Archive for the ‘Biographical’ Category

Director: Abel Ferrara

Writer: Maurizio Braucci

Country: France / Belgium / Italy

Runtime: 86 mins

A disappointing and confusing portrait of the late director

Pasolini begins with the controversial director viewing a scene from his as-yet-unreleased film The 120 Days of Sodom, in which some youths are subjected to sexual and mental torture by the fascist gang that has kidnapped them. It ends with Pasolini being murdered by a gang on a beach where he has taken a male prostitute. This symmetrical topping and tailing of the film with sex and violence is about the only structure to be found in this disappointing attempt to paint a picture of Pasolini through a kaleidoscopic view of the last day of his life.

Willem Dafoe is a compelling presence as Pasolini, demonstrating again that he deserves to be given more lead roles. However, the film never really gets to grips with the character of Pasolini or what he achieved, and is likely to be especially bewildering to a viewer who knows little or nothing about the man. During the course of his final day Pasolini meets friends, family, colleagues, an interviewer. There are also some fantasy scenes depicting parts of the story he is currently working on. However, none of this really amounts to very much. I lost track of who some of the people were (or possibly it was never made clear in the first place), and it didn’t help that some long passages of dialogue in Italian were not subtitled.

For some reason most of the characters are dimly lit in the interior scenes. When daylight is streaming through windows no attempt appears to have been made to light the faces of inward-facing characters. The same is true when the only light is the lamps in the room. Together with a somewhat desaturated colour this contributes to a slightly sombre atmosphere, and perhaps that is the point, but I’m not sure this really worked for me. Also, in the scene where Pasolini is interviewed, I found the camera movements quite distracting. They didn’t seem to serve any purpose. At one point, as Pasolini is speaking, the camera slowly pulls back from his face until he seems to be several feet away, but then we suddenly cut to an extreme close-up. Why?

I was really hoping to like this film, but I’m afraid I came away feeling quite dissatisfied.

Rating: 5/10

Pasolini was shown at the London Film Festival

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The Dance of Reality poster (1)

Chile / France 2013

Director: Alejandro Jorodowsky

Writer: Alejandro Jorodowsky

Runtime: 130 minutes

A dazzling magical-realist portral of a childhood in 1950s Chile

What a wonderfully original work of imagination is The Dance of Reality! This is the kind of film that makes you realise how rarely the possibilities of cinema are fully grasped. In a recent review of Boyhood I wrote how Richard Linklater was one of America’s most adventurous directors. That is true, but Alejandro Jorodowsky’s magical-realist re-telling of his own childhood, and especially his father’s role in it, makes Boyhood seem positively conservative. In The Dance of Reality Jorodowsky has cast his own (adult) son Brontis as his father Jaime, which must have made for an interesting experience in those scenes where Jaime is urinated upon and undergoes genital torture. The context to the story is that the Jorodowskys are Jews that have settled in Chile sometime after WW2, having fled anti-semitism in their native Ukraine. However, under elected president Colonel Ibanez (who had previously held power following a coup in the 1920s) the country is in economic turmoil, and paterfamilias Jaime plots with his fellow communists to assassinate the president.

Whilst the communists rail against oppression of minorities such as homosexuals, in his private life Jaime cannot bear the thought that his son (Jeremiah Herskovits) – all flowing golden hair and cossetted by his mother – might be viewed as a “faggot”. He tells the boy that he can win his father’s admiration if he is willing to endure pain. This is a prelude to a series of increasingly hard slaps around the face, resulting in a broken tooth. In the subsequent trip to the dentist, at his father’s encouragement, the boy has his treatment without any anaesthetic.

Whereas Jaime is all tough, confrontational, political logic, Alejandro’s mother Sara (Pamela Flores) is the emotional heart of the family, and as if to emphasise this all her lines are delivered in an operatic singing voice. When Alejandro is bullied by drunken sailors at a bar, she tells him that Jews like themselves must learn to become invisible and, to demonstrate this, she removes all her clothes and walks naked, untouched, among the sailors.

