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Cinema at its most honest and emotionally intuitive.
What introduction could this film possibly require? Any film enthusiast recognises the name of Haneke instantly, whatever their opinion of him. His latest film, Amour, finally arrives in the UK this week, having won the Palme D'Or at Cannes (Haneke's second in a row) and the appraisal of most of the cinematic world. Horrible feelings accompanied me into the Friday screening of Amour would the film live up to the hype, could Haneke really better his recent works, Hidden and The White Ribbon?
I realized about a quarter of the way into Amour that this was the wrong way to think about it. Haneke is renowned for his chilly, detached style and merciless lack of sentimentality in exploring the darker sides of human nature. Although his ruthless devotion to all things challenging and unsentimental is still evident in Amour, we must at least recognise that this represents some kind of turning point in Haneke's oeuvre.
Georges and Anne have been married many years, and have grown old together. They are both piano teachers, now retired. When we first meet them, they are attending a concert of one of Anne's old students, now grown and making a name for himself. They applaud, congratulate him and then take the bus home, smiling and talking to one another in snippets as they come closer to their apartment. If it hadn't been for a masterful, disquieting opening sequence (which I will not describe here), we would not suspect anything was wrong.
Yet after this wonderful outing, which they have obviously been looking forward to for a long time, their spacious Parisian apartment will become their entire world; we shall never leave it. There is a brief moment, masterfully shot, where the couple's adult daughter (in a beautiful performance from Isabelle Huppert, who played the self-harming protagonist in Haneke's formidable film, 'The Piano Teacher') stands by the window, and through the translucent material of the curtain we see the street outside and the vehicles moving slowly along it; the outside world remains completely impervious to the painful ordeal which is taking place on the other side of that curtain.
The ordeal begins one morning over the couple's breakfast. The two are having a conversation. Georges tells Anne something, and she suddenly becomes unresponsive. She snaps out of it, and she insists she has no memory of it; yet we sense in Anne, as Georges tells her about this strange event, a fear of something starting within her, of doctors and hospitals; there is even, glimpsed on her face for the briefest of moments, suspicion directed at her husband. It is the first event in a downward spiral, and from the moment Anne returns from the hospital afterwards, and a farce of a funeral that George is forced to attend alone, both will be condemned to this apartment. Anne begs Georges never to take her back to the hospital; thus, it becomes a prison and mausoleum; the sense of oncoming death pervades the coldly lit rooms.
Georges and Anne are played magnificently by those acting gods of yesteryear, Jean-Louis Trintignant (star of Bertolucci's masterpiece, The Conformist) and Emmanuelle Riva (the female protagonist of Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour). Hand-picked by Haneke himself, these two bring a lifetime of experience to their roles; their performances are breathtaking. Riva in particular, whose character loses her independence and her own sense of dignity increasingly throughout the film, is magnificent, not afraid of baring all to the camera. Anne's condition is not the ersatz tragedy, infused with humour and considerable taste, that Hollywood would have us believe; it is ugly, painful, degrading.
The claustrophobia of their lives, increasingly shut off from the rest of the world, is intense. Characters (including the couple's own daughter, selfish on the surface but nursing deep hurts) will come in and penetrate temporarily the organic, defensive webbing that Georges and Anne are now forming for themselves, but both the guest and the host feel that the couple's lives are being intruded upon. Theirs is a holistic, private world that outsiders try to break into; there is a great piece of symbolism, early on in the film, after Georges and Anne return from the concert, where they discover that someone has tried to break into their apartment. This couple, in the face of oncoming tragedy, hide within themselves and within this space, their own, where they have spent so many years and built their lives together.
I believe this to be the best film Haneke has ever made. Yes, it is gruellingly unsentimental, but unlike all of his other films, there is warmth, tenderness and genuine humanity to be found here. We are greeted by two highly intelligent people, who have been and remain deeply in love, and we are challenged now not to watch the beginning of this relationship, but its end. Georges and Anne are not perfect human beings; they become frustrated, even angry. The wounds that each can inflict on the other, knowing each other inside out, hit the audience like a punch to the gut. It is part of the searing authenticity of the film, and that makes the more tender moments even more special.
