Monday, 31 January 2011

Certified Copy


Set in stunning Tuscany and starring the even more stunning Juliette Binoche, this film's strength lies not in anything visual but in ideas and the heavy dialogue that delivers them. The dialogue switches seamlessly from Italian to French and then to English. This is in and of itself a device that mirrors the counter-play between the philosophical and relational concepts that the central couple repeatedly tangle over.

The departure point for the story is the book launch of amateur art historian James Miller's 'Certified Copy'. In the book he divorces authenticity from value and promotes the worth of the copy. Using art as a springboard, the story very deftly takes concepts more at home in Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation and delivers a tour-de-force post-modern expose of relationships. Or you can simply enjoy a beautifully presented film about a French woman and English man flirting and arguing in Tuscany.

A key to untangling the story is the use of mirrors and windows whether they be open or closed. Reflections and views through provide a running commentary on the twists and turns in the relationship between James and Elle. They begin as though they have just met for the first time but end up like an estranged couple trying to reconcile themselves. The viewer is never quite sure if they have already been married for 15 years or meeting for the first time. The story makes a strong play on what makes a relationship authentic and we are never sure whether we are watching the real thing or a couple copying what a relationship might look like. It asks the question 'what is real' and lays it over relationships like a template.

Binoche delivers a scintillating performance that embodies strength and vulnerability without being crushing or weak. Her performance is worthy of the Prix d'interprétation féminine (Best female actress) she won at Cannes for this role. This is an acting début for opera singer William Shimmel (Miller) of which he can be proud. The gravitas of his voice and presence deliver a strong and assured performance.

Whether you choose to indulge the post-modern mind-games or not, this is a very good film. Get hold of the disc and watch it. I'll give it 7.5/10.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Biutiful


This is a gritty and demanding movie. It charts the long dark night of the soul for Uxbal whose world slides inexorably into despair, disappointment and death whilst he is seeking respite, renewal and redemption. Always on the threshold of making it big but never quite pulling it off, Uxbal staggers from mishap to catastrophe as he attempts to bring up his daughter and son single-handedly in the dismal and bleak back streets of one of Barcelona's least desirable neighbourhoods.

In this journey, Uxbal, is a conflicted man who struggles to reconcile fatherhood, love, spirituality, crime, guilt and mortality amidst the dangerous underworld of modern Barcelona. He is a psychic sought out by recently bereaved locals who helps the souls of the dead to journey from their body to their final resting place. Yet he struggles to prepare himself for the same journey once diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer that already has secondaries.

His estranged wife Marambra suffers with bipolar manic depression, earns a living giving 'massage', enjoys too much wine and unknown to Uxbal is sleeping with his brother Tito. Tito runs a club which allows full satisfaction of any need for drugs or sex and which towards the end of the film serves as the vehicle for Uxbal to have one last blast before his impending death. The trajectory of the film is clear from the outset - Uxbal will not find escape from the inevitability of his circumstances. As the film progresses - sometimes painfully slowly (it could do with losing 30 minutes) - the spectre of Uxbal's eventual demise looms ever larger over the unfolding plot.

Add to this Uxbal's role as go-between gang-master for a group of illegal African street hawkers and a group of illegal Chinese sweat shop workers and the seedy back-street world of the Barcelona that never features in the glossy travelogues is revealed in all its depressing forlornness. Things turn from bad to worse when the hawkers start dealing on the side to augment their meagre income and are busted by the Police and deported. Feeling sorry for the sweat-shop Chinese shivering in their basement hovel, Uxbal buys gas heaters for them and they end up gassed as they sleep one night.

This all sounds pretty bleak. It is. This is most definitely not a feel good film. It is nevertheless a wonderful and powerful study of the human spirit and the struggle to make good in the face of adversity. Throughout, Uxbal operates to the highest transcendent moral and ethical standards within his world both showing and earning respect among the community.

Uxbal's remorse for the deported Africans and dead Chinese is tangible. His inability to make a fresh start with his wife and give his children the domestic security he craves for them is frustrated by Marambra's illness. His impending failure to be there for his children weighs increasingly heavily on his heart. The film is set in the capital of Catalunya - a macho culture. Add to this the underworld dynamic, evidence of Uxbal's drug addiction past and the wailing and hysterical Marambra and you might conclude this movie's story is too dark and beyond redemption. You would be wrong.