When Jaime becomes involved in the plot to assassinate the president, he becomes the central focus of the story, leaving the village and ending up working as a groom for the president’s horse. The plot does not go as planned, and it is from about this point onwards that the film charts the change in Jaime’s character, leading to a resolution in which Sara explains to him his true nature.

Some of the magical elements in The Dance of Reality are clearly politically symbolic, whereas others may have a more personal meaning for Jorodowsky. But even when I was not entirely sure what a particular image meant I was happy just to embrace the cinematic spectacle before me. On paper, the brutality of Jaime in the early scenes, as described above, might sound rather harrowing and, undoubtedly, his behaviour isn’t pleasant. However, for every serious moment there is a comic element lurking just around the corner. Jaime the angry communist is initially portrayed as an absurd figure, getting turned on, for example, by stockinged display legs in his shop and then demanding sex from his wife. In a scene reminiscent of Todd Browning’s Freaks, he gets into an argument with a group of people in the street who are all missing various limbs (victims of mining accidents). However, it is clear that there is goodness lurking within. Despite castigating his son for unnecessary generosity to others, he himself brings water to the sick and destitute. Later, he gives away all his money to pay for a friend’s funeral.

Ultimately, the film conveys a message of understanding and love from son to father. Jorodowsky has spoken of “the dance of reality” as reflecting the particular image that we each have of the world around us, and the realisation that we are all basically the same. As if to emphasise that this account of his childhood and his father is filtered through his own imagination, the director appears as himself in various scenes where he folds his arms protectively around the younger Alejandro.

This is a quite extraordinary film and one which I would thoroughly recommend. The performance by  Brontis Jorodowsky is something to behold and one of the best I have seen this year.

Rating: 10/10

Viewed at the Barbican Cinema as part of the 2014 East End Film Festival #EEFF2014 www.eastendfilmfestival.com

Fruitvale_Station_poster

USA 2013

Director: Ryan Coogler

Writer: Ryan Coogler

Runtime: 85 mins

A compelling tale of a life cut tragically short

Fruitvale Station is a remarkable first feature from director Ryan Coogler that recounts the story behind a modern injustice. Before the opening credits roll we are shown real-life cameraphone footage of the moment, in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, that a white transport cop fatally shot Oscar Grant III, an African-American, at Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California. Most of what follows is a dramatisation in flashback of Grant’s last day.

Oscar Grant is beautifully played by Michael B. Jordan (best known from The Wire), whose expressive face deftly conveys a range of emotions. What we learn about Grant is that he has a chequered past. He has already done at least one spell in prison, has a temper, has lost his job because of unpunctuality, and he has cheated on his wife Sophina (a fine performance from Melonie Diaz). However, Grant is also depicted as basically a good man. We see him reconciling with Sophina, being a good father, helping a stranger at the supermarket where he had previously worked, and scattering a bag of weed into the ocean (representing his determination not to go back to prison). On this last day of his life we see Grant making preparations for his mother’s birthday celebration that evening.

Ryan Coogler has stated that Grant’s last day was reconstructed from trial records and court transcripts, though a scene in which Grant tries to help a pitbull that is injured in a hit-and-run was created for dramatic purposes. Apparently some critics have either questioned the authenticity of the story portrayed, or the picture that is painted of Grant himself. This strikes me as unnecessary carping, and even holding Fruitvale Station to a different standard from other dramatisations of real-life events. As it is, there is never any suggestion that Grant really has managed to turn his life around. We see him trying to do the right thing, but clearly it is still early days. In one sense, this is what gives the film its poignancy. We will never know whether Grant would have managed to rebuild his life because his life was so cruelly taken away from him.

Following his mother’s birthday party, Oscar, Sophina, and their friends head out towards San Fricisco for the New Year’s celebrations. So noone has to drive under the influence, they take the Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) system. Without going into all the details, Grant finds himself the victim in an altercation with a white man on the train, as a result of which the BART police only round up various black men at the station. Grant is subsequently shot by one of the cops.

Although Fruitvale Station is a dramatisation, it is shot in a fly-on-the-wall documentary style that really draws the viewer in. The final outcome is of course known to us in advance, but this does not detract from the story  at all. The film is not an in-depth investigation of how the BART police came to shoot an unarmed man; rather, it is a study of a life cut tragically short. It thoroughly deserves the many nominations and awards that it has received around the world.