Amour is a film about the disappearance of a human being; of what one man does in the face of losing the woman he has loved his whole life, every day, little by little. It is a psychological drama, tinged with philosophy and moments of exquisite, heartbreaking poetry. But it is also a luminous love story one that is genuine and recognisable, between two characters that we fully believe in and sympathise with. Georges and Anne have spent many long, happy years together, and now, slowly and sadly, their happiness is coming to an end
Best film released in 2012 - no question!
This may very well be the worst thing I will ever write: a completely artless review with no sense of direction or control. It will not come anywhere near doing justice to the extraordinary film it is praising, and so any kind of forced rhetorical flourish here would be perfunctory and out-of-place. So I apologise in advance. I can only do my best.
'Samsara' (which, if IMDb is to be believed, is a Sanskrit word meaning 'cyclic existence') contains almost not a word of dialogue, and certainly not in any kind of 'narrative' sense. It belongs to a very small niche of films, often given the name of 'pure cinema'. The only films I can even compare 'Samsara' to, however, are a select few that our director, Ron Fricke, has previously worked on: those past masterpieces 'Koyaanisqatsi', 'Chronos' and 'Baraka'. All are utterly distinctive pieces of cinema in their own right, and this new release is no different.
How can I describe 'Samsara'? In cliché, as a profound visual experience? I may have to resort to that later, to even give an inkling of how powerful this film is. As a compilation of stunningly photographed images and sequences, set to a haunting, disconcertingly calculated soundtrack? I refuse to describe any of those images here; it would be a betrayal on my part. They must be witnessed for themselves. Maybe then as a philosophical work? Indeed, I cannot argue with the fact that the philosophical issues it raises are some of the most important facing mankind. I do not and will not pretend to understand everything shown in 'Samsara'; I firmly believe that a viewer cannot actually understand the entire film in any concrete way. That is not to say that, throughout much of the film, we are not intended to feel shame, or guilt, or awe, or reverence. Ron Fricke is not a man without an opinion, and this film is underpinned all the way through with the wealth of emotion that this person feels in considering the world we live in. But he does not preach. His choice of images is subjective, but he raises questions. He does not give answers.
'Samsara' is a film of vast ambition and deep humility. Its aim is no less than exploring the blunt fact of human existence on a wondrous Earth with a selective, but passionate and observant eye, and the societies we have created and separated into, the effect our existence has on the world around us. Yet even this description is reductive. The film's profundity lies in its interaction with the audience. It is a film from which you take away what you have put in. The richness of your experience when viewing 'Samsara' relies heavily on how willing you are to go along with it and recognise what Fricke is trying to show us. Your reaction to it is your own affair, but you will have a reaction. The accumulation of these emotional responses is what makes this film so utterly unforgettable; and indeed, perhaps this is the real reason that this kind of movie is considered to be 'pure cinema'. Because, after all, film (usually) succeeds when it successfully provokes a series of emotional reactions in an audience, and their accumulation. Rarely has a film so perfectly and forcefully played on that fact than 'Samsara'.
It has taken five years of painstaking work to make this film. The love and passion that has gone into its production pours from every image, every carefully composed shot and forcefully edited sequence. I have never sat in a cinema before to watch a new release and witnessed the reaction that 'Samsara' provoked among a cinema audience. The screen went black, the credits began to roll, and the room burst into applause. How could it not do? I sincerely doubt that such a disturbing and rapturous meditation on our planet has been produced before now (and here I consider Baraka, Chronos and Koyaanisqatsi as companion pieces to Samsara, even though they retain their own remarkable individuality).
I came out of the weekend screening of this film knowing three things. The first, that this is the reason I go to the cinema to witness and experience emotions like that, to witness the reaction of an audience completely bowled over by what they have just seen, especially when we believe we have seen it all, that cinema has nothing new to offer. The second, that I would be paying to see it again on Tuesday. And the third? That 'Samsara', without a shadow of a doubt, is the best film of the year.
Bir Zamanlar Anadolu'da (2011)
Stunning and original.
When we go to the movies, our usual expectations as viewers consist of being given an interesting plot, to be taken on a journey that (hopefully) enthrals us and provides us with good entertainment. In terms of crime drama, if the plot swings on a murder and a police investigation, we naturally expect to discover who the murderer was, the motive for the crime, how it took place (often revealed in clever twist endings) and how the problems it has created for the characters are resolved.
