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Antichrist (2009)
253 out of 361 people found the following review useful:
Embedded horror, 23 June 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Where does horror reside in the psyche?

Lars von Trier has established himself as a maker of serious, avant-garde drama. He came to fame through Breaking the Waves, a controversial story of how far someone would go for love. He founded the Dogme movement of verite cinema, and made The Idiots, where lunacy and sanity are cleverly mixed. Next came Dancer in the Dark, an almost Janacek-like musical where a blind girl takes inner fantasy to extremes. There were experiments like The Five Obstructions, and two highly theatrical Brechtian pieces called Dogville and Manderlay, with chalklines instead of sets. One of the few uncontroversial films he has made is Boss of it All, an extremely clever comedy that didn't receive much attention.

If someone like von Trier makes a horror movie, it is hardly likely to be standard fare. He makes films that provide himself and his audiences with thorny intellectual challenges. This results both in adherents and those which dismiss his work as pretentious. (Inasmuch as this review is partly interpretative, other viewers may find their own preferred readings which differ from the approach given here.) With Antichrist, although there are standard 'fright' moments, the main horror is deep psychological manipulation that stays with you for days afterwards. Instead of lashings of gore that can retrospectively be dismissed as 'more CGI,' von Trier seems to do exactly the opposite of what a Freudian psychotherapist would do in releasing obsessions. He locks the terrifying nature of the horror to the most extreme sexual images. The narrative itself follows a similar process. A psychotherapist, with the best intentions, leads his wife into the darkest recesses of her mind. But instead of releasing psychological trauma, he reinforces it, until he has to defend himself when she becomes the controlling force.

A psychotherapist (Willem Dafoe) and his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are making love as their young toddler climbs onto a desk to look at snowflakes outside. And falls to his death. This opening prologue is operatic in its soundtrack and intensity. Exquisite monochrome photography captures water droplets in slow motion to Handel. There is a very brief, aesthetically contextualised glimpse of penetration, setting the audience up for the psycho-sexual horrors that follow later. In the trauma of bereavement, He asks his wife to visualise her worst nightmares in order to help her overcome them. She pictures the woods as symbolising her fear, and they both retreat to an 'Eden' – an isolated cabin surrounded by woods.

The film is divided into six parts, including a Prologue (the lovemaking and death), Grief, Pain, and Despair; The Three Beggars, and an Epilogue. At the end of the prologue, the next three chapters are heralded by three toy soldiers from the dead son's toyroom, each appropriately named.

With Grief, comes very palpable sorrow from both leads. The players become substantial rather than dramatis personae. Colour is added to the previously monochrome palette, literally and in terms of filling out their characters.

As we go through Pain, his wife seems eventually cured. Our nerves, however, are frayed. This is compounded by the rhythmic, hypnotic pounding of acorns falling on the roof of the cabin, and his irritating but inescapable smugness as he treats his wife as a patient rather than a human being needing support. He forever has a self-satisfied, smart answer. Retreating to her own area of expertise, she comes out with ever more unanswerable metaphors, including, "Nature is Satan's Church." (She had been working previously on a book about 'Gynocide' and witch-hunts). The chapter finally introduces openly surreal elements, when a fox is unearthed. (The cunningness of foxes suggests a reliance on logic, whereas the subconscious can rely more on symbols, introducing chaos to a 'logical world.') Chapter three is entitled Despair (Gynocide). He learns things about his wife he didn't know before but perhaps should have. He is pulled into her nightmare. We see him soaked in the rain, at the mercy – for the first time – of the elements. The fourth chapter gives form to the imaginary content of the preceding three, and includes the most upsetting and outrageous scenes (which some viewers will find objectionable). The epilogue provides a narrative and psychological resolution in the only way possible when things have come to such a head. We also see the story relate now to the whole of humanity.

The title of the film contains far more than is at first apparent, although there is also some weakness for the film there. In ancient (pre-'Christian') mythology, the 'Christos' was the enlightened soul within, a central experience of the Gnostic 'heretics.' Their pure aspiration enflamed prayer to reach this exalted realisation. The danger, of course, was that they would mistake an experience along the way for the 'ultimate truth' and become 'obsessed.' This also relates to why so many mystics and spiritual seekers form their own sects. From a Roman Catholic viewpoint, it might be used to explain many different churches that fall short of the ultimate authority. Von Trier is a lapsed Catholic, and describes himself as increasingly atheist. He has said he keeps a copy of Nietzsche's Antichrist at his bedside. In Nietzschean terms, any (traditional) religious conviction is an obsession that falls short of ultimate truth. In New Testament orthodoxy, an Antichrist is what (or who) precedes the Second Coming. Obsession as a temptation along the way works in all mythologies. Psychologically, this is simple description of a process in the mind. But von Trier's use of Christian symbols complicates the issue and obfuscates an elaborate tragedy that is already nearly Shakespearean in its format.

