Archive for March, 2014

Blood_for_Irina_Poster

USA: 2012

A modern vampire tale, Blood for Irina is a perfect illustration of how visual style can only take you so far. In an early interior shot we see Irina’s motel room suffused in red light, a scene reminiscent of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Not long afterwards Irina (Shauna Henry) is shown walking along a deserted street that seems to be bathed in an orange/red colour which, according to the director’s DVD commentary, is a direct influence of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. These early scenes, combined with a suitably atmospheric soundtrack, were very successful in creating an eerie, otherworldly, mood.

Irina is a woman with a terrible bloodlust, although whether she is an actual member of the undead, as opposed to a deranged person, is something that is never fully established. What we do see is that, shortly after dispatching her victims, Irina vomits up the blood she has swallowed. She seems to be a very sick vampire. After sinking her teeth into the neck of a man she has enticed back to her room, and feeding on his ravaged neck, Irina rushes to the bathroom and begins throwing up blood into the sink. It is at this point that a note of worry creeps into the viewers mind that the film is going to drag. We get a slow-motion shot of blood falling from Irina’s mouth, seen from the point-of-view of the plughole. This seems to go on forever, and from hereon in there are many other slow-motion shots and extended scenes that really needed to end sooner.

Although the film was shot with dialogue, this was all cut from the final version. Whether the inclusion of dialogue would have improved matters is far from certain, as much of the acting is frankly rather unconvincing. One scene that does work quite well occurs near the end, after Irina has brought Pink (Carrie Gemmell), an isolated young woman on the streets, back to her room. Irina bites into her own arm and then feeds her blood to the stranger she has picked up. Then Irina begins to feed on Pink’s blood, during which the camera lingers on Pink’s expression, which is one of ecstatic pleasure (the classic equating of vampiric behaviour with sexual activity).

However, this by no means rescues the viewer from the tedium that has descended by this point. I literally had to fight against drooping eyelids on a couple of occasions. This is a shame, because Chris Alexander does seem to have an eye for some visually arresting shots. According to the director’s commentary the movie was made with no budget, so it perhaps sounds a little churlish to criticise; but whether a film has no budget or a huge budget, the viewers’ only real criterion is whether or not they enjoyed it. In this case I didn’t.

Rating: 4/10

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I recently watched an interview with the Italian director Dario Argento, in which he commented on the visual style of movies, saying that some films are prose and others are poetry. Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror Under the Skin, I would have to say, falls into the latter camp. This is not a film for the kind of moviegoer who likes everything to be explained and for all loose ends to be tied up. It is, however, a film that contains some quite extraordinary images that resonate in the mind.

Scarlett Johansson gives a dazzling performance as “Laura”, an alien creature who travels around Glasgow luring single men back to a house, where she then traps them in some sort of alien dimension (possibly a food store, as one image suggests). This provides for a series of striking scenes in which we see Laura and her latest victim in a large shiny black space. As Laura divests herself of her clothes and walks backwards, each man walks towards her, entranced, but gradually sinking beneath the black surface whilst Laura remains walking atop it.

Throughout the film we see many events as though through Laura’s eyes. As she drives along the streets of Glasgow in a white van, the city and its inhabitants appear almost as though they are another world to us. Several men are persuaded to climb into Laura’s van as a prelude to their being trapped in her alien dimension. Apparently these men were genuinely unwitting inhabitants of Glasgow, rather than actors, and a series of hidden cameras in the van enabled them and Johannson to be filmed from a variety of angles. When she interacts with these men, Laura smiles and is friendly, but in all other circumstances she is impassive and watchful, like the predator she is.