'Once Upon A Time In Anatolia' is not nearly so simple or conventional. It is, in the most basic of terms, a police procedural. Taking place over one night and the following day, we see the local police, together with a prosecutor who has been dragged from home on the promise that together, they will uncover the corpse of a murdered man, as his killers have confessed and are willing to lead them to the body.
Whereas most filmmakers would spend a great deal of time contriving dialogue and scenarios to explain to their viewers how this crime has occurred and what the reasons for it were, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is not interested in the slightest about this. What he is interested in is exploring how investigations really work: any hint of melodrama is stripped away, to leave only the arduous monotony of the job, the frustrating setbacks and errors, the tired, formal and impersonal language with which crimes have to be reported, and the emotionally draining effects that these combine to impose on the people left to pick up the pieces after a murder.
It is a long, difficult film, and yet for the whole of its running time, it is never anything less than fascinating. Ceylan's idea was an inspired one to begin with, but in other, less confident hands, this movie could easily have been a heavy-handed, soporific exploration of ennui and disillusionment. These two themes are central in the film, but what I wasn't expecting at all was the amount of satiric, deadpan humour perfectly timed and strangely in keeping with the feel of the film and the poetry in the visuals. I will not describe their brilliance here, but leave them for you to discover for yourselves.
On the surface, this film is painstakingly slow and strictly unsensational, but the genius of 'Once Upon A Time In Anatolia' lies in the details, and in how subtly and realistically it reveals the inner characters of its protagonists their frustrations, personal tragedies and cynicism. Throughout the course of the movie, we see one man in particular make the sad progression into the masculine, passionless disillusionment that accompanies loss and age, and which many of his male companions have sunk into already.
Perhaps my favourite part of the film is a sequence in which the team, exhausted for the night, and in need of food and shelter, decide to rest at a nearby village, which is slowly but surely being forgotten by the world around it. There are three stunning scenes in this section: one involving a conversation over dinner between the mayor of the village and his guests, a poetic sequence about beauty and passion, and finally a private, tortured conversation between the prosecutor and a doctor, which will later lead to a painful revelation about the prosecutor's past. And this is what I understand the movie to really be about, once we have delved beyond the ennui and disillusionment: love, time and change.
'Once Upon A Time In Anatolia' is a strange, superb film at once utterly distinctive, original, mystical, closely observed and quietly moving. You will need patience to sit through it, but believe me, that patience is rewarded in spades. In my humble opinion, this unassuming, eccentric piece of work is one of the best films of the year so far.
Disappointing modern adaptation of a classic.
Michael Winterbottom's contemporary update of 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' was something that I had been looking forward to seeing for a long time. This is his third adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel, and by far his most audacious: taking a story set in 19th century England and relocating it to modern day India, while retaining the essence and nuance of the original story, was no easy feat.
Unfortunately, it shows. I knew from the beginning that this was not a movie to judge as a literary adaptation, and I refuse to do so. This should be judged on its merits as a film in its own right but even with this taken into consideration, there are major problems.
First, I would like to state that there are things to admire in this movie. Freida Pinto in the main role proves to the world (if there was any doubt after her performance in 'Slumdog Millionaire') what a talented actress she is. Combine with this with some truly beautiful cinematography and a story packed with emotional depth and powerful statements about modern Indian society, relationships and sexual politics and we should be on for a winner, surely!
Yet, despite Pinto's wonderful lead performance, her talents do not extend to some of her co-stars - most notably Riz Ahmed, who in an inspired but flawed directorial decision plays a character in whom Alec and Angel from the novel are combined. The result, although more successful than I originally thought it would be, still isn't entirely believable, especially in the film's final third by far the weakest section of the film.
There are other, more minor flaws: with the exception of some wonderful technical flourishes (including a brilliantly filmed murder scene at the end of the film, and some interesting decisions in the cinematography department in shooting a car crash nearer the start of the movie), the editing is sometimes very shoddy, which undercuts not only some of the most beautiful filmed scenes in the movie, but also creates frequent continuity errors.
