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Doctor Who: Kerblam! (2018)
Season 11, Episode 7
Full throttle on the acting and storylines, but the virtue-signalling could be toned down a bit
18 November 2018
Jodie Whittaker seems to be handling the challenge of new role really well, in all of the episodes so far. The new coven of writers and directors have come up with good storylines, nicely handled, including a couple of outstanding ones: but why, oh why, do they have to spoil a good sci-fi romp with in-your-face political correctness? Science fiction has a great pedigree for bringing forward social-conscience issues even controversial ones, both in literature and on TV (who remembers Startrek's famous first ever TV inter-racial kiss?). But it is a little off-putting when every episode of Dr Who now finishes with an almost Jerry Springer mentality that preaches a message.

I don't need to be told that it's not machines that are bad, it's people who run them ... or that interfaith marriages are cool ... (and especially certain religions apparently get an extra plug) and so on and so forth ... it's getting almost like an episode of Casualty.

In the previous series, the joke about bisexual Romans was cool, educational, and worthy of stimulating historical interest as well as being politically-correct - but above all it was funny and a natural part of the plot-line. The more blatant virtue-signalling in the new series has I suspect probably come from BBC management and it could eventually spoil the integrity of the whole series and its worldwide high estimation. "And the moral of the story this week children is ...":please cut it out! If the Doctor wants to take up preaching let her do it on her own time, not on-air. Don't talk down to your viewers. Just do what you are really good so people look forward to one of the world's best sci-fi romps ever made, not tuning in to be told how to live their lives. Good luck!
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The Post (2017)
Made with polish, but missing the modern parallels that would have made it more poignant.
25 May 2018
I think we all know that Mr Spielberg knows how to make hit films and his leading actress knows how to act. But is that enough?

This is a film about the freedom of reporters to tell the truth, to hold governments to account and expose wrong-doings of people in high places (specifically in this instance, over the U.S.-VietNam War).

It's a good story, with only a few evasions of accuracy. For instance, C.I.A. whistleblower leaks have demonstrated quite clearly that the C.I.A. were actively misleading presidents and that not all the blame could be placed at the feet of now safely-disgraced feet of persons successively sitting in the White House. Historically, the big heroes were not the Washington Post but the N.Y. Times, although the film manages to sidestep this in its desire to have a female lead, and so be able to focus on the female owner of the Post and thereby cast Ms Streep.

The emotions are painted vividly - some would say far too vividly for an audience fully awake - but the real problem for many would be Ms Streep herself. Not that she doesn't play it well - there are many 'Streep' moments of 'award-worthy' pauses in the midst of self-righteous monologues. Such are those on behalf of the lead character, torn between protecting her own fortune and doing the right thing. The unmistakeable context is that while the film was being made, released and subsequently, Ms Streep had not batted an eyelid at the similar high-level misdemeanours of her friend and political hero, Mrs Clinton, that were exposed in the cables leaked to Wikileaks. Her hatred of the person who won the presidency, justified or not, seemed to take precedence over the support for freedom of information that her on-screen character espouses, and this makes suspension of disbelief so much harder when the actor frequently uses her high profile to become involved in the sort of politics the movie describes. On-screen, her character supports transparency and the people who produce it. One might think that off-screen she would at least pay tribute to the present-day 'Washington Post' whistleblower, Julian Assange, instead of such vocal support for the people that her on-screen character would have stood up against.

One doesn't expect movie stars to be their characters, but they choose their films and when then go on to portray themselves in the glory of such great characters (but making the opposite decisions) it rather trnds to reduce my enjoyment.

It was a great story, and Spielberg tells a great story. But on such a big issue that still faces us today, one can only wish the film had perhaps been handled by a director who has not only skill in his or her art, maybe using a deft palette knife instead of a trowel; but above all the moral courage and sophistication to tie the story more poignantly to current events.
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The Odyssey (1997– )
Quite a good film on several levels
26 February 2018
Assante's Odyssey is a minor triumph in more ways than one. As a cracking good adventure it will already have been reviewed many times. What is perhaps worth adding is its possible interest to those approaching Homer's Odyssey or even the Iliad (preferably in that order) for the first time.

It is not, of course, a blow-by-blow film of the very lengthy Homeric poem, but as dramatisation go, it is a worthwhile introduction to the characters at a basic level. It doesn't 'Westernise' the Greek mythology to fit tastes dictated by the likes of Disney, or make the ancient Greek Gods silly and ridiculous. We see Odysseus inspired to intelligent courage by the Goddess Athena (wonderfully played by Isabella Rossellini), and this will contrast for the student with the great but unthinking bravery of Hector (in the Iliad). Rossellini combines the qualities of blue-eyed beauty without a hint of soppiness. Hermes edifies with technical insights in a perfectly detached way. Thus the Gods are both external realities and that which inspires and strengthens specific internal values.

The devotion of Odysseus to his beautiful wife Penelope is both subjected to his strong sense of duty (in the bigger picture, from oaths made to his fellow men) and, if that seems uncaring, shown in the strength by which he chooses to return to her even after he is offered the choice of that or immortality.

As far as a mainstream film goes, it at least attempts to tell the story within the ethos of ancient Greek values. But there is another benefit to seeing it. That is, Homer is so long, so dense, and with so many characters, that although one can gain an intellectual appreciation by reading it, a dramatisation helps the reader to identify and understand the characters emotionally, dynamically, wand this brings out the force of the relationships.

Assante has tried, and to some extent succeeded, in bringing out the taste of ancient Greece in a way not dissimilar to what Christian Jacq, in his novels, did for ancient Egypt's New Kingdom period. Well worth a watch!
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Interesting details, effortlessly presented
21 December 2017
Although it should be clear from the synopsis, this is not a film about Ramesses II -- at least to any great - but about the archeological story of recovering and preserving his remains. It has several very interesting stages, the archeologists, persons and processes concerned, and bringing him right up to date in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo.

Like many modern documentaries, the facts presented in the film could be condensed into a ten-minute news item but are instead expanded into colouful, nicely re-enacted scenes to make it more entertaining.

Opening credits show that it was made with the participation of Egyptologists Christian Leblanc (Research Director CNRS) and Salima Ikram (American University in Cairo); and an anthropologist, Andre Macke.

The film is a pleasant mix of needing to document the remarkable history and discoveries in a format that is at once accessible and long lasting, while also making it entertaining and informative enough for a general audience.
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a lot of talent sadly gone to waste
17 December 2017
What should have been a great movie fell short even in the hands of the great Walter Lang. Instead of sparkling with many great song-and-dance routines it tends to slump, overloaded with far too many numbers at the expense of plot. The wonderful Donald O'Connor performs some of his comedic routines: but he worked best as a second lead, not the lead in a film. Monroe is clearly the star, but it is as if she has been reluctantly shoe-horned in instead of building the film around her. Much of the acting and script is pedestrian, and Ethel Merman's singing is bearable until we are treated to too many rather average songs and reprises. Monroe's appearances, for all the constant razzamatazz, are easily the most memorable, and possibly not so much because of outstanding on her part but as a welcome breath of fresh air amid the rather lacklustre cacophony.
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In hindsight a little "preachy" but nevertheless packs an amazing emotional punch with minimal material.
28 November 2016
By the time I saw I, Daniel Blake, it had already won 8 awards including three at Cannes. The subject matter, about two people who are on the brink and failed by social services, hardly sounds like a great night out. (We know there are people worse off: do we really want to pay £10 to have our noses rubbed in it?)

Spurred on by glowing reviews and suppressing a thought that the money might be better spent giving it to charity, I went along, not least inspired by the fact that the screening was to feature 'a discussion with a panel' afterwards. Perhaps the film would challenge us to come up with good ideas . . .

The last two films by the great (and he is great, in his way) Ken Loach that I've seen I've found thoroughly enjoyable. Carla's song was original, surprising and inspiringly insightful. My Name is Joe was gritty but edged with enough humour to hold attention effortlessly. With I, Daniel Blake, Loach uses all his not inconsiderable directorial skill to give an emotional punch to a current outrage: the failing of the U.K. benefits system to help people who are very seriously too ill to work or made homeless with young children to feed and clothe. Loach makes his point well and there is hardly a dry eye in the theatre: but what exactly is he trying to do here?

If the film had been screened on television. it might have had the social impact of a 'Cathy Come Home' than a 'Poor Cow.' The cinema, in spite of it being a special event, was more than half empty. Several MPs and voluntary workers lined up on the stage to make their heartfelt speech. Sadness gives way to suppressed anger: but neither emotions are in themselves a solution.