Various aspects of Under the Skin bring to mind some of the classic science fiction movies, notably 2001 – A Space Odyssey and The Man Who Fell to Earth. The latter movie contains an iconic scene of David Bowie’s alien viewing an entire bank of television sets. By contrast, Under the Skin gives us the sight of Laura sitting on a sofa in a Scottish living room, eating baked beans on toast, whilst watching Tommy Cooper’s spoon-jar routine on a single television. As this might suggest, there are a number of humorous moments, despite the dark and unsettling nature of much of the film. However, whereas The Man Who Fell to Earth used the device of a science fiction alien to say something about the nature of American consumer/corporate society, Under the Skin gives us a glimpse of individual lives in modern Scotland (presumably any city could have been used as the setting, but there is certainly something striking about the contrast between Johannson’s refined English accent and the broad Glaswegian of those she encounters). In particular, there is an emphasis on socially isolated men.

In the second half, as is the case in so many horror films the action moves to the countryside. There is a crisis of sorts and the predator becomes prey. Laura is vulnerable, and at one point she briefly shows what appears to be some human tenderness. This allows us to feel empathy for her, despite everything that has happened previously. One of the things that is never quite explained is the role of a leather-clad motorcyclist, apparently some kind of minder, and who rounds up one of her victims who has managed to escape. But as noted earlier, it is these open questions that help make Under the Skin so thought-provoking, just as is the case with many David Lynch movies.

Cinematographer Daniel Landin must be praised for some exquisitely shot scenes, including the interior alien dimension and some beautifully raw scenes of the Scottish coast and highlands. The unsettling mood elicited by the story and images is also enhanced by a fine musical score from Micachu.

This is a film unlike anything you will have seen in a long time.

Rating: 10/10.

Previewed at the BFI on 13th March.

This review was originally posted on 13th March, and was updated at 19:57 hours on 14th March.

Rome_Open_City

In August 1943 Rome became an “open city”, abandoning all defensive efforts in the expectation that it would no longer be bombed. The following year, Rossellini began shooting a documentary about a priest who was involved with the Italian resistance. Partway through, he decided to combine this with another story about the resistance activities of children in Rome. Thus was born his neorealist classic Rome Open City.

The story revolves around the Nazis’ attempt to capture the leader of the resistance, Georgi Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), who has been hiding out in a multi-occupant tenement block. One of the other occupants is Pina (Anna Magnani), pregnant by another resistance fighter, Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), who she is due to marry the next day. Father Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), who is to perform the ceremony, gets called upon to deliver a package of money for the resistance. Shortly afterwards the streets are rocked by an explosion, which turns out to have caused by the local children bombing a Nazi target. The following day, the day of the wedding, the Nazis come for all the men.

In the tradition of Italian neorealisim, Rossellini adopts documentary-style shooting in the exterior shots. The one outstanding exception to this occurs following the children’s evening bombing raid, when we see them silhouetted against the light in the background as they come running over the brow of a hill, heading towards the viewer. It is a truly glorious moment. And of course the backdrop for all the outdoor scenes is not a studio set, but the actual city of Rome as it was in 1944. Many of the performers were not professional actors, but everyone is suited to their role, and we feel that we could be eavesdropping on genuine conversations.

As is so often the case with serious subjects, the impact of the most tragic moments is rendered all the more powerful by the inclusion of some quite comic scenes. However, when we get to the torture scenes, despite the fact we see almost nothing of what is actually happening these really make the viewer squirm. The whole process of torture is overseen by the Nazi Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), whose camp portrayal is hard to imagine being allowed in a serious modern film but nonetheless serves here to make his character even more chilling.

Rating: 9/10

Showing at the British Film Institute until 5th April 2014.

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Mainstream movies about sex always raise questions as to whether they are titillating, pornographic, exploitative, or misogynistic, and with increasingly explicit scenes in recent movies those questions are even more salient. So, given Lars von Trier’s reputation as a provocateur it was with some trepidation that I approached Nymphomaniac. In the event, the story of Joe’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) sex addiction started out pretty grim and then proceeded to get worse. I wouldn’t dare to predict other viewers’ responses, but there was nothing here that struck me as particularly titillating.