Rating: 8/10

The Wind Rises (1)

Japan 2013

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Writer: Hayao Miyazaki

Runtime: 126 mins

 A beautiful, epic, melancholy animation

The latest, and apparently the last, animation from Studio Ghibli’s great Hayao Miyazaki, The Wind Rises takes its title from a couplet in Paul Valéry’s poem The Graveyard by the Sea: “The wind is rising / We must try to live!”.  These lines appear at the end of the opening credits and what follows is, to some extent, an examination of the challenge of living a life in dark times. The Wind Rises is in fact a fictionalised account of the early life of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of two great Japanese WW2 fighter planes – the Mitsubishi A5M and the Mitsubishi A6M Zero – but a man who also opposed Japan’s involvement in the war.

The tone of the film is set right at the start. A young Jiro (Hideaki Anno) dreams of taking to the air in a plane that sits atop his house. As he soars above the ground, this scene appears a classic example of flight as a metaphor for personal freedom and liberation. However, the mood of the dream changes as, from behind a cloud, a huge airship appears, with bombs and sinister dark figures hanging below it. Jiro’s airplane is struck and crashes to the ground, at which point he wakes from his dream. Later, at school one of Jiro’s teachers lends him an English aircraft magazine. It contains a photograph of Count Caproni, the famous Italian aircraft designer. Jiro subsequently dreams of meeting Caproni. Jiro’s poor eyesight precludes him from being a pilot, but Caproni tells him that it is better to design planes than to fly them. He tells Jiro that airplanes are “beautiful dreams”.

Jiro’s dreams and daydreams recur throughout the movie. As a young man he goes to work for the Mitsubishi corporation, who are busy trying to build warplanes for the Japanese navy. In a dream, Caproni tells him that airplanes are “cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up”. However, both agree that a world with airplanes is better than one without or, as Caproni puts it: “Do you prefer a world with pyramids or no pyramids?”. We see that Japan’s technology is lagging behind that of Europe, the most potent illustration of this being the way that oxen are used to pull new airplanes out to the airfield. With Japan committed to a war that Jiro doesn’t want, he nonetheless strives to build better aircraft for his country, eventually producing machines that far exceed the navy’s specifications.

Throughout all this there is the romance between Jiro and Nahoko (Miori Takimoto). The two first meet in 1923 when, during a train journey, she catches his hat after it is blown off by the (rising) wind. Shortly afterwards, the Great Kanto earthquake strikes and Jiro carries Nahoko’s maid to safety after she breaks her leg. He leaves without introducing himself but, a few years later, they meet again when Jiro catches her parasol which has been blown away by the wind. Their romance is not straightforward, to say the least, and there is a certain ambiguity about Jiro’s character as he leaves his sick wife alone whilst he devotes himself to his work. Could he have behaved differently or was he effectively compelled to work for Japan’s war machine? (at one point, for reasons he does not understand, Jiro finds himself wanted by the “thought crime boys”).

One of the most beautiful scenes in the film occurs when Jiro entertains Nahoko by launching a simple paper plane into the air, and the two then take turns sending the little white creation between them. This moment, more than any other, captures the purity and beauty of the dream of flight. When we later see a white Mitsubishi Zero take to the air, it is possible to forget – if just briefly – that this is a deadly machine, as it takes us back to the flight of the paper plane.

In Japan, The Wind Rises has caused political controversy. Nationalists are unhappy about references to the “futility” of war, whereas left-wingers wonder why a positive picture should be presented of someone so closely associated with the war machine. From a British perspective it is worth reflecting that the inventor of the bouncing bomb, Sir Barnes Wallis, is widely regarded as a heroic figure, and The Dambusters is a much-loved film – despite the fact that this raid killed thousands of people (including allied POWs), and would nowadays be classed as a war crime. But another war film that came to mind as I watched The Wind Rises was Empire of the Sun. That film’s protagonist, the boy Jim, is imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp. However, he – like Jiro – is obsessed with flight and airplanes, and sees both Japanese and American pilots as heroic figures. In one scene, Jim is walking near the perimeter fence when a model airplane thrown by a Japanese boy on the other side lands nearby. Jim throws it back and is thanked by the other boy. It is another great cinematic illustration of the beauty of flight and the way that it captures the human imagination regardless of nationality.