The film's salvation comes from the strength of the performances - particularly the actors who play the lead family. Bardem has already won the 'Best Actor Award' at Cannes for this role and was nominated for a Golden Globe and is nominated for both a BAFTA and an Oscar. I'd say that on the basis of the evidence, he is a strong contender. Uxbal's devotion to his children and his desire to give them opportunities to make a life of their own is the redemptive power that drives the narrative. As he helps them with their homework, it it the transliterated spelling of the English word 'beautiful' that gives the film its title.

I'm not in a hurry to see this film again - it is a 147minute journey into a hellish existence - but I'm glad I did. I know I rave about my local Picture House Cinema (Harbour Lights) but a visit to London yesterday gave me the opportunity to visit the 'Ritzy' in Brixton - another in the chain. It was a great experience - a full food menu on offer, four screens, two bars and an upstairs lounge offering live music, comedy and readings. A really great and thriving centre of cultural engagement. I'll be back.

I'll give this film 7/10 and encourage those with a strong constitution to go and see it.

Monday, 24 January 2011

In the Electric Mist


Well where to start with this one? Perhaps with an acknowledgement that in the US this film went straight to disc! If you are a fan of Tommy Lee Jones playing a grumpy old man, or the lovely Kelly MacDonald doing another totally convincing American accent, then this could be a film for you.

What this film is actually about is hard to tie down. At times it's a crime/drama thriller at other times it's a fantasy/historical cross-over. The problem is that as this film meanders through multiple story threads and ends in a frayed tassel rather than a tight knot. If you like closure, then this film will only have limited appeal. On the other hand, if you want to watch a film that leaves you with more questions than answers, this is the film for you! It's also a an example of excessive product placement (GMC and Dr Pepper).

Jones gives a trademark performance which perfectly reflects the dreary pace of life in rural Louisiana. As a recovering Alcoholic he has a sympathetic disposition to others' afflicted with this illness. The film flips between today, the 1960's and the American Civil War. In addition to alcoholism, other themes embraced are racism, Mafia-mob activity and prostitution. All that said, the centre piece remains the character played by Jones - Police Lt Dave Robicheaux.

As a study in small-town post Katrina Louisiana, this is an excellent film. There are many strong performances and the Blu-ray disc I watched delivered an exceptional visual feast. Overall I'd say this film will repay the investment of watching it. It's not a classic, but it is interesting and solid cinema. If you get the chance to see it, take it.

I'll give it 6/10.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Se7en


Please do stop me if these are becoming boring - but these books increase my understanding of films so much, I think they're great and want to collect the entire set over time. You can pick them up quite cheaply second hand on Amazon or Play.com.

This is by far the best book in this series that I have read. Not only does it open up the structure of the film to aid understanding, but the commentary is easily accessible and objectively delivered. There are many references to other films about crime and serial killers which is really useful. For me, what sets this book apart is how the author approaches and deals with sin and evil. The treatment is really enlightened and balanced - great stuff.

Look out for these small books (this one's only 88 pages) and snap them up when you see them.

68th Golden Globes


We will wake up tomorrow morning to discover who has won - I'm looking forward to the edited highlights.

Will it be The King's Speech, or The Social Network, or Inception, or Toy Story 3?

Let's see what tomorrow brings. I hope The King's Speech does well.

A Tale of Springtime


On a dark winter's evening it's time to turn to the pile of new DVDs left by Santa! We thought we'd try Eric Rohmer on the strength of his legendary status and not having seen any of his work. So we embarked on the Tales of the Four Seasons with this offering from 1989 - A Tale of Springtime.

It is said that humour is something that does not travel between different cultures and the fact that this film is described as a comedy evidences this. It is a perfectly good film without imposing the comedy tag on it. We didn't laugh once when we watched it - we did smile, but we didn't laugh.

