Provocative, brave and compelling, Manuscripts Don’t Burn is an engrossing drama as remarkable for its critique of Iranian government oppression as its production despite it.
Director Mohammad Rasoulof shot the film without official permission. It’s not the first time. The Iranian authorities previously banned him from making films for 20 years and restricted his movements outside the country because he filmed without a permit. The cast and crew remain anonymous because of the film’s risky political material. Rasoulof deserves praise for his courageous defiance in telling a story inspired by true events.
His narrative follows a day in the life of Khosrow and Morteza, two low-level operatives carrying out thuggish tasks for unsavoury officials. The title quotes The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, who burnt a draft of his masterpiece to free his mind from the troubles visited upon him by the literary bureaucracy in Soviet Russia. In Rasoulof’s film, the Iranian authorities wish to suppress the publication of a book that details a failed government plot to eliminate 22 dissident writers and intellectuals in a staged bus crash. They engage in torture, kidnapping and murder. The subject matter seems like the stuff of a heavy-handed action thriller, but Rasoulof’s restrained direction makes for a slow-moving but gripping and fully-rounded drama.
Khosrow, a working-class man, anxiously keeps in touch with his wife throughout the day. She has brought their son to hospital. He needs the money from his nefarious work to support his family and make the connections needed to get ahead and get his son the attention he requires. Khosrow fears God’s retribution visited on his family. Morteza assures Khosrow that their work complies with sharia, perverting the state religion of the Islamic Republic.
Rasoulof exposes how oppression corrupts people in different ways. A former dissident writer now works for the state and ruthlessly seeks to advance his career. He has no qualms about killing his former friends, authors and intellectuals who struggle under constant surveillance, questioning the purpose and significance of their efforts.
Bleak wintry scenes set in snowy landscapes outside Tehran complement Rasoulof’s chilling condemnation of Iranian censorship while demonstrating his visual flair. He frequently positions his camera outside the rooms in which the action takes place, heightening the sense of surveillance and almost making the audience complicit in what happens.
An angry but assured film, Manuscripts Don’t Burn featured at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Un Certain Regard section at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, winning the FIPRESCI prize. His previous film, Goodbye, premiered at the French resort in 2011 in the same section, and won him a prize for direction. Departing from the oblique allegorical style of his earlier films, he makes an important and impressive attack on state corruption, violence and censorship in contemporary Iran.
Manuscripts Don’t Burn is released 12th September2014
DIR/WRI: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne • PRO: Denis Freyd • DOP: Alain Marcoen • ED: Marie-Hélène Dozo • DES: Igor Gabriel • CAST: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Pili Groyne
Marion Cotillard strives to keep working in an impressive drama from the Dardenne brothers.
A ringing telephone wakes Sandra. She receives news that she’s fired from her job at a local factory. She has been recovering from illness while trying to maintain her marriage and look after her children. Sandra can’t afford to lose her job.
Her friend Juliette calls her to let her know that the foreman threatened her co-workers and that management faced a decision between firing Sandra or not paying out their employees’ bonuses. 14 out of 16 colleagues voted to keep their bonus. Juliette convinces Sandra to fight for her job. Mr Dumont, their boss, allows for a new vote on Monday. Sandra spends the weekend approaching her colleagues to enlist their support.
At a time when austerity bites hard, unemployment remains high and employment uncertain, the Dardenne brothers present one woman’s struggle to keep her job. The scenario seems repetitive as Sandra rehearses the same arguments with each colleague in turn, facing similar responses and moving on to the next, but this adds to the film’s universality. Each worker has a family, needs a job to pay the bills or intends to use the extra to make life a little more comfortable. But each situation is different. Some have children, some don’t, some are married, some have just moved in together; some are older, some are younger; some have worked longer, some are just starting out. Sandra’s dilemma forces them to make choices: Yvon’s son violently disagrees with his father, while Anne thanks Sandra for enabling her finally to make a decision for herself and take a stand against her abusive boyfriend.
Two Days, One Night is yet another humanist drama from the Belgian Dardennes filmed in their typical naturalist style. Realism serves a socially conscious purpose, addressing issues that affect working-class people, focusing on the emotional experiences connected with the anxiety of losing one’s job and how that horrible uncertainty affects our relationships with our colleagues, friends, family members and ourselves.
Marion Cotillard’s appearance as Sandra marks a departure from the typically lesser-known non-professional casts the Dardenne brothers usually employ. Cotillard gives the film broader commercial appeal. She makes Sandra’s dilemma all the more urgent. Her tired, careworn face beautifully conveys Sandra’s anxiety, but it’s not a scenery-chomping star turn. The Dardennes frequently shoot Cotillard from behind or in profile so that we feel the weight of the world pressing down on Cotillard’s slim frame. Subtle, such as a smile momentarily lighting up her face when chatting to her daughter on the phone, Cotillard’s performance as a vulnerable woman finding an inner strength is superb work.
Cleverly conceived and excellently executed, Two Days, One Night featured in competition in Cannes last May and stands out as one of the year’s seriously good films.
Two Days, One Nightis released on 22nd August 2014
DIR/WRI: Peter Greenaway • PRO: Kees Kasander • DOP: Reinier van Brummelen • ED: Elmer Leupen • DES: Ben Zuydwijk • CAST: F. Murray Abraham, Giulio Berruti, Vincent Riotta, Halina Reijn
Hendrik Goltzius, a leading engraver of the Dutch baroque era, visits a margrave’s court in Colmar (now in France). He hopes to secure funding for a printing press and a commission for a collection of illustrated biblical tales. He strikes a deal in which his cohort of actors, writers and artists, the Pelican Company, in return for money, will re-enact six sexually charged sins in tableaux vivants for the margrave’s pleasure.
Though critics still hold in high regard efforts such as The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), the films of Peter Greenaway are cinematic Marmite. Viewers tend to either love or hate them. He mixes esoteric subjects with a style that employs multilayered imagery and emphasises artificiality, making his work “inaccessible” or “difficult”, i.e. box office poison. Goltzius and the Pelican Company proves to be no exception.
The film bears the hallmarks of Greenaway’s style: ornate period settings and music, dense, carefully composed imagery, and floating text. Ben Zuydwijk’s impressive production design juxtaposes different influences, drawing on Dutch painting and more contemporary Ikea-style designs.Greenaway’s typical anachronisms also appear. A huge empty industrial warehouse serves as the setting. Goltzius recounts his story directly to the audience, telling of events earlier in his life. The tableaux vivants thus become sets within a giant set, stories within a story, complementing the film’s general theatricality.
Goltzius’ company re-enacts six biblical stories to explore a theme: Adam and Eve (voyeurism); Lot and his daughters (incest); David and Bathsheba (adultery); Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (seduction of the innocent); Samson and Delilah (prostitution); and the New Testament tale of John the Baptist and Salome, with its particularly gruesome ending (necrophilia). The margrave’s court becomes the scene of debates about morality, freedom of speech and the influence of the new humanism, while his courtiers and Goltzius’ associates become involved in sexual liaisons. How will the margrave deal with his own lust and desires?
F Murray Abraham, the Oscar-winning star of Amadeus and more recently featuring in Inside Llewyn Davis, The Grand Budapest Hotel and TV’s Homeland, plays the Margrave of Alsace. The rest of the European cast speaks English with thick accents, mostly Dutch, but this benefits the film in two ways. First, it gives an authenticity to a period film where American accents can jar (à laAmadeus). Second, the accents emphasise the film’s artificiality, adding to the film’s staginess. It also leads to some humorous effects, such as Ramsey Nasr, as Goltzius, pronouncing “Genesis” so that it sounds like “anuses”.
Though Goltzius and the Pelican Company marks Greenaway’s second in a series of films concerning Dutch masters (Nightwatching, 2007, centred on Rembrandt), it might more interestingly belong to the strand of art house cinema exploring sexual explicitness. “Every visual technology, sooner or later, gets into bed with lechery,” remarks Goltzius, and Greenaway’s film comments on the ways ancient cultures, both biblical and baroque, used tales of immorality and indecent imagery to elaborate moral debates, tracing a tradition perhaps continued in recent films such as Nymphomaniac, Blue Is the Warmest Colour and Interior. Leather Bar.
18 128 mins
Goltzius and the Pelican Company is released 11th July 2014
John Moran takes another look at The Fault in Our Stars.
A beautiful tearjerker, The Fault in Our Stars benefits greatly from Shailene Woodley’s compelling performance. She plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenage girl suffering from cancer who meets the charming Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort) at a support group. They fall in love, and the inevitable occurs.
“The only thing that bites worse than having cancer is having a kid with cancer.” Hazel dislikes the sugar-coating of so-called “cancer genre” stories and assures us hers will be truthful. She refuses to see depression as a side effect of cancer, as the books, pamphlets and doctors say it is; instead, she sees it as a side effect of dying, and she’s determined to make the most of living. She refuses to wallow in self-pity, and displays a remarkably mature strength of spirit.
Shailene Woodley, nominated for a Golden Globe for her supporting role in The Descendants, makes the most of an opportunity to take centre stage. Her character’s illness necessitates the wearing of plastic oxygen tubes almost in every scene, but she displays exceptional talent in an unselfconscious performance that gives Hazel such credibility as a character.
Ansel Elgort’s work matches Woodley’s, ably carrying off Gus’s cockiness without making him seem arrogant. The conviction and chemistry in their playing, as well as their good looks, gives the young couple an adorable cuteness that adds to the film’s likeability.
(500) Days of Summer permitted writers Scott Neustadter and Michael G Weber to play with the generic conventions of romantic comedy. Adapting a bestselling novel by John Green, they bring to The Fault in Our Stars a similar awareness to the “cancer genre”, but without being overly self-reflexive. Their script emphasises emotion. “Pain demands to be felt”, a phrase from Hazel’s favourite book, An Imperial Affliction, becomes a refrain. Aware of the story’s predictable elements, the writers know that its viewers are probably more interested in sympathizing and getting out the tissues to cry.
Their concern with pushing the right emotional buttons marks a drawback. Any scenes of anger or lashing out are channelled into comedy through Augustus’s friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), whose illness leaves him blind and whose girlfriend breaks up with him. Augustus encourages him to smash some of his basketball trophies, but neither Hazel nor Augusts engage in such an outburst. Death of a Superhero (2011), a recent Irish film in which Andy Serkis counselled Thomas Brodie-Sangster, took as its theme outrage at the cancer’s cutting short young lives. Both Hazel and Augustus remain almost stoic to a fault.
Still, the acting carries it. Woodley and Elgort make their sympathetic characters most appealable, while Laura Dern, as Hazel’s mother, and Willem Dafoe, as the cantankerous writer of Hazel’s favourite, have impressive, if slight, turns.
The Fault in Our Stars will please its intended audience. Bring tissues.
DIR: Stephen Brown • WRI: John Banville • PRO: David Collins, Michael Robinson, Luc Roeg • DOP: John Conroy • ED: Stephen O’Connell • MUS: Andrew Hewitt • DES: Derek Wallace • CAST: Bonnie Wright, Ciarán Hinds, Natascha McElhone, Rufus Sewell
Max Morden, grieving the loss of his wife Anna, returns to an Irish seaside village where he spent summers as a child. He struggles to finish a book about the painter Pierre Bonnard, but the village provokes memories of the summer when he met the Grace family, the children Myles and Chloe, their parents Connie and Carlo, and Rose, the children’s young governess. Anna’s slow death from cancer continues to haunt Max.
John Banville adapts his 2005 Man Booker prizewinning novel. Some of the book’s more literate pleasures, such as Banville’s playful punning and concern with the meaning of words, gives the dialogue a pretentious feel, Anna’s musings on the word “patient” and the recurrence of “stranded” being two obvious examples. While the screen provides an excellent medium for flitting back and forth through time, Banville’s adaptation fails to capture the uncertainty and unreliability of Max’s meditations that pervade the book. The filmmakers try to capture something like this with characters speaking their lines off-screen while their on-screen mouths don’t move, presumably reflecting that it’s Max’s memory we’re seeing and hearing. It’s a challenging task to bring such fiction to the screen; this adaptation has lost the structural complexity of its source but remains faithful to its emotional core.