Antichrist is sure to get reactions, even from audiences not geared to his work. For them, the extreme and graphic sexual imagery may be a psychological device too far. For others, among whom are a rare breed of horror aficionados that enjoy a challenge while being outraged and violated, it is a gem of inestimable value.

Helioscape (2008)
A journey definitely worth taking, 23 May 2009

Helioscape is described as, "a portrait of the turbulent emotional landscape of a star," and I'm not sure that I understand what that means. Probably in the same way that I don't really understand a lot of excellent poetry that I nevertheless enjoy, can feel uplifted by, or that inspires me to try to see the world differently. If someone wants to explain it to me, I am very interested. But not nearly as much as I am in the experience.

And watching rising star Jenna Savella (National Ballet of Canada) is an experience. She did what so many dancers and choreographers say they strive to do. Take me on a journey.

This is a beautifully composed work. Beautifully danced. Beautifully photographed. But what I particularly liked was there was neither an absence of cinematic technical innovation nor an excess of it. There was no sense of using the departures that film allows 'just because they could.' Let me explain. The ballet begins in field and forest. Savella's body is almost ritualistic. Tattooed, and with a sheer red covering that stands out against the greenery while not compromising her athletic, dancer's body. She twists and turns, performs seamlessly flowing relevé and arabesque, not with the staccato movement of classical ballet, but as if her body is one continuous curve.

But this is not just dancing in an outdoor environment recorded on camera. At a certain point in the film, the dancer is suddenly in darkness. Yet only darkness of a sort. Her body is still lit. She is no longer in the forest. Her space is unencumbered by physicality. The plane on which she dances maybe revolves slightly. It is as if her triumphant celebration to the sun has continued undeterred by eclipse, equally joyous, totally autonomous, the sun's light a spirit guarded within the physical form of the dancer.

She bursts back into the forest again. And while her dance has the delicate alertness of a fawn, connected to her environment, her expression it totally that of a woman, absorbing every sight of nature for the wondrous thing that it is, the curiosity of a child combined with the intelligent awareness of an adult female. I am reminded of the famous series of photographs, Natural Dance, by Hal Eastman, where a dancer becomes one with the elements of nature. But unlike, Eastman and his Isadora Duncan –inspired dances through natural environments, Ms Savella preserves her balletic tradition. This results in a continuously dynamic relationship between her and her surroundings.

The scene shift dates back to a not dissimilar short, Dance In The Sun, by Shirley Clarke. And before that, A Study In Choreography For The Camera by Maya Deren. But director Jacob Niedzwiecki has clearly made this his own. In Deren's film, a pioneering one in its day, the scene shift is to emphasise the dancer's geography as distinct from the physical geography. Clarke's dancer is more formal. And personifies an identification with the sun and nature itself, rather than with the 'helioscape,' the view of the sun. Niedzwiecki and Savella achieve a uniquely human statement. Savella's facial expression is as much part of the dance as every other part of the composition.

While there are people to turn out short films of this calibre I am content to let people more expert than myself provide the understanding. I am just grateful that they do, and long may Niedzwiecki and Savella continue to do so.

George Balanchine said that the tree of dance "takes a long, long time to blossom." I think we can safely say that it has.

(readers please note - the running time is 6mins 18seconds, not 18 seconds as listed on IMDb at time of writing)

2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
A milestone, 19 May 2009

Have you ever met anyone who maybe isn't what they seem? People do sometimes pretend to be something they're not. For all sorts of reasons. The con-man, the undercover policeman. Is deception per se wrong? More basically, I think it's about whether you're true to yourself as a member of the human race. Any persona intruding on that, will mislead you and others. Whether it comes from them or inside.

Adam Cramer. Well-spoken, mild and temperate manner. Qualities that maybe occupy a default 'trust' position. The local hotel is honoured. A clean cut, educated gentleman staying with them – a prize guest, no less! Attractive, too. And did I mention his skin colour? It's white. Not that that would influence you of course.

Things seem to change whenever Adam mentions his line of business. 'Social reform,' he says. An out-of-town do-gooder? Messin' with what they know nothing' about? Dominant social ideology can be good. We trust police. Priests. Those sorts of people. Custom, or social pressure. The Intruder is about racism. That it packs so much punch is aided by there being less than half a dozen professional actors. The rest are locals. (And many of a racist persuasion themselves perhaps.) Had they known the film's ending, it might not have been finished. The leading man reported genuine fear and terror on some locations.

The NY Times called it, "A major credit to the entire American Film Industry." The Intruder was released in 1961. A time when the Klu Klux Klan, violently opposed to desegregation, would intimidate and attack black people who travelled with white volunteers on 'Freedom Buses'. (It made me ponder anew the biggest segregation question of modern times – the Middle East – where currently the civilised world's answer is nothing less than segregation.) No-one dares appear racist – then or now. It had become suddenly unfashionable (and illegal). But most whites in this Missouri hick-town want things back to how they were. Peaceful like. (In real life, the government had to deploy 500 Federal Marshals to protect the Freedom Riders.) In this setting (moved from the buses to school integration), our story sees how different levels of mob mentality are aroused. Watch for the clever linking of racism with abuse of gender dominance. Both stem from inner weakness, a lack of feeling comfortable with who one really is, a lack of knowing oneself. The Intruder demonstrates, by analogy, how personal insecurities intrude on people's lives. And how they are probably the basis of most crime and moral turpitude. Including, of course, crimes 'blessed by the Lord' – be sure to check out the roles of two different clergymen in our story.