The film is a study in relationships and family dynamics. Jeanne is a philosophy teacher in a secondary school. She is thoughtful, open, aware of her own shortcomings and seemingly uncomplicated. With her boyfriend (whom we never see) away, she cannot bear the thought of living in his untidy flat on her own and with her flat being used by a cousin and her boyfriend a chance encounter at a party with Natacha who invites her to stay in her flat is a welcome opportunity. Natacha is an 18 year-old student at the Conservatoire de Paris and her father lives at his girlfriend's. Natacha's father (Igor) is only a few years old than Jeanne and Igor's girlfriend (Eve) is only two years older than Natacha. Natacha is resentful of her father's relationship and openly hostile towards Eve. The shadow of her divorced mother (again whom we never see) looms large over Natacha who struggles to ever be 'good enough' despite her promising musical career.

On one level the film is nothing more than a fly-on-the-wall record of this group of people's encounters over a 10 day period. On another level it provides an insightful exploration of articulate, cultured and needy people going about their lives and trying to find a sense of purpose and fulfilment in their relationships. In this respect it holds a mirror up to the viewer - to you and me. For this and not for making me laugh, this is a worthy film. I'm looking forward to A Winter's Tale.

I'll give it 7/10.

The King's Speech

You have probably heard a lot of hype about how good this film is. Believe it! Go and see it now while it's still on.

For my money the three leading actors are worthy Oscar nominations. This film is full of subtle yet sumptuous detail. It is also filled with believable and endearing characterisations that will mesmerise you, draw you in and captivate you.

This story allows the viewer a rare glimpse inside Britain's Royal Family. It shows the intrigue of the interaction between the different offices of state as Europe stumbles towards inevitable war. An unconvincing Tomothy Spall as Churchill is perhaps the only chink in what is otherwise a tour-de-force ensemble cast. Derek Jacobi gives a strong performance as the slimy and thoroughly unlikable Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang.

The central story is how Prince Albert becomes King George VI and overcomes a stammer in order to deliver speeches to the nation over the new-fangled wireless. It is a timely reminder of the relentless march of technology and how people communicate. The Royals of the 1930's found radio an intrusive and unwelcome medium - what would they have made of Twitter and Facebook?

Helena Bonham-Carter gives a tender performance as the determined and persistent Princess/Queen Elizabeth. Her facial expressions and verbal interjections are spot on and her performance is the personification of royalty. Colin Firth delivers a career defining performance - which if anything is outshone by Geoffrey Rush's portrayal of Australian Speech Therapist Lionel Logue.

It is the relationship between the Prince and the therapist that is the mesmerising and enchanting centre-piece of this film. The Prince whose genetically determined default is to formality and status strikes a marked contrast with the informal and unqualified Harley Street wannabe. The therapist's irreverence is mirrored by Logue's unorthodox and self-taught methodology. He claims no qualifications but bases his methodology on a background in amateur dramatics and teaching elocution which he combined to help Australian troops traumatised and speech impaired after World War I.

The film ends where it began - with the King making a speech. There is an after note in which we are informed that King George VI awarded Logue the Royal Victorian Order, appointing him a Member (MVO) on 11 May 1937 and elevating him to Commander (CVO) in 1944. The Order rewards personal service to the sovereign and admission to it is the personal gift of the monarch. We are told that Logue coached every war-time speech the King made and that they remained life-long friends. A fitting postscript to an extraordinary story.

This is cinema of the highest quality and was fully deserving of the spontaneous applause from a packed Harbour Lights audience. Go and see it - now! You will not be disappointed. I'll happily award it 9/10.

Monday, 3 January 2011

The Other Boleyn Girl

It is hard to know how any man would not look twice at the either of the Boleyn sisters. However, King Henry managed to reduce the art of courtship to the single word 'tonight' and what the King wants the King gets. His libido is seemingly only topped by the complete lack of any morality amongst the male characters in this film which is more fantasy than history. This is no costume drama that seeks to retell history - it's more like an episode of Dallas or Dynasty recast in medieval times!

The women in this film are the victims as they are traded like cattle at a market to enable their 'owners' to progress up the ladder of social standing and influence. Having set up Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) for a meeting with the monarch it is Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson) who makes it first into the royal bed. Initially she is is depicted as unwilling - she is herself newly married and craves only the quiet life in the country. Anne is a more scheming, intelligent and manipulative character. She raises the stakes and ends up paying the ultimate price. The girls' mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) vainly tries to point out the moral bankruptcy with which the men are carrying out their transactions - but to no avail. Catherine of Aragon is unusually shown as a sharp, attractive and morally principled woman who refuses to bend to the bullying of her husband. It is good to see a film where the women, whilst abused and bullied, are seen as upholding a sense of morality. It's a pity that they come up against the most immovable object English history has known - a King unable to sire a healthy son and heir.