A notable cast brings Banville’s fascinating characters to life. Ciarán Hinds, with his craggy face, impresses as the dilettante, worn by his experiences and troubled by his memories. Charlotte Rampling gives Miss Vavasour appropriate mysteriousness, while Sinéad Cusack ably takes some of the more memorable lines as the dying Anna. Rufus Swell’s swaggering turn as Carlo Grace brings an enjoyable roguery, enlivening the film’s grim mood. Unfortunately, the younger cast lacks experience and conviction to give meaning to the subtext of their scenes.
The title, of course, means there are frequent shots to the beautiful briny, and water recurs as a motif, as in Anna’s bath and bleak rain on a window. DOP John Conroy’s lighting patterns give Max’s childhood memories a warmer glow than the dark blue and grey hues of scenes set in the present. The camera moves frequently when static shots or long takes might have given the viewer time and space to meditate and interpret such Max’s memories, as we might do when trying to assimilate Max’s ruminations in the book.
At one point, Max chides his daughter for being of the generation who believe that “everything’s explained, everything’s accounted for”. References to Pierre Bonnard, the painter, make more sense if you know that his later works reflected his desolation following the death of his wife. The character Blunden has an uncertain past. He says he’s retired from the army but he have been active in Belfast. Anna’s past relationship with Serge troubles Max. The young Rose’s relationship with Connie Grace plays out on the sidelines in much the same way as many different possibilities and strands running through the film emerge and recede, just like water washing up on the seashore. It’s difficult to make a success out of the ephemeral in a medium that makes things visible, but director Stephen Brown, in his feature-length debut, makes an adequate, if not entirely successful, attempt.
DIR/WRI: Jason Reitman • PRO: Helen Estabrook. Lianne Halfon, Jason Reitman, Russell Smith, Nicole C. Taylor • DOP: Eric Steelberg • ED: Dana E. Glauberman • DES: Steve Saklad • CAST: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Tobey Maguire, Brooke Smith
With Labor Day, Jason Reitman writes and directs an adaptation of a novel by Joyce Maynard, continuing his shift from comedies to more serious fare. It’s a labour of love, but not entirely successful.
In 1987, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), convicted for murder, escapes prison and shacks up with Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffin). Fugitive Frank may be just the father figure that Henry needs. His manly presence may also help Adele recover from her long depression.
Adele has become a broken woman through the absence of her husband Gerald (Clark Gregg), the father of her son. Her hands shake, and she relies too much on her young Henry, who starts a coupon book as he plays her “husband for a day”. Adele explains that “there is another kind of hunger, a hunger for human touch, desire”. Clearly, Henry cannot provide that.
Frank’s arrival presents an opportunity to fill the void. Though he’s a convicted killer on the run, he maintains that he didn’t intend to hurt anyone. He ties Adele up, but it’s only for appearance. Brolin, who dominates the film, is a menacing presence in his early scenes, but it turns out he just wants a family too. He starts taking on the chores not done in a man’s absence: repairing the car and the furnace, fixing that squeaky door, cleaning gutters and changing tyres. He sees that the guy selling firewood has taken advantage of Adele, leaving her short. He teaches Henry as he goes about this work and trains him in batting for baseball. It becomes clear that Frank should satisfy Adele’s hunger. He has come to save her.
Labor Day feels like it should be a thriller, but it descends into a dull romance with conservative conceptions of gender roles. It features an elaborate sequence in which the newly-formed family bakes a peach tart. As they put the pastry on the top of the filling, Frank asks Adele to help him to “put a roof on this house”, an unsubtle metaphor.
Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman (director of Ghostbusters), made his mark with the witty Thank You for Smoking before making an even bigger impression with a series of tart comedy/dramas, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult. Labor Day is a beautifully crafted film, nicely shot, with Rolfe Kent’s atmospheric score giving the film an edge that complement’s Brolin’s work.
But Reitman maintains Henry’s first-person narration from Maynard’s novel, with Tobey Maguire providing Henry’s adult voice, and he develops Frank’s back-story with wordless flashbacks. Adele later recounts her history to Frank, but Reitman’s structure diffuses his focus across three main characters, and it takes so long for Adele’s voice to come through that Henry and Frank dominate, and Adele’s character lacks development. Winslet has little to do, and when Adele has her chance to make more of an impression, her character becomes even more defined by how motherhood contributes to female identity.
It could have added up to a nicely judged psychosexual drama, but Labor Day finishes pregnant with possibility and fails to deliver.
Dir/Wri: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen • Pro: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Terence Winter • DOP: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen • ED: Thelma Schoonmaker • DES: Jess Gonchor • CAST: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund
The Coen brothers are undoubtedly among contemporary cinema’s master storytellers, and Inside Llewyn Davis joins the ranks of their best work.
Set in the folk scene of New York in the early 1960s, their story focuses on Llewyn Davis, a musician. The death of his partner, Mike Timlin, leaves him to pursue a solo career, but it’s not easy to make a living and keep one’s artistic integrity. So, Llewyn trudges through wintry New York, looking for a place to keep his stuff, rest his head, and get some money. He even takes care of a cat.
Joel Coen admits that the film doesn’t really have a plot. The Coens take their simple premise and imbue it with the usual pleasures of their impressive oeuvre: great characters, brilliant dialogue, stylish shooting and good music.
Inside Llewyn Davis rests on the acclaimed filmmaking duo’s skills as writers. Their clever and frequent use of repetition in their writing makes even an elevator attendant — “I have to run the elevators” — a memorable character. They consider every speaking part capable of offering some pleasure, and each of their films benefits from an array of unique characters.
Here, these include John Goodman playing talkative jazz musician Roland Turner, who ambles about with two canes, and whose ramblings conceal a rather menacing character. Jerry Greyson plays Mel Novikoff, who struggles to manage Legacy, a record label. Max Casella plays Pappi Corsicato, who runs the Gasoline Café, where Llewyn performs. He’s not sure about folk music’s appeal, but he’s happy to take sexual favours from female musicians in return for arranging performances at the café.
Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan play Jim and Jean, an act that performs at Pappi’s place, and they also help out their friend Llewyn. Timberlake provides one of the film’s highlights with his rendition of the ridiculously catchy “Please Mr Kennedy”. Jean’s abrasive attitude to Llewyn stems from their complicated history together. This conflict really drives the film before Llewyn leaves New York for Chicago.
Oscar Isaacs, as Llewyn Davis, is on-screen for almost the full length of the film. It’s a difficult role, as Llewyn remains aloof, cut off from his friends, and difficult to get on with. He takes his music seriously and wants others to take him seriously as a musician. On paper, Llewyn’s character doesn’t seem appealable, but Isaacs makes him likeable. It’s a great performance, matched by the excellent supporting cast.
The album cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, in which Don Hunstein photographed Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend, clinging to Dylan as they walk through New York’s wintry West Village, inspired the film’s distinctive look. DOP Bruno Delbonnel employs a colour palette consisting mostly of a range of greys, emphasising the bleak atmosphere in which Llewyn lives.
T-Bone Burnett scored a major hit in assembling bluegrass musicians for O Brother, Where Art Thou? Here, Burnett and the Coen brothers turn to the American folk revival. The film strips the music of its associations with left-wing politics. The songs sound wonderful, but their lyrical content is questionable. One wonders what the songs mean. “You might have heard it before. It’s not new and it never gets old and it’s a folk song,” says Llewyn. He sings well, he sings passionately, but, really, what is the point of depoliticized folk music? Dylan went electric, and folk music faded from pop culture.
Folk music provides an apt area for the Coen brothers to tell their story. Folk songs, as a medium, seem lost in 1960s New York. A rendition of “The Auld Triangle” by four men clad in Aran sweaters in the Gasoline Café highlights this. Their appearance is comic. Their apparel and their music are out of sync with the broader social changes hinted at in the film. Producer Bud Grossman (F Murray Abraham) “sees very little money” in what Llewyn has to offer as a musician.
What matters in folk music, it seems, is not so much the meaning of the lyrics and the origins of the songs, but the quality of the performance, the singing and the musicianship. In this way, folk music provides an apt analogy to the success of the Coen brothers, whose movies are frequently self-referential in setting out the import of the story they tell. They usually send up their stories as being just for the sake of telling an amusing story. The Big Lebowski features The Stranger telling a tale about the Dude. In Burn after Reading, the CIA are quite unsure what to take from the events reported to them. Inside Llewyn Davis features Ulysses, a cat that escapes from an apartment in which Llewyn stays. The cat’s reappearance links certain scenes and events, but one probably shouldn’t read too much into it.
Circular and serendipitous, Inside Llewyn Davis is a gentler, yet no less accomplished, addition to the Coen brothers’ body of work, which continues to evoke admiration.
15A (See IFCO for details) 104 mins Inside Llewyn Davisis released on 24th January 2014
Dir: David O’Russell •Wri: Eric Singer, David O. Russell • Pro: Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon,Charles Roven, Richard Suckle • DOP: Linus Sandgren • ED: Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers • DES: Judy Becker • MUS: Danny Elfman • CAST: Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper
American Hustle, David O Russell’s most entertaining film to date, joins cinema’s complement of classic con movies. It’s a tour de force that delivers on all levels.
Christian Bale and Amy Adams play two con artists who become embroiled in the attempts of FBI agent Bradley Cooper, in late 1970s post-Watergate America, to catch bigger fish. A rollicking tale unfolds as Cooper sets his sights ever higher.
The pleasures are principally in the playing. Since Flirting with Disaster (1996), Russell has proved himself a master of ensemble movies. Here he brings together some of Hollywood’s hottest stars.
Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) won an Oscar in Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, and here, playing Bale’s wife, she somehow manages to steal the film from its glittering cast. She sizzles with sexiness and garners some of the film’s biggest laughs, while conveying a vulnerability and desperation that make her Rosalyn a most memorable character.
Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) takes on a less complex role than he had opposite Lawrence in Silver Linings, but is no less impressive for it. His fast-talking fed becomes increasingly obsessed with his elaborate project, and Cooper convinces.
Christian Bale lost much weight in his Oscar-winning turn in Russell’s The Fighter. In American Hustle, his balding grifter sports a beer belly and ’70s beard and moustache. His comb-over provides the film’s opening gags, while his fastidious grooming prefigures his character’s attention to detail in the art of the con, in making people believe what they want to believe.
Amy Adams, also Oscar-nominated for The Fighter, holds her own against Bale and Cooper, as her character’s affections appear to move from one to the other. Her character’s journey proves the most emotionally complex as she constantly hides her true feelings. It’s the kind of role that Adams excels in.
David O Russell may rank as one of the leading talents working in contemporary American cinema. American Hustle boasts an attractive cast and, as a caper, it should draw bigger audiences than his more serious recent efforts, tackling mental illness in Silver Linings Playbook and drug addiction in The Fighter. His approach resembles that of Alexander Payne, more literate than cinematic, relying on excellent writing and brilliant performances.
American Hustle features cracking dialogue, an enjoyable plot and great acting, but Russell’s handling is highly derivative. The film’s structure, with its use of voiceover narration and flashbacks, resembles that of GoodFellas, and Russell’s camerawork and jump cutting are also Scorsesian. Robert DeNiro has an effective cameo as Victor Tellegio, a mafioso, and even Jeremy Renner channels Joe Pesci’s hairstyle from GoodFellas. Francis Ford Coppola said his father used to have a good slogan, “Steal from the best,” and Russell appears to be following such advice in adopting a style that’s not his own.
Still, American Hustle ranks as one of the great con movies. The introduction – “some of this actually happened” – recalls the opening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969): “Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.” Its director, George Roy Hill, later made The Sting (1973), which had a roguish charm that cheerily conned its audiences. Martin Scorsese co-produced The Grifters (1990), with Anjelica Huston and John Cusack, in which Huston played an older female con artist who rethinks her life when her son suffers an injury in a small-scale scam. American Hustle successfully blends the darker elements of the later film with the eagerness to please and entertain that made the earlier film an Oscar success and a box office-smash, descriptions that Russell’s film may also steal.