However, by far the most disappointing thing about 'Trishna' is its script: it sounds all the way through like a first draft. The characters talk in tired clichés, and surprisingly, there are no interesting set pieces until very near the end of the movie, meaning that for most of its running time, the film is running on neutral, with very little passion or forward momentum driving the plot along. It stalls far too often, and although I don't know how many scenes were consigned to the cutting room floor before the film's release, I would argue whole-heartedly that there are still more that could be shed.
I'm sorry to say that 'Trishna', despite great potential, left me very disappointed. It is a flawed melodrama with no gusto or passion, which inevitably means that its overwrought ending feels horribly out of place. It isn't a complete disaster as I have said, there are positives, and it is certainly a brave and interesting effort, which I am sure many film buffs and lovers of literature will be itching to see: indeed, I would encourage them to see it (albeit with their expectations lowered). However, for me, Roman Polanski's 1979 film 'Tess' remains the definitive adaptation of the Hardy novel.
La femme du Vème (2011)
To say that Tom is down on his luck is an understatement. He has lost his job as a university lecturer on literature and flown to Paris in search of his young daughter, Chloe, and his wife, who has had a restraining order issued against him. His bag is stolen on the bus; he has no money, and is forced to rent a grotty room in a down-and-out Parisian café, owned by a domineering, criminal character called Sezer.
Tom has also written a novel. He has no faith in it, but it clearly shows potential. His passion for literature seems to have been extinguished by the time we meet him; yet he hopes that writing a second novel will bring him some income. In the meantime, Sezer sets him up with a scary night shift in an underground bunker, where he must watch a screen for six hours each night and only allow people to enter if they know the correct 'password'.
It is at a literary gathering that Tom meets Margit. From the first moment she appears, we get goosebumps. The effect she has on Tom is electric it might not be love at first sight, but there is something cool, mysterious and effortlessly sensual about Margit that immediately captivates him. From a simple glance through a doorway, he is compelled to follow her onto the balcony. The conversation they have there is tinged with sadness and sinister undertones; she recognises something in Tom and hands him her card, telling him to call 'any time after four', before slipping away. Who is this woman? Why does she unsettle us so much?
Ethan Hawke plays Tom. Critics have complained about his dodgy French accent, but try and put this into perspective. He is playing an outsider, a foreigner who is able to get by in conversation. Surely the American accent adds to the authenticity of the role, and emphasises his isolation. Give him a break it's a fine performance.
Even more impressive, though, is Kristin Scott Thomas as the ethereal Margit. It is not the details of her life or the tragedy in her past that fascinates us these are eventually revealed, but they won't be what you remember most. It is the constant performance the cold, removed beauty of this character that startles us. Intelligent, demure and sinister, there is a potent dread and sorrow that pervades the scenes she is in, and permeates throughout the rest of the film in ripples that seem to emanate from her presence.
Consider the first time Tom visits her apartment. He is awkward, and tries to make small talk. He asks about her husband, a Hungarian writer. She indulges him for a short time, but they have no delusions. Both know very well why he is there. The shot that follows is perhaps the finest in the entire film; finally, we have found someone who understands how to film sex. It is sad to think that so many directors believe that the more you show, the more erotic the scene is. The tension in that apartment is almost unbearable, and sex does not diffuse it. Watch closely as Tom tries to kiss Margit, at what point she stops him and undoes his trousers. No detail is shown, and even the sounds of rustling material are muted. The camera focuses on their faces, in one steady, unmoving shot: Tom recoils in shock, closes his eyes, murmurs, almost disintegrating from the overwhelming emotion and physical pleasure of this act. Margit only watches, silently, smiling knowingly as if she were gazing at a small child trying to learn the alphabet. She is in complete control, and knows it.
I am not sure how to describe 'The Woman In The Fifth'; the word 'strange' doesn't even scratch the surface. It is a classy movie the aesthetics and cinematography are top notch (notice the deep reds and blacks that cling to Margit, for example), and the influence of Polish cinema is patent. Paris is an alien world behind a romantic façade lie the gray skies, the lonely train tracks, the tragic aura of mystery and always the looming sense of danger and death. This is a movie that defies rational judgement, as the plot swings from one bizarre event to the next. The twist about two thirds of the way through had many cynics in the audience scoffing I have to admit, I wasn't completely convinced. But we are in the hands of a director who has complete confidence in his medium, and by the end, I had a deep respect for his efforts. This movie isn't perfect, but it is nevertheless beguiling and utterly compelling. It takes some skill to blend the genres seen here so effortlessly from domestic drama to romance to crime thriller and finally entering the realms of the supernatural, this shouldn't really work. Yet the threads between these genres and the themes on display are as tangible as those woven by spiders and serving to capture insects in the brief interludes within the film, often showing snapshots of nature in its deformed, frightening beauty, focusing in particular on a faraway woodland. Where is it? What do these images mean?
