Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Rather Enjoyable Failure. Well, at least it's a British film!

Awaydays (Pat Holden 2009)

A really badly made film in many respects and the zero budget is glaringly obvious right from the start. Of course a low budget doesn't make a bad film and can often go in the film's favour, helping to give a film a raw, gritty and more credible feel for example. But good direction doesn't cost anything and here they don't seem to have bothered at all. It often feels like the actors were left to get on with it by themselves - unwise with a cast of [mostly] unknowns. The story is all over the place and characterisation is hamfisted and mealymouthed. So why did I like it so much??
Maybe cus it's British and cheaply made and, funnily enough, it's not some dumb horror? Maybe cus there are no big stars, or celeb endorsements, or product placement, media hype, explosions or smug knowing in-jokes. Maybe it's cus The News Of The World slagged it off? Maybe it's the fantastic soundtrack (The Cure, Echo And The Bunny Men, Ultravox pre-Midge Ure, Human League - pre-split, Joy Division, Teardrop Explodes, to name a few). Or maybe I'm just a sucker for a story about a homo, tortured by self-loathing and unrequited love? Maybe cus it's a failure but at least they tried?
Actually it's all of the above. It's certainly nowhere near in the same league as Control or the best of Shane Meadows (to which some lazy critics have compared it) but despite (and sometimes because of) it's many flaws it's not a bad little film and I really enjoyed it.

2D or not 2D? That is the question. Or "Why I'm just not that impressed with Hollywood's latest gimmick"

Coraline (Henry Selick 2009)

It's heartening to see that someone is still using traditional stop motion animation - I was beginning to think everyone had sold their souls for CGI! It's a pity they felt they had to cop out with the latest gimmick though. 3D is a new technology that is still leaving me a little underwhelmed as well as dismayed. (I'm also beginning to wonder if the migraine I have had for the past week is a throw-back to going cross-eyed from wearing two pairs of glasses in the dark watching this for nearly two hours!)
The last film I saw in 3D was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. They at least they had the common sense to use it sparingly for a handful of key scenes. Rather disconcertingly, Coraline is in 3D from start to end and it was all a little vomit inducing (you really can have too much of a good thing). and very distracting. Also, I have to say, 3D really is a bit crap when it comes to movement - anything moving too quickly and it was the equivalent of the sausage effect created when someone waves their figures in front of a TV screen! As well as rather boring when you get past the novelty value (remember a few years back when all those idiots stood staring at those optical illusions in shop windows till a unicorn appears??) That's hardly worth spending a fiver on!
I really do hope that 3D dies a death cus all this flashiness does is detract from what we are there for - a piece of cinema. As we bill and coo over how clever it all is, is anyone actually taking anything in beyond surface level? Is anyone interested in subtext, cinematography, direction, acting... depth??? I did take my glasses off at one point as I was naive enough to think we would be given the choice of watching it in 2D. Of course we aren't. That pissed me off!
Coraline is an excellent piece of animation and very nearly the equal of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Nightmare is more fun of course but Coraline has the edge when it comes to characterisation and darker more adult friendly subtexts. But the 3D totally ruined it for me. Some of us don't have that sweet a tooth and being force-fed is so not appreciated.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Wicked Women? You decide...

Leave Her To Heaven (John M. Stahl 1945)