I sat through half an hour of deeply-felt righteousness from the panel, hoping that there would indeed be time for a 'discussion' and mentally prepared what I felt could be a constructive exchange. Whoever is running the government or social services, there is only a set amount of money in the pot. No-one has found a way of implementing a good solution to social inequality. The message between the lines however was, "It is really terrible", "People must be treated with respect" (which turned out to be inventing another politically correct phrase for desperate people), "I want the other politicians to see this film!" (to do what? -- a good point but it was a politician that put it forward and someone, somewhere, at some point, has to come up with *ideas* instead of ways to make others feel guilty/ashamed/sad/angry). The underlying message seemed to be "Look at us (i.e. volunteers), we are working so hard" (agreed and hats off, but there is still a problem isn't there?); or from politicians, subtly, it is all their (i.e. the *other* political party's) fault, or (this screening being in Scotland) "It is all Wesminster's fault."

None of this should detract from Loach's accomplishment in packing a powerful punch to make his point. That was *his* job. Endless wailing by others after watching the film doesn't really add to it.

A great movie in many ways but, Mr Loach, please remember you are a filmmaker, a talented one, and your movies are (unfortunately) not going to change the world.
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Steve Jobs (2015)
A sad use of cinematic talent
3 April 2016
No-one can deny the superb acting or Boyle's talent in this film. Yet even if it is admittedly "not a documentary" it seems a shameful use of someone's name, a vicious character assassination on one of the greatest minds of recent times and whose genius changed so much in the world. Almost any of the fact-checks now available demonstrate that the key emotional and historical events are untrue, untruths that characterise the film and try to redact the world of Steve Jobs. Boyle has done some great films, he did a great job as artistic director of the London Summer Olympics as well, but this movie is no gift to humanity. Vindictive, spiteful and an attempt to destroy the name of someone who was and will still be an inspiration to millions, Boyle can only hope that it will be forgotten, or written off as a rather sad, ill-judged attempt to cream publicity off a person who was much greater than he could ever be.It should be remembered as "Ad Hominen Jobs."
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Macbeth (2015)
A cinematic triumph
2 November 2015
While it will not please everybody, Kurzel's treatment of a familiar story is little short of spectacular, gripping the spectator emotionally and visually.

There have been many treatments of the semi-fictional yet inspiring Shakespearean saga of ambition and corruption, with famous actors and directors from the earliest days of cinema. In 1971, Polanski injected new life in the tale by depicting the grimness of the early Scottish landscape and the violent and brutality of events from the play. Although Polanski made an effort towards faithfulness of the words written by the Bard, bringing a grittiness to the screen that could hardly be achieved on stage, Kurzel in one sense goes a stage further, completely accepting that cinema is a different medium and that faithfulness to the spirit of a story can be fulfilled in many dimensions.

From the very opening scenes, before hardly a word has been spoken, Kurzel uses visual images of desperate conditions, a child's death, a youngster preparing for war, to heighten our emotional sensitivity. When spoken words begin, there is little attempt to 'make Shakespearean English understandable' in the normal way. True to the story, he uses heavy Scottish accents, forcing the viewer to follow what is happening visually, and the emotional journeys become a tsunami.

Superb acting shows Macbeth as an initially good, loyal, man, the three witches not as bat-boiling hags but as sincere, folklorish women, and the future Lady Macbeth as devoted, loving and kind (if a bit misguided). All this fits with reasonable history of the period and the story generally. The unsophisticated Macbeth is loyal to his king, but allows his wife (who wants him to succeed in life) to influence him against his better judgment. Her unravelling, as she witnesses the monster that her husband has become (at her bidding) is a transformation effected by Marion Cotillard in one of the most remarkable female performances of the year.

As long as you have a passing idea of the story, it is easy enough to follow by focussing on the emotions of the characters. There is no need of the usual cinematic markers of overblown heroism and evil deeds to delineate good and evil (although there are plenty of evil deeds as well, some of them clothed in sweetness and piety). We can see for ourselves, in the subtle expressions and choices, as a pure heart becomes corrupt, and as evil takes root until the person no longer knows themself.

The contrast between the old king and Macbeth in power also touches on broader themes: that leaders can embody things that all men and women aspire to, such as honesty, recognition of others, kindness and a better future for all. When these are lacking, most people no longer love and identify with their king but merely think of staying alive, being a bit better off materially, or going home to their family.

Kurzel finds novel ways of dealing with the big supernatural events that strike us as entirely credible without the use of special effects and even manages to add a new interpretation to the famous 'Birnham Wood'. The stunning climax might suggest modern day lessons of tolerance over the heated Scottish independence question; and the final footage is used not to amaze in typical blockbuster style but to tear at one's heart and guts as we consider the horrors visited on innocent men and children by the unleashed greed and ambition that was as unstoppable as it was unintended.

One cannot make a film like this which breaks the mold without upsetting those that seek straightforward entertainment. Yet this is, in some sense at least, Shakespeare: those that only go for battle scenes and the story on a plate may leave feeling distinctly unsatisfied.
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One of my favourite Godard movies
12 October 2012
I never did quite 'get' Dali. All those contortions. Grotesque shapes. Stunted creatures. Then one day I saw clues. His 'melting pocket-watch' (The Persistence Of Memory) was not just a silly timepiece, bent out of shape like wax melting off a table. It was the fluidity of time, how we perceive time in different ways. When we have fun (for instance) and time seems to speed up. When we're bored, and it slows.

Our inner experience of time is affected by our perception. Our focus, our mental state, it makes a big difference. We are similarly affected by how things are presented externally. Trees flashing past so quickly they are almost a blur. Have you ever been on a train as it traverses a wooded hill? But see the same trees from the hilltop and their majesty and poetry become evident. In both cases, perhaps there is no absolute 'reality' – only different ways of perceiving it. At any one second, our senses are overloaded with more data than our consciousness allows. It is less a case of 'seeing what is really there' - but of exerting control over our selection process, our filtering, and deciding what data to take time to consciously process; and what our conscious mind ignores.

Perception is, for Godard, an enduring theme. Speed it up, slow it down. The camera mimics the process of visual perception. It chooses what to observe, and how. It 'tells' us what to think. Can cinema, by its careful control of simulated perception, increase our understanding of 'how' we perceive things? Or alert us to the possibility that there is 'more' in front of our eyes than we might have assumed on that busy day? The nominal plot revolves around a three characters. A filmmaker called Godard. Denise, a writer/editor trying to make a career change. And Isabelle, a prostitute (Isabelle Huppert) trying to better herself. Godard and Denise are in the painful process of ending a relationship. He is also going through a tough time with his ex-wife and daughter. Denise sees Isabelle being abused in the street. Isabelle sleeps with Godard after going to a movie with him. She wants to get a new place to live – even phoning about a flat during a bizarre sex scene - and she wants to work for herself instead of the pimp. Not knowing Godard is the landlord, she visits their cottage up for rent as Godard throws himself across the table at Denise.

Three wildly different life trajectories. Intersecting in ways that allow the film to challenge accepted notions. Toying with the nature of perception. And even asking how we get to where we want to be in life – or not. Separate chapters - after the intro sequences - for each character. Then 'Music' brings all three together. (Look out for unusual sound tropes as well.) Slow Motion – by whatever name we call it – is almost as conventional as Godard gets. While the narrative is far from mainstream, it is a more recognisable cinema experience than much of his most challenging (or didactic, uncommercial) work. And it provides material to sustain many repeated viewings.

The film includes about 15 'stop-action' shots, where the image is stopped completely, slowed down, replayed, and/or speeded up. We don't just analyse images outside of their diegetic function: we are able to invent a parallel diegesis. It is almost like the break-up of a relationship where a man and woman see 'reality' from totally different perspectives. Godard deconstructs his own maxim of 'truth 24 times per second' by varying the speeds. Outwardly hollow moments contain more than might otherwise meet the eye. It is not the subject matter and characters that demand Brechtian analysis, to become aware of our spectator involvement, so much as the process of perception itself. In a scene where an executive orchestrates a scenario with two prostitutes and another man, we are again confronted with complex metaphor, ("Okay," he says, "we've got the image, now we'll take care of the sound.") But here, the symbol of prostitution is not playing into the Marxist-bourgeois analogy so commonly used by Godard in films such as 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her. In the debauchery, we can see the construction processes and their perception, the images, the sound, used to no specific purpose other than gratification – thus mimicking the production of mindless entertainment in Hollywood consumerist cinema.

Compounding such stop-motion tropes is the use of interior dialogue. Isabelle plays out another life in her head while having sex with clients. What do we choose to 'see'? To hear? Comparison of the prostitution scenes and the scenes where natural, spontaneous sexuality is apparent or implied, coupled with the 'selection' process we make when determining how we 'see' things, might reflect not only on how men and women (or any two people) can be 'in tune' – but also, with different emphases affecting the data-perception process, the very gender difference apparent when we look at how men and women might typically view things differently. There might be life apart from the diegetic one. We might choose what we perceive to be 'real' – but ultimately we make our own reality.