Volume 1 begins when Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers Joe, beaten up and lying in an alley. She won’t let him call an ambulance or the police, so he takes her home. There, she tells Seligman her life story. This begins with a teenage Joe (Stacy Martin) asking a young man, Jerôme (Shia La Beouf), if he would be willing to take her virginity, which he does. Not long afterwards, Joe and her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) take a train journey, the sole purpose of which is to see who can have sex with the most male passengers before they reach their destination. Back in their home town, the two of them determine to have meaningless sex with as many men as possible, but never more than once with the same man. The joint venture eventually ends when B commits the sin of falling in love, but by now Joe is in the early grip of her sex addiction.

Seligman proves to be a surprisingly non-judgmental listener, as Joe’s unfolding story starts to include examples of the hurt she has caused to others. Indeed the cultured Seligman chips in at intervals, comparing the episodes from Joe’s life to examples from science, art, and literature.

There is no real ending to Volume 1, except to provide us with a kind of cliffhanger that leaves us wanting to see Volume 2. In the second film Joe continues to tell her story in flashback, whereby she pursues even more extreme erotic interactions to satisfy her sex addiction, with disturbing consequences.

I had somewhat mixed reactions to Nymphomaniac. At various points I did wonder if matters were getting just a little bit silly, but nonetheless I still found it quite compelling. Partly this was out of a desire to find out just where the story was going to go, especially as Volume 1 begins with Joe’s rescue. But also the film grabbed my attention because of the compelling performances by Gainsbourg and Skarsgård, as well as by Hollywood stars such as Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, and Uma Thurman. The latter in particular has a wonderful cameo as a wronged woman dragging her children round to Joe’s flat, where she insists on showing them “the whoring bed”.

I also was a little mystified about the criticism that Shia LaBeouf’s performance has received. To be sure, he wasn’t the standout performer here, but his much-derided accent was not as bad as I had been led to expect. Various reviewers have described his accent as the worst cockney accent since Dick Van Dyke. Maybe I just have a tin ear (though I am a Londoner and can “do” cockney), but LaBeouf’s accent struck me as rather impossible to place – if anything, it seemed a gentle combination of Irish and London. It certainly didn’t disrupt the film for me in any way.

As to where it all leads, there is a twist in the tale (of sorts), but to some extent it does seem to turn Nymphomaniac into a bit of a shaggy dog story. However, we are provided with some dark entertainment along the way.

Rating: 8/10

As I write, there are just a few hours to go until the 2014 Oscars. I certainly couldn’t comment on all the categories, but happily I have managed to see all the films nominated for the Best Picture award so can share a few thoughts about this category as well as one or two others.

First, though – omissions. Everyone will have their own view about films that should have been included in the Best Picture category but weren’t, as well as those that are less deserving of inclusion. For my money, the most notable omission was the Cohen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Although this was a virtually plotless movie, it was a perfectly pitched and paced character study, melancholy in mood but punctuated by fine moments of humour. I also thought that All is Lost was a strong achievement. Like Gravity, this was a story about one person’s survival. But what was so unique about it was that it managed to be gripping whilst breaking some of the usual rules of cinema. There was no backstory for the character, monologue but not dialogue, not another person seen in the film (apart from one body part), and no real development of character. Despite all this I found myself really rooting for Robert Redford’s lone sailor. I would rather have seen either of these included in the nominations than Her, which failed to interest or convince me.

One of the controversies following the recent BAFTAs in London was the choice of Alfonso Cuaron as Best Director for Gravity, with many thinking that award should have gone to Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave. However, whilst there was a minimal cast involved in Gravity, it is pretty clear to me that this film had quite extraordinary challenges in terms of direction. Cuaron (and his crew) had to solve all kinds of problems, and much of the direction involved working with an environment that looked very different from what was finally experienced on screen. So, for my money, I’d be quite happy to see the Best Director award go to Cuaron.