Don't be fooled by the sugar coated first half of Leave Her to Heaven: The cute and romantic way the leads meet, Gene Tierney's luminous beauty (quite something in Technicolor), and the way everyone seems so happy! It's almost cornball. But it's easy not to spot that this particular angel cake contains one or two razor blades beneath the sweet icing.
There is the occasional hint at the wickedness bubbling below the surface - the appearance of Vincent Price, her jealousy, her unnatural fixation with her dead father (not to mention the breathtaking scattering of his ashes), but nothing prepares you for the first jarring cut of those hidden blades.
Up until the first shocking realisation of Ellen's wickedness, I was on her side. After all, she only wants to be alone with her man, Richard (Cornel Wilde looking as bland as ever - Technicolor making him a lovely shade of beige!) And her crushed expression when her whole family turn up at their love-nest is so perfect, it makes me laugh out loud that Richard can't see it! - they are already sharing with Richard's invalid brother (who says "Gosh!" far too much) and Richard's friend (the rather annoying Chill Wills). When the mother admits to Ellen's sister that they shouldn't have come, you think "Hell, yes!" they are on their honeymoon!!
Well, she has had enough and resolves to do something about it and when it happens... your jaw hits the floor! (This is a woman who is quite unhinged) Then she does it again and again! She will stop at nothing to stop anyone getting close to her man.
There are moments of pure cinema here and Tierney captures the moment perfectly - even when she is hidden behind sunglasses, her monotone delivery and glacial expression says it all. And the scene with the staircase, she knows what to do and her eyes tell you everything you need to know about what she's thinking.
Gene Tierney is a stunningly beautiful actress and quite often she is dismissed as a serious performer because of this. But under the right director she can be electric. Her films with Otto Preminger are a case in point and she is also very good in The Ghost and Mrs Muir. This for me though is her finest performance.
By the end of the film though, I wonder to myself how evil Ellen really is. Yes, she does really wicked things but obviously this is a manifestation of here mental illness. Yet no-one does anything to help her! Her mother especially, many times in the film, admits to knowing something is amiss with her daughter. Then do something - wringing hands never helped anyone! Incidentally, even Ellen's jealous paranoia of her husband's fidelity is, ultimately, shown to be justified!
Is Ellen Berent really a monster or a victim?? In 1945 it would have been easy to say "hang the bitch" but in our more enlightened times our analysis has to be less black & white.

A Woman's Face (George Cukor 1941)
Sometimes I actually prefer 'A Woman's Face' over Mildred Pierce - Cukor seems to have subdued Crawford a little, making her seem less histrionic - softer and less brittle. But I suppose that's why it's less popular - we want the brittle glamour and we love to see Joanie "suffering in furs". In 'Mildred Pierce' we don't quite believe her as a frumpy house-wife, wearing a pinnie, baking pies, so as soon as she dons the shoulder-pads and starts bashing Vida about, we cheer! But Anna Holm is a great character too and just as exciting to me. The 'softening' of her performance adds an extra layer of ambiguity to what could have otherwise been a more obviously villainous character.
Scarred physically as well as mentally, Anna takes her misfortunes out on the silly 'beautiful' women of the film with blackmail. It's not long before she is falling for the insidious charms of Conrad Veidt and is seduced into the worst of all crimes - the murder of a child. This poses a troubling flaw in her characterisation (probably not intentional) as you don't know till the end of the flic whether she carries out her heinous act or not, (this being Hollywood you maybe have a fair idea though). But the fact that she, at least, considers it seriously is infinitely harder to forgive than her blackmail endeavours. It does add to your interest in Anna but at the same time you sympathise with her less.

It's a marvelous film and Crawford is great - possibly my favourite performance of hers. Veidt, as usual, is wonderfully malevolent as the villain of the piece and their scenes together are eery and spellbinding (despite some seriously dodgy dialogue) .
Many of the minor characters do a fine job too - I particularly liked Albert Bassermann's crusty old Consul and Ossa Massen is a delight as one of Crawford's 'silly' victims (Crawford gets to give her a good slapping). Melvyn Douglas, on the other hand, is only adequate. To me he seems to be in the wrong movie - his screwball and matinée idol pedigree doesn't ring true in such a dark and gothic tale.
It's surprisingly cinematic for a Cukor pic (as great as I think his films are, sometimes I do find them a little visually flat), looking very noirish and gothic (as ever, Crawford is perfectly lighted). And it has a very exciting chase in the snow for a finale.

Even though both films instill a certain amount of ambiguity and doubt about how 'evil' either woman really is, personally I don't feel that either of the women are really bad. I'm more inclined to think Anna Holm is more of a villain than Ellen Berent, as Anna seems to act through spite and greed whereas Ellen's actions seem to be dictated by a mental illness. Yet, ironically, poor Ellen is portrayed less sympathetically (not showing remorse for her actions for example) so of course Hollywood dictates that she should pay the ultimate price. To me that makes her the more tragic of the two.
So, would I invite Ellen or Anna round for tea and biscuits? Well I'm sure I would feel quite safe... but I may just hide the knives!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Unfairly Neglected: Hitchcock's Sabotage and Number 17

**The following contains spoilers**

Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock 1936)

Tick... tick... tick...