American Hustle is a first class caper, but don’t let it con you into thinking that Russell has discovered his own original style.
DIR: Atiq Rahimi • WRI: Atiq Rahimi, Jean-Claude Carrière • PRO: Michael Gentile • DOP: Thierry Arbogast • ED: Hervé de Luze • DES: Erwin Prib • CAST: Golshifteh Farahani, Hamid Djavadan, Hassina Burgan, Massi Mrowat
A woman tends to her dying husband. The local pharmacist refuses her medicine; she owes him too much money. She goes to borrow from her aunt, but she, like the rest of her family, has moved from the city. Bombs blast and gunshots threaten the city’s citizens as they attempt to go about their daily business. Struggling to look after her family, the woman wonders what will become of them.
The woman’s husband was injured in a fight that arose from an insult. A bullet wound to the neck leaves him lifeless. The mullah had advised that her husband would be speaking after two weeks. Sixteen days later, at which point the film begins, her husband still unresponsive, the woman’s suffering continues.
Golshifteh Farahani, star of Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly, again proves to be one of world cinema’s rising stars, playing the woman who grows more confident as she reveals more of her secrets to her husband, gets advice from her unconventional aunt, deals with marauders and becomes involved with a stammering young soldier. The film depends on the strength of Farahani’s work; she succeeds in carrying it.
Its title refers to a fable that her aunt tells the woman about a stone that absorbs secrets. Confessing to the stone lifts the burden secrets the confessor might carry.
Aspects of Rahimi’s direction are unsubtle: reiterating the metaphorical association between the stone and the woman’s unconscious husband, or using quail fighting to illustrate the pointlessness of male violence already illustrated by the war torn setting. Rahimi benefits from an accomplished French creative team, including editor Hervé de Luze (The Pianist and Alain Resnais’ recent work) and Luc Besson’s frequent DOP, Thierry Arbogast. Explosions cause the camerawork to become appropriately handheld and edgy, shifting from the unflashy framing and mostly static shots of the rest of the film.
But this is not an epic war drama: it’s a character piece in a domestic setting. Atiq Rahimi co-wrote this adaptation of his novel with Jean-Claude Carrière, a frequent collaborator with Luis Buñuel in his later years. Terse writing makes for an effective, if talky, drama. Despite careful cinematography, the film cannot overcome its literariness, to which the dialogue frequently draws attention. The woman asks, “Why am I telling you all this?” and “Why am I talking so much?” distracting from the film’s realism.
Characters and places are anonymous, but The Patience Stone was Afghanistan’s Oscar contender last year for Best Foreign Language Film (it failed to gain a nomination). Farahani’s strong central performance makes the film far more effective than it might have been.
DIR: John Krokidas • WRI: Austin Bunn, John Krokidas • PRO: Michael Benaroya, Rose Ganguzza, John Krokidas Christine Vachon • DOP: Reed Morano • ED: Brian A. Kates • DES: Stephen H. Carter • MUS: Nico Muhly • CAST: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Ben Foster
Kill Your Darlings focuses on the formative years of American poet Allen Ginsberg, one of the writers of the Beat Generation who came to prominence in the 1950s. The film traces the movement’s emergence in wartime Columbia University and the part Ginsberg played in the killing of David Kammerer. It’s a sensational romantic thriller.
Ginsberg leaves his paranoid mother to study at Columbia, where the teachers insist on maintaining traditional forms. Ginsberg, inspired by Walt Whitman, seeks to break the rules. His willingness to question orthodoxy impresses Lucien Carr, who invites him into the gay scene of 1940s New York. Their circle includes a young William S. Burroughs and, later, Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg becomes infatuated with Carr, whose involvement with an older man, David Kammerer, creates difficulties for the group, who wish to pursue “a new vision”, motivated by the taboo-breaking works of James Joyce and Henry Miller.
The playing is impeccable. Daniel Radcliffe, as Allen Ginsberg, continues to distance himself from the role that made him famous, and he more than holds his own among an impressive cast. His scenes with Dane DeHaan, as Lucien Carr, are among the most sexually charged in recent memory. Ben Foster exercises restraint in portraying William S. Burroughs, while Michael C. Hall (TV’s Dexter) and David Cross (Arrested Development’s Tobias Fünke) also succeed in playing outside their more celebrated roles.
John Krokidas makes his directorial debut, displaying great skill in his treatment of controversial material. He treats Ginsberg’s romance with Lucien with apposite tenderness. He also injects the film with wicked humour. His rapid-fire montages include frank images that surprise as much as they amuse. His use of flashbacks and playing scenes in reverse are effective in depicting the effects of the drugs that Burroughs, in particular, encourages his associates to use.
The flaw in Krokidas’ choices is his use of music from TV on the Radio and Bloc Party on the soundtrack. These selections are jarring when the period detail and costuming are as good as they are.
But that’s a minor grumble. Kill Your Darlings is an accomplished first feature with superb performances. Sexy, stylish and sophisticated, it tells an engrossing story about fascinating people.
DIR: Abdellatif Kechiche • WRI: Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix • PRO: Abdellatif Kechiche, Vincent Maraval • DOP: Sofian El Fani • ED: Sophie Brunet, Ghalia Lacroix, Albertine Lastera, Jean-Marie Lengelle, Camille Toubkis • CAST: Léa Seydoux, Anne Loiret, Benoît Pilot, Sandor Funtek
Blue Is the Warmest Colour was this year’s audacious winner of the Palme d’Or in Cannes. It’s a beautifully rich and lyrical romance.
When Adèle, a schoolgirl, arranges to meet the handsome Thomas on a date, she catches a glimpse of blue-haired Emma. Their fleeting exchange of smiles and glances marks the beginning of a relationship that unfolds over a number of years. Adèle struggles with coming to terms with her sexuality at school, with bullying questioning from schoolmates. Emma, a fine arts student, has much to teach her.
Tunisian-born director Abdellatif Kechiche frames most of the film in tight close-ups. The film references La Vie de Marianne, an 18th-century French novel by Pierre Marivaux that anticipated the sentimental novel. (Kechiche’s previous film, L’Esquive (2003), centred on teenagers performing Marivaux’s play Games of Love and Chance). In Blue Is the Warmest Colour, Kechiche demonstrates the psychological complexity and emotional affect that a long film can achieve. His camera scrutinises the intimacies of Adèle’s life, her hurt and anger as her friendships become fraught at school, her pleasure and happiness as she becomes intimate with Emma. His approach demands much from his leading ladies, who both described their experience of working with Kechiche as “horrible”. Such difficulties are not evident on screen.
His methods may be questionable, but his talent is not. Kechiche’s flair extends to his use of the colour blue, usually associated with coldness and detachment. The colour frequently appears in his characters’ costumes and the settings, Emma’s eyes, on varnished fingernails, scarves, seats on buses, school walls, et cetera. Kechiche has fashioned a film with as much thought for its visuals as for its emotional depth and character development.
Adèle Exarchopoulos meets her director’s challenges, transforming from an innocent schoolgirl to an emotionally mature young woman. Her messy hair and beautiful brown eyes captivate for the three hours. Kechiche omits the omniscient narration that gives novels their psychological nuance. He could have given the film a voiceover, but instead he relies on Adèle’s expressiveness. His approach allows the viewer to empathise with Adèle.
Sex scenes add to the film’s controversies. Graphic groping, moaning and groaning interrupt the film’s flow and distract from our emotional engagement. Other directors, such as Travis Mathews (I Want Your Love), succeeded in integrating such explicitness into their dramas. Here, they might seem gratuitous. Michael Winterbottom structured the sexually explicit reminiscences of romance in 9 Songs on the touching and tasting that lingered after the end of an affair, and there is an element of that in Blue Is the Warmest Colour.
Eating provides an interesting motif throughout the film. Thomas and Adèle eat out on their first date. Her loss of appetite warns her mother that something is not quite right when the audience is aware that her first kiss with a girl troubles Adèle. Emma likens eating oysters to tasting “something else”, and shellfish features at their first dinner with Emma’s parents. Guests at a dinner party take communal delight in eating the food that Adèle has prepared for Emma’s arty friends. Over this dinner, Joachim, who runs a gallery, speaks of communal pleasure and the limits of male sexuality. A guest cracks a joke about a worm emerging from a spaghetti Bolognese, thinking it was a gangbang.
Kechiche must see the sex scenes in his film as providing his audiences with an insight into the role sex plays in Adèle’s relationship with Emma, perhaps matching their pleasure with the viewers’, while, at the same time, he questions the “mystique” that Joachim sees attaching to female orgasm; hence the apparent clumsiness in these scenes.
Such scenes are few and far between within the film, and, for the most part, it’s an elegantly composed bolstered by an extraordinary central performance. Kechiche sustains a three-hour film that focuses on an intense relationship without recourse to special effects or flashy gimmicks. It’s an impressive achievement.
DIR: Nick Ryan • WRI: Mark Monroe • PRO: Nick Ryan • DOP: Robbie Ryan • ED: Ben Stark • MUS: Nick Seymour • CAST: Christine Barnes, Hoselito Bite, Marco Confortola, Pat Falvey
The summit in question is K2, the second highest peak in the world. In August 2008, eleven climbers perished at its top. Since the ending is clear from the start, the challenge the filmmakers face is to make the telling interesting. They succeed.
Mountaineering poses obvious risks. The adventurers are aware that one in four people have died in the attempt to reach K2’s summit. They hope to complete their quest before the end of July, as most accidents occur in August, when the weather changes. They describe the area above 8,000 metres as the “death zone”. Experienced Irish mountaineer Pat Falvey describes in detail how the altitude and extreme weather conditions affect the body. The expertise that each of the mountaineers displays is impressive, but their respect for nature, the daunting task and the inherent dangers also comes through.
The film includes archival commentary from Walter Bonatti, who was part of the first team that successfully reached K2’s summit in 1954. “Only the mountain attains perfection,” he says. He describes the “exotic timeless landscape”, as Nick Seymour’s music swells on the soundtrack. You need to be a spirited adventurer to attempt such a dangerous feat. The mountaineers seem to find it difficult to put into words why they strive to reach the top. When you reach the top, says Alberto Zerain, “You live it fully then … I had won it.”
In July 2008, about 70 climbers from different teams, of different nationalities and climbing experience, prepared to reach the mountain’s summit. Financed by the Irish Film Board, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, RTÉ and the BBC, the film focuses on Ger McDonnell, the first Irish person to reach the top of K2. His team included Pemba Gyalje Sherpa and Dutchman Wilco van Rooijen. Ger and Wilco had previously attempted to climb K2 together in 2006. Though he reached the top, sadly, Ger perished this time.
Nick Ryan, making his feature film debut, assembled interviews with the survivors and combines these with actuality footage, newspaper cuttings and impressive reconstructions. The numbers involved in the expedition might have presented problems for storytelling. Recollections differ, but Ryan and writer Mark Monroe (who scripted the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove) weave a balanced tale as they attempt to unravel what happened during those fateful 48 hours.
“You have to save yourself on K2; it is the only way”, says Bonatti. One of the principles that guides the mountaineers, as Bonatti and others make clear, is that you cannot risk your own life to save others. The film focuses on the last stretch of the climb, from camp four through a narrow pass known as the Bottleneck, beneath a serac, an icy overhang 100 metres high that could crack at any time, and then on to the summit. “If you make one step wrong, you’re history,” says Fredrik Strang.
Sadly, there were missteps and problems. The circumstances surrounding Ger’s death are unclear, and the filmmakers attempt to piece together what happened from those who survived. As the film progresses, the scale of the tragedy becomes more apparent as yet another adventurer falls victim to the mountain’s extremities. The altitude induces a condition known as “summit fever”, in which damage to brain cells makes it difficult to think logically. It also means that those who lived to tell the tale cannot remember everything that occurred. As Ger McDonnell himself said, “If you weren’t there, you won’t know. Only the mountain knows.”
Beautifully shot, The Summit makes for compelling, if grim, viewing.