It only really struck me as I left the cinema just how desperately sad this movie is. Whatever else 'The Woman In The Fifth' explores, it is primarily about suffering and loss, and our need for love and human companionship. It may not be a masterpiece I would argue its flaws are quite substantial - but it is never pretentious. Pawel Pawlikowski is a director who has a story to tell, and does so with flair and imagination, without ever alienating his audience. Surprisingly deep, concisely expressed and including within its short running time glimpses of cinematic genius, 'The Woman In The Fifth' is an unassuming little gem. I highly recommend it.
Criminally underrated - a dark, honest piece of cinema.
LAPD veteran Dave Brown is a vile, disgusting man. He is a sexist, racist, womaniser, drunkard, dirty cop and patent homophobe. This, incidentally, is not my judgement of him, but that of his own daughter. It's pretty accurate. How much does that tell you?
Co-written by James Ellroy and starring Woody Harrelson in the main role, 'Rampart' serves both as compelling crime melodrama and scorching character study. When we first meet Brown (the Harrelson character), we take an immediate dislike to him. He stinks of corruption and arrogance; he is a control freak, whose selfishness and cynicism damage and infect all those around him. He has two daughters by two different women (both sisters, as chance would have it); despite the fact that his adultery is an almost nightly occurrence, he insists on living together with the two women and their respective children, to 'keep the family' intact. The pain and despair this has caused is devastating.
Yet this is a man quite capable of charisma, and perhaps in the crudest sense possible, charm. He can, after all, be seductive; in a brilliant early scene, we see him pick up a woman at his local bar; first conversation, then sex. His target is sensible, and perhaps looking for a good time, a friend, maybe even a relationship. Her questions are amicable and fair. The disappointment after that vacuous act later on is captured with incredible insight and realism by the filmmaker.
Dave's behaviour is often puerile and savage; the weight of the law begins to force itself upon him when he is caught on camera almost beating a man to death after the latter crashed his vehicle into Dave's police car. The extent of his obstinacy and self-delusion is mind blowing; an amazing piece of cinematography, in which the camera swings round in a circle, abruptly cutting between Dave and his superiors during a heated discussion on the subject of his brutality, emphasises the illogical but never-ending egoism and suppressed insecurity that drive him.
Sex, as in most works with Ellroy's name attached, plays a huge role. At first, we think Dave is just producing excess testosterone, or is simply a chauvinistic pig by nature. But we soon realise there is something desperate about his constant affairs, about his insatiable need to control and assert his authority. Perhaps to confirm his masculinity, or escape his problems. Certainly, the brief relationship he strikes up with a lawyer, as confused and desperate as he is in many ways, sheds much light on Dave's character.
I've seen it argued that Dave is completely immoral in other reviews. This isn't true. He may have ruined the lives of his family, and everyone he has come into contact with, but he does come to realise that. Too long he has spent running away from his responsibilities; at least on the job, he can fall back on the tired, formal jargon that has etched itself on his brain. But what about his children?
I think it would be unfair to give any more specifics on the plot. Technically, this movie is something special: intimately filmed, with heavy usage of artificial lighting (neon red, in particular, is used to great effect), and a handful of brilliant sequences including but by no means limited to an excursion into an underground bar where easy sex pervades the air. This is where we begin to see Dave at his most desperate and
'Rampart' is a formidable movie about a man well past his sell-by-date, whose brutality, closed-mindedness, insecurity and immaturity have destroyed any chance of happiness he might ever have had, and may well have destroyed the same thing for those nearest to him. There is a heartbreaking sequence near the end where, for the first time, Dave tries to speak to his children honestly, in hope of salvaging his relationship with them. It is a film about despair, about a corrupt society that has moulded a man whose failures and flaws are killing him from the inside out, without mercy. His own childhood is left deliberately ambiguous, but his father, another corrupt cop, seems to have been his role model. Thus the corruption and destruction seems to be continuing through the generations in ripples and circles.