Sabotage is a great film that is unfairly neglected - chiefly because of the supposed central flaw. I do believe this criticism is totally unjustified - especially viewed through more modern and less timid eyes: What was seen as cruel or just too dark in the 1930s is relatively tame to our less sensitive palettes. Hence, with Sabotage, the bomb on the bus sequence is a tour de force of suspense that works better today than it did in 1936 - it's tragic outcome is shocking and that shock hangs in the air for the rest of the film, becoming the driving force of the story and it's mousey heroine (the incredible dinner table finale would be nothing without it). It was a bold move by Hitch and not only does it pre-date the shock/twist of Psycho by some 24 years it's actually a better film! But for most of his life he had to concede to the cretinous critics who assured him it was a mistake. It was probably the same critics who slated Stage Fright for it's 'lying' flashback (they are wrong - its a great cinematic trick!), who think Spellbound is a great film (it's not, it's a dud!) and think the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much is an improvement on the original (it's only more polished and Americanised - give me Edna Best with a rifle to Doris Day's warbling any day).
Sylvia Sydney and Oskar Homolka (a touch of James Mason but with bushy eyebrows) are both excellent as is Desmond Trenter as little Stevie. Sydney didn't like working with Hitchcock and didn't get on with him at all which is a shame because here, she is adorable (cute in the little 'sailor-boy' outfit) and very touching especially in the genuinely moving 'Cock-Robin' sequence and the quintessentially Hitchcockian dinner table finale. Unfortunately John Loder doesn't even register to me - Hitch's first choice, Robert Donat, would have been great but was too ill.
Beware dodgy DVD transfers of this great little film. For a while it wasn't widely available (especially in the UK) and so there are some very poor quality disks out there. But over the past few months we have been treated to a couple of quality box sets of Hitch's early British films and if you shop around you may get them at a bargain price.

Number 17 (Alfred Hitchcock 1932)

"Coo blimey, if it ain't my lucky day! I'm a murderer, I'm a liar and now I'm a b-bathroom fitting!"

Number Seventeen is criminally under-rated! Point out the plot-holes, shaky camera, toy town special effects and ropey acting and you are SO missing the point. 17 is meant as a comic parody of the spy story (with a large dose of The Cat and the Canary thrown in for good measure). Who cares about the plot flaws and ropey acting when everyone is having such a lark, including Hitch - like a child playing with his toy set - literally! I really enjoy this more than the generally more revered Murder and Blackmail (so the acting in those films isn't ropey??).
It's quite a surreal and odd little film - for the first half of the film people seem to keep appearing and then disappearing again at such an alarming rate it's hard to keep up with who's who - but that's part of it's charm (even in the last few minutes more identities are being revealed!).
At just over an hour it manages to cram in many of the elements we have come to recognise as Hitchcockian: staircases (lots of them!), the 'bad' girl done good, handcuffs and bondage, trains and chases on trains, bathrooms, people not being what they seem (who are the villains and the heroes?), a macguffin (the necklace), gallows humour and so on. It's no masterpiece but it's a lot of fun and never boring. It's certainly not the dud it's dismissed as.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

If you can't look away then pull back. For God's sake, pull back!

Irreversible (Gaspar Noe)

