfolds very naturally like a gentle painting on a summer's day. Some of the additional music in Baraboo is by legendary guitarist Richard Thompson and fits very well. Think Lynch's Straight Story. A movie Lynch got away with through sheer quirkiness.
Baraboo is beautiful to look at but without being quirky. Gently meditative. About real people and things unspoken. A single mother struggles to raise her adolescent son the best way she knows how. When an elderly neighbour moves in to the motel, we see the old dog has a few more tricks of human nature up her sleeve than we might expect. She soon has the wayward youth under her spell.
There are no big surprises in Baraboo. We watch the various lives unfold. We watch the stunning photography. We enjoy the heart-warming effect of a guileless movie with no sudden and unnatural plot developments. But before you think Baraboo is Dogme95 revisiting the Midwest, we need maybe to ask why it is a feature film. There are no great revelations of character. Nothing to get very worked up about. And although it is beautiful to look at, it goes on doing that for an hour and a half without the jaw-dropping charisma of the Straight Story. And when it does have a forced plot device (death and bereavement) it feels like something added to pep things up rather than a natural event. Baraboo is so warm and cosy that I could probably have comfortably dozed off otherwise. This is not a bad film far from it. Just that the word that most comes mind is, "nice." On the one hand, Baraboo does indeed confirm Mary Stewart as a talent of the future. But it is also too reminiscent of Straight Story in style. Without the tractor. And without much of a story either.
"No kissing on the mouth, and I don't like being fingered!" So Becky
lays down terms of business when withdrawn and quiet Gary picks her up
on the run-down trading estate that is the stomping ground for the
nightly hawking of her wares.
Gary is not only silent barely short of creepily so he seems emotionally needy. Both characters are convincingly hewn. As they get down to basics on the back seat, something happens. We're not sure what it was but it wasn't comfortable for Becky. She puts him in his place. He goes for a beer. She picks up a regular client. We watch Gary as he sits in the car and cries. Then at daybreak, as she finishes work, he follows her . . .
This well-made short packs an emotional ending that is entirely unexpected. It points at the goodness in everyone, even in the unlikeliest of places.
A popular place to die in America is sitting in a diner. I only know
this because of countless movies where people go into a diner,
ostensibly for a cup of coffee, but basically so they can get shot. You
think I'm kidding. They don't really go into diners to get shot. They
go into diners so they can be immortalised in movies when they get
shot. Remembered by millions. Either way, they get shot, and hopefully
something else happens to make it interesting.
Fragments follows the lives of various people after one such incident in a diner. One woman becomes obsessively promiscuous. One man is convinced he has a miraculous power of luck at the casino tables. One teenager becomes obsessed with born-again Christianity. Another stops speaking. 24/7. The life of the waitress in the diner. The man who held the door open on the way out and let the killer in. Everyone is affected in different ways. Beneath the placid exteriors there is deep sorrow needing to come out.
At least that's the story. It is, unfortunately, only mildly interesting. Both the youngsters are played by charismatic individuals. Forest Whitaker works overtime to imbue his lamentable character with something worth watching. Kate Beckinsale is easy on the eye, even playing neurotically bedraggled. The list of names goes on, and includes many actors worthy of better material than this.
We tend in the UK to give bereavement short shrift. An hour or so over cheese and ham sandwiches at the funeral then like any trauma that goes with it it's supposed to be over. But although the American tradition is better at giving death its due, it is also more fond of the psychoanalyst's couch. And endlessly obsessing over one's worries. And endlessly expecting us to care. 'Get over it,' is not something a sensitive person would ever think, much less say to a friend. That each of these people eventually find an exit from their vicious cycle of senseless sorrow is more down to the determination to spin it out to feature length and then cut before we wonder what would happen if they had any real problems.
I would like to be more sympathetic to such navel gazing as eulogised in Fragments. But if the characters are in any way believable, it is very, very sad that they are so. This is an ensemble performance in the psychopathology of feeling over-dramatically sorry for oneself. Of being at the mercy of circumstances. In a frankly tedious, self-indulgent, predictably downward spiral of a film.
The movie is nicely bookended, starting with scenes of an abandoned kitchen montaged with respectable surburbania. It is meant to convey a suggestion that these horrors happen to 'nice' people too. The treatment of the two iconic US derangements guns and religion is refreshingly non-judgemental and manages a balancing act that neither supports nor opposes. The production values are generally good and it has the advantage of being a mainstream weepie that is neither sugary nor patronising towards the audience. The drama is well-paced, and if you can tolerate the storyline there is no reason why you shouldn't effortlessly while away some time in front of it (if my hard-hearted reservations haven't put you off).
From the viewpoint of dedicated cinema-goers, violence in diners has good and bad points. On the plus side, we get a lot of great movies. Like History of Violence. Or Natural Born Killers. And more gangster films than holes in Al Capone's raincoat. But of course there's sadness too. Subjecting your loved ones to Fragments would be a prime example.
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