The possibility of redemption has certainly manifested itself by the end of the film. Hope has come, at least for Dave's family. As far as he is concerned, perhaps self-knowledge is the first step. The movie's final scene is a modification of the opening sequence, and we have to ask ourselves, can we see the change in Dave? There is no easy answer. There isn't meant to be.
A Dangerous Method (2011)
Something missing, but still good.
When I heard that David Cronenberg was to make a film about Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and psychoanalysis, I was very excited, but didn't have a clue what to expect. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn't this.
To say this is a turn-around for Cronenberg (the infamous 'Baron of Blood') would be an understatement. It certainly is dialogue orientated, and if it weren't for the stunning cinematography and period detail, you could certainly be forgiven for thinking that this was just a word for word screen adaptation of Christopher Hampton's play 'The Talking Cure' (incidentally, though, the playwright also wrote the screen play).
What I found so strange is that the story Cronenberg has found is such an interesting and important one, and yet curiously, it is told with a bizarre lack of passion or dramatic intensity. Even the sex scenes are clinical and emotionally removed. I concede that this was undoubtedly an artistic decision made by Cronenberg, but I can't help feeling that it was something of an imprudent one. The result is alienating as opposed to compelling, which is what this movie should be.
However, even a curious approach to the material cannot sink the interest it provokes just by being told. It is a truly great story, and the film, although slightly bloodless, is certainly handsome (of a picture postcard aesthetic) and well acted by Michael Fassbender (as Jung) and Viggo Mortensen (as Freud). I would normally stick up for Keira Knightley, as in my opinion, she's an incredibly gifted actress who gets an unfair press. Yet parts of her performance here, particularly towards the beginning of the film, left me ambivalent as to their merit.
Can I recommend 'A Dangerous Method'? Certainly. It is a competent period drama with a fascinating subject (the best moments undoubtedly come from the scenes that Fassbender and Mortensen share), and it marks perhaps the biggest change in a director's film canon that we've seen for quite a while. Descriptions of dreams and the exploration of the relationship between Jung and Freud two massive egos and incredible scientific minds are the things to treasure here. On balance, this film is a little disappointing; but that only means that it is a good film instead of a great one!
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
The vast majority of horror movies have got it wrong. Perhaps what scares us the most as human beings is indeed fear of the unknown, but by far the scariest thing that we face is what we ourselves are capable of.
Atmosphere is established before the film even begins. The music starts working on us as the opening titles, in menacing orange capitals, give way to the sound of a hammer hitting nails into wood, and images of what seems to be a farm house somewhere in the Catskill Mountains. There is a small community living there, men and women, seemingly happy and in peace. Those opening images are so subtle and unsettling: notice, for example, the fact that the men and women eat separately, the evening meal seeming like a ritual, taken in silence. Everything seems to be running smoothly, until one morning, quite unexpectedly, a young woman decides to run away through the forest into town.
This is Martha. She is a damaged, insecure young woman, and most of the film follows Martha as she contacts her sister, who she hasn't spoken to in two years, and who takes Martha in after her ordeal. But what was her ordeal? There is a moment towards the end when Lucy (the older sister) screams at Martha, begging her to disclose the details of what happened. But Martha, alone and confused, answers honestly when she says, on the verge of mental breakdown, 'I don't know.'
What makes this film so frightening is its realistic depiction of how easily and completely the human mind can be influenced and manipulated. It gradually becomes clear to us that Martha has escaped from a cult, headed by John Hawkes (of 'Winter's Bone' fame). They take in vulnerable, damaged youngsters and introduce them to their community. Martha was one such impressionable soul coming from a broken family home (the details of which are not fully disclosed: a wise decision). These people are utterly convincing with their trite but seemingly earnest maxims of love and fraternity; even more disturbing is the fact that they actually believe them, and are mere pawns themselves. The only person that may be consciously manipulative is the Hawkes character, whose charm and charisma conceals something far more sinister underneath.