DIR: Alfonso Cuarón • WRI: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón • PRO: David Heyman • DOP: Emmanuel Lubezki • ED: Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger • DES: Andy Nicholson • CAST: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Basher Savage
Two actors pretend to float in space. The premise promises little, but Gravity is an exceptional film that has already pulled huge audiences worldwide and attracted rave reviews, both well deserved. It’s simply stunning.
Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Lt Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are among the crew servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. A Russian missile destroys an obsolete satellite. The debris hurtles through space, causing catastrophic damage to Stone’s shuttle. We know from film taglines that, in space, no one can hear you scream. There’s no air pressure, no oxygen. So, how will they survive? Is it even possible?
Gravity works well because Alfonso Cuarón, who co-wrote the script with his son Jonás, directs it as a thriller. He clearly sets out difficulties to overcome and the stakes should the characters succeed or not. He ratchets up the tension as oxygen levels fall, fuel runs out and space debris strikes again. The pacing is excellent.
But it’s more than a thriller. Gravity may very well be this year’s Life of Pi, a visually impressive film best seen in IMAX 3D. Gravity surpasses Lee’s film because its philosophizing is less trite, more subtle. Their central device is much the same: an isolated hero confronted by a vast wilderness struggles to get home. It’s possible to read Gravity as an existential meditation, confronting our fear of dying, our need to connect to other people, and our utter dependence on the planet we take for granted. Cuarón’s direction and the intelligent writing allow these themes to emerge, to be contemplated perhaps after the film’s initial impact.
Its imagery beguiles. Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón’s regular DOP, worked wonders with Terrence Malick and his natural light in The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. Here, he must integrate digital and live action, and it’s his lighting that makes it seamless. The visual effects are nothing less than marvellous. Gravity is often breathtakingly beautiful, with shots ranging from panoramic vistas of the Earth below or close-ups of Dr Stone’s tears floating before us in 3D. It’s one of the most technically accomplished films yet produced.
All this technical skill, philosophizing and striking scenery may draw parallels with the works of Stanley Kubrick, in particular 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, some of the film’s images, such as Dr Ryan Stone assuming the foetal position in a space capsule, directly recall the 1968 classic. Whereas Kubrick’s films could be cold, Cuarón’s film avoids that pitfall with Sandra Bullock’s excellent performance and George Clooney’s important contribution.
The actors are often confined in small spaces, their movements restricted in their spacesuits, leaving them to convey much with their voice and facial expressions, and they succeed admirably. The dialogue at times seems far removed and unrelated to the captivating imagery, but Gravity frequently becomes profoundly moving.
Clooney gives the film its warmth and its humour, playing on his roguish charm and playboy image. Bullock demonstrates how much Hollywood has undervalued her abilities to date. Ed Harris reprises his role as the voice of Houston, and his interactions with the astronauts at the beginning serve as a sweetener before the crisis ensues.
A big budget epic made with the skill and intelligence that keeps its more lofty elements grounded, Gravity is a deeply affecting, mesmerizing film that exemplifies the best of contemporary cinema.
DIR: Sebastián Lelio • WRI: Sebastián Lelio,, Gonzalo Maza • PRO: Juan de Dios Larraín, Pablo Larraín • DOP: Benjamín Echazarreta • ED: Sebastián Lelio, Soledad Salfate • DES: Marcela Urivi • CAST: Paulina García, Sergio Hernández, Diego Fontecilla, Fabiola Zamora
An august film focusing on the autumnal years of life, Gloria tells the story of a Chilean divorcée, coping with her loneliness, her grown-up children and the possibilities of new romance. It unfolds very slowly but ultimately satisfies.
We first see Gloria drinking alone in a bar filled with other middle-aged people and taking to dancing by herself. Pop music seems to fill a gap in her life: we see her singing along in her car to “silly love songs”, yearning for a new romance. She visits her children, Pedro, a violinist, and Ana, a yoga teacher, with whom she also takes classes. She also goes to laughter therapy, filling the lonely hours of her life outside work. A hairless cat appears in her apartment, but she’s determined not to become that kind of lonely lady. Gloria meets Rodolfo, who runs an amusement park, and a new romance begins.
Its central characters are people who have been married and have been very much in love. Rodolfo, divorced for just about a year, remains deeply involved with his ex-wife and his children. Gloria has moved on, still taking an interest in her children’s life, but capable of letting her daughter move to Sweden and thanking her ex-husband’s new partner when she arranges a family get-together. Gloria plays very much as a character study: its story is slight, dramatic events are few, and its success rests on the actors’ abilities.
Luckily, Paulina García, as Gloria, carries the film very well. It’s an honest, compassionate and engaging performance. She’s on screen almost constantly for the film’s running time, managing to give her character a depth that the script possibly couldn’t on its own. She certainly deserved the Silver Bear for Best Actress at Berlin earlier this year.
This is director Sebastián Lelio’s fourth feature, and his experience shows. The visual style suits its content. Much of it is shot in intimate close-ups, and the film is to be commended for its candid depiction of a mature sex life.
In the recent Enough Said, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and James Gandolfini, played divorcées coming together. Whereas that film played mostly for laughs, Gloria is a richer work, though its pace may irritate some. The lack of a neater narrative means that the script sometimes diverges unnecessarily into other subjects: a dinnertime discussion reveals little interesting about either contemporary Chilean society or the film’s characters.
Pablo Larraín, the director of last year’s Academy Award nominated No, which told the story of how Chile’s “Mad Men” helped end Pinochet’s dictatorship, served as a producer on Gloria, which now represents Chile in the forthcoming race for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. García’s charming work may very well be enough to win over the Academy.
DIR: Stephen Frears • WRI: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope • PRO: Kevin Feige • DOP: Robbie Ryan • ED: Valerio Bonelli • MUS: Alexandre Desplat • DES: Alan MacDonald • CAST: Steve Coogan, Judi Dench, Charlie Murphy, Simone Lahbib
Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a “little old Irish lady”, enlists the help of cynical journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), to search for her son. Philomena gave birth to Anthony at the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, from where he was given away for adoption without his mother’s permission. Philomena kept his birth a secret for 50 years, and the time has come to tell her story and find her son.
Philomena, as a film, is a remarkable achievement by all concerned, balancing humour, unexpected of its bleak tale, with an appropriate sense of anger. It’s also unafraid to ask bigger questions. Where to begin, to sing its praises?
Steve Coogan co-wrote the excellent screenplay with Jeff Pope, adapting Sixsmith’s 2009 book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Winning an award at Venice for their efforts, they have crafted a script that succeeds on many levels. It centres emotionally on Philomena’s longing to find out what happened to her son, her anguish at what might have become of him, worrying about whether or not he has ended up homeless, whether he might be alone or a junkie on the streets somewhere. This thread remains the heart of the film.
Philomena and Martin form an unlikely pairing as their inquiries take them back to Ireland and elsewhere. As a BBC correspondent working in Washington and Russia, Martin is used to hard news, travelling first class, and dealing with political horse trading. Philomena had worked as a nurse for 30 years and is used to a far plainer lifestyle. Martin’s cynicism contrasts with Philomena’s gullibility, and the clash of class, cultures and expectations provides much of the film’s warm humour.
Philomena’s story is, of course, a “human interest” piece, filled with heartrending drama. Not knowing what happened her son could end in tearful happiness or sadness. Either way, it will make good reading that Martin’s editor seeks to exploit. The film might also be accused of sensationalising its material, milking Philomena’s story for for its emotional worth, but the witty script acknowledges this in the way it incorporates Martin’s attitude both to his editor and to the distinction between hard and soft news. It’s a mark of the film’s ingenuity.
Steve Coogan contributes a commendable performance as Martin Sixsmith. The film opens with Martin attending the doctor, depressed following his dismissal as a government spin doctor, fired for something he didn’t say. His suggestion that he will write books on Russian history fails to impress his acquaintances, and he takes on Philomena’s story, seeing how easily and clichéd it would play out. As writer and performer, Coogan’s brings to his role aspects of his incarnation as Alan Partridge, sceptical and disparaging of popular journalism. But the film makes clear how such human stories are rooted in failures of institutions such as the Roscrea abbey. Martin’s anger as an outsider contrasts with Philomena’s more human approach to the Roman Catholic Church, its teachings and the nuns’ actions.
As Philomena, Judi Dench triumphs in a performance of subtle brilliance. Early in the film, she has little to say, but her wrinkled face registers Philomena’s anguish and concern. Often, she has little more to do than stare through a window as she remembers her time in Roscrea, glances at her daughter, feigns a laugh at Martin’s odd humour, but, through such small gestures, Dench makes Philomena her own, conveying the depths to which her worries have taken her. Essaying a convincing Irish accent, Dench has fun recounting longwinded summaries of inane romantic fiction. Philomena’s decision to seek out her son conflicts with the shame and guilt she feels as a result of the sins she committed. She struggles with the sin of having a child in the circumstances that she did and the sin of then keeping it secret. Dench excels in such a complex role.
In The Snapper, director Stephen Frears successfully captured the wicked Irish sense of humour, telling the tale of Sharon Curley’s pregnancy. In Philomena, he deals with far weightier themes. Martin and Philomena discuss their beliefs in god, and Martin tries to understand Philomena’s continued Catholic faith despite the nuns’ actions. She realizes that the adoption may have meant her son lived a life that she couldn’t have provided for him, while Martin argues that the nuns’ may have done what they did in pursuit of a profit, exploiting Philomena’s labour in the Magdalene laundry. The film is a brisk 98 minutes, but it’s dense and packs in a lot in its short running time. Frears succeeds in combining the solemn dramatic undertones with seriously good entertainment.
The figure of the nun has recently become something of a cinematic trope, representing fear, terror and unjust behaviour. The Magdalene Sisters played more like a horror film with no trace of the musical innocence of The Sound of Music or Sister Act. In Philomena, the abbey, a stark white building, looms into view as Martin’s BMW drives into the gardens under an iron archway. Sister Hildegard cuts an ominous figure as she glares out of the window in flashbacks. The film allows Sister Hildegard to defend the nuns’ actions, but it is likely to provoke anger. The teachings and morals she professes may once have dominanted Irish society, but they now ring hollow. The film’s presentation of the abbey and “evil nuns” feeds into the prevailing conception of the laundries as the Irish gulag system.
Philomena clearly deals with heavy issues, but deft direction, a skilful script, and, above all, adroit acting make for sophisticated entertainment that manages to amuse as much as it will enrage.
InRealLife is an ambitious documentary that explores how the internet affects everyday living.
A recurring thread is how the internet impinges on teenagers. Those featured all live in England. The credits thank the hundreds of teenagers and families that participated in its making, but the film features a limited selection, and the stories told appear to be chosen for their affective potential.
Ryan and Ben, aged 15, talk about pornography and their awareness of the effect it has on them. Page, 15, relates how desperate she became to acquire and keep her phone, allowing men to pay her for sexual favours and, later, pursing a gang of youths who had robbed it. These are among the more shocking, and they make for uncomfortable viewing.
Director Beeban Kidron renders the internet in its physical form: cables running underground, through sewers, emerging in massive centres where networks join together. Comparing the internet to the New York Subway, a technician describes it as having billions of stations with perhaps a dozen major stations in New York, Los Angeles, London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, etc. The framing of the “internet” as dark and murky, with the ominous soundtrack that accompanies these images, positions the film as attacking the internet and its evils.
Kidron has assembled an impressive array of experts to explain the phenomena affecting the young people’s lives. Maggie Jackson, a Boston Globe columnist, and Danah Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft noted in academic circles for studying Twitter and “context collapse”, contribute interesting insights. Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, explains how Google collects data.
InRealLife reflects issues that seem to appear daily in headlines: internet bullying, security and privacy concerns, the effects of internet pornography on young men. But there is a sense that this short film encompasses too much. How well can Mr. Assange’s concerns with “the greatest spying machine” sit with the story of a teenage boy coming out as gay and meeting his online boyfriend for the first time?
Cute cats make their only appearance in montages showing YouTube clips, ads and other various websites. The range and quality of material the internet makes available are debatable. The fact that all the professionals are credited with writing books on different subjects relating to the internet’s influence speaks to the massive task that the film takes on. Kidron bravely attempts to address the issues the internet incites in one short feature. InRealLife informs and entertains, but its format limits its success.