***Spoiler warning***
It's rather difficult to talk about Irreversible without giving things away.

There are many great examples of the 'non-linear narrative' style of film-making. In fact, two of the greatest films ever made are prime examples of this: The multiple flash-backs of Citizen Kane and the different character viewpoints of the events of Rashomon. Film-makers as revered as Godard, Bergman, Fellini, Alain Resnais, Robert Altman and Nicolas Roeg have all made this style of film-making their own. A lot of directors working today, such as Stephen Soderberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan, Wong Kar-wai, Gus Van Sant, Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarentino (most notably with Pulp Fiction) and of course David Lynch - who often tries the patience of his audience with his seemingly random jumble of plot strands. These film-makers know that it doesn't have to be 'beginning, middle and end' and they exploit this idea to the hilt. Quite often with astonishing and rewarding results. It can enrich and deepen our perception of, what is sometimes quite a straight-forward story - making us examine it in a different, maybe more profound way. It also can make a film seem original and ground-breaking when in fact they are, quite often, at best, pastiching ideas from other film-makers and at worst simply stealing them (Tarentino anyone??). But I don't think I had seen a film go (literally) backwards before I saw Memento. It starts with the end of the story, going backwards a scene at a time until we get to the beginning of the story. The reasoning was partly a plot devise and partly so we empathise more with the character's problems with memory: It's a jigsaw puzzle of a murder mystery that begins with a murder and we go back in time to discover the motivations and reasons behind the death. Along the way we discover he has the memory of a goldfish (almost!) - forgetting everything after a short period of time, making everything a renewed experience for our hero as it is for us, the audience. Unfortunately the film doesn't stand up to more than a couple of viewings. Once we have the answers there's not a lot to come back for. The same is true with The Prestige and The Usual Suspects.
Now we have Irreversible. On a superficial level, it seems unoriginal - using the same device as Memento of a backwards moving narrative to discover the events leading up to a murder. But with rather different intentions and certainly more profound results. It worked for Christopher Nolan but it has more emotional depth and purpose here.

Irreversible is a gruelling and extremely troubling film that not only tests our patience and stomachs but our sense of morality and empathy too as it literally forces us to endure the hellish events of the characters on screen. Right from the start, we are plunged, unflinchingly, into the hellish events of it's protagonists. Though calling it unflinching would be a massive understatement.

The film opens with a camera rolling and undulating through the air. We see a building, it's windows and bricks coming and going into shot. Seemingly random and without reason. And then we move into a room within the building. In it are two men, one naked and one clothed, talking. The room is lighted with a harsh yellow light that makes the walls and, consequently the men, look kind of greasy and damp. Instead of light that cleanses, here it seems to be exposing something unclean and corrupt. The camera carries on moving in and out, rolling and undulating. Like someone drunk or high. It has a disconcerting affect and I'm still not sure of the reasoning behind it - are we being put off guard in some way maybe? Are we being reminded that we are watching? I already had in mind the opening sequence of Psycho. Except, in that film, we are less aware of the camera, as it smoothly tracks across the city skyline and straight through the window into the bedroom of the illicit lovers. But here, we are constantly reminded of the camera. Made less comfortable in our voyeurism if you like. This devise is carried on through to the next scene as the camera seems to move out the window and we observe the events going on outside. This is really where the story begins (ends?). From this point on, the film - and accordingly, the camera - becomes much more frenetic and disturbing. The scene prior, feels more of a prologue - almost soporific in feel (despite the subject of their discussion!) It gives us a clue as to how we'll feel by the end of the film, as one character says "time destroys all things". But before we can get to the end (beginning?) we have Hell to contend with!

A dizzying and very disturbing montage of shots and sounds - entwined bodies, grunts and groans, whip cracks, the flash of an erect penis, heads bobbing, men wanking etc - hurtles us headlong into the goings on in an S&M nightclub. The story has now begun to move backwards and we are plunged straight into what is, undoubtedly, the most realistically explicit (simulated) murder ever put on film. Totally unflinching - there's no camera turning away here. It's up to us to turn away. It's our choice. I strongly suspect, this is where a lot of people began to leave the cinema. That's their loss.
Ironically, as the story progresses (regresses?), we realise this scene requires us to pay more attention than we realise. Or feel comfortable with! Especially when we discover who the real villain is in this story!
From this scene on, the story carries on backwards. The frenetic camera going into overdrive - at one point seemingly see-sawing in and out of a closed car window for example. It's disconcerting of course but totally necessary. A static camera would have had a relaxing effect that wouldn't have felt right and I think we'd empathise less.