The religious angle – in one case the abuse of a religious symbol - is also played out as the night-gowned Mrs Griffin reluctantly entertains her pushy neighbour. Hubby is away. They gaze – almost romantically - out of the window. At a burning (KKK) cross.

"I didn't know you were a religious man?"

"You have to admit it's dramatic!" "So is a lynching," she says.

"That's old-fashioned," he replies. Disingenuously saying, he is there, to "save" lives – not to take them.

Mrs Griffin retorts: "And I'm the Empress of China!" She is not so easily wooed by this wolf in sheep's clothing.

Racism is abuse of power. This film crew had little power to abuse. Shooting on a mere $80,000 (the director re-mortgaging his home to finance it). But it is powerful stuff. Photography is crisp in black and white, beautifully edited, and the film never for one second looks dated. Superlative scripting, a riveting Adam Cramer, and pitch-perfect grappling with moral issues make it one of the best films of the period. As well as one of the best ever made on race relations.

The big downside is this. You may be put off by the names associated with it. Director, Roger Corman: in spite of many good works for people in the industry, is mostly known for trashy horror (which enjoys a considerable cult following). Likewise, leading man William Shatner. None other than Captain Kirk of Star Trek TV. Don't let any prejudice put you off, or you will indeed miss out. The film is in a different category – and class - to anything else either of these gentlemen have ever done.

For most civilised countries, things have moved on since the Spanish Inquisition, Hitler's segregation of Jewish people, or the segregation of black people in South Africa / North America. But the film is a salient warning not simply to adopt more sophisticated methods. "Remember," says the rabble-rouser after whipping the mob to a murderous fury, "no violence." That, sadly, is not as old-fashioned as it perhaps should be.

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
divine inspiration, 15 May 2009

Avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren is mostly known for short films like Meshes in the Afternoon. A predominant theme of her work is dance. Both literally, and in the 'dance' choreography where the camera manipulates space. Following a win at Cannes, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, she travelled to Tahiti to make a movie about dance. But the dynamics of ritual among Voudoun devotees would throw much light on her academic writings on the artist's responsibility in ethnography.

The finished film uses her footage from 1947 to 1951. But it was only released after her death, with explanatory narration from her book of the same name. Observations partake of the dispassionate ethnographer but with an artist's ability to create atmosphere using metaphor. "The rhythm and the sound of the drum brings out the movement of the dancing. It is the drumming which fuses together the 50 or more individuals into a single body, making them move as one. As if all had become linked on the thread of a single pulse." Deren is one of the few Westerners to be admitted to innermost Voudoun rituals. By the end of her stay, she had been accepted as a Mambo priestess. Yet throughout, her scientific candour remains as uncoloured as the studies of JG Fraser.

In Voudoun terminology, it is said that the loa (spirit) 'mounts' a person. The symbol is that of the horse and rider. Resulting actions and events are the expression of the will of the rider. Voudoun is syncretic, attempting to reconcile contrary beliefs, often melding practices of various schools of thought. It united disparate tribes of Haiti. It absorbs images from Roman Catholicism.

As the supreme God does not interfere with the world, it is to the various loa that devotees pay attention. The film documents several – with associated rituals. Legba is a loa who is the link between the visible mortal world and the invisible immortal realms, the means and avenue between them. He is associated with a crossroads. A junction between worlds through which communication is established. The cross in Voudoun is also a symbol of life and death, of generation and resurrection.

One of the more complex ceremonies documented in the film is the celebration of Agwé's wedding. Agwé is the sovereign spirit of the sea, betrothed to the Goddess of Love. He also symbolises the ideal husband - being as the sea is, a ready strength and deep peace.

Our Goddess of Love, Erzulie, is mother of man's myth of life. In her, Voudoun salutes woman as love and muse. In a sense, she is the very principle by which man conceives and creates divinity. A beautiful mood accompanies her arrival, an atmosphere of refinement, "as if a fresh cooling breeze has sprung up." The atmosphere becomes less intense.

But what about 'possession' – one of the more famous aspects of Voudoun? We see a sudden change come over participants as the loa 'mounts' them. But is it 'real'? Could it be fakery? Hypnotism perhaps? Possessed persons get considerable honour, so the temptation is there. But anthropologists (such as MJ Herskovitz) suggest it is normal in certain cultures. Not put on or induced. A Voudoun priest (a hungon) may also do tests of his own though. For instance, he might get the 'possessed' to drink chilli concentrate to see if they react.