DIR/WRI: Nathan Todd • PRO: John Todd • DOP: Peter Holland • ED: John Wright • DES: Nigel Pollock • Cast: Colm Meaney, Malcolm Sinclair, Tommy O’Neill, Paddy Rocks
Former engineering student Nathan Todd makes his debut as writer and director with A Belfast Story, a film from Northern Ireland about the continuing effects of the Troubles. It centres on the killings of former IRA men. Colm Meaney plays a loyalist detective called in to investigate.
A Belfast Story plays like an episode of a low-key television detective drama. All the usual elements are present: the world-weary detective, continuing brutal murders as the police try to work out who’s responsible, and glimpses of the killers’ activities. We see newspapers cuttings pinned to walls, joined together with red yarn; open books strewn over the floor. The whodunit aspect might have worked if the handling was not so amateurish.
Todd uses the premise to vent contemporary concerns about ex-killers working in government, blurring the lines between right and wrong. But his first screenplay ignores a cardinal rule in film: “Show, don’t tell.” Too often, his characters engage in longwinded polemics, and Detective Meaney indulges in verbose monologues. The film might have worked as a thriller, but pacing suffers from its overwritten script. The clichés become tiresome: “It’s a dangerous world out there.” “All I want is a bright new day.”
Handling of action scenes also leaves much to be desired. A night-time chase on a suburban street features close-ups and zooming shots of innocent passers-by à la Sergio Leone, but it engenders laughter, not tension. A flashback sequence featuring a little girl crying amid the carnage lacks the required conviction. It’s easy to discern the desired effect, but execution is wanting.
The killings include the shooting of a shopkeeper among his mannequins in a shop window, the execution of three men in a field, and the murder of a former IRA commander with concrete blocks. Todd strives to display some visual flair and style in these sequences, with their conscientious framing and cutting, but his approach glamorises violence rather than condemning it.
Meaney appears to play a central role, but the killings begin to take up more screen time, and the film becomes muddled with underdeveloped subplots involving the chief constable (Malcolm Sinclair), First Minister (Tommy O’Neill), his aide (Susan Davey), and former IRA members (Paddy Rocks and Maggie Cronin).
“We need something new … not just the same tired old thing,” says Meaney. The press pack included a balaclava, nails and a roll of duct tape. The controverisal publicity was novel, but the film’s treatment of the choice in Northern Ireland between reconciliation and retribution isn’t.
DIR: Morgan Spurlock • WRI: Simon Barrett • PRO: Simon Cowell, Adam Milano, Morgan Spurlock, Ben Winston • DOP: Neil Harvey • ED: Guy Harding , Wyatt Smith, Pierre Takal • CAST: Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, LouisTomlinson
A pop culture phenomenon comes to the big screen in 3D. One Direction, the biggest boy band of the 2010s, move in a new direction. Cinema suits their mix of good lucks, catchy tunes, comic carry-on and terrible dancing (their words, not mine). The film will please the band’s fans, but it is not to be taken seriously: it’s actually an extended advertisement for their upcoming world tour.
This Is Us tells the story of their formation and follows Niall, Louis, Harry, Zayn and Liam on their Take Me Home Tour. The band came together during the seventh series of the British X Factor. They each made it only so far as solo acts. Simon Cowell claims to have put them together as a group. Nicole Scherzinger is on the record as making the suggestion, but the film makes no mention of this. The film credits Cowell as a producer.
Featured performances in the film come mostly from their gigs at the O2 Arena in London earlier this year. Their rendition of “Little Things”, a song written by Ed Sheeran (with Fiona Bevan), stands out as a highlight that showcases their talent for singing. It contrasts with the rockier sound of their other songs, including “What Makes You Beautiful”, “Live While You You’re Young” and “C’mon, C’mon”. Music critics from the likes of NME appear on-screen to describe the band’s musical direction.
The film sometimes plays like episodes of X Factor, like when the boys’ parents talk about how much they miss their pop idols away on tour. Their fathers’ contributions are interesting. Niall’s dad feels his rural upbringing has left him nothing to teach his son, whose fame and success means he sees so much more of the world. The band’s fans may appreciate such intimate insights, but, to their detractors, it will scream of the cloying sentimentality that runs through TV talent shows.
Are One Direction more than just another boy band? The nature of their accomplishments is questionable. How significant really is it that they are the first British boy band to go to number one in the USA with a debut album? Throughout the film, the band continually thank their fans and express their appreciation for making their success possible. Simon Cowell found novel the increasing numbers of fans appearing outside the TV studio during X Factor. Some of these girls — “superfans” — took to tweeting and promoting One Direction through social media. The film portrays their success as a response to the demands of their adoring fans and to the boys’ hard work.
The film fails to mention that Columbia Records mounted a social media marketing campaign after it signed the group, aiming to establish a fan base in the USA before releasing a single or playing it on the radio. The campaign included asking fans to sign petitions and entering video competitions to win tickets to a concert in their town. The band’s followers on Facebook increased from 40,000 to 400,000. One Direction’s first single, “What Makes You Beautiful”, sold more than 131,000 in its first week in the USA even though it had not been played on the radio. This Is Us appears to expose the people working in the background making One Direction’s fame and fortune: choreographer Paul Roberts, stylist Caroline Weston, tour manager Paul Higgins. It doesn’t point to the accountants, lawyers, public relations and social media teams.
Morgan Spurlock served as the film’s director, though the only element that reflects his touch is the appearance of a neuroscientist holding a model of a brain to explain that the band’s fans are not crazy; dopamine in their brains brings on feelings of euphoria and excitement. One can’t help feeling that the boys’ offstage antics — Harry appearing in a wheelie bin, setting up camp in the Swedish woods, playing around in golf buggies and skateboarding minutes before a concert starts, or dressing up as a security guard to deceive concertgoers — are all staged. Spurlock strives to capture the boys’ undoubted spontaneity and camaraderie, emphasising that they are just “normal” lads who just want to have fun.
One Direction’s record-breaking draws comparisons with The Beatles. The Fab Four’s contribution to film, particularly in A Hard Day’s Night, captured Beatlemania and the swinging ’60s, making popular, and bringing into the mainstream, the jump cuts and techniques that Jean-Luc Godard experimented with. This Is Us serves as one long advertisement for the band’s third album and their 2014 world tour, where they hope to fill massive arenas and stadia just like they did in Mexico City, the climactic performance in the film. Perhaps it speaks volumes about the times we live in that an advertisement like this functions as a film. This Is Us will not disappoint the band’s detractors (who will avoid it); it will please their teenybopper fans.
DIR: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman • WRI: Andy Bellin • PRO: Heidi Jo Markel, Laura Rister, Jason Weinberg, Jim Young • DOP: Eric Alan Edwards • ED: Robert Dalva, Matt Landon • DES: William Arnold • CAST: Amanda Seyfried, James Franco, Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple
Lovelace tells the life story of the star of porn’s most successful theatrical release, Deep Throat. That film reportedly earned more than $600 million, while its lead, Linda Lovelace, earned a paltry $1,250. Lovelace focuses on her relationship with tyrannical husband/manager Chuck Traynor, exposing the sinister side of the sex film industry.
Lovelace traces Linda’s development from naive, almost priggish young girl, through her brief stint as the porn industry’s megastar, to her decision to confess what it was really like. “Ordeal” was the name of her book, and her experiences are unpleasant. The film progresses first as a success story, hinting at something sinister, before going back and revealing unhappy going-ons behind the scenes.
The film notes that Lovelace’s appearance contrasts with the image expected in porn. She’s not the big-breasted blonde with a small waist. Her freckles receive much attention. Amanda Seyfried conveys Linda’s naivety and initial discomfort with her body. The film’s highlight perhaps comes in her scenes with Wes Bentley. Bentley plays a photographer, taking snapshots for the movie’s publicity posters. He encourages Linda to talk, and Seyfried shines in an emotional moment when she realises her own beauty. (One notes that Wes Bentley played the character in American Beauty who found so much beauty in the world that he couldn’t take it, an incidental intertextual pleasure.)
Seyfried also excels in her scenes with Peter Sarsgaard, excellent as Chuck Traynor. In the film’s early scenes, he imbues Chuck with an unnerving carnality as he glares and flirts with Linda. His presence is overbearing from that start, so that Chuck’s later anger and violence are not all that surprising.
Supporting cast includes enjoyable, if slight, turns by Hank Azaria as Gerry Damiano, Deep Throat‘s director, and Chris Noth (Mr Big in Sex and the City), as Anthony Romano, the film’s financier. Sharon Stone is effective as Linda’s mother. Chloë Sevigny (The Brown Bunny, more intertextuality) appears as feminist journalist, questioning Lovelace about how it feels to be “the poster girl for the sexual revolution”
Lovelace’s story has become a touchstone in debates concerning pornography. The narrative in Deep Throat addresses the problem that critics identify pornography as attempting to resolve: how to render visually female sexual pleasure. Linda’s character in that massively successful film, nowadays little seen, presents an independent woman seeking to satisfy her own sexual needs. Her search takes her outside the confines of patriarchal marriage. It locates female sexual pleasure in the clitoris, which, for Linda in Deep Throat, is at the base of her throat. So, Deep Throat became celebrated because it was a “porno with a story”, and the story presented the sexual freedom of a woman in the era of sexual revolution.
The behind-the-scenes story reveals the coercion involved in the industry. It exposes whatever pleasure is to be derived from pornography as purely male. In one scene, Harry Reems (Adam Brody) climaxes too quickly when filming Linda’s first sex scene. The crew watching the scene being performed are entirely male and clearly enjoy watching Linda fellate Harry. The same scene later becomes more chilling with the tyrannical presence of Chuck, watching and making sure that Linda takes part and does what she’s told.
Andy Bellin’s script also characterises the traditional family as coercive and problematic for women. When Linda turns to her mother for respite from Chuck’s beatings, her mother insists that she should “be a good wife, listen to him and obey him”. Linda endures further threats, violence and misery as a result of doing what’s expected of her. It’s ironic then that Linda finds happiness as a mother and a wife, ultimately presenting a conservative message: women should stick to their traditional roles. Of course, Chuck is not a role model husband, pimping his wife and expecting her to perform in porn films.
James Franco appears on the film’s fringes, playing Hugh Hefner. He recently worked with Travis Mathews on Interior. Leather Bar, a film that challenges the workings and apparent realism of pornography in a more cinematically sophisticated manner. Lovelace is itself in some ways pornographic. In a home movie clip, Seyfried’s Lovelace drops her denim shorts, to reveal her bottom in a teasing, sexual manner, whereas, in a similar clip, Sarsgaard’s Chuck “moons” playfully. Male nudity is a joke; female nudity is charged with desire. In another scene, feeling uncomfortable with her appearance, Linda’s hair hides her breasts and she covers her midriff with her arms, while the men in her life, workers in the sex industry, encourage her to reveal. The film then exposes Seyfried’s breasts in a pornographic fashion, indulging in some of the pleasures that pornography promises.
Critics believe pornography is not art because it intends to arouse; it’s affective pleasures are sensations. An appeal to rational or critical thinking makes something artistic. The appeal of Lovelace to the emotions, in its simplistic characterisation of Chuck Traynor as Svengali, becomes pornographic, in this sense, when Anthony Romano oversees Chuck’s beating, at which stage viewers will probably take delight in seeing this exploitative man getting what he deserves.
The production design, given its modest $10 million budget, is excellent, with groovy ’70s costumes. Gladys Knight sings “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” over the opening sequence, in which we cut from the light in a theatrical projection room to a shot of the sun shining through Linda’s car window. The use of classics ’70s tracks, such as Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby”, give the film an uplifting feel that begins to seem out of place, as the horror of Linda’s story becomes apparent.
Epstein and Friedman, the film’s directors, have made excellent documentaries, including The Celluloid Closet, about homosexuality in the movies, and the Oscar-winning Common Threads Stories from the Quilt, the subject of which is the AIDS memorial quilt. Epstein also won an Oscar for The Times of Harvey Milk. Paragraph 175 told the story of persecution of gay men in Nazi Germany. Epstein and Friedman recently moved into fictional treatments of real people. Howl (2010) starred James Franco as Allen Ginsberg.