As with all the films from Studio Ghibli, the artistry of The Wind Rises is gorgeous. The story is a more adult one than is normally the case, but certainly none the less powerful for that. Indeed, as someone who rarely watches animated films I was absolutely caught up in the lives of the characters, and was moved emotionally. It is a film that stirs us and makes us appreciate the beauty of flight, although ultimately it is a very melancholy tale too. This is one of my favourite films of the year so far and one of the greatest animated movies I have ever seen.

Rating: 10/10

 

Tracks_2013

Australia / UK 2013

Director: John Curran

110 minutes

 

Most of us occasionally wish we could get away from other people for a while. Anyone who has deliberately gone seeking solitude, however, will have discovered just how elusive that is. Other people seem to turn up in the remotest places. So it was when, in 1975, Robyn Davidson set out to trek across the Australian desert with just three camels and her black labrador, Diggity, to keep her company. Tracks, written by Marion Nelson and directed by John Curran, is based on Davidson’s 1980 book recounting her epic journey.

We never truly learn what motivated this extraordinary trek, but a number of possible factors are provided. The opening scene hints at a traumatic childhood event, intercutting images of Robyn walking across a shimmering desert landscape with flashback images of the young Robyn making some kind of painful departure from home (later, we learn that her mother’s suicide and the failure of her father’s business meant she had to go and live with an aunt, leaving her father behind with the pet dog that was to be put down). In one monologue Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) refers to her dissatisfaction with the “indulgent” lifestyles of those around her, to her own inability to stick to anything she tries, and to a desire to be alone. In Alice Springs, the starting point for her journey, Davidson experiences misogyny and witnesses anti-Aborigine racism, all of which suggests further reasons for wishing to escape into the desert. Indeed, it is telling that the first person who behaves with kindness and generosity is a camel farmer of Afghan descent.

Having spent many months learning how to work with camels, Davidson still needs to raise funds to buy enough camels and to cover the cost of supplies. When her solitude is interrupted by a rather unwelcome visit from some friends and their companions, a National Geographic photographer, Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), leaves her the magazine’s contact details. He tells her they would jump at the chance to sponsor her trip in return for some journalistic coverage. Initially reluctant, she eventually gets in touch and the deal is made. Consequently, she balks when her journey is interrupted at intervals by the appearance of Smolan in his Land Rover, asking her to pose for photographs. At one point her relationship with a group of Aborigines is compromised when Smolan is spotted taking photographs of a secret ceremony. But is not just Smolan who disrupts Davidson’s journey. She is a curiosity for passing tourists, especially once the news of her adventure starts to spread, and eventually other journalists want in on the action.

Even in the outback Davidson is unable to full escape society’s absurdities. She is refused entrance to the area around Ayers Rock / Uluru on the basis that camels are not allowed in. When asked what the issue with camels is, the (white) warden tells her “This is a sacred site”. Meanwhile, camper vans full of gawping tourists with cameras are allowed through. Aboriginal society also turns out to be a man’s world. Davidson is told she cannot cross a sacred site unless accompanied by a (male) aboriginal elder. Fortunately, an elder by the name of Eddie (memorably played by Roly Mintuma) offers to help and the two strike up a good relationship, to the extent that she asks him to escort her a little further once they have left the site. When a dead kangaroo needs slicing for food, Eddie takes the knife from her, telling her that this is the man’s job. This is the one aspect of the film where I would have liked to have had some inkling of Davidson’s thoughts. It is hard to imagine that she would have approved of such male domination, yet she always appears respectful to the aborigines she meets. Later, when Davidson is about to cut up a kangaroo herself she hallucinates Eddie’s presence and stops what she is doing.