Dehumanization occurs when a person is not able to order their life according to their will. At that point, the individual has become a slave to the senses rather than their master. One might not be able to change the territory in which one finds oneself – but, by standing back far enough to discern the wood from the trees, one might at least find new perceptions that can be converted to reality.
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Oh, Woe Is Me (1993)
A difficult masterpiece but undoubtedly worth the effort
8 October 2012
Are you easily distracted? When I first watched Gaspar Noé's 2002 film, Irreversible, I sat near the screen and found the cacophony of images overpowering. On my second viewing, I sat further back, more easily contemplating the 'bigger picture,' appreciating a remarkable film. Virginia Woolf's 'Mrs Dalloway,' suggests a similar psychology in her 'stream-of-consciousness' where writing emulates experience: we need to step back before we can tell, what is the pertinent information? what is the story about? In real life, we may only see things in true proportion retrospectively.

This psychological hurdle forcefully confronts us in Hélas Pour Moi. I strongly urge you to see it twice if possible. The story is more logical and flowing when you know what is happening. You can appreciate the many subtleties, and the exquisite cinematography of Caroline Champetier. Failing that, I would recommend sitting at the rear of the auditorium.

We meet a publisher, Abraham Klimt. He has turned detective to investigate a strange story sent to him of divine intervention, though part of the manuscript is missing. We catch up with Klimt as he seeks out Simon and Rachel Donnadieu, our main characters, as well as the one witness who maybe saw the key event: did God take human form to have sex with Rachel, by inhabiting the body of Simon, her husband? We are subject to the same sort of events-discordance, people coming and going, conversations overlapping, as Klimt might, as he searches for truth in an unhelpful environment. This non-sequitur approach goes on for ages, and only in the last 30 minutes or so of footage does the story congeal for a first time viewer.

It re-works a play based on the legend of Zeus, Alcmene and her husband Amphitryon. In the Ancient Greek, the divine Zeus takes the human form of Amphitryon to mate with Amphitryon's betrothed. In the original, this leads to the birth of Heracles, born of divine father and human mother. But in Godard's modern setting, the story just goes as far as sexual union. God, once known as Zeus, now seems more Christian, and by implication can even lead us to question the veracity of the standard Mary-and-Joseph story. Klimt has no preconceptions: he just wants the truth.

There is no strong statement on whether one should believe in divine intervention, or just go for the more obvious explanation: that Simon, although estranged, is feeling horny, he suffers an obsession, and assumes a divine persona which the ever-devoted Rachel believes. "All men are the shadow of God to the women who love them." (We do however, see a low-budget and highly effective scene where God, looking rather scruffy and unkempt, enters Simon's body.) Godard called Hélas pour Moi "a complete flop." Yet, while difficult and obscure, it garnered critically praise and was his first feature to be distributed in the U.S. for ten years. Depardieu (who plays Simon) abandoned the film halfway through shooting, exasperated at Godard's methods. "It could have been a good movie," said Godard, "if Depardieu was willing to try. But he was not interested in the movie, in working to make it right. Of course, he said, 'Godard is a genius.' He was just making it for my name." But without Depardieu, the film would not have been financed.

Hélas pour Moi is replete with dozens of obscure references (from French and Italian literature, from philosophy, from theology) and quotations have sometimes been 'edited' by Godard. This makes it a particularly difficult film even if it wasn't so already. In the jangling, difficult-to-watch first two-thirds, apparently discordant ideas and images are set against the beautiful backdrop of nature and Lake Geneva. Such style is intrinsic to the content. "I feel a strange revulsion at the thought of crudely expressing what the spectator has probably guessed of his own accord," says Klimt, but it could have been from Godard's own lips.

For a while, I wonder if the film will develop into a polemic against religion – no stranger to Godard's virulence – perhaps replacing it with Art as the highest of aspirations. Yet, "there is always something depressing about the portrayal of crude reality," and belief is heralded in what could be interpreted as a positive light when a character asserts, "I believe because it is absurd." When logic fails, after all, we are left with belief. And what is truth? "Truth is what keeps the walls of houses upright, what keeps the roofs from collapsing." This is just one reading. We could view the film as an essay on human feelings. An enquiry into sexual union as an aspect of communicating with God (Rachel likens the gesture of hands in prayer to hands folded in an embrace around one's lover.) Or how an artist seeks meaning in the world. Or we can follow the poetry of Champetier's photography, enjoying the way subjects are framed in nature, focused and de-focused, and the beauty of the moment as a bicycle falls over, or a woman's hat blows off. As a feminist study, or as the way history (and literature) is created and redacted: the French words 'histoire (history) and 'histoires' (stories) being symbiotic for Godard - who entitled his history of cinema 'Histoire(s) du Cinéma.' Metaphysical aspects are drawn together in the opening, and in the final coda, halfway through the credits. These skilfully harmonise Godard's ideas on the nature of perception and the evanescent nature of truth.

"When my father's father's father had a difficult task to accomplish, he went to a certain place in the forest, lit a fire, and immersed himself in silent prayer. And what had to be done was done." The ritual was diluted over time. "But we do know how to tell the story." Never shy at innovation, Godard tells his story in a new, deep and meaningful way.
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Sinister (I) (2012)
above-average horror film
8 October 2012
The autumn chill hits, and it's a good time for horror movies...

Sinister comes from the people who gave us Paranormal Activity and also The Exorcism Of Emily Rose. Only it's a little more... sinister. Found footage of snuff movies heralds its adult credentials before you've had time to choke on the nachos or splutter salsa over the person in front. Copy picture A family is murdered. Months later, comeback writer Ellison Osborne moves into the house with his family. In the attic, he discovers a box of tapes that includes footage of many murders. Unbeknown to his family, he has chosen the house in order to research a true-crime novel. Having only had one bestseller, he sees this as his lucky break, his chance to write his In Cold Blood. The children start to act strangely and his good wife freaks out on him when she discovers the real reason they are living there.

Ethan Hawke, as Ellison, and lovely Shakespearean actress Juliet Rylance playing his wife, Tracy, immediately strike us as realistic characters worthy of belief and empathy. Their convincing personas have more depth than the average shock- flick, and we are sorely tempted to consider whether this at heart might be a psychological thriller of Hitchcockian nastiness. Yet if the trailer hasn't given everything away, we are transported into a dark world of malignant forces the minute Ellison discovers a strange symbol repeated on the death tapes. Strong supporting acts appear in the form of a local police deputy – who changes from doting fanboy to calm, collected criminologist; and a little later Professor Jonas – the expert on bizarre cults. The professor makes this Babylonian demon 'Bagul' sound so realistic that you could be forgiven for wondering if Sinister is based on a true story, with Mansonesque worshippers helping Bagul to find souls of children to feast on.

More lost footage. More creaks and bumps in the Osborne family's almost endless night. Ellison is losing the plot, but we are barely a knife-edge ahead of him. Cue cute kids, cue creepy kids, cue dead kids. Sinister will shortly become shriek-out-loud horror. As well as creeping inside your head on the way home, insidious horror. Polished production values handle clichéd camera jerks with admirable restraint. What we can see and know on-screen is nasty; what we don't know is even more unsettling. Perhaps pausing only to admire the exquisite backing tracks and diligently applied sound effects, we soon realise we are hooked on trying to solve the mystery: who was the killer? Sinister's dark humour is equally discreet. Rather than being played for quick laughs, it emphasises the fear experienced by our protagonists. When Ellison is threatened by a Cujo-sized dog, he speaks soothingly, gently, while muttering a desire for the baseball bat to smash its skull in. And during a row with his wife, he says he hasn't 'really' brought them to house where murder was committed, since our crime occurred 'in the garden' ("As if that makes any difference!" Tracy explodes.) Horror films sometimes work by challenging us to confront the things we abhor, and all from the safety of a cinema seat. Whether physical (mass murderers), mental (psychological threats) or psychical (supernatural happenings), horrors on a movie-screen do not have to be real – just real enough to remind us of something that could be. Our inner demons. The things we fear most. It could be said the 'ghost' haunting Ellison Osborne, his creeping, sweating, drink-sozzled paranoia, is evoked by his frankly unsavoury and obsessive career, his life's dream, that is in reality destroying the family that he loves and frightening his children. As with Frankenstein before him, Ellison's monstrosities might be partly of his own making. It might be tempting to see the monster as a reflection of him. Yet the very visible on-screen ghosts are nevertheless small works of art that capture our senses. That, and the gut- churningly self-assured, unexpected and irresistibly compelling ending swiftly sweep aside mundane interpretations.