Inside Deep Throat was a well-received documentary that features interviews with the real Linda Lovelace, who died from injuries sustained in a car crash in 2002. It perhaps explains why Epstein and Friedman resort to a fictional telling of an important story, but the complexity of the debates that Deep Throat and Lovelace’s story provoke is lost in their simplistic film that’s made enjoyable by good performances and incidental pleasures.
DIR/WRI: Neill Blomkamp • PRO: Simon Kinberg • DOP: Trent Opaloch • ED: Julian Clarke, Lee Smith • DES: Philip Ivey • CAST: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga
Elysium is South African director Neill Blomkamp’s superb follow-up to the equally excellent District 9. His assured hand takes elements familiar from other sci-fi thrillers and demonstrates how it should be done.
It’s 2154. In the late 21st century, Earth became diseased, overpopulated and polluted. The wealthy constructed an alternative habitat, called Elysium, in a space station. The poor live in sprawling metropolises, such as Los Angeles, fighting illness and poverty. Some of them labour in huge industrial complexes owned by the rich elite, who live out their luxurious lifestyles in the heavens, where its authorised citizens live without worrying about sickness.
Young Max da Costa promises his childhood friend Frey that he will take her to the paradise. A work accident and exposure to radiation makes it necessary for Max to get to Elysium, where he can recover. A rogue Los Angelino, Spider, organises illegal transports to Elysium, thwarted by the cold-hearted power-hungry defence secretary, Delacourt. She conceives a plan to overthrow President Patel, whose politicking obstructs Delacourt in what she sees as the proper protection of Elysium. Max unwittingly foils her attempt, and she dispatches the merciless Agent Kruger to get him.
Clearly, many elements are not new. The best of humanity living on a space station, while the poor and the sick die off on the planet, perhaps fills the gap that WALL·E glossed over. Policing the poor requires armies of RoboCops. There’s also the creation of something like an Iron Man suit for Max, when radiation sickness threatens to debilitate his body as he sets off on his quest. So, in some respects, Blomkamp’s film is derivative and unoriginal.
However, as in District 9, Blomkamp touches on some interesting themes that make his film far more compelling and resonant than other works. The gap between rich and poor has become prevalent in contemporary American cinema. In Time saw poor people struggling to earn enough minutes to keep themselves alive, while the rich lived comfortably on an infinite allowance. In The Purge, the haves employ sophisticated technology to keep out the have-nots. Here, the gap between “the 1%” and the rest manifests spectacularly in the separation of Elysium from the planet, detached from real world problems of pollution and overpopulation, exacerbated by the industries that make their wealth possible and manufacture of the means of repression. Max works in a factory producing the robotic police forces that discipline the labouring class.
Access to healthcare is another issue. The rich never get ill, with medical bays in their houses to cure illness should it occur. Hospitals on Earth provide inadequate care. Max’s childhood friend Frey works as a nurse, and her cute daughter suffers from leukaemia. The hospital cannot offer her the care she requires. Elysium promises the facilities that the poor need. Matt Damon’s physical performance requires his body to endure the pain of makeshift surgery. “I don’t want to die” is his refrain.
Glimpses of the elite’s idyllic lifestyles appear as a cello plays Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ on the soundtrack. The inhabitants speak French, and Jodie Foster, as Delacourt, contributes a chilling performance as their defender, her compulsion to protect them coming from a resolute but fearsome maternal instinct. Garbed in grey formal suits, with short blond hair, Delacourt resembles, not a little, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF. Sharlto Copley, who played the lead in District 9, gets the best lines, playing Agent Kruger.
Max da Costa grew up in a Latino community. A nun encourages him to pursue his destiny, giving him a token to remind him of where he comes from and how beautiful Earth must look from Elysium. The struggles of poor Latinos attempting to emigrate to a better place reflects contemporary concerns with immigration, the Land of Opportunity and the American Dream.
Despite such serious thematic elements, Blomkamp knows his audience. The film plays as an engaging and exciting thriller. Pacing is perfect, transitioning swiftly from the necessary exposition to deftly handled extended action sequences, although sometimes frenetic cutting and handheld shots make it a bit difficult to follow the action. We can forgive him for some narrative gaps because he maintains the excitement and tension. Blomkamp returns with cinematographer Trent Opaloch, editor Julian Clarke, designer Philip Ivey, all of whom match the high standards set by District 9. That film created high expectations that Blomkamp, with Elysium, has surely met.
Travis Mathews has proved to be one of the year’s most controversial filmmakers. Int. Leather Bar, which made its first appearance on Irish screens as part of the GAZE film festival, replaced his earlier effort I Want Your Love, when Australian authorities banned that film at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Int. Leather Bear also gained notoriety at this year’s Sundance and Berlin film festivals. So, what’s all the fuss about?
James Franco, star of Disney’s Oz The Great and Powerful, has a problem. “My mind has been twisted by the way the world has been set up around me,” he says. And one thing that troubles one of Hollywood’s brightest stars is how we think about sex and how it appears in films, gay sex in particular. (Franco is straight.)
The “Franco faggot project”, as an actor’s agent describes Int. Leather Bar, twists and plays with an episode from cinema and gay liberation history. Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet, was particularly critical of the film Cruising (1980, William Friedkin). It featured Al Pacino playing a cop who goes undercover while attempting to catcher a murderer of New York homosexuals. Activists opposed the negative depiction of queers and protested during the film’s production and release. Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), allegedly filmed sexually explicit scenes in New York’s gay S&M bars, but the MPAA forced cuts of up to 40 minutes of footage. Franco’s project was to shoot scenes that might have appeared. He wanted to show now what couldn’t be shown before.
Franco developed the project with Travis Mathews, whose sexually explicit naturalist drama, I Want Your Love, featured at last year’s GAZE. Their collaboration has produced a genuinely funny and provocative film that playfully, yet skilfully, explores, not the representation of gay sex acts, but the boundaries of pornography, documentary and fictional filmmaking.
Franco recruited actor Val Lauren to take on a role similar to Al Pacino. The film provides three points of entry to the viewer: seeing Franco, a grade A Hollywood star, explain the rationale for his folly; seeing Mathews write and direct the scenes; and seeing Lauren struggle to understand exactly what he has become involved in.
Co-directors Franco and Mathews construct scenes, not solely to display graphic gay sex acts (the most extreme of which is fellatio; there is no penetration), but also to draw attention to Lauren looking at them take place. The filmmakers are challenging notions of naturalistic sex in film. Even when the sex is the “real thing”, i.e. not simulated, it remains totally contrived. They reflect the philosopher Žižek’s reading of Lacan: “Sex is minimally exhibitionist and relies on another’s gaze.” Sex is always a performance. So, we see a couple of engaging in intimate acts on a sofa, and then a wider shot reveals Franco, Mathews and other cameraman taking shots of the same scene from different angles. What appeared as a naturalistic scene of non-simulated sex has become a spectacle captured from a multiplicity of viewpoints.
This corruption of film’s apparent authenticity and naturalism affects the way the film works as a documentary. Shot mostly in a fly-on-the-wall style, it features Franco, Mathews and others behaving as if the camera was not there. Yet they constantly disrupt are belief in its apparent authenticity when Mathews, for example, instructs two actors “wait till I’m done talkin’, so it’s clean,” to wait till he gives his instruction and then rephrase their conversation as if Mathews hadn’t interrupted to get what he wanted to be said. Similarly, Lauren sits in a parking lot, reading aloud the script, reading the part where it describes Lauren sitting in a parking lot, reading aloud a script. Picasso said, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” and the filmmakers expose film as such a lie.
Int. Leather Bar clearly features sexually explicit scenes, but the filmmakers carefully control their shock value by mediating them through Lauren’s experience. Lauren is a married man. His phone calls to his wife appear genuine.
Peccadillo Pictures will distribute the film in the UK. It joins the ranks of what Linda Williams has called “hardcore art cinema”, a genre discussed at length by critics and academics, but little seen by the general public, which is perhaps a pity. It really is a remarkable work.
DIR/WRI: Laurent Cantet • PRO: Caroline Benjo, Julien Favre, Barbara Letellier, Carole Scotta, Simone Urdl, Jennifer Weiss • DOP: Pierre Milon • ED: Robin Campillo, Stephanie Leger, Sophie Reine • DES: Franckie Diago • CAST: Raven Adamson, Katie Coseni, Claire Mazerolle, Madeleine Bisson
“Foxfire” is the name of a gang that Maddy (Katie Coesni) and “Legs” Margaret Sadovsky (Raven Adamson) form in a fictional town in 1950s America. Maddy recounts the gang’s development and their increasingly violent attacks on male victims.
Their high school maths teacher, Mr. Buttinger (Ian Matthews) subjects Maddy’s classmates Rita to humiliation in class. He chides her for spending too much time on making herself look pretty with make-up and not remembering lessons from last week. Outside class, Legs encourages Rita to take a stand. They initiate her into their gang in a ceremony involving candles and tattoos. They take their revenge on Mr. Buttinger, daubing his car in red paint, suggesting he takes an inappropriate interest in young girls. The incident causes him to lose control of his students when he next appears in schools. Their attack pays off.
Foxfire becomes something of a local phenomenon. Their graffiti appears everywhere. The Viscounts, a gang of local youths, fears it’s a rival gang, but the local girls realise what’s happening, and some of them want in. One girl describes their acts as “beautiful”. Their targets are varied. They picket a pet store, demanding “justice for animals”. But at this stage, their actions are nothing more than vandalism.
Maddy describes the gang as seeing itself as “untouchable, invisible, invincible”. She believes the feminist stand the gang takes, long before the burning of bras in the 1960s, is important to be recorded. She asks her uncle Walt if she can a typewriter that he has discarded as junk. When she expresses her interest, Uncle Walt charges her $5 and then $8 when she returns with the few bucks she has saved. He suggests she can have it for nothing if she is a “good girl”, reaching down to unzip his trousers. But the Foxfire gang trapped him and dish out more revenge.
And so, the girls learn to fight a constant male expectation of their sexual availability and turn it to their advantage. Legs becomes increasingly dangerous, taking a knife out on a male schoolmate who attacks a fellow gang member. They steal a car in escaping from that incident, but the car crashes, resulting in capture and punishment set out by a judge. The film reveals the oppression of young women through the education system, their homes and the justice system. Abel, Legs’ father, evades responsibility during the court hearing, saying he can’t handle his daughter anymore, that she’s out of control. That’s what these young girls need, it seems, to be controlled, and Legs and her followers rebel. A period of detention hardens Legs’ convictions, and the second half of the film sees formation of something almost like a cult, under her charismatic leadership.
Laurent Cantet, who directed Oscar-winning French film The Class, elicits good performances from his young female cast. Ademson in particular shines as the determined bolshie Legs. Handheld camera shots in the first half of the film create an edgy, uncertain feel, as the Foxfire group become dangerous and giddy with its own potential. His reliance on Maddy’s narration perhaps reflects a slight discomfort with the English language, as the film lacks the subtlety that characterise his previous works.
Thoughts espoused by an old man on the excitement American socialists experienced in their meetings and discussions in the early 20th century remind us of a history little spoken about in mainstream cinema (Warren Beatty’s Reds apart). He criticises post-WW2 America’s preoccupation with happiness, inciting the girls to live in immediacy, in the fever of motion, in the pursuit. The old man’s speeches inspire Legs, who refers to the “imminent revolution of the proletariat” during initiation. A dream of his death provokes the plan that proves decisive of the gang’s fate.
“Looking is not a crime”, says one of the girls during their pet store attack. “Look with your eyes, not with your hands,” warns a teacher in a visit to a natural history museum. Cantet realises the importance of looking in the context of feminist perspectives. For example, in one sequence, we see Violet (taking on the name Veronica to trick her victim) in a reflection in the mirror, drawing attention to Violet’s awareness of the older man looking at her, seeing her as a tempting sexual object, before she fakes a breakdown, saying she’s only 15 and just wants to get away. Another sequence sees the girls buy ice-cream from a young man they describe as “cute”, thus making him the object of the “gaze” that usually operates the other way.