It would be unfair to disclose anything more about that. The film also works as a stunning character study. The relationship between Martha and Lucy is strained to say the least. Lucy feels a duty to help Martha, and feels guilt for something buried in their childhood, but she now has a husband and wants to start a family. It is made clear very early on that her husband Ted finds Martha a burden, and both Lucy and Ted find Martha's behaviour at turns bizarre and irritating. Martha is in need of help, and yet feels ever more abandoned as the movie continues.
This film showcases the talents of two fascinating discoveries in the film industry. One is Elizabeth Olsen, as Martha, whose stunning performance, encompassing perfectly her character's immaturity, vulnerability, confusion and growing paranoia, is a joy to watch. The second is the film's writer-director, Sean Durkin. With this indie thriller, he has certainly made a name for himself, and I await his future projects with great interest. Already, he has displayed a confidence and adroitness in his medium that is quite humbling as an outsider. The colours are muted and darkened, and the editing is masterful, often disorientating and confusing, plunging us headlong into Martha's world of perpetual fear.
The way in which Durkin builds suspense is admirable. There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the film, in which Martha is being taught how to fire a gun, that is so frightening in its psychological intensity that the cut to the next scene is akin to the diffusing of a bomb in Kathryn Bigelow's 'The Hurt Locker'. So much of the film relies on atmosphere: from lighting and the position of shadows, to the menacing soundtrack, promising the distant but always present danger of violence, 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' could be used for analysis in a film studies course. For such a long time, the viewer can't actually pin down what is so wrong about this cult. It is simply a feeling that makes your flesh crawl, an intuitive instinct telling you that something about this community is badly wrong. When the mechanics of the cult are finally revealed, it is horrifying, but those opening fifty minutes are so important in understanding just how this group of people can convince others that what they do is perfectly natural. So impressive are their methods of gentle persuasion that the 'pupils' eventually become 'teachers', guiding newcomers in the same direction. The event that catalyses Martha's decision to escape is eventually revealed to us, but even after that, she is far from free, and further from understanding what is wrong with the world she left (even defending it indirectly to Ted one night in a blazing row). She only has her innate fear and convictions to go on.
'Martha Marcy May Marlene' is an excellent film. Its depths are frightening, and it will stay with you long after the final credits have rolled. Many will find the film's ending unsatisfying and flawed, but just think what the effect would have been if it had ended differently. The film, after all, relies on ambiguity for much of its effect. We are left abandoned to our own imaginations as the movie closes, with the cult's controlling, manipulative power being emphasised to haunting effect. Both technically and psychologically, 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' is quite an accomplishment, and I have to admit to having had a bit of trouble sleeping after having seen it. What can I say? This is my idea of a scary movie!
The Iron Lady (2011)
A very mixed bag.
In the last hundred years of British history, I cannot think of a more controversial figure than ex prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Undoubtedly the marmite of the political world, her story, whatever your views on her are, is a fascinating one, and on hearing that a new film headed by Meryl Streep was being made on the subject, I was quite excited.
The first thing that I should say is that I want to leave my own political beliefs out of this review, as I think that one of the main things that can be said in the film's favour is that it attempts quite successfully to produce a balanced viewpoint on the lady herself whether avid Conservative or ardent Socialist, the film doesn't alienate anyone in terms of giving a biased stance on the woman herself.
The other remarkable thing to note about this film is the strength of the performances, particularly from our leading lady. Despite seeming to be a somewhat odd choice to play Thatcher, the make-up department, hair stylists and costume designers have done wonders to transform Streep's appearance, and her accent is scarily authentic. She has her own role nailed, and receives great support from the ever reliable Jim Broadbent as her husband Denis and Olivia Colman as her daughter Carol.
I'm afraid that's where the positives end. The biggest problem that this film has is that it somehow managed to take one of the most fascinating, controversial political figureheads of our time and made a film about her that curiously isn't very compelling. Half of the film is devoted to an imagined sequence of scenes exploring the kind of person that Thatcher might now have become in the present day, and the sort of life she leads. On paper, that sounds like an interesting (if risky) idea, and it saddens me to say that the risk definitely hasn't paid off. Despite the wonderful acting, the script is clunky and clichéd, and these scenes are contrived, soapy, sentimental and trite.