I witnessed a Voudoun ceremony on another island - Bali. A young man seeking possession took his turn, dancing excited by drums. He became exceedingly – the easiest word is - 'possessed' – and ran out of the compound into oncoming traffic. He was eventually stopped, but I did not personally doubt his genuineness. He did eventually recover, slightly puzzled.

The film shows rituals of life and death at the cemetery. Catholic litanies (action de grace) precede the Voudoun ceremony. As the future springs from the present, life and death are viewed as one.

Divine Horsemen doesn't try to avoid 'difficult' aspects. So what of rituals that are more aggressive? Instead of sensationalising, it explains, "If the Rada (tribe of) loa represent the protective, guardian powers, the Petra loa are the patrons of aggressive action. The Petra cult was born out of a cosmic rage. It is the rage against the evil fate which the African suffered because of his enslavement. The energy from that rage enabled him to regain his freedom by winning the revolution against the Napoleonic forces." Such factual accounting extends to sacred animal sacrifice (which some viewers, of course, may find disconcerting).

Filming sensitive material presents its own problems. Cameras are intrusive. Deren develops techniques called 'shoot to cut' (which reduces the need for editing) and 'plan to eye,' (which uses a visual shorthand). On the back of her Bolex camera, she taped the commands, Speed Stop Focus Finder Motor. The prompts were there to safeguard shots that could never be redone.

A final section of the film shows Tahitian Carnival, Spring Festival. This has some of the most interesting dance sequences, many by talented performers rather than people possessed. Although presided over by a loa, it is not primarily religious. "Carnival celebrates a triumph over death. Of Spring life over the Winter, which was death for the earth. A time for putting the past behind. Of excitement and hope. And promise of a fresh start and a clean beginning." Deren related Voudoun back to her own work and philosophy of art. Using the idea of a collective of people, as found in ritual, she explains how the true artist becomes a channel of creativity, serving those people.

Deren has fathomed the deepest recesses of her subject and commits them to film and folio. A faithfulness rarely achieved in either. Her methodology and essays continue to inspire serious artists, filmmakers and researchers. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, pieced together with primitive film equipment, is a lasting legacy of inestimable value.

A unique accomplishment, 10 May 2009

"The largest popular arts show on the planet is a competition held every year on the Sunday and Monday of Carnaval." So begins Schultz's documentary, Imperatriz do Carnaval.

For many westerners, 'Carnival' stirs up images of a street party, costumes, and maybe even hedonistic Bacchanals. But in Rio de Janeiro, it is this and much more. In a place called the Sambodrome, twelve top samba schools (fourteen at the time the film was made), each with an average of 3,500 performers, perform to nearly one hundred thousand spectators and a live TV audience of twenty million. Four judges in each of ten categories. Elaborate costumes and extravagant floats must be beautiful and relevant to the chosen theme being depicted through the parade. The song must communicate the theme, and dancing and drumming are judged for their skill and execution, the synchronisation and the overall harmony. Top stars of screen and stage perform and are judged for the beauty of their dancing. Each school must cross the 800 metres of the Sambodrome in 85 minutes, cohesively and without rushing.

Yet above all, Carnaval is an experience. One that is very hard to convey on film. An elation, a joy, a celebration, sustained without break for over an hour. Today, the Brazilian media give continuous coverage as well as annual DVD summaries. But how to get a flavour of the unique spirit? The chaos. The remarkable division of labour. The tears and passions. The hopes of whole communities. For that, one has to dig deeper. Which is where an award-winning filmmaker comes in, one familiar with both Brazilian culture and the western understanding so far removed. Enter Luiz Fernando Schultz.

Instead of merely recording the end result, Schultz spends nine months getting to know one school – Imperatriz. He places the preparations and the event squarely in the context of Brasil and its problems of poverty and class divisions. But he also shows the unquenchable spirit of the Brazilian people.

Following Imperatriz to their home in a poor district of Rio, the story begins with the announcement of the theme for the coming contest: the Portuguese discovery of Brasil. Composers will have 60 days to write songs and compete for the honour of representing the school. The winning song will not only be sung by participants for the whole of that school's performance. It will enter the annals of popular songs sung at fiestas every year. It will carry the audience away. It will make them dance and sing.

The biggest shortcoming of this exceptional film is perhaps the lack of any clearly defined audience. Brasilians are familiar with the subject matter. For them, much of it might play too close to a lecture for young children - unless you are a fan of that particular school (Imperatriz) and want to spot various personalities. Brazilian television includes material of this kind – particularly at Carnaval time – but it is presented in a punchy style assuming prior knowledge. For viewers outside of Brasil, it goes into a depth that might not hold the attention of non-aficionados. But let's face it, for an event the scale and emotions of which rival the World Cup and Oscars rolled into one, it is hardly mentioned outside its home nation. The music 'all sounds the same', the dancing is 'foreign' to what we call dancing, and it is hard to relate to the excitement experienced so intensely by so many.