Given the effort put into getting it right, a part of me would still have loved to see a police psychiatrist in the coda explaining how everything really happened. An ultimate reliance on the supernatural is fine for horror fans, but inevitably weakens mainstream impact. (Imagine Norman Bates had summoned his mother back from the dead instead of just putting a wig on.) Sinister is far too derivative to be accorded a big place in cinema history; but this souped-up, low-budget compendium of dread is still more satisfying than most horror films that graced our screens this summer.
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Flamboyanytly and enjoyably chaotic, if ultimately (and perhaps intentionally) slightly pointless
11 July 2012
What is This Film Called Love? takes the viewer on a flamboyant, colourful, iconoclastic journey of three days through Mexico City – or three days inside the head of its creator, quirkily comical film connoisseur, Mark Cousins.

There's much sleight of hand, including changing gender and raising Eisenstein from the dead. But it's all done (quite remarkably, beautifully, and in near HD) on a small Flip camera costing a hundred quid. It's inventive and mesmerising, cunningly shot, heavily edited, wittily scripted and charms us into finding simple acts such as a man getting on and off a bus rather mesmerising.

To achieve this, Cousins uses his well-trodden alter-ego of an adolescent on a Kerouac-style ramble. He constantly makes the ordinary sound interesting and, for at least half of the movie I held my breath to see what was going to come next. Each shot is exquisitely composed, often with rather boyish self-congratulation, such as when he compares his 'typical' camera angles with those of the great Eisenstein. But, if you have glanced through Cousins' wonderfully erudite yet readable book, The Story of Film, and hoped to gain some insights into the work of the great Sergei Eisenstein (a pioneering Russian filmmaker from about 100 years ago) you'll be disappointed. The closest we perhaps get is to view the delightful montage techniques in Cousins' film as a tribute to Eisenstein's work. But the 'influence' could be called superficial: Eisenstein used montage to make a point, whereas Cousins just wants to have fun. But when the amusingly egotistical Cousins carries a photo of Eisenstein around Mexico City talking to it, or goes running naked through the American desert, we are inclined to forgive the ladishness of such name-dropping.

Eisenstein is the main other 'character,' but Cousins doesn't stop there. When he hints that his style is based on Virginia Woolf's stream-of-consciousness technique, the humour reminds me more of Sascha Baron Cohen. A bit like saying a Madras-flavour pot-noodle is based on the fine Indian cuisine. Unfortunately, we sense that beneath it all Cousins is taking himself seriously. Residents of Stuttgart might be equally unimpressed with his throwaway, factual inaccuracies about the philosopher, Hegel. It is someone who is genuinely an expert in one area (cinema) posing as an intellectual in another, and trying to brush it off with false modesty.

In some ways it is still forgivable. Think of poetry, and this film resembles poetry. Think of song lyrics – that most unaccountable sort of poetry. And think of Bob Dylan who (by his own account) selected names and phrases from a prestigious shelf of books he had never read. Who cares? Highway 61 Revisited was still an inspiring set of songs, and What is This Film Called Love could be equally inspiring to the right young mindset. Jack Kerouac for the iPhone age. Except the film hasn't the depth or weight of Kerouc. The wittering about ecstasy has one of the most insightful moments of the film - pondering the etymology – ex stasis, hence a 'going away from' the state of standing still. Yet it feels like a Christian rock band singing of the joys of sex and drugs. There's a point where the author surely has to live the dream before inviting us in, and a bottle of Mexican beer plus a few veiled references to drugs is hardly a William Rice Burroughs friendly battle with the devil.

PJ Harvey's almost funereal 'To Bring You My Love' explodes two-thirds of the way through the movie and does suggest we might get some depth or seriousness, but the promise quickly fades as it goes back to laconic meandering and sleight of hand in the dialogue (his gender change merely being one of viewpoint). What some will enjoy (and others find infuriating) is the stylishness of technique. Almost every shot is like a picture essay on how to frame or use the camera inventively. The dialogue is self-referentially Brechtian in new and exciting ways. Delivery and timing is impeccable – rather like his illustrated lecture (on Cinema and Creativity) in Edinburgh, where it turns out that the film made in Edinburgh wasn't made in Edinburgh at all. Like the pop-science writer Jonah Lehrer (who Cousins speaks of almost as if he were a guru), Cousins can be inspiring, his enthusiasm contagious; even if some of his details don't seem to stand up well to scrutiny. But if you are enjoying the ride enough, this shouldn't bother you.

There were two main flaws in this movie for me. One was of my own making, that of expectation. To think that Mark Cousins, whose book I loved, would have something worth-while to say about (for instance) Eisenstein. The second is its near absence of plot. Even a semi-documentary needs some sort of point to hang it on, and this has very little – beyond being quite enjoyable while it lasts.
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A fragmented, defining image
13 May 2012
Warning: Spoilers
What defines us? Or, what defines anything, for that matter? Is it a dictionary definition or our composite understanding that defines? A Married Woman (Une Femme Mariée) is perhaps better understood with reference to its original title, The Married Woman. Our opening scene is merely two lovers. A Man. A Woman. Photographed with immaculate perfection, shorn of erotic or personal overtones, each shot encapsulates the beauty and symmetry of an exquisite fashion ad – say, maybe, Chanel. Only after a few moments do we find out who these two individuals – impeccably framed by Raoul Coutard – are in real life. Assuming they are lovers, yes, but we find that Charlotte is a married woman. Her lover is Robert, an actor.

Just as 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her viewed the world through the eyes of commodification, so does Une Femme Mariée view it through the superficiality of advertising. The usual love triangle of a man and two women is turned on its head by giving Charlotte (Macha Méril) two men between whom she cannot choose. Her aspiration to be perfect is measured in terms of messages sent by 60's women's magazines and other media defining the 'ideal woman' – whose main aim, it seems, should be to please her husband. Charlotte measures the position of her breasts, listens to a record on how a woman can improve her marriage (it consists of vacuous female laughter), and is expert at seeming light while keeping both men on the back foot. She sees herself as an object of desire by both Robert and husband Pierre and practices superficiality to perfection. She also, however, seems far from dim-witted when giving either of them a grilling.

It is easy to become divided over this film. One can view it as trite, a Godard cast-off, or one can admire the cinematic poetry, the precision with which it delivers its point and its critique of the institution of marriage. It almost goes as far as to suggest that such emptiness is the lot of 'The Married Woman.' (The title was changed at the censor's insistence, who found the definite article disparaging to French women generally. A topless scene was also chopped.) "I love you too, Pierre. Often not the way you believe, but it's sincere." While men's underwear adverts are just plain photos, adverts for women's lingerie are accompanied by unrealistic promises of what they will deliver in a woman's love life (mostly, of course, in terms of a man's pleasure). At one point, Charlotte is standing next to a gigantic brassiere advert, and it is touchingly clear that society made the image more important than the individual.

Each of our main characters has a monologue, but we additionally hear Charlotte's internal monologue. When she has had sad thoughts, she repeats to herself, "I'm happy . . . I'm happy . . . I'm happy," as if the mantra will translate into reality. When she learns from the doctor that she is three months' pregnant (to whom?), her internal voice tells her, "Find a solution . . .. Save appearances." She continues to rely quite effectively on the character she has become, now telling each man how much she loves him, all the while skilfully testing him. It is almost as if primitive instinct to secure a hunter-provider takes over. Although Charlotte admits to the doctor she is scared, she doesn't lose her inner composure even once in the whole movie. She might even be shouting, but we can believe it is part of her dexterous womanish wiles – quite ironic, given that she presses Robert to define acting and say exactly how it is different to real life. Only once does she falter, tripping and falling in the road as she leaves the doctor's surgery. When I look back on a film that is almost devoid of real emotion, it is a heart-rending moment.

Apart from intertitles, and jump-cuts to juxtapose intertextual media with narrative, other cinematic tricks include switching between positive and negative photographic images and superimposing summaries. Charlotte eavesdrops on two teenagers as they discuss what a man does during the loss of one's virginity. Salient point appear in small grey letters over the image (for instance, "Je dors avec un garçon"), perhaps showing how Charlotte reduces everything to its minimalist formula. For those that find the film itself as empty as the subject matter, one need only to look at the extended references to Racine (in Berenice, where Racine similarly makes something out of nothing for a similarly helpless protagonist), or Moliere, who answered critics by saying that, to prevent sin, theatre purifies love.

Perhaps Cahiers critic Jean-Louis Cornolli summed it up best when he described Une Femme Mariée as "a film about a woman's beauty and the ugliness of her world." Macha Méril credits it with striking a blow for women's rights at a time when the pill was still illegal in France.
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One of Godard's finer masterpieces
10 April 2012
Have you ever watched a movie and been aware of how much your emotions are being manipulated? Your buttons being pushed?