At one level, the film is a metaphor for life. It is about the necessity for compromise, cooperation, and the need for other people. Davidson has to compromise the purity of her ideal (a journey alone) in order to obtain the means to pursue it (the sponsorship deal, with its attendant consequences). She wants to be self-sufficient on her journey, but ultimately is only able to survive with the assistance of others. She wants to make her journey without other people, but strikes up important relationships with Eddie and Rick. At another level, Tracks is an odd-couple road trip movie, where Robyn Davidson and Rick Smolan are the mismatched couple. To begin with her proud, uncommunicative misanthropy is in stark contrast to his eager, puppy-dog chattiness. Eventually, however, she comes to value his presence and accept his help, and he feeds misinformation to his fellow journalists so that she is not being hounded by unwanted attention.

The Australian outback is, of course, a cinematographer’s dream, and Mandy Walker doesn’t disappoint in this regard, providing us with some stunningly beautiful images of this incredible part of the world. Garth Stevenson’s music soundtrack is rhythmic and hypnotic, but never intrusive. There is some mystery about the authorship of the screenplay. According to ABC News Marion Nelson is a pseudonym, and they speculate that the author might be the “fiercely private” Davidson herself. At the heart of everything is a splendid performance by Mia Wasikowska. Even though the film doesn’t attempt to pin down Davidson’s inner motivations, Wasikowska herself depicts a variety of emotions, by turn being tough, defiant, vulnerable, frightened, and confused. Even though we know Davidson survived her journey, the sense of danger that is portrayed is very real. One suspects that the location filming would have posed a real challenge, and this is the second strong performance this year by a female actor in a strange – to them – environment (the other being Scarlett Johansson wandering around Glasgow in Under The Skin).

As a survival story, Tracks makes for an interesting comparison with All is Lost, which was released just a few months ago. They are of course polar opposites, being, respectively, tales of desert and ocean survival, one featuring a woman as its central figure and the other a man (incidentally, Tracks passes the Bechdel Test – just). The central protagonist in each case is a tough loner with a minimal backstory (none in the case of All is Lost) whose survival ultimately depends on help from others. Both are very fine films, but for those who found the lack of other characters and lack of emotional variation a little hard to take in All Is Lost (I don’t count myself among such viewers) then Tracks should be rather more appealing in this regard. Certainly, I think it joins Walkabout and Wake In Fright as one of the great outback movies.

Rating: 9/10

 

ImageFrom the title alone you know that this film is going to be pretty grim viewing. However, for anyone concerned that 12 Years a Slave might be worthy, but not cinematically fulfilling, then I would urge them to think again. This is not a perfect movie, but it is a very fine and important one.

The story begins in New York, where we encounter the talented violinist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He meets two men who offer him a two-week job on an out-of-town tour. We next see Northup sharing a fine meal with the two men who are clearly plying him with drink. Sometime later Northup wakes up in chains in a darkened room, and his miserable ordeal has begun. He is taken to a slave market, where he is sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford turns out to be relatively enlightened, and when Northup devises a scheme for efficiently transporting logs down a waterway Ford presents him with a violin as a mark of gratitude.

However, Northup is harrassed by the racist carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who eventually rounds up his white friends to lynch Northup. Northup only survives this episode due to the intervention of Ford, but Ford explains that his own life will be endangered if he continues to protect him. Thus, Northup is sold on to another slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who puts his slaves to work picking cotton. Epps believes that the Bible gives him the right not just to own, but to abuse, slaves, and he forces his desire on the slave-girl Patsey (Lupita N’yongo). In this terrible environment Northup must hide his intelligence in order to survive, especially as Epps becomes ever more demented.

As most potential viewers of 12 years will undoubtedly agree that slavery is a bad thing, one might ask just why it is that this film is worth seeing. The answer to this is that it is one thing to intellectually know that slavery bad, but it is another thing to understand at a visceral level just how bad slavery is. With that understanding, perhaps, can come an even greater appreciation of the anger felt by the descendants of slaves in western societies who nonetheless remain victims of discrimination. Two moments in the film stand out as particularly brutal. In one, Patsy is whipped so severely that the weals on her back could only have looked worse if this had been shot in 3D. Arguably even more distressing than this, is a scene in which Northup is strung from a tree in such a way that the only way to avoid strangulation is to stand on tip-toes for hours. Whilst he does this we see people going about their business in the background as though nothing were untoward.