This is a shame. As there is much in Carnaval that is worthy of serious study. It doesn't just form a unifying culture across class and communities (attended by both the President of Brasil and slum-dwellers). The samba schools themselves provide necessary social projects in deprived areas. Crèches, welfare for old people, job-starts. It bridges all ages, and generates a dedication among ordinary people who will put in time, tears, and much effort. All for no payment.

Carnaval is a national institution. Every Brazilian has a favourite Samba school, like supporting a football or baseball team in the West. But the enthusiasm generates active physical involvement (dancing), and no drinking, drugs or negative rivalry. It is an aspect of Brazilian life we could do well to learn from.

Schultz doesn't whitewash. He explains how the lack of money, especially in the early days, produced a culture that was subsidized by illegal gambling operations. But such scandals are not the meat of his work. It is a testament to the positives.

It is half past midnight when I arrive at a section of closed-off freeway. The parades are assembling. Thousands of performers in the most extravagant costumes I could imagine. Or covered in little more than gold paint. Enormous floats that have taken months to construct. Fireworks announcing the entrance of each school. One lead float is 51 metres long. A gigantic sculpture of Cleopatra with people dancing in inbuilt fountains. It's the school I have joined for Carnaval. I get my costume on. Now I don't dare drink much, even in 30 degree heat. There is no way I could pee while wearing it. My mind and body is fused towards other concerns. Rehearsal parties in preceding weeks, learning the samba song in Portuguese, friends I have made. Expectations, exuberance, inspirations.

Suddenly thousands of ecstatic faces. Everything coalesces into eighty minutes of sustained elation. An almost mystical experience. Remote-controlled TV cameras skate along specially-constructed tracks. I look up at faces in the audience as I dance and sing. People who imagine they are part of an anonymous multitude. I want to tell them, "You are not invisible! I appreciated every gesture! Every smile of encouragement! Every indication that you are sharing this amazing experience!" It is an emotional high unlike anything I have ever known.

If you want to know Carnaval, go to Brasil and experience it. Even better, register with a school and take part. And, if you can't do that, watch this film.

Swayze Dancing (1988) (V)
3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Perhaps an unrecognised collectors item, 10 May 2009

"Johnny Castle – I'm a much better dancer than he is," says Patrick Swayze about his Dirty Dancing character. I had thought, falsely it seems, that the dancing in that film was pretty hot. Does Swayze have an exceptionally high opinion of himself? As it turns out, no. He's trained at several schools including the prestigious Joffrey Ballet School of New York. On Johnny Castle, he continues, "He's a guy from the streets of Philadelphia – he didn't study from a ballet teacher or a dance teacher." The real proof of the difference comes when Swayze demonstrates difficult dance moves with the ease of a top pro. One who can improve your style with a few casual words. This writer probably learnt more in 59 minutes of this documentary than in ten years of jive, salsa and the social dance scene. Swayze's comments offer insight into dance as part of life. His mother (Patsy) and wife (Lisa) are particularly articulate in explaining how it has enhanced other areas of their life.

When Swayze says, "You have to allow the music to take you some place else – you have to allow it to take you away," I recall Paul Mercurio's almost identical comments a few years later on the Strictly Ballroom DVD extras (given without, unfortunately, a simultaneous dance demo). Mercurio speaks of taking an audience on a journey through dance, whereas Swayze's 'journey' is the emotional preparation as a dancer becomes a character. Both processes stem from theories of Stanislavski – ideas that had lead both to a revolution in modern dance on one hand, and 'Method School' acting on the other.

Swayze shows a genuine love of, and dedication to, his art. It's infectious. Dancing to him is as natural as living. It illuminates every part of his life. A Q&A with 'aspiring dancers' might seem over-rehearsed, but it is equally informative. Dialogue addresses different concerns, from nerves and performing in public, to finding the right dance partner. Swayze's explanation of 'deflecting momentum' (in words and practice) is superlative. Explanations on dance lifts are a sharp rebuke to would-be teachers who explain such dynamics inadequately.

Swayze shows deep respect for his mum, the dance teacher sitting at her desk and barking words of wisdom in a nasal twang. She taught him. Google her and you will find an established choreographer. The second part of Swayze Dancing shows sections from her classes. Putting students of different levels through their paces. It lets us see not only the hard work needed for dance sequences such as those in Dirty Dancing, but makes the moves look attainable.

Few modern dance movies feature top dancers - for few of them are also good actors. Dirty Dancing and Strictly Ballroom stood out in this respect (even if the former seemed let down by cheesy dialogue and teenage themes). Usually, directors cheat a bit, relying on fast montage to cut actors faces with the feet of dance doubles. In this sense, Swayze is one of the few remaining exponents of popular dance film in living memory. Watching this documentary, we lament that he never got more and better scripts to dance in. Or at a time when his health would have permitted it.

The bad thing about Swayze Dancing is the clumsy dramatisation in which the two teachers' lessons are set. The 'story' follows a group of young dancers competing in a contest. They arrive at Patsy's dance school for help as if they are near beginners, with "six weeks to learn to dance." But it is soon apparent to the viewer that they are already quite accomplished. They sport crazy 80's clothing and haircuts, with names like 'Gonzo.' Needless to say, all win some category or other in the dance-off. It feels quite embarrassing at times, right down to the fictionalising of Swayze's sister.