Just before I watched this film, I'd seen neuroscientist Susan Greenfield say how modern media encourages a sequence she calls arousal-addiction-reward. And stimulating that mental pathway releases dopamine, which inhibits the part of the brain associated evaluating social behaviour, planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, and decision making. Most films are designed to produce emotional response. We are aroused (for instance) by the plight of the leading lady, addicted to the drama long enough to see what happens, and then suitably rewarded when she marries and lives happily ever after. Not only have we been told what to feel, but our critical thinking is subjugated into passive viewing. Unbiased appraisal of hypothetical outcomes is largely overridden by dominant subtexts. Critical thinking off: mainstream message on.

Godard claims he makes films to invite audiences to think, not to feel. The complex concept and metaphor (rather than adrenalin-filled) stories, can at first seem boring. Lacking in formal narrative, they flop at the box office, yet go on to critical acclaim and canonical status. Passion examines this discrepancy between a film as a piece of art versus the demands of commercial cinema.

Passion is a film within a film. Jerzy, a Polish filmmaker in western Europe, is re-creating tableaux vivants - masterpieces by Goya, Rembrandt, El Greco, Ingres and Delacroix. Tableaux vivants were a popular 19th century pre-cinema entertainment (described, for instance, in Sontag's novel, The Volcano Lover). Actors don't speak or move, and Jerzy is obsessing over light and shade while making up scenarios on the fly. His aesthetically ambitious film is two billion francs over budget. Money is needed. Meanwhile backers harangue Jerzy over his lack of storyline.

The filmmakers occasionally go to a nearby hotel and factory to find extras. Jerzy seduces both the factory owner's wife and a worker, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who has been laid off and wants her money. They are attracted to the artistic environment, finding an aesthetisized mirror of their daily life. Squabbles off-set seem to be echoed in set pieces (for instance, where a Crusader carries off a half-clad maiden). The idea is voiced that work and love share the same movements, underlined with typical Godardian 'food for thought' such as, "One has to work on loving or love working."

With painting, image takes precedence over movement. The viewer supplies movement, or 'narrative,' by imagining a backstory or the painting's creation. With film, movement takes precedence over image. Brechtian techniques can be used to jolt audiences into awareness of stillness, or a concept contained in the film, allowing us to approach it from different angles much as we would a sculpture. Some techniques here used by Godard include extended L-cuts: we hear one woman talking but the camera is on another woman who is talking at the same speed, her voice muted (symbolically unheard). We watch an actress as she watches herself: on a video monitor, where she is struggling to lip-synch an operatic aria. That the film mirrors the film within the film, and also its own making, focuses our attention on the idea of what we are watching rather than the visual spectacle itself. Godard breaks down the barrier between documentary and fiction: "It's not a lie but, rather something imagined, not the exact truth, nor the opposite of truth. It's set apart from the real as it appears by the thoroughly calculated approximations of verisimilitude."

In making his Passion (the word can be taken in all three senses), Godard, like Jerzy, experienced resistance from actors because action is organised around images rather than a script. He created scenarios on a day-to-day basis as the film was being shot. For non-Godard fans, Passion is less hard work than his most abstruse work, but still takes effort to figure out what is happening rather than dismiss it as meaningless self-indulgence (which on casual viewing would be very easy to do). Once that investment has been made, it contains not only considerable satire, but enough material to engender repeat viewing. Although there are some political overtones, they are more in the background than with his earlier work. The film can also be admired for sheer exquisiteness, attention to detail, and perfect lighting in its re-creation of famous paintings. Amidst the mayhem of the studio and the baring of the director's soul, the young woman dancing clumsily around with a robe falling off, the young girl told to lie naked in the pool as a star-shape, or the cherub with a pointing finger – all are transformed into images of utter beauty. Godard's rendering of Rembrandt's Nightwatch is uncanny to anyone familiar with the painting. Goya's Nude Maja closely resembles Godard's live copy. The characters in Godard's version of Ingres' Small Bather might be inexact, but a comparison draws attention to the perfectly reproduced luminescence of the woman's skin – an effect achieved by perfect lighting – lighting that makes the human image semi-divine. "An image is not powerful because it's brutal or eerie," muses Jerzy, "but because the solidarity between ideas is distant and just."

Passion is an outpouring of the creative process, inspired, according to Godard, by Titan's Bacchus and Ariadne. Together with First Name Carmen and Slow Motion, it is is one of three films by Godard showing directors struggling with 'impossible' projects. I sometimes find Godard almost spoils me for conventional cinema. Like one of his characters, I find myself muttering, "Don't push my buttons! OK?"
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The Unliving (2010)
A new twist on living dead
10 April 2012
To find that new angle on an idea repeatedly cudgelled to death is always hard. In THE UNLIVING, the zombie 'infection' has been going for a quarter of a century. Technology adapted them for modern society. Control-implants. They're now the country's most valuable economic resource. Zombies do everything. Elder-care. Catering. Smile at the check-out, serve me some coffee. There's one that's an opera star with a fanbase following. Finding a cure would destroy society as we know it. So that's out - it would be political suiciode. And keep that drug which restores memory in short supply for goodness sake. Dead? Terminating an 'unliving' is a criminal offence. Even for the 'catchers.' You've got to watch them. One zombie catcher finds his mother among the unliving. Idiot. He takes her home, cleans her up, ties her young but utterly disgusting body to the bed - before the girlfriend walks in. The Unliving is cool, brave and Swedish. Don't take granny. Especially if you think she has Alzheimers.
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Seriously funny, seriously scary
10 April 2012
Director Juan Martinez Morena (LOBOS DE ARGA) complains that he's tired of seeing vampires and werewolves that are 'cool and f**kable.' He wants monsters you can believe in when you go to bed at night. Not the Bugs Bunny horror of CGI that couldn't fool a five-year old. His werewolves will have maximum special effects and stunts but minimum computer graphics. With a limited budget (much of which went on hair from China), Moreno dishes up a picture that is by turns seriously scary and seriously funny. Meet Thomas, a hapless failed writer who holes up in his parental village of Galicia, Northern Spain. A hundred years ago, his great grandmother cursed the village after abducting and forcing a gypsy to procreate with her. Thomas doesn't know a werewolf is out to get him. He doesn't know the villagers are out to get him. Mayhem ensues. But with a cutting edge comedy narrative you'd better examine yourself for bruises after you leave the cinema. When you laugh that hard, it's easy to forget the damage from where you kept jumping out of your seat. Lobos de Arga is a frank and sincere homage to movies such as An American Werewolf, and swooped the audience awards at the Edinburgh Dead by Dawn horror film festival to come first in competition.
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Below Zero (2011)
Creatively, intelligently different
10 April 2012
BELOW ZERO is a thinking person's mystery horror. A scriptwriter, Jack the Hack, has writer's block and arranges to be locked in a slaughterhouse freezer until he comes up with a script. Believe it or not, scriptwriter Signe Olynyk tells me she also did this when writing the movie. On screen, the story is dramatised for us as Jack writes, so we have two on-screen narratives: Jack's world (think, Fargo) and that of the alter ego in his story (think Saw). As he considers various re-writes, the story within a story changes. But a third story is at hand: that from Jack's own psyche. His basic plot, surprise surprise, is someone accidentally being locked in a freezer, in a building owned by a serial killer. But, if you can stand back from the subsequent on screen gore, there's maybe time to work out what's really happening! This Kaufmanesque horror story keeps you on your toes all the way through. Signe doesn't recommend new writers try the freezer trick at home, but she does run a scriptwriters' workshop, Pitchfest (, and invites any budding writers reading this to get in touch with her.
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Haunters (2010)
Not your usual super-hero film
10 April 2012
HAUNTERS is an original take on the superhero movie. No capes, daft aerials, or superman latex costumes (why do superheroes always look and sound a bit gay?) Instead we have two young kids from the streets of South Korea. Both have a limp and both have the strange power to control other people's minds on sight. Cho-in is the bad guy, polishing his powers to live a comfortable lifestyle. Kyu-nam is the good guy, championing honesty and friendship in the face of Cho-in's merciless killing and avarice. From this simple idea, writer-director Min-suk Kim builds an intelligent, fast-paced thriller that keeps the audience wondering where it will go next. Although I wasn't entirely won over, I enjoyed it much more than the high budget but rather predicable niche into which Marvel comic super-heroes have fallen. With its fine South Korean pedigree, Haunters makes sure than people suffer realistically when they die and that blood never looks like strawberry jam.
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Macabre (II) (2009)
Pink blobs are people, red buckets are blood, and whirring things are chainsaws
10 April 2012
MACABRE is one of those tasty blood-gushingly psychological tortures in three neat and tidy acts. Even the trailer is hard to watch without looking away. Act One has two newly weds, Adjie and Astrid, with three of their best friends. Chill out, relax in Bandung, Indonesia. Head for Jakarta, but give a lift home to a strange girl who says she's been robbed. In her mother's house, we enter the pristine, bourgeois world of Dara, who insists on repaying kindness with food and drink. And torture. Once drugged, our guests enter a blood-dripping, nightmarish world of no escape, their bodies neatly sliced one by one and professionally packaged. Astrid gives birth. Dara's calm, sophisticated composure never breaks its stride. She coolly empathises with Astrid's pain before pointing out that baby and hubby will experience even more. Viewing permitted. As the film is introduced at the end of a all-night film programme, we are told not to worry if we are already tired. The plot is simple and nothing to fret over. "Pink blobs are people, red buckets are blood, and whirring things are chainsaws." A classic story where the point isn't revealed till the end, and the suspense, sadistic pain, and surreal nastiness doesn't stop for a second. A satisfying if rather colourful conclusion to the long night at Edinburgh's Dead By Dawn horror film festival.
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Belief and scepticism combine productively
10 April 2012
A challenge facing any reviewer is how to present a balanced picture without letting one's own feelings sway it too much either way. The same challenge must face documentary makers. How do you present 'facts' without putting a spin on them? The first film I saw by Jenny Fox was her Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman: a six-hour marathon of her own journey to discover what it means to be a woman. My Reincarnation is mercifully brief by comparison. She returns to more traditional cinema verité, again dissecting the psyche – this time of a high Tibetan Buddhist Monk. Both his greatness and his more earthly failings – all are part of this vivid 82 minute documentary. In making it, Fox gained unparalleled access to his private and family affairs. She had little funding for the first 18 years, of what turned out to be 20 years of filming, but in spite of the title, it was all completed in a single lifetime.