Angelina Jolie starred in the first film version of Joyce Carol Oates’ 1993 novel. Cantet’s version, more faithful to Oates’ work, may lack such burgeoning star power and is a little long, but it remains compelling for much of its runtime.
John Moran on a film chronicling the gay community’s response in the USA to the AIDS epidemic, which screened at the recent GAZE Film Festival.
How to Survive a Plague (2012, David France) chronicles the gay community’s response in the USA to the AIDS epidemic, focusing on the group ACT UP, based in New York, from 1987 to 1996. France worked as a journalist in the 1980s and ‘90s. He weaves together the stories of several key individuals prominent in a campaign that depended on the participation of thousands of people.
The film opens in New York in 1987, year 6 of the AIDS epidemic. France identities New York as its epicentre. Ed Koch, the mayor, attempts to answer criticisms of New York City’s official response to the crisis. He tries to defend his characterisation of protesters, seen chanting, “Healthcare is a right,” as being both fascist and concerned citizens. On 24th March 1987, ACT UP stages its first protest on Wall Street. Activists stage a kiss-in protest at St Vincent’s Hospital, demanding sensitivity training for gay patients.
France then introduces activists such as Peter Staley, Mark Harrington, Bob Rafsky, Jim Eigo, David Barr, Gregg Bordowitz, Larry Kramer, Iris Long, Mark Harrington and many others to recount how they became part of a grassroots campaign to raise awareness, to learn about the disease, to fight it, and to challenge their representatives and government agency officials to address the issue and take appropriate steps to rectify bureaucratic problems. France mostly uses footage shot by activists, interspersing it with more recent interviews when appropriate.
The contribution of some figures is particularly noteworthy. Iris Long, a retired chemist, came out to explain the processes employed by the Federal Drugs Administration, by the drugs companies, and the like. Mark Harrington, a film archivist, draws on such knowledge to put together a glossary to explain different aspects of AIDS and the treatments then available. Peter Staley, a bond trader on Wall Street, quits his job to become fully involved in the campaign to “act up, fight back, fight AIDS”. Bob Rafsky, a father who came out at 40 in the midst of the crisis, challenges Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential election, putting the AIDS crisis firmly on the agenda. The activists, telling their stories from archive footage, become concerned with whether they will live to see a drug. Fighting the certainty of death and their brave struggle to overcome it provides a compelling emotional hook.
The suffering that its victims went through comes across in harrowing images of frail young men’s bodies and the treatment of lesions and Kaposi’s sarcoma. Appearances by Ray Nazzaro, an artist, as Jesus Christ in sequences outlining the protesters’ challenging of the Roman Catholic Church’s position, and later offering sound advice on sexual health, brings both humour and pathos.
The AIDS crisis and the efforts by the activists to address it properly provides an interesting insight into contemporary American society. The narratives it broaches include gay liberation; access to healthcare; government responsibility at federal, state and municipal levels; increasing trust in science and the reliability of the market to provide the correct drugs; the culture wars, involving the hardening of conservative positions, and a growing gulf between left and right. It’s complex terrain with much to cover, and France demonstrates considerable skill in putting human faces and stories on the devastating effects actions taken by powerful players can have within such debates.
How to Survive a Plague almost veers into treating the AIDS crisis as having ended before reminding us that four people continue to die from AIDS every minute and that 5,500 die daily because they cannot afford the cost of available treatments. Oscar-nominated as Best Feature Documentary, his film is a call to action.
Film festivals do two things: they showcase the newest feature films and they celebrate the best of past cinema. This year, GAZE featured a fascinating film from Weimar Germany, Different from the Others (1919, Richard Oswald). It tells the story of a violinist, Paul Körner, who falls in love with a young male student, Kurt Sivers, and then becomes the victim of blackmail.
Magnus Hirschfeld co-wrote and starred in the film, practically playing himself, a sexologist. Hirschfeld developed the “third sex” theory and was part of the early 20th century movement in northern Europe that sought a new understanding of homosexuality and campaigned for the removal of penal provisions such as Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code. He participated in the production of many educational films that addressed issues such as venereal disease, abortion and prostitution. When the German Empire fell after the First World War, Hirschfeld worked with director Richard Oswald to create Different from the Others, to expose the provisions as a blackmailer’s charter, and to condemn homophobic society. It was a time of revolutionary hope and potential, soon quashed by the rise of Nazism.
Like many historical films, the primary interest and virtues of Different from the Others lie in the historical context in which the film existed. Vito Russo noted that Christopher Isherwood, whose stories form the basis of Cabaret, remembered attending screenings of the film that the Nazis broke up. In Vienna, a man fired a revolver into the audience, wounding several patrons. The Nazis destroyed all prints of the film when they came to power. They then used the provisions of Paragraph 175 to imprison homosexuals, forcing them to wear a pink triangle (instead of a yellow star, the subject of the play and the film Bent). When the war ended, the gay men who survived the concentration camps remained imprisoned. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman tell that story in their documentary Paragraph 175. The Nazis attempt to remove gay men from their society and to remove any record of anything that advocated tolerance or justice for them. So, Different from the Others remains as an important cultural and historical artefact that testifies to an early and important gay liberation movement.
The Filmmuseum München pieced together the film screened at GAZE from a print found in Ukraine during the 1970s. In this version, they fill gaps with intertitles and stills. What survives is a film that features static shots and theatrical staging that seem so outdated to (post)modern viewers. But the story is a powerful one, and it becomes more absorbing as it progresses. It features an early performance by Conrad Veidt, who plays Paul Körner, the lead character. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, filmed shortly afterwards, made Veidt a star. He became famous for his films with Valerie Hobson and as the evil Grand Vizier in The Thief of Baghdad. His character is the film’s tragic hero; the villain is not just the blackmailer, but, as Hirschfeld stresses, society’s injustices arising from a misplaced condemnation of homosexuals.
The Hirschfeld Centre, opened in 1979, was the first gay community centre in Dublin, honouring the importance of his work in pleading for justice and the repeal of oppressive laws. The laws that criminalised homosexual acts between men in Ireland were only abolished in 1993, a year before the final repeal of Paragraph 175. The story behind Different from the Others reminds us that we cannot be complacent with regard to freedom to create such works, particularly at a time when works that “promote” homosexuality have again become the subject of criminal sanctions in Russia and when the death penalty continues to be imposed in other countries as a punishment for homosexual acts. In Ireland, the Equal Status Act provisions exempt the teaching profession, and the fear of being outed and losing one’s employment and status remains all too real.
The Dublin Film Qlub presented the film with the assistance of the Goethe Institute. The Film Qlub organisers had previously run a season of silent films from the early 20th century, emphasising that Different from the Others represents a fascinating and insightful range of filmmaking that merits further critical and public attention.
DIR: Richard Linklater • WRI: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke • PRO: Christos V. Konstantakopoulos Richard Linklater, Sara Woodhatch • DOP: Christos Voudouris • ED: Sandra Adair • CAST: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Ariane Labed
The summer is here. That means lots of sequels in the cinema. Before Midnight demonstrates what character development in a sequel can be. It is also an engaging dialogue on the nature of 21st century romance, well written, with excellent performances.
The romance between Celine and Jesse, which began in Vienna in Before Sunrise, rekindled in Paris in Before Sunset, continues to unfold in Before Midnight. At the end of the middle film, Jesse missed a flight home from Paris to be with Celine. The story resumes nine years later, this time in Greece.
At the airport, Jesse drops off Henry, his son from his previous marriage. Henry returns to Chicago, living with his mother. Jesse remains in Greece and resumes the final days of his holidays there with Celine and their twin children. They visit the beach and help prepare dinner at the home of elderly writer Patrick (Walter Lassally) and his family. Their friends booked a local hotel for Celine and Jesse to have some time alone. They enjoy their conversation as they stroll to the hotel, where they spend the rest of the evening. Like the previous films, the pleasures are less in what the characters do than in what they say and how they say it.
Plato wrote, “At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet.” This film touches on love and romance, taking as its theme what keeps a couple together. While the script is not exactly poetic, it is still quite special. Its characters engage in interesting conversation, telling stories, asking questions, cracking jokes, sometimes arguing. Discussion sometimes veers into the pretentious, for example, questioning the notion of self, but it offers a refreshingly intelligent and often humorous look at 21st-century romance. Conversations between the characters functions as the film’s “action”. Dinnertime discussion, in which characters of different ages and perspectives talk about contemporary sexuality, romance and the gender divide, raises issues explored in the relationship between Celine and Jesse that takes up most of the screen time.
Director Linklater elicits fine naturalistic performances from his ensemble. Walter Lassally, a former cinematographer who worked on Tom Jones and Zorba the Greek, makes his acting debut (aged 85). Xenia Kalogeropoulou, a famous Greek actress, came out of retirement to recount, as ageing Natalia, a touching remembrance of her deceased husband. Young Yiannis Papadopoulos (Achilleas) and Ariadne Labed (Anna) provide good looking support as Patrick’s grandchild and his girlfriend. The cadences and rhythms of speech throughout the film make it feel sometimes like the actors are improvising, but this is not so. Acting and writing are impeccably well judged.
Of course, the film centres on the relationship between Celine and Jesse, and Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke take up most of the screen time. They have come to know their characters intimately and they act with conviction. Their characters are necessarily not consistently likeable. Celine’s feminist anger can grate; not that she’s wrong, just that she feels Jesse misunderstands or is insensitive to her position. Jesse can come across as self-satisfied. But the fact they are not thoroughly likeable makes their personalities that more credible and believable. Seeing these films is perhaps like meeting old friends, listening to what they have to say, but not necessarily agreeing with everything.
Linklater’s unobtrusive reaction complements the film’s naturalism, combining long static shots and extended takes. There are no visual gimmicks or flashy techniques: Linklater focuses on making the film’s world appear to be “real life”, as the characters assert. Sandra Adair’s crisp editing and Christos Voudouris’ sharp framing and lighting also lend well to the film’s apparent authenticity.
The trilogy, taken together, provides perhaps a generation-defining look at contemporary romance, beginning with the characters in their idealistic 20s, their complicated 30s, becoming frustrated in their 40s. Each film, taken alone, is perhaps not particularly original. One only has to think of the mind games played out, for example, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). But, over time, Linklater reinvigorates the romantic comedy/drama with his remarkable naturalistic style and complex characterisation, epitomised by Celine.
Celine presents as one of the most articulate and complex female characters in a cinematic romance. Deciding whether or not she should take a government job makes Celine, an environmental activist, anxious. She berates Jesse, a successful novelist, for making her decision worse by assuming that he wants to their family home from Paris to Chicago so that he can play a more consistent role in Henry’s life. She criticises Jesse, “Captain Cleanup”, for failing to acknowledge that “little fairies” are not responsible for tasks such as unloading the dishwasher. She must also deal with Jesse’s apparent representation of her as Madeline in his novels. She’s not afraid to advance her point of view and she does not allow herself to be defined solely by her relationship to Jesse, even though their relationships is central to the works. Celine, as a character, more nuanced, realistic and credible than most characters balancing their work, home and romantic life.
Socrates advised men to get married: if you find a good wife, you’ll be happy; if you find a bad wife, you’ll become a philosopher, and that is no bad thing, he said, for any man. Celine and Jesse are not married, but they have found each other. Sometimes they’re happy; sometimes they’re not, and their arguments, jokes, stories and talks, their encounters, excursions, adventures and walks, all on a sunny Greek evening, make their musings, “walking around bullshitting”, as Jesse puts it, great entertainment.
DIR: Steven Soderbergh • WRI: Richard LaGravenese • PRO: Susan Ekins, Gregory Jacobs, Michael Polairey • DOP: Steven Soderbergh • ED: Steven Soderbergh • DES: Howard Cummings • Cast: Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd
Behind the Candelabra shines a glittering spotlight on the tempestuous relationship between Liberace, the famed pianist, and his younger lover, Scott Thorson.