But as a dance instruction film it is priceless. A must for any aspiring salsa, Latin or performance dancer. Or of course, any 'dirty dancer' that wants to emulate the eponymous movie. It is also a short but moving testament to one of the screen's best known modern dance-actors. A chance to see him at his most commanding and best – not as the hick from Philadelphia.

Star Trek (2009)
11 out of 22 people found the following review useful:
Still living long and prosperously, 7 May 2009

Cocktail party chat on Mission Impossible III might, at very worst, label you mainstream. But mention 'trekkie' interests and the ghetto of a solitary corner awaits, as you vainly gaze across the watered-down punch for a glimmer of like-minded weirdos.

Unless pointy ears and anoraks are your thing, admitting you go to the latest Star Trek movie was generally a mistake. This, the studios, in the name of all that is financially Good and Great, wish to save us from. Star Trek must be lifted from its intergalactic backwater and placed squarely in the multi-million dollar sound-bite. Now, suitably high-concept, this eleventh incarnation from the media franchise becomes the respectable selection from a dizzying array of multiplex excess.

What Christopher Nolan (and then Heath Ledger) did for Batman, surely a blank cheque and a few good actors can do for Captain Kirk and his motley crew. That, at least, seems the intention. How well does it pan out?

Our new Star Trek has a less cult muppets and more action heroes. Chris Pine almost morphs the face of William Shatner's original and the captain of the 4th TV series. Leonard Nimoy cameos as aging Spock as we are introduced to the newer model. Simon Pegg (Scotty), Winona Ryder (Spock's mum) and Zoe Saldana (Uhuru) are all a joy to watch.

To establish itself as authoritative (a la Batman Begins), this movie is the prequel, long ago envisaged by creator Gene Roddenberry, and cancelled after its premature birth in the ham-fisted TV 'Enterprise' series. We follow Kirk from his earliest days, and also see young Spock grow up. It is an enormous balancing act, executed with a tremendous price tag (more than any previous Star Trek film) and has to tick many boxes for die-hard fans as well as reaching out to new audiences.

Our film opens a few minutes before Kirk is born. During a massive battle, he is shuttled out of harm's way, a cacophony of explosions submerged by sympathetic orchestra strains. He grows up the pretty boy-next-door with a wild streak. A sort of James Dean with a brain. Or, "the only genius repeat-offender in the Mid-West." After the most taxing training that Hollywood can devise, he becomes a hardened fighter still in touch with his humanity.

There are nice touches to look out for. Spock becomes 'emotionally compromised.' We see passion and a moist eye from the lovely Uhuru; and futurescapes glimpsed all too briefly in an average shot length of under five seconds.

As summer blockbusters go, Star Trek deserves to do well. But I would like to have seen some of the groundbreaking moral subtlety for which the original series – famed for the first on screen inter-racial kiss – garnered high regard among many. One has to search for any underlying dynamic at all. At best, it is the story of brave and fearless white Americans – with the addition of a Russian, a Scot, and a token black woman – facing a terrorist-style enemy (rogue Romulans) that has an unfounded grudge, formidable strike power, and no logical way of being defeated. (Wow! That's not too hard to follow!) Add familiar tropes about saving mankind, and western 'compassion' (before blowing someone up). Then fights between representatives of good and evil on a high ledge somewhere, and it starts looking depressingly derivative. Star Trek here relies on action scenes styled to Tom Cruise completing another impossible mission. But, sadly, Pine lacks Cruise charisma – or anyone else's for that matter. And, while MI-III director Abrams was probably a wise choice, the result is more a step in the right direction than a satisfying overall product.

We can unashamedly leave our pointy bits at home to watch this film in the company of regular cinema-goers. But, rather than ground-breaking fare, it only takes us to the happy-land of unthinking entertainment. Its catchline: 'The Future Begins' came up on the screen only moments after the trailer for the new Terminator, for which I am assured, 'The End Begins.' Seems all you need these days to defeat an undefeatable assassin is a good starter line. May the White House take note. Though not, perhaps, feeling impelled to boldly go too boldly.

5 out of 28 people found the following review useful:
spineless, 30 April 2009

I felt slightly saddened and not a little ashamed of the sorry state of affairs in our cinemas watching In the Loop, even though it is well-acted and brilliantly scripted. As a television satire transplanted onto the big screen, it does an admirable job of living up to its tasteless expectations. In a political arena of spin and counter-spin, British and American politicians collude over bringing about an unjustifiable war that looks like Iraq, right down to jokes about hounding someone to an assisted suicide suggestive of the death of David Kelly. What depresses me about a film that, against my better judgement, gave me quite a few laughs, is not the exhumation of the seediness of politics. Nor the unbroken use of creative expletives from the first to the last moment of the movie. It is my own acknowledgement of a powerlessness in British culture that, unlike its European counterpart where public protests can and do influence politics, or the U.S.A. where elections offer real choice. No. We, the British, find consolation for political impotence in the salve of cynicism.