The monk in question is Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. While less famous than the Dalai Lama, a quick google search shows he's right up there with revered world-famous authorities.

A reason My Reincarnation took so long to complete, Fox tells me, is that there was no 'storyline' on which to hang a commercial film. Chogyal teaches in exile, and his son (Yeshi), although also recognised as a great incarnation, prefers family life in Italy to the ascetic Buddhist path. So not a lot happens. But then, a breakthrough. The documentary had almost been abandoned when our prodigal son secretly hoofs it to Tibet to reclaim his heritage. Dad, meanwhile, is looking unwell, and a Buddhist foundation wants to preserve the teachings. So they gave Fox enough funds to get things to the big screen.

Our film's unhurried pace could easily make it rather unexceptional, especially to non-Buddhists: except for three things. Firstly, access to such a reclusive life is normally impossible. Secondly, the extraordinary tension between intelligent young Yeshi, who wants wants to see father as nothing special, and Dad with his hoards of adoring acolytes. By giving both characters equal weight, Fox explores Tibetan Buddhist tradition from the angles of both believers and sceptics. The third factor is Fox herself as a filmmaker. She has an unnerving ability to turn navel-gazing into life-changing. Her daunting self-exposé, Flying Confessions, was even serialised on television. Now, her mantra-laden, bell-ringing, Himalayan odyssey is disarmingly down-to-earth.

While there is, for Buddhist audiences at least, enough 'meat on the bone' as Fox puts it (a curious expression – as most Buddhists are vegetarians, Tibetans often being an exception), she maintains a director's crucial impartiality in the final edit. Yeshi's irritation is displayed without totally wrecking the character of the old master. But we also get to see the latter as merely human. Brief monologues are impressive. Basic Buddhist teachings include observing one's own mind and avoiding worship of a master (a point repeatedly overlooked, it seems to me, from the doting expressions of followers). The Dalai Lama makes several very informal appearances, laughing and joking charismatically. But the real emotional clout is launched in the final Tibetan footage. Is there anything in the prophecies? These last reels were shot without Fox's knowledge – she didn't even know Yeshi was going. Miraculous intervention or an overpowering sense of duty? The whole thing can still look a bit woolly to this viewer, but it works dramatically and impressively for the community of Dzogchen Buddhists. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu might not be a divinity from on high, but he gives sound advice to people desperately in need. His practices have given him fortitude and focus. Not a bad role model – even as a mere father.

For sceptics, Tibetan Buddhism's shortcomings when running a modern-day sanctuary are highlighted. Early in the film, Yeshi introduces modern business strategy to enable many more people than would have been envisaged in the original Buddhism to get on well with each other. In this sense, the West brings something to the East. "This," as Fox proclaims, "is the future. If they can get through it." Whatever your beliefs, shake yourself at the end of the movie and remember: this is real life documentary, not fiction. The chrysalis of documentary movie-making transforms itself into moving evidence.
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An important landmark in the Fred & Ginger story
19 December 2011
In recent years, the title of this film has become overshadowed by two modern movies of the same name: a superb Japanese movie and its American remake, respectively entitled Shall We Dansu? and Shall We Dance. Yet this 1937 classic is worth revisiting not only for its famous Gershwin numbers, but as the last of a series of classic-format films between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Deeply flawed, yet the tremendous effort poured into its production is evident. And, when viewed as part of a series, touchingly beautiful.

Utilising talent from their earlier films, Shall We Dance pushes the established formula of light romantic farce coupled with stunning dance routines. But here are many innovations and subtle references to delight fans. At the end of their previous film together (Swing Time), Fred serenaded Ginger with the song Never Gonna Dance, so Shall We Dance? suggests a delightful comeback through association. Their respective characters have grown through successive films, as has their on screen relationship. Now, for the first time, both play fully fledged divas in their own right. Fred is Petrov, a Russian ballet star, and Ginger is Linda, a celebrated jazz dancer. Many of the gags involve rumours about the characters being secretly married or having children. By way of a complex plot, half conducted on a transatlantic liner, the couple do actually get married for the first time in their films together. Copy picture

The star personas of both Astaire and Rogers have been carefully managed by the studios since their debut together in Flying Down to Rio (1933). Fred woos her with increasing conviction or intensity in each successive movie. To suspend disbelief effectively, the audience has to be thoroughly confused for a while about the nature of their relationship (in real life, both Astaire and Rogers are married to other people at this time). The on screen characters are not married at the start of the story – Fred is pursuing Ginger, as usual. But an offhand comment by Petrov to an over-persistent admirer (to the effect that he and Linda are secretly married) is blown up by the newspapers in the story. The only way they can dispel rumours is to get a divorce – which means they first have to get married.

In terms of dance routines, most things had been done already, so Shall We Dance has to come up with something new. One idea is a duet on roller skates. Depending on which account we read, it took filming up to fifty takes to complete (unusually, as Fred would mostly insist on a single one). It's filmed in Central Park, and the idea is to make it look like something people would naturally be doing. It's also the longest dance Fred and Ginger have together in the film, and is made even more enjoyable by their singing Let's Call the Whole Thing Off.

Another innovation is the way the story line is tied up. (Note – a light spoiler follows, but I think it's worth knowing what is coming in this case, so as not to miss the full effect). Petrov, now distraught that Linda won't dance with him, has a choreographed scene where he serenades with numerous showgirls who wear Linda masks. This in itself recalls earlier scenes involving a dummy positioned next to a sleeping Petrov, to 'prove' in the tabloids that they are married; and also in a flick-book he has that creates moving images of Linda. Unbeknown to Petrov, Linda yearns for them to be together. She insists on being taken backstage. Petrov's dance involves unmasking the lookalikes only to find that none are the real Linda. When he touches the real Linda's chin, he finds it is not a mask but really her. She extends her hand and, whoever the 'real' Petrov and Linda have been (they both have several identities even within the film), the audience is satisfied that the real living couple finally have a dance of love. Almost all the emotion of the film has been saved for this moment.

Shall We Dance not only reprises two established stars; it examines the real life pressures and glare of publicity facing them. They were both under pressure: during filming, Ginger Rogers received a real-life extortion notice and a death threat to her mother. The movie's final dance scene maybe hints at something that is beyond words, beyond the glare of the limelight, and something eternally personal – as the song implies: "They Can't Take That Away from Me."