There are a number of performances in the film that have been rightly praised as outstanding. Chiwetel Ejiofor is utterly convincing as Solomon Northup, using his face more than words to convey the inner turmoil of a man who must suppress his intelligence and his rage. Lupita N’yongo as Patsey likewise shows us the utter desperation of a woman who would rather die than suffer further abuse and humiliation at the hands of Epps. And Fassbender himself, as Epps, gives us a portrait of a man for whom slavery appears to provide a vehicle for the deranged expression of his own inner demons.

If the film has shortcomings, then one of these must be the third-act appearance of Brad Pitt, whose superstar presence is a real distraction at that point. Secondly, in terms of dramatic tension, it is perhaps a little churlish to criticise a film for staying true to the real-life story (I have not read Northup’s own book, but I believe this is the case). However, most films present us with a series of emotional ups and downs that keep tension alive. In 12 Years, by contrast, things start bad, get worse, and then get really worse again. And because most people will know that 12 Years is based on the real-life Northup’s account of his ordeal, we also therefore know that the movie Northup must survive his ordeal. In this respect, I did feel that the film, while unflinchingly brutal, nonetheless lacked a certain degree of dramatic tension.

Such quibbles aside, however, with so few Hollywood movies touching on the topic of slavery 12 Years really is an outstanding achievement.

Rating: 9/10

Image

Philomena is a marvellous film, one which tells an important story, and in doing so arouses laughter, anger, and sadness in roughly equal measure, but never leaving the viewers feeling that their emotions are being toyed with. In a series of flashbacks at the start of the film we learn that Philomena (Judi Dench), as a young Catholic girl in Ireland, conceived a child out of wedlock and was taken in by nuns at the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea. Along with other girls in a similar situation she has to pay for her stay by working in the laundry. We learn that these vulnerable young women are persuaded by the nuns to sign a contract whereby their children will be given to married couples who are able to give them a good home. In fact, the nuns are making a profit by selling the children to wealthy Americans. The day comes when Philomena’s son is taken, and she is absolutely distraught.

Several decades later, Philomena is still tormented by thoughts of what has become of her child. On several occasions she has been back to the abbey to find information about her son, but despite providing tea and sympathy the nuns always insist they have not been able to trace the child. Philomena’s daughter puts her in touch with Martin Sixmith (Steve Coogan), the journalist and former adviser to the Labour government, who had been forced to resign in controversial circumstances and who is at something of a loose end. Working together, they finally uncover the truth.

Philomena is, in fact, an odd couple road trip movie. Sixsmith is portrayed as slightly snobbish and cynical, and is initially reluctant to assist Philomena because of his disdain for human interest stories (they are for “weak-minded people”). Philomena, on the other hand, is depicted as working-class, rather naive, and with populist tastes (she loves bodice-ripper romances). Coogan, whose comedy career has largely specialised in depicting oddballs and uncomfortable situations, is at his element in his interactions with Dench. At one point, as they are driving along a country road, Philomena proffers a packet of throat lozenges and asks “Would you like a tune?”, to which Sixmith responds “If you hum it, I’ll play it”. She misses the joke entirely, and holds the lozenges closer, repeating her offer. Further along the journey Philomena responds with raucous laughter when Sixmith says something personal and serious. This clash of worlds occurs again later, in an American hotel breakfast bar. Philomena is thrilled at the range of free food on offer and keeps trying to tempt the well-travelled Sixmith, who is not hungry and for whom such culinary experiences are nothing new.

In real life, Coogan is not only an atheist from a Catholic background, but is a victim in the phone-hacking scandal, a witness at the Leveson inquiry, and a campaigner for press regulation. i wonder how much of this was on his mind when he decided to take on the role of a journalist investigating a Catholic scandal. Was he trying to work through his feelings about both Catholicism and journalism? However, Coogan’s own acting is restrained and generous, allowing Judi Dench to come to the fore brilliantly in depicting the tragedy and humour of her own character. Like all road trip movies, the way the two characters develop over the course of the story, and what they learn about themselves and each other, turns out to be as important as the achievement of their goal.

Rating: 10/10