In the Loop is a sniggering affirmation of helplessness against ministerial mouthings-off that no-one believes. But it is not a protest movie: it is entertainment. We longer go to the movies to think. Quite the opposite. We go to switch off our intellectual faculties at the end of the day and, accordingly, this is what we get. Where a film that prodded our sensibilities on the issues, forcing us to examine our conscience or come out on one side or the other would have failed at the box-office, In the Loop is a 'runaway success', delighting both the public and its equally anaesthetized critics. Instead of overhauling ministerial responsibility, we will probably give it a Bafta. And go home feeling good about ourselves.

Ignoring any serious take, as In the Loop adroitly encourages me to do, one effortlessly portrayed difference that particularly interested me was the cross-Atlantic cultural disparity on swearing. It is on release at a time when the U.S. legal system has just upheld the regulatory board's justification for fining a television company over even a single use of a swear word. Such 'prudery' would be unimaginable to British audiences. The White House lackeys of In the Loop carry this characteristic self-censorship through with considerable humour and effectiveness, battling their British counterparts who find ever more inventive ways to use the f-word and its equivalents.

In the Loop is unmistakably British, right down to the lottery funds that enable us to trumpet our foul language to the world and make them laugh. The dialogue would make any comedian reliant on gutter tactics exceedingly proud. Its unceasing and seemingly limitless supply makes any background music redundant, and the makers have wisely omitted such trappings – apart from an old boy –type government face who listens to Debussy and has his finger pressed on the requisite part of the keyboard to delete any criticisms of intended war.

If you can afford to spend a couple of hours (including adverts) in the cinema and not worry about where the time went, go and see this film. It will become a timeless 'classic' on DVD and probably adored by an equal number of bleeding hearts ('lefties') who know they can't stop governments bombing people but can delight in 'knowing' better. Cheap shots, intellectual conceit, and the stand-up skill of attacking everyone while upsetting no-one. Whether it is a meritorious film is another matter entirely, but that has never bothered the cinema-paying public. Any more than the countless people killed or tortured in their name.

In the Loop is better entertainment than a Labour Party Conference. And much less expensive.

Yes (2004/I)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Uneven but curiously watchable, 21 April 2009

Potter's idiosyncratic exploration of conflict is almost a diamond bashed into a cheap ring. The film's title is a clever intellectual device, an affirmation of the positive, explained in the ending by the narrator-philosopher cleaning lady, and in a conversation about numbers mid-film. As an anti-war film (post 9/11 and filmed during the early occupation of Iraq) it is rather less coherent, hinting at its theme obliquely through the love affair of an Irish-American woman and man from Beirut.

The most immediately distinctive characteristic is that the whole film uses a dialogue of iambic pentameter. In this it is brilliantly successful. The lines come naturally and I felt myself transported as if hearing Shakespeare in his own era. It runs the gamut of eloquent flights of poetry, unfurling like a woman's hair from a clasp, to the foul-mouthed language of a punk-rocker kitchen assistant. It never once seems forced.

The story follows a beautiful woman, maybe in her forties, played by Joan Allen and never named. She is a scientist, lives a luxurious lifestyle but in a cold, 'open' marriage to a politician (played by Sam Neill). She strikes up a passionate affair with a waiter/chef from the Middle East who charms her one night at an official function she must attend. But having played the wonderful (and sincere) Lothario, he breaks off with her when he realises he is only valued for the image she has of him. He has to struggle to fit in, living in a western country, speaking English, adopting 'her' culture. Yet she knows nothing of him, his background. Not even a single word of his language.

It is in the portrayal of different – and far from simplistic – gender stereotypes that Potter excels. All the characters are beautifully hewn and totally unalike, each justifiable to him or herself. We don't gain much insight into politics, but we do see interesting 'types' of women – and men. All portrayed with respect and highlighting our shallow understanding of anyone who might be of a different mental make-up to ourselves.

The film's shortcomings can be viewed sympathetically. The religious rants are just that, and lacking depth. But would we expect more of most people? Perhaps not. But as the cleaner is prone to comment on everything, a few words of insight might not have been amiss. Or is it that Ms Potter knows as little about Christianity, Islam and Lebanon as the characters she accuses? Some scenes would have benefited from jump cuts at the point where interest languishes. One might argue that they are consistent with the storyline of over-attachment to a love affair or particular point of view. That did not stop me wanting the scene to move on instead of saying the same thing again in another impressive (if redundant) piece of verse.

The sudden shifts of location – to Beirut and Cuba – are visually appealing (even if Joan Allen had to be in reality shot in the Dominican Republic due to U.S. restrictions on its citizens working in Cuba). But they also have the feeling of a cop-out for mainstream audiences. Potter claimed that, "Endings are notoriously difficult," and technical problems and time pressures added to the production worries. But this does not assuage the reality that the intended political comment is explored without being well thought out. And that the choice of ending seems to be more for appeasing audiences than adding to a consistent whole.