The film's weaknesses include living up to expectations when a formula has peaked. In earlier pairings, Fred's character woos Ginger through dance rather than words. Here, they enjoy some comedy together but there are maybe one too many dance solos. The plot and characterisation has weaknesses too – Astaire is a very accomplished dancer performing balletic moves, but he was the first to admit he is no ballet star. Dance fans may feel unconvinced (similarly, the songs have been covered by much more competent singers). One of the main dance routines sees Harriet Hoctor, not Ginger, imported to dance with Fred – largely on account of her ability to tap through remarkable back-bends. Shall We Dance lacks much of the natural dance chemistry between Fred and Ginger displayed in earlier films, but it is an outstanding piece of their film history that should not be missed.
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Melancholia (2011)
Perhaps one of the year's most important movies
19 October 2011
What is the one thing of which you are most certain?. . . certain beyond your wildest dreams? your worst nightmares? Justine is getting married. A wonderful wedding. Best wedding planner. And as she lifts her head to enjoy the kisses of her groom we sense the sparkle of love entering what almost might be a world of darkness. Kirsten Dunst comes of age as an actress in this finely sculptured character as a successful career woman, enjoying a magnificent day in all its finery, where no expense has been spared. Yet somehow we can sense, in this beautifully interiorised performance, that the tinsel of the outer world means little to Justine. It is not that she is some new-age unmaterialistic hippy: on the contrary, her powerful mind commands a high salary as a tagline creator for a powerful advertising concern.

The truth is that Justine suffers from clinical depression. A disease with which our director, Lars von Trier, is also afflicted. Yet does the film tell us how depressing the world is and ask us to feel sorry for its leading protagonist? Not at all. While von Trier has used his own experience to create a vivid reconstruction that goes beyond sympathy or melodrama, the film is ultimately a celebration of Justine's strength and inner clarity. Her non-attachment to the trappings of happiness – things in which most people would seem to find such joy – is almost Zen-like in its conviction. Why do we go to such lengths to find meaning in transitory and superficial sense-gratification? Love, the deep and wonderful communication of one person with another, can't be bought or bartered. Yet we spend our lives building castles of sand – even as expressions of 'love' – and if Justine can't have the real thing in each touch, she certainly doesn't want to settle for lust dressed up in lace.

Von Trier is becoming increasingly operatic in his films. The theme music from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, both as a soundtrack and, by implication, the doomed love it's saga represents, is a perfect setting for this grand vision of life and meaning. The leitmotif reminds us that, beneath everything, there is a more serious theme at work. If death is the only real certainty of life, this is symbolically illustrated in the second half of Melancholia. For someone who is deeply depressed, death is a mere detail. But for others, it is the worst of all possible eventualities. To get the point across in the most vivid way, and also show how Justine's illness gives her a strength denied ordinary mortals, von Trier turns his film into an end-of-the-world movie. A rogue planet (aptly named Melancholia) hurtles through space and, having narrowly missed some of the other planets, is on a collision course for Earth. As the actual collision has been previewed in the film's opening scenes, we already know that last minute intervention (for instance, to save the earth Hollywood-style) is not likely.

As supporting characters struggle, and eventually lose the battle to convince themselves that everything is OK, Justine warmly embraces the development. There are two nude scenes – when one might say that our heroine is not only naked but that her soul is stripped bare. One is when her sister, trying to care for a 'mentally unbalanced' Justine, is trying to persuade her to have a bath. The wretchedness of her sorrow is profound: having endured the symbolic show of an overblown wedding reception, she has lost the one thing that meant something to her. It is stark contrast to her self-assured second half of the film, where her calmness is like something I have occasionally witnessed in gently smiling hospice patients (who know they are about to die). The second instance is more beautiful, although completely unglamorised. As other characters swither between denial, fear and bravado ("Let's have a glass of wine outside"), Justine calmly enjoys the epiphany. Identifying with the earth about to meet its nemesis, she bares herself to the onslaught of the coming planet in a gesture that finds her sprawled in adoration on a hillside.

Von Trier's controversial furore at the film's Cannes premiere ensured wider distribution than might otherwise be expected for an art-house offering as dark as Bunuel. This maybe misleads some people into seeing a film with the false expectation of something more mainstream. As one teenager exclaimed, walking out of the multiplex screening I went to, "I've never sat through such gash in my whole life." But to cinephiles more attuned to von Trier's style of filmmaking, it probably represents his greatest triumph since Dogville. One could even imagine allusions to Justine's name with the eponymous novel of de Sade, an abused protagonist who accepts approaching death. Raw, original and uncompromising, yet also a work of uplifting beauty, Melancholia is an end-of-the-world movie the likes of which you have never seen before.
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A treat for fans of Godard
3 August 2011
I get quite excited at the prospect of a new Godard. Not that I see his work as any ultimate example. It's not. But somehow it is in a different milieu to most films you can watch. Like poetry, it's not about the words or images, but the joy that comes from exploring, from original thought. Sound and vision used not to entertain but to seek deeper levels than can be expressed in prose or 'narrative cinema as we know it.' Yet the slew of bad reviews prepared me for the worst. Perhaps age had caught up with the grand master of Nouvelle Vague? Or perhaps Godard was not beyond playing a joke on his audience, just to see what they make of it?

Omens weren't great. A small auditorium and no more than a dozen people there as I walk in. Some obviously by mistake. As they walk out halfway through. But I am already entranced. Wondering if I will be able to see it again in the final screening tomorrow. Looking forward to the DVD so I can stop-start for quotes that send my head spinning like I'm back in my alma mater's philosophy class. A dizzying array of original and masterly techniques. And, like poetry, enough fluidity to offer meanings in ways that suit the individual viewer (persons who walked out excepted).

A warning: there is a 'looking for answers' but no real story. On a difficulty level, this film is much harder than Breathless, Le Mepris, or Vivre Sa Vie. It is warmer and more captivating than Weekend or Made in USA, but only just. Neither does it have the clear expository style of his last most recent well-known movie, Notre Musique. It has three main sections: 1 - scenes on a Mediterranean cruise ship ('Things'), 2 - a European family ('Our Europe'), and 3 - scenes of conflict and war ('Humanities'). Each seeks understanding to certain questions on an individual, interpersonal and political level.

The first section held my attention the most. Inside the cruise ship is a plethora of "things" (if this was Godard of yesteryear, I'd maybe have written 'bourgeois distractions.') Only when we go outside, or see the light shine in, do we experience crisp photography, scenes of genuine beauty, and people spending their time at least trying to solve some of life's deeper puzzles. Perhaps this is just my own interpretation, but I like the way it is depicted visually. Money is a 'common good' – like water – but party-people onboard use it for nothing but bloated consumerism. Meaningless dance classes and revelry. As two people engage in philosophical discourse outside the main hall, a woman repeatedly falls against the glass partition. Is she dancing and letting her spirit free? Apparently not – she falls face down into the swimming pool.

There is a young girl seen frequently with an old man. Something strange there? A hooker perhaps? A maybe rather a scholar or seeker of truth – availing herself of the rich variety of elderly experience onboard (a philosopher, a UN bureaucrat, a Palestinian ambassador, and so on).

Characteristic Godardian effects are used with casual precision. There is no attempt at reality if it stands in the way of the point he is making. Such as when the background noise cuts out momentarily for the word 'happiness' to occurs in the girl's dialogue. Deliberate camera distortions emphasise an alcohol-sodden mentality of the majority of passengers, images often obscenely blurred, as if taken on a mobile phone. Or the mother in Section Two who talks to the camera about how she is totally unaware of the part she is playing.

There are more hidden references than an afternoon of Tarantino movies. Except, unlike Tarantino's work, Godard is not entertaining pub quiz movie geeks; but giving clues to further meanings within his experimental and exploratory work. A young lad gives a young woman a copy of 'La Porte Entroite,' (a coming of age novel). There are nods to Husserl's philosophical geometry which fit the film but will need hours of study to fully appreciate (we see a projection of a man lecturing on 'geometry as origin' – to an empty auditorium). And Balzac's 'Illusions Perdues,' which anticipates themes of aristocracy vs poverty as well as journalism as intellectual prostitution. And don't miss the homage later to Battleship Potemkin's Odessa Staircase slaughter.

Dialogue sparkles from witty – "The United Nations have been somewhat disunited since 1948," to surreal and Zen-like – "Once in 1942 I have encountered nothingness . . ." I'm quoting from memory and leaving the end of the quote for you to enjoy on screen.

The individual's relation to government is addressed by the adolescents in the second Section, posing a difference between the State and Society. The dream of the State is to be 'one'; whereas the dream of the Individual is to be two, to 'pair up.' Aggressively intrusive foreigners demanding driving directions are given a cold shoulder ("Go and invade some other country!") An intrusive camera, making a documentary about a coming election, similarly distances everyone from any (inner) reality.