The result of so much screen time being devoted to this flawed section in the present day inevitably means that the really meaty part of the film its exploration of the life of Thatcher from being a young girl to resigning as prime minister in 1990 is rushed and lacks any kind of depth. The pacing of these scenes is more akin to screenwriters simply ticking off items on a list rather than exploring them in any particularly dramatic way. Instead, we are given a series of brief, bordering on anecdotal accounts of the major events during Thatcher's political journey, and partly to make up for the lack of screen time available to explore them, the script here often consists of toe-curling monologues placed in the most inappropriate places and infantile, oversimplified dialogue.
Incidentally, it came as no surprise to me after seeing the film to learn that its director, Phyllida Lloyd, is most celebrated for her work in theatre. I feel that many of the narrative techniques employed in the present day scenes are more suited for a theatre production, where they might have been more successful. Employing them with very little adjustment for a piece of cinema simply lends these scenes a disconcerting superficiality which, unfortunately, is irritatingly hard to ignore.
Perhaps my expectations were too high. I thoroughly accept that depth will always have to sacrificed to some degree in a historical film, but the sacrifices here are damaging and even unnecessary, considering the material that Lloyd has devoted the rest of the film to in exchange for it. However, despite the fact that the movie is flawed and disappointing in terms of what it had the potential to be, the performances almost make up for it; I doubt that the Oscar win for Streep took anyone by surprise. For that reason, I can argue that the film is at least worth seeing.
Les enfants du paradis (1945)
One of the finest films ever made. Period.
There is no doubt that French cinema includes many of the world's finest, most influential and iconic films. From fantasy to neo-realism, historical epic to kitchen sink drama, and with arguably the most important cinematic New Wave to add to its canon, French masterpieces can be found in almost every genre imaginable; indeed, in many cases, they have helped to distinguish between them.
'Les Enfants du Paradis' is considered the finest product of the partnership between director Marcel Carné and writer Jacques Prévert. At over three hours, and split into two parts, the film follows a handful of colourful characters through the 1820s and 30s in that fascinating, mystical city: Paris. The focus is on the Parisian theatre a place of hypocrisy, deception, exaggerated emotion, corrosive artificiality, cheap tricks and crude laughs. With an astonishing attention to detail, and displaying a perfect mastery of his medium, Carné exposes with scorching wit the superficiality of society and the damaging effect it has had on his characters. There is a fine line between fantasy and reality, and the characters, sometimes without even knowing it, deceive themselves and the others around them. In a film with so many grand themes, its tragedy lies in its profound exploration of love, and what happens when genuine emotion attempts to shine through in a world of romantic, sentimental lies, cruel falsehoods, deluded pride and vicious crime.
Much of the brilliance of this film I cannot divulge in my review. I admit, that aside from its considerable critical acclaim, I knew nothing about it when I bought my ticket. That is the way it should be seen: let its delicious melodrama, breathtaking sets, classy cinematography, dry comedy and poignant tragedy wash over you. Long it may be, but the time flies by; very rarely have I been taken on as deep and enjoyable a ride as this one and how refreshing that is, considering that those two adjectives seldom gel when talking about cinema. Even more impressive is that with so many characters, story lines and themes at play, the movie never once feels rushed or convoluted: its pacing is pitch perfect, and its artistic vision - impeccable; the denouement is abrupt and delivers a memorable emotional punch to the gut.
This is a timeless film for all tastes: those who like a great plot, a compelling love story, lavish costumes, profound thematic material, passion and grand emotion, an insight into a different culture or a different time and place this has everything, encompassing all of life from the most pitifully poor to the most disgustingly rich. I personally cannot wait to see it again, and the newly restored version released recently by the BFI is definitely the way to go if you have the intention of watching it the print, much like the film, is a joy to behold, almost doing full justice to the amazing cinematography (courtesy of Marc Fossard and Roger Hubert) and the delightful technical and stylistic flourishes found within it.
I am not exaggerating when I say that this may well be one of the finest films ever made. It could be studied and analysed until the cows come home, but as is often the case for many truly great films, there is nothing quite like seeing it for the first time and just enjoying it for what it is, not feeling the need to try and analyse because you have complete confidence in the filmmaker and are utterly captivated by the story he is telling you. It was made over sixty years ago now, but it could have been released yesterday for the first time. It feels as fresh and exciting as ever - and that, for me, is the sign of a film to cherish!