This film could have been so much more than simply a vehicle for eye candy and an expose of England's moral bankruptcy. A TV movie at Christmas is probably the right slot for this. I'll give it 6/10.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Still Walking


Another study of family life - this time from Japan. Every summer the family reunites to remember the passing of the eldest son. The Patriarch is embittered as no-one follows his career as a doctor. He is preoccupied with the old ways and honour is everything. He even refuses to go to the local store to buy milk in case a neighbour sees him with the shopping - a task too menial for a respected doctor to perform.

Guilt abounds and tension is ever present as everyone endures the reunion. The second eldest son has recently married a widow with a 10-year-old son and he is 'between jobs' neither of which endear him to his parents. The daughter is married to a car salesman and has children of her own. As with most cultures the grandchildren are over-indulged and get away with anything. It is the generation in the middle that are torn between the liveliness of the children and the impossible expectations of the grandparents. A scene of the evolution of values as generation passes on to generation.

It is the way the film weaves the mundane tasks of everyday life - preparing vegetables, with glimpses into eternity - the endless ocean and prayers to the departed, that is its strong point. All of this integrates into the tensions simmering just under the surface and which boil over from time to time.

There is much tenderness in this film as the generational expectations are played out finding varying degrees of success. The new bride is a sensitive and beautiful woman who desperately wants the best for her husband and to 'fit in' within her adoptive family. Despite his promises, the daughter's husband is better at sleeping than mending the tiles in the bathroom. But in the end no-one can live up to the expectations placed on them and the visit ends with relief that it's over for another year.

This is not a Japanese Another Year but it is a gentle film that allows the viewer the privilege of observing a different culture and its value system. It is well worth investing the time to watch. I'll give it 7.5/10.

My top 2010 releases

A new year gives the opportunity to review the releases seen in the last year. What would you include in your top 10?

Here's mine:
  1. The Social Network
  2. Another Year
  3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
  4. Of God's and Men
  5. My Afternoons with Margurette
  6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  7. Inception
  8. Micmacs
  9. Avatar
  10. Alamar

Another Year


I missed this first time around but was very glad to catch it yesterday at Harbour Lights. It was well worth the wait. This is a most excellent film - top class in every respect.

This is an observational movie which has more of a docudrama feel about it. That is to take nothing away from the acting which is superb - each character convincingly portrayed with confidence and comfort like a well-worn pair of favourite slippers. Gerri and Tom are approaching retirement, They exude contentment - in their long marriage, their comfortable home, their respective careers, their son's unhurried wait for a partner and their allotment. Contented stability. They live the suburban utopian dream. It is therefore highly believable that their hospitable kitchen attracts those trapped in their own a dystopian nightmares. So the plot is established, a plot we observe throughout the course of a calendar year with the four seasons and their characteristics reflected in the abundant provision of the allotment.

A colleague of Gerri's, Mary and an old friend of Tom's, Ken are stuck in the same lonely booze-filled rut. Whilst Ken has desires for Mary they are not mutually returned and Mary maintains a fantasy about a possible future with Tom and Gerri's son Joe. Add to this the bleakness of Ronnie, Tom's recently widowed brother and the circle of the depressed and dysfunctional who orbit Tom and Gerri is complete.

The film's simplicity is its master stroke. For just over two hours we are allowed the privilege of observing this couple dispense good-humoured wisdom whilst finding fulfilment in every department of their lives. On one level there is nothing more to this film than that. The beauty of this film lies in the nuanced and intimate detail of the exchanges and the affirmations of life that this couple offer. It is the juxtaposition of their ordinariness against the extra-ordinariness of the affect their lives have on their friends and family that delivers the power within this film. This is an extraordinary film.

Another Year deserves to do very very well in the forth-coming round of awards ceremonies. Do give it your support on screen and on disc. I'll give it 9/10.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Movies to look out for in 2011

The BBC have kindly drawn up a list for us to enthuse over. What whets your appetite?