Some of the phrases from Section Two bleed over into scenes of Section Three bloodshed. The young girl wants people to, "learn to see before learning to read." Godard's intertitles come fast and frequent, and in many different languages. At one point, a prayer in Hebrew and a prayer in Arabic are overlaid, visually and aurally. It recalls Godard's offhand response to the question, "Peace In the Middle East - when?" by replying, "As soon as Israel and Palestine introduce six million dogs and stroll with them as neighbours who don't speak, who don't speak of something else." Cinema is a remarkable opportunity sometimes to communicate without speaking those things which are often too difficult, or too sensitive, or simply whitewashed of their core by aimless chatter. Or by narrative movies.
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Cuts sweetly to the bone
2 August 2011
It's a little after midnight and I'm leaving an Internet café at the junction of Prado Junior and Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana. "Hang on a minute," the Net café manager bids me. He looks outside. A late-night world shielded from me by thick double-glazing. "Yeah, it must be okay," he says, "The buses are running again, so I guess the shooting has stopped." I make my way gingerly back to my apartment. Past dubious drinking companions, their backs pressed against the wall, beer in hand, and frivolous smirks lighting up their faces. No way was a simple gun battle going to spoil their evening's revelry! From the safety of my 13th floor apartment, I watch the streets for a while, high tech armaments barking deadly colours through the night, like an obscene light show, on the nearby hill. Earlier, stray bullets had wandered from the high-up slums into the town below. The Net café manager and other residents take such things in their stride.

Gun battles erupt in Rio de Janeiro from time to time as the three drug cartels fight over territory. A clean-up operation was the subject of the first Elite Squad movie, a fictional account that was too close to fact for comfort. Years after my brush with live ammo, and four years after that movie, comes a major update. The special police force, BOPE or 'elite squad' is still riddled with corruption. Drugs (long seen as an 'American' problem anyway, as the US provides the main demand) are no longer quite as profitable. But extortion, by police and politicians, is running wild.

Generically, Elite Squad II is a good-cop / bad-cop movie. But what marks it out is painstaking realism and accuracy in relation to actual events, with script contributions, as in the first movie, by a former BOPE captain. It struck such a chord in Brazil last year that it quickly became the biggest selling movie of all time.

But it is not the 'story that no-one dares to say' that makes Elite Squad II so powerful. Nor the 80 real cops drafted in as extras. Nor even the hair-raising battles, the bloody prison riot, nor the consistently fine acting. It is the way the action reveals a division of opinion over what to do about Rio slum-violence. There are intellectuals, human rights groups, 'reformists' (as well as a lot of international pressure groups) who press for clemency, education, and the reform of criminals. Then there are many non- slum-dwelling citizens, from intellectuals to café owners, who just want any of the hoodlums dead at any cost. And at the bottom line is votes. Votes, votes, votes. The public will not support any soft-line politician. Letting two gangs kill each other during a prison riot seems temptingly politically expedient. Corrupt BOPE officers, creaming off extortion money from every type of business in the slums, can guarantee votes. This is Brazil. A country that fights to enshrine a modern, accountable political system – but in the face of pressures it can barely control. BOPE, designed to eradicate corruption, has become corruption's main source. And Lt. Colonel Nascimento, who created the monster, has been promoted to a 'safe' desk job. There, he realises that his superiors right up the political ladder are on the gravy train.

The dichotomy between peaceniks and blood-bathers is represented by (the now more mature) Nascimento and his trained officers on one hand, and Diogo Fraga, a left wing Congressman on the other. As Nascimento puts his own life in danger to uphold integrity within BOPE, rabble-rousers urge more bloodshed. Nascimento's son turns against him, his wife leaves him to marry Fraga. The differences in approach are thrashed out not just with guns and armour-plated vans. They are thrashed out in the more emotional battlefield of a family torn apart by their beliefs. And a problem to which there is no easy answer.

The first Elite Squad movie became so influential that it is frequently cited by scholars and authorities whenever violence breaks out in Rio. Elite Squad II seems likely to follow suit. But will Western audiences find it so interesting when they could instead be watching a (far more fictional) cop drama such as Scorsese's The Departed? Subtitled movies tend to appeal to an art-house crowd – and, of those, the ones with little or no interest in a country that is barely mentioned on the Western news (even if Brazil is the size of the USA) may not feel inclined to immerse themselves in two hours of tightly woven plot full of blood, guts and heartache. For what? To better understand a system that seems to have little or no relevance to life in the 'West.' And this is a shame.
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Heavy going perhaps, but a masterpiece
22 July 2011
How can you make someone see what is staring them in the face?

Tarr is nothing if not serious cinema. It may not move, entertain or give you a thrill to the bottom of your popcorn. But it is also, for many cineastes, a standard by which other art cinema can measured. And if that introduction is overweening, perhaps it will deter anyone even vaguely faintly thinking about popcorn - but encourage serious-minded cinema-goers to consider dropping everything to see this.

Hungarian Grandmaster Bela Tarr uses a technique made famous by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky – that of incredibly long takes. We are forced to immerse ourselves in real time, to experience the minutiae of existence (and its totality) in the same way the characters do. But in terms of 'suspension of beliefs', Tarr goes one stage further than Tarkovsky. The latter's films were often connected with metaphysics and decorated with religious iconography; whereas Tarr eschews God and religion in favour of the people, in favour of human rights, in favour of righting wrongs, or simply in favour of what is most basic to any individual. At times seen as heavily political, his films are careful to portray only a 'documentarist' style reality. They are films designed to make you think, rather than make you entertained. In this respect, his work preserves a thread from the fierce artistic integrity of Godard - perhaps by way of Fassbinder, who would also at times exemplify a fierce minimalistic style.

In The Turin Horse, Tarr gives us a six-day prelude to an actual event that we never see. Even in those six days, nothing very much happens – yet you could probably write a Masters philosophy dissertation on that 'nothing very much.' The ontological lynchpin of the film is Nietzsche: in terms of storyline and also the dilemmas a viewer might confront.

Our movie begins by informing us of a well-known tale concerning the German philosopher. Nietzsche had caused a public disturbance – apparently by attempting to save a horse being flogged. Immediately afterwards, Nietzsche collapses and succumbs to mental illness. He will remain that way for the rest of his life. Tarr's film is an imagined reconstruction of the days leading up to the incident. It features the ailing horseman, his grown-up daughter, a visitor who provides the film's only monologue, and a brief visit by a band of gypsies. The horseman and his daughter live in the most spartan of conditions trying to survive, surrounded by a harsh and barren landscape. He probably would have rejected Nietzsche's philosophy, the rejection (or death) of God, and the idea of the 'slave-morality' dominating society. Indeed, the horseman dismisses the reflections of the visitor, whose thoughts are perhaps a shadow of Nietzschean ideas, as "rubbish." We can perceive a shift from classical belief to atheism as the ideas move quite politically: 'man is responsible for his own fate, but there is something greater that takes a hand' - yet that 'something' might be nature, rather than 'God' and it seems undeniably demonstrated in the harsh conditions that gradually drive the horseman and his daughter nearer extinction. Or it could, of course, be 'the ruling classes.' But this is not a film where intellectual arguments are expounded or debated. Most of the dialogue, in the rare instances where dialogue occurs, comprises an occasional monosyllable. The film is in black and white, and consists of merely thirty long takes – that would be excruciating were they not mesmerizingly beautiful. Each shot is perfectly composed, right down to the individual hairs on the horseman's Rasputinish beard. (This is one reason why it could not work as well on a small screen – the other being that its impact depends on being a captive audience.) As in The Man from London, Tarr uses environment as main 'characters' – the buildings, the landscape. They are 'major players.' This gives not only a tremendous sense of grandeur and majesty in simple images, but allows Tarr to convey a more cosmic point, even with such a miniscule budget. The characters each form a microcosm, doing what they do (what Man does) in order to survive. We are aware of the oppression and hardship of the plebiscite – oppression we can say is caused by 'conditions', but equally by the ruling classes. Dirge-like music, a daily meal of boiled potatoes eaten without cutlery, and a bleakness from which there is no apparent escape.

On the Second Day, the horse, once hitched, won't move. The daughter expresses some sympathy for its abject refusal. Yet the horse's gradual deterioration (to a point where it is starving itself to death) almost mirrors the plight of its owners. The horseman and daughter struggle against becoming dehumanised: he by fighting, she by gentleness. What does it mean to be human? As the wind whips dust across the landscape, she reads of the "holy places violated."

The downsides of The Turin Horse are that, given its minority-appeal audience, most people will only see it on DVD. The political landscape about which Tarr is so passionate demands extra study in order to be illuminated by the film. Nietzsche declared that art is the proper task of life, that it is not merely an imitation of the reality of nature, but a metaphysical supplement to nature's reality. But can The Turin Horse stand philosophically on its own merits? Some may feel that Tarr has indeed flogged his point to death, and fails to offer any man or super-man to triumph at the end of his inevitable Gotterdammerung.

Constant use of steadicam gives the impression that we are personally observing what happens - even when all motion stops and the last light is extinguished. Susan Sontag once championed Tarr as a saviour of the modern cinema. If she had lived to see this, probably his last film, she surely would probably have felt doubly justified.
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