A hazy opening shot sharpens to reveal young Scott (Matt Damon) frequenting a Los Angeles gay bar in 1977. Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” plays on the soundtrack. Scott meets Bob Black (Scott Bakula), who introduces Scott to Liberace after they attend a concert of his in Las Vegas. Scott’s attention to Liberace’s favourite poodle, the blind and deaf Baby Boy, endears him to the piano maestro, and their relationship develops.
Behind the Candelabra is an entertaining showbiz biopic genre piece distinguished by its gay romance. The film makes clear that Liberace and his manager, Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd), promoted an image of Liberace as heterosexual. When we first see Liberace’s camp antics on stage, Bob tells Scott that nobody in the audience thinks Liberace is gay. It’s hard to believe there was a time when such high camp passed for straight. Soderbergh’s film looks behind the façade to present a look at the “real” Liberace.
Drawing on Thorson’s memoir, Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, P.S. I Love You) provides an engaging script that features Liberace recounting to Scott stories of his childhood, his relationship with his mother and how he developed his stagecraft. The film charts Scott’s relationship with Liberace from 1977 through to Liberace’s death in 1987. Scott acts as friend, lover, son and husband, caring and listening to the older man, accepting his lavish gifts, before becoming increasingly jealous and feeling trapped before the relationship breaks down. Liberace decides at one point to adopt Scott as his son, though they maintain their sexual relationship. It’s an odd plea for recognition of gay marriage, with Scott declaring that they were married during negotiations for settlement after their break-up. All this may seem melodramatic and serious, but it’s frequently funny and generally entertaining.
Michael Douglas contributes a fabulous performance. His turn as Liberace benefits greatly from excellent make-up and glitzy costumes, and he works wonders with his voice and mannerisms, relishing in witty one-liners. Both Douglas and Damon undergo physical transformations. Scott’s requires him to appear like a younger Liberace, while AIDS ravages the great entertainer. Damon’s understated turn complements Douglas’ flashy histrionics. While Douglas takes the spotlight for much of the film, Damon comes into his own in the latter stages.
Rob Lowe almost steals the show playing Dr. Jack Startz, who provides advice on the surgery and Scott with dieting drugs. Frequent glances to his wineglass break up his otherwise vacant stare, which makes him seem such an unreliable surgeon. Lowe also benefits from make-up, topped off with a high camp wig.
The detail in the sets and costumes is excellent. Soderbergh adds some nice visual touches too, such as a flashback filmed in black-and-white when Liberace recounts his encounter in hospital with a messenger from God after the Kennedy assassination that converted him, as he tells Scott, to becoming a devout Catholic (who happens to enjoy visiting sex shops and wants to fuck his boyfriend for a change).
The title, also drawn from Thorson’s memoir, suggests that the film is getting behind Liberace’s kitsch persona, exploring and revealing the details of a gay romance of a celebrated entertainer. While the costumes and sets provide delightful visuals, the script provides funny lines and the performances entertain, Soderbergh’s work still rings hollow. It fails to transcend the conventions of the showbiz biopic. Tackling the loneliness of celebrity is hardly new, and taking a gay romance at its centre is not enough to make it groundbreaking or important. The showy performances of Douglas and Damon, despite tenderness in their scenes together, always feels like their acting. The film suffers badly by contrast to the naturalism of recent gay romances such as those seen in Weekend (2011, Andrew Haigh).
Soderbergh presents a complex shot that reveals the film’s weakness. Liberace dallies with members of the Young Americans, a dancing troupe now performing at his show. It’s just before his performance at the 54th Oscars, where On Golden Pond was in competition. Liberace commends Jane Fonda for abandoning her protests and political campaigns and for making a sweet film with her father. He advises his young audience that stars should seek only to entertain. All this take place in the background. In the foreground, Scott drinks, worried about his relationship. Soderbergh focuses on their emotional and relationship difficulties. Taking Liberace’s advice, he avoids any political context, protest or political campaigns, in the late 1970s marked by such events as Harvey Milk’s assassination.
Soderbergh had problems with financing the film. Eventually, HBO came on board. Hence, Behind the Candelabra will not screen theatrically in the USA and will not be eligible for Oscars. The gay romance Soderbergh chose to explore is that of a very rich entertainer and his lover, played by Hollywood stars. For all its entertainment value, Soderbergh’s stylish effort functions as a fine example of ostentation: a pretentious, if glamorous, display.
DIR: Susanne Bier •WRI: Derek Anders Thomas Jensen • PRO: Sisse Graum Jørgensen, Meinolf Zurhorst • DOP: Morten Søborg • ED: Pernille Bech Christensen, Morten Egholm • DES: Peter Grant • CAST: Pierce Brosnan, Trine Dyrholm, Kim Bodnia, Paprika Steen
Love is All You Need is the unfortunate English title for the surprisingly delightful romantic comedy from Danish director Susanne Bier, whose In a Better World won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.
The Danish title Den skaldede frisør translates as ‘The Bald Hairdresser’. Ida (Trine Dyrholm), a hairdresser, recovers from treatment for breast cancer. She returns home to find her husband Leif (Kim Bodnia) cheating on her with Tilde from accounting (Christiane Schaumburg-Müller). They separate days before they leave for Italy, where their daughter Astrid (Molly Blixt Egelind) will marry Patrick (Sebastian Jessen), son of businessman Philip (Pierce Brosnan). The young couple make use of Philip’s neglected villa in southern Italy.
Yes, it is a romantic comedy set before a wedding in the Mediterranean starring Pierce Brosnan; but it’s far more accomplished thanMamma Mia!. And yes, on paper, it seems like My Big Fat Europudding Wedding, with Danish, Swedish and Italian financing, a largely Danish cast and an Irish-born star, and dialogue in Danish, English and Italian. But don’t let any of this fool you: Susanne Bier’s assured but light-touch direction unifies these disparate elements into a wonderfully appealing film that mischievously disrupts rom-com standards.
The main plot is the budding romance between Ida and Philip, who bump into one another before they even get to Italy. Dyrholm’s endearing performance constantly charms. Her magnificent blue eyes register the disappointment with her husband, the fear and anxiety related to her ordeal with cancer, and her increasing happiness when she’s with Philip.
For more obvious comic effect, Brosnan could have overplayed Philip’s nastiness and rudeness to his employees that reveal his character’s bitterness as he grieves for his long-dead wife, but restraint makes Brosnan’s effective performance seem effortless.
The rest of the cast matches the excellence of the leads. Leif shows up at the villa with Tilde. Philip’s sister-in-law, divorcee Benedikte (Paprika Steen), sees an opportunity to declare her love for Philip, though she has to deal with her difficult daughter. Astrid doubts Patrick’s commitment, while Patrick attempts to please his father by doing what he thinks will make his father happy.
Bier skilfully develops each subplot, making the most of the potential in each, but never loses sight of the central romance. Her focus remains on the main characters, and she refrains from drenching the film in the lovely Italian sunlight in the way, say, Minghella did in The Talented Mr Ripley or Branagh in Much Ado about Nothing. This is not to detract from the film’s visual attractiveness. Johan Söderqvist contributes a gentle score, frequently reworking Dean Martin’s ‘That’s Amore’, enhancing the film’s playful romance.
Cancer treatment immediately makes Ida a sympathetic character, but Bier avoids melodrama and mawkishness. She deftly blends this material with the usual elements of a rom-com centred on a wedding. She plays cleverly with generic expectations, for example, introducing a gay element, and, in Astrid, having a female character strong enough to make the right decision.
A pleasant surprise, Love is All You Need consistently charms and amuses.
DIR: Yaron Zilberman • WRI: Seth Grossman, Yaron Zilberman • PRO: Vanessa Coifman, David Faigenblum, Emanuel Michael, Tamar Sela, Mandy Tagger, Yaron Zilberman • DOP: Frederick Elmes • ED: Yuval Shar • DES: John Kasarda • CAST: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener
In his first fictional feature, Yaron Zilberman explores an interesting dynamic as the Fugue String Quartet faces an existential crisis. They have played over 3,000 performances in their 25 years together. The onset of Parkinson’s disease challenges the cellist, Peter, just as the quartet begins preparing for the new season. His decision to retire exacerbates tensions within the group.
The film centres on Zilberman’s interpretation of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 (Opus 131) as set out by Peter, teaching his class. Beethoven instructed its performers to play the piece, with seven movements instead of the usual four, attacca, i.e. without a pause, leaving the players no chance to retune. Peter says that playing the piece can end up a mess. ‘What are we supposed to do?’ he asks, ‘Stop, or to continuously adjust to each other up to the end, even if we are out of tune?’ The music, performed on the soundtrack by the Brentano String Quartet, functions as a metaphor for the intertwining lives of the quartet’s members.
Second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) wants to alternate with lead violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), a methodical perfectionist. Robert believes his passionate approach makes him a great violinist. He begins to feel that Daniel has controlled the quartet’s development, confronts him about philandering with his wife Juliette, and really hates it when Daniel gets involved with his daughter Alex. Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers another excellent performance.
Juliette’s mother performed with Peter in a quartet before she died. His quartet broke up thereafter. Juliette (Catherine Keener) fears that the Fugue will break up after Peter’s departure. She hopes the drugs will help him and that he can continue. She wants the quartet to remain as it is, and her initial refusal to support her husband Robert strains their marriage. She turns to Daniel for support before discovering Daniel’s dalliance with her daughter. Catherine Keener contributes an understated but effective performance. Her best scenes are those difficult moments when she discovers her husband’s infidelity.
Daniel approached Peter about forming the quartet and shaped its direction. He pours over scores, making copious notes, striving for a performance of perfection. Daniel’s ambition makes his reaction to Peter’s illness seem cold. His priority is finding a replacement. He also agrees to tutor Alex. He falls in love with her. Mark Ivanir holds his own in an ensemble that includes Oscar-winners Walken and Hoffman and Oscar-nominee Catherine Keener.
Walken takes on an atypical role, playing a fatherly figure, the professor who knew his age inevitably meant quitting the quartet. Walken’s best scenes come early in the film, particularly when he learns the bad news, but he later provides the film’s emotional climax, demonstrating his versatility in a sensitive and physically challenging apart.
Set in wintry New York, nicely shot by Frederick Elmes, Zilberman’s film plays safe and conservatively. Jogging in Central Park and conversations in cabs and elegant apartments provide the non-descript backdrop to the unfolding melodrama. There is nothing to confront the apparent elitism of classical music and ‘high culture’. Splashing out over $20,000 on a violin raises no eyebrows.
A Late Quartet is an ensemble piece exploring ensemble dynamics, allowing its talented actors to shine at various points throughout the film. With such an accomplished cast, it would be difficult to go wrong, and, performance-wise, this enjoyable film never strikes a bum note.
John Moran is struck by the powerful drama on offer at the tribute to Kieran Hickey, which took place as part of the 11th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (14-24 February 2013)
Kieran Hickey Programme II
Sun, 24 February
IFI 2 15.50 114mins
“We have a terrible habit of forgetting the things we should remember and remembering the things we should forget.”
The tribute to director Kieran Hickey concluded on Sunday at the IFI with the screening of Attracta and The Rockingham Shoot. The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and the Irish Film Archive provided an opportunity to see Wendy Hiller and Bosco Hogan contribute excellent central performances to Hickey’s now, lamentably, little-seen films.
Patrick Mason, former artistic director at the Abbey Theatre, noted how Hickey’s films fit easily within Irish dramatic tradition. He drew attention to Hickey’s expanding vision that these films demonstrate. Hickey continued to find powerful drama in everyday domestic settings, but more elaborate sequences, such as the titular shoot and the period detail of Attracta’s hometown, reveal his gathering strength and his promising future as a filmmaker, cut short by his untimely death in 1993.
Mr Mason also referred to the “long and hard struggles” Hickey faced in finding the funding and resources for his work. Hickey displayed considerable talent working within the constraints that he did. The arts are an easy target for cuts in financially straitened times, especially when artists are asking difficult questions and challenging accepted traditions as Hickey did.
The tribute showcased Hickey’s fictional works. The Irish Film Institute will screen some of his shorter documentary works in their free Archive at Lunchtime screenings during the final week of February.