I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons there was so much controversy about the BAFTAs is that we are particularly spoilt for choice this year. There are some very strong contenders for prizes. From the shortlist for Actor in a Leading Role my own three main contenders would have to be Christian Bale (bulking up for Hustle), Matthew McConaughey (slimming down for Dallas Buyers Club), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Bale shows great humour and nuance as the overweight grifter with the world’s worst comb-over. McConaughey is virtually unrecognisable from his role in The Wolf of Wall Street, in which he was also brilliant, and he perfectly conveys the journey from reckless, homophobic redneck to a man who sets up business with a transgendered individual in order to provide medicine to help desperate HIV sufferers. Chiwetel Ejiofor displays a masterful use of facial expression in order to convey the plight of a slave, filled with rage at his and others’ treatment, but who must hide his education and intelligence in order to survive. I think any one of these would be deserving winners, but in my opinion Matthew McConaughey just shades it.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 years a Slave

I am at a slight disadvantage in commenting on Actress in a Leading Role, as I have not seen August: Osage County, for which Meryl Streep is nominated. This aside, as with the men’s category, all of the nominations are surely justified. My preference would be for either Judi Dench, conveying both pathos and humour in her titular role as Philomena, or Cate Blanchett as the troubled socialite in Blue Jasmine. Ultimately, Blanchett’s performance as someone both mentally fragile and also a victim of circumstance, is so powerful that I find it hard to imagine that anyone else could win this category, and I think Blanchett would be fully deserving.

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Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

The category where I have the greatest difficulty forming a firm opinion is Actor in a Supporting Role. If I try to find rational reasons to judge the strength of these performances, I find it hard to put a cigarette paper between them. Intuitively, I would narrow the options to Jared Leto’s transgendered HIV sufferer in Dallas Buyers Club, or Barkhad Abdi as the Somali pirate in Captain Phillips. Here, I would follow BAFTA’s choice in giving the award to Barkhad Abdi for his fully convincing naturalistic performance.

For Actress in a Leading Role, whilst acknowledging the quality of all the nominees’ performances, there is really only one option as far as I am concerned. The award should go to Lupita Nyong’o for her proud, fiery performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. That said, I did love June Squibb in Nebraska, particularly the hilarious moment where she tells her extended family “You can all go and fuck yourselves!”.

For Best Adapted Screenplay I would opt for Philomena (Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope), which used the device of an odd-couple road trip to tell an important story. However, the third part of Richard Linklater’s lovers’ tale, Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpie, Ethan Hawke), once again contained the most wonderful, natural, extended dialogue.

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Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

For the category of Original Screenplay, again I would have loved to see Inside Llewyn Davis included in the nominations, and indeed this might well have been my favourite. I loved Blue Jasmine, but as it seems to be a modern update of A Streetcar Named Desire I’m not sure it scores top marks on the originality criterion. My choice from the final shortlist would have to be Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack), but with a nod to Nebraska (Bob Nelson).

Finally, which film should get the Best Picture award? Gravity is obviously being seen as one of the front runners in this category. However, whilst this film was a great technical achievement that produced a spectacular experience in the cinema, outside of the cinema I found that this was not a film that lingered particularly long in my mind. For me personally, the strongest contenders in this category are mostly those based on real-life events (albeit most of those films have taken a few liberties for the sake of dramatic effect). My personal favourite among these was Philomena, which recounted a dark episode in the history of Irish Catholicism, in the form of a journalist helping the title character trace the child that was taken from her years earlier by nuns, and sold to an American couple. What could have been a thoroughly depressing tale is elevated into something much more compelling and enjoyable by balancing the darker elements with some laugh-out loud comic moments arising from the character conflict between the two main figures.

However, some films have such an historical significance that they are impossible to ignore when considering best picture awards. Slavery is such a huge part of America’s history, with ramifications that continue today, and yet the topic has received precious little attention from Hollywood. It may indeed be telling that it has taken a British director to bring Solomon Northup’s biographical story, 12 Years a Slave, to the screen. This is a very powerful film with some scenes that are extremely uncomfortable to watch. For tackling this topic so skillfully I think 12 Years a Slave probably deserves to take the Best Picture award.

Summary of my preferences (not predictions!):

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Best Adapted Screenplay: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (Philomena)

Best Original Screenplay: Craig Borten and Melisa Wollack (Dallas Buyers Club)