When we first see Monica Bellucci as Alex we only see her from behind. The camera stays with her all the time. Not cutting away. We have to stay with her. The camera tells us we are not gonna leave her. We can't (there is only a brief cutaway as the camera quickly looks to the subway sign and back at Monica) We follow her down to the subway and straight away we know it will happen here - in the subway. Just like the nightclub, the subway is blood red. Just as Pierre and Marcus descended into Hell when they entered the nightclub, so now has Alex in the subway.
I am still in two minds as to how necessary I feel it was for the rape to be so utterly unflinching and relentless. During the attack, for the first time in the film, the camera is static. It's at Alex's level throughout. Not just encouraging our empathy but forcing us to endure the assault with her. It's the most draining and upsetting piece of cinema I have ever seen (excepting the real-life events depicted in the Russian film Come and See). But the violence that is inflicted on Alex after the rape was a push too far for me. We have already gone through the rape with her - the tears and the knot in my stomach are testament to that - so the violent assault that followed, seemed, not just redundant but felt a bit like rubbing our faces in it. Up till we see Alex for the first time the camera hasn't stopped moving - jumping about, undulating and swaying, seeming to move straight through car windows. But during the rape, as I said, the camera has been static - at Alex's level. We empathise with her so completely we go through the assault with her. It's a draining and deeply upsetting scene that tests our tolerance levels to the limit. (I can totally relate to those that walked out of the cinema at this point). Then the makers simply cross the line. Just when we think it is over the violence resumes, and at one point the POV changes from Alex to us, the audience. The camera swiftly and very obviously moves around the protagonists as if to 'get a better look' at her face as it is pummelled on the ground. It's a deeply unpleasant moment that actually reminds us of what we are - an audience. We may think we are empathising but we are still watching. Just like the men who watch the murder in the nightclub, they do nothing and simply enjoy the spectacle. Unlike the stranger that wonders into the background and walks off doing nothing to help, we are worse - we stay and watch. I felt a bit of deja-vu here and was reminded of Haneke's Funny Games. A film so totally devoid of humanity it disturbs me immensely that it has been given the Hollywood make-over.
But the film's final half hour gives us what Haneke's vile little film didn't. Not only relief but humanity.
From this moment on the film becomes a cleansing experience. As time goes ever further backwards - before the murder, before the rape - we see the characters how they were - happy, normal, in love, looking forward to the future. The backwards narrative begins to have a healing effect. Cleansing if you like. For the characters but more so for us, the abused and battered audience! Those that left the cinema during the murder or the rape miss the relief these scenes give us. It would seem that they are left only with the horror.

The scenes that come after the rape (precede the story) become brighter and far less frenetic. I have to say the scene of the lovers, Marcus and Alex, naked and bathed in a warm orange glow, are some of the most beautiful and natural (and sexy!) I have seen in a film. It made me weep. Maybe part of it was because of it's cleansing quality? It really feels like a couple happy and in love. Totally comfortable with each other.
The film culminates in the shots of Alex, alone, at turns looking radiant and at peace, holding her stomach - her unformed, unborn child. We can imagine that as the story has gone backwards that maybe the hellish events never happened. Or, in some way, we have been purged. After all, it's only a film! And this is the end really. Not the beginning. The closing shot of Alex, lying in a park, reading the book she mentioned earlier that she can't finish ("the future is already written") is almost Technicolor in look and how it makes us feel. The camera rolls away and over the lawn as children run in and out of shot, playing on the grass. The screen is filled with the a wonderful bright green from the grass. Green being the most calming and relaxing of colours (the reason it's used so much in hospitals). The screen fades to white, completing the cleansing theme. It's a truly beautiful moment. Can we relax? Not quite.
There is Beethoven on the soundtrack (a composer who alludes to 'fate knocking at the door' in his music) to remind us and the camera begins spinning wildly round and round as it did at the beginning of the film above the ambulances outside the nightclub. And when the screen goes white, it's not quite the cleansing white we need but a kind of grey that then begins to flicker wildly like a strobe light reminding, in case we get too comfortable of the hell that has gone before and in effect is to come for the protagonists.
The final shot is of the words "time destroys all things". It is a bit like hammering the message home but maybe we need it after being battered and beaten with such horrific imagery as the first half of Irreversible!