Yes is a proud addition to Sally Potter's highly personal and curiously successful work. Though perhaps not the masterpiece she might have wanted.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
A perfect film - for certain audiences, 20 April 2009

Whether you judge The Tango Lesson to be as perfect as a film can get, or a self-indulgent autohagiography with nice legs and sets, is probably about your viewpoint. There is bound to be at least one reader who will disagree with either view. So I am inclined to look at what the director was trying to achieve. Sally Potter is an established art-house filmmaker with particular interests in gender politics and dance. She also sings, writes and, in this film at least, acts.

Tango is a dance drawing heavily on passion. Unlike many dances, its emotional range includes jealousy and betrayal. When sparks fly, they are not just sparks of attraction. Male power and domination, silence that bites, and doomed love and destruction (hence the metaphor of Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris). A woman never escapes the man's embrace. The brilliance of her steps give the appearance of being entirely due to her partner's masterful guidance. At one point in our movie, Potter's partner, enraged, tells her she must 'do nothing' – he means nothing that doesn't come from him.

It is a perfect dance to build dramatic metaphor around.

But Potter's interest goes further. She wants to examine role reversal (this is the director who has had a hit a few years earlier with the sexual ambiguous Orlando). In The Tango Lesson, she plays opposite a top tango dancer, mentally submitting to him in order to learn the dance. Her character is a film director, disillusioned with a Hollywood deal and looking for a new project. Could it be dance? In the second half, she enlists him to play in a film. The power position is reversed. He must follow instead of lead. He must take direction.

The success of this plot relies almost entirely on its real life elements. The circumstances in which the film was made mirror those depicted in the film-within-a-film. Names of principle characters are not changed. Potter does all her own dancing. Obvious commercial sell-outs are avoided.

So in terms of dancing and the gender politics, how well does the film perform?

The answer has to be, "Magnificently." The tango scenes are among the best of any motion picture. Tango on the stage, tango on the streets. Tango in the dancehalls, tango on the water's edge. Tango in rain, tango in snow. Potter described some of the technical challenges, saying that in the rain there were, "a limited number of takes possible due to the limited number of dry jeans." But the result is stunning. If you wanted a tango photo to hang over your fireplace, you would be spoilt for choice with stills from this film. Perfect mise-en-scene and impressive lighting make the film visually intoxicating. And when we hear Libertango – the most familiar of all tango tunes – the energy explodes as Potter bursts from the dance studio, dancing with several men at once.

Cinematography is endlessly inventive. During a stage performance, the camera is positioned so that it faces the audience, dancers silhouetted by the dazzle of spotlights. "I wanted to show something of the visceral sensation of being onstage," she says, "with the lights in your eyes." Gender analysis is equally successful. Potter deals with simple male chauvinism, and in a matter-of-fact rather than an unkind way. Pablo and his friends act in a 'perfectly reasonable' manner which Potter then exposes as unreasonable. They cherish a glamorised idea of film-making. She has to exert gentle authority when they 'decide' that they've waited long enough for someone to turn up; or when Pablo might not 'want' to shed a tear in her 'little film.' She must – and does – handle their unprofessional emotions, fears and ignorance, exactly as Pablo had to handle hers when she was learning to dance. And now it is against his every instinct. He must follow and let her lead.

Potter takes us beyond gender politics to the creative process. The film opens with her wiping a white table, then she sits at it with a blank sheet of paper. She starts to script, but discards one idea after another. Fast cuts to bursts of colour (in the Hollywood movie she had originally planned to make) illustrate action sequences of a movie style that makes money. They are like fragments of a finished film, waiting to be found. She hovers, waiting for the right idea to take form. "I know this moment well. It's the most precious, delicate, terrifying moment in film-making. The void beckons, seductively. But at any moment, the pencil will touch the blank page and the first, irrevocable step will have been taken. Every such step can feel like an act of treachery against abstract and infinite perfection." That state of 'becoming,' the moment before any definite action is decided, parallels the state of preparedness a follower must have in dance.

It is the philosophy that an early feminist-filmmaker, Maya Deren (also a dancer), propounded in connection with films (such as her Study in Choreography for the Camera). For her, it was an essential trait of being a woman, the ability to wait, as opposed to a man's desire for immediacy. For Potter, who had focused on dancing in her earlier life, the film becomes a voyage of discovery. "I remember suddenly what I always loved about dancing – the combination of vigorous endeavour, present timidness, and dedication to process – the sure knowledge that you never 'arrive', you are instead in a constant process of arrival. It is itself, and it is a metaphor: for learning, for living, for being."

On the downside, there is not a lot of story. The Tango Lesson is Strictly Ballroom stripped of make-up, witticisms, clichés, overacting, and the pointless, predictable, but highly entertaining storyline. The Tango Lesson proudly states that the ideas (and the dancing) should be sufficient. Sadly for some people of course, it won't.

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