Friday, 30 December 2011

Moneyball (2011)

All in the game

Image: W. W. Norton

Moneyball is a tough sell to UK audiences. Yes, Brad Pitt’s in it, but it’s a film about how two men used statistics to succeed in baseball. So, let’s review: statistics...and baseball. Wait, it’s good!

Billy Beane (Pitt) is the GM of the Oakland Athletes, a team that can never compete with the big dogs because they’ve got no money. Then he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an economics major who tells him that he’s been going about things the wrong way. If he uses equations and statistics to find the most valuable players, he’ll find that they’re not the big stars. They’re the “Island of Misfit Toys.”

Baseball’s popular here in the UK. But if anyone’s going to pique our interest in the American Pastime, it’s Aaron Sorkin. The script, co-written with Steve Zaillian, does not pander to the audience and director Bennett Miller (Capote) keeps things impressively low-key. For the first twenty minutes or so, it doesn’t even throw them many zingers. What it does is show quite how far these guys went out on a limb. Not only were they going against the established ideas, they were upsetting people by doing so. 

And while it may throw those of us who aren’t baseball-literate in the deep end somewhat at the start, the slow build allows time to make sure that we’re up to speed (well, up to speed enough anyway). Interestingly, the film has little to no interest in any of the characters’ lives outside of the ballpark. We get some scenes with Billy’s ex (Robin Wright) and precocious daughter (Kerris Dorsey), but the rest is all about the game.

Pitt is well-cast as the likeable but stubborn Beane. It’s not a particularly complex part but he’s a good fit for a character that’s somewhat aloof but charismatic, and he clearly enjoys having some decent dialogue. Hill gives an impressive first dramatic performance and works well against Pitt’s laid-back Robert Redford-type. There’s also a small but effective performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as the manager who is dead-set against Beane and Brand’s tactics. Finally, special mention goes to Parks and Recreation star Chris Pratt, who adds some much needed warmth and humour as Scott Hatterberg, one of the misfit toys.

It’s a bit of a daunting prospect and it’s not a film we’d recommend if you’re looking for a bit of mindless escapism, but Moneyball is a very well-crafted look at an important part of American sports history. And if you’re not interested in sports history, there’s good actors tearing into well-written scenes. Hard to argue with that.

Verdict: Baseball and statistics might not scream Friday night movie but give Moneyball a chance. By the time the chips are down you’ll suddenly realise how much you care.



Thursday, 29 December 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Image: Warner Bros

It’s safe to say that a lot of us were surprised by Guy Ritchie’s take on Conan Doyle’s detective back in 2009. The filmmaker had seemed to be on an irreversible downward spiral but his Sherlock Holmes was highly entertaining and revealed a great pairing with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.  But could he possibly catch lightning twice?

Holmes (Downey Jr.) is doggedly pursuing Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), who he believes is behind a spate of politically motivated bombings. His hunt for proof will put himself and his sidekick Watson (Law) in mortal peril and take them across Europe in their attempt to put a stop to the criminal mastermind’s evil plans.

For the most part, Ritchie has taken what worked from the first film and reproduced it. So, there’s more of the crackling back-and-forth between Downey Jr. and Law (not to mention more nods to the fact that it’s clearly a love story between Holmes and Watson). There are more of the punch-ups that take advantage of Downey Jr.’s impressive physicality. And there’s more of the nicely judged sense of escapism. This isn’t supposed to be taken too seriously.

There’s also a marked improvement in terms of the villain. While Mark Strong gave a solid performance in the last instalment, the character was something of a disappointment. It’s a pleasure to see Harris (Mad Men) tear into Moriarty, who’s not given an awful lot of screen-time but makes the most of what he gets. However, the plot itself is somewhat thinly stretched over a 2-hour-plus running time with many of the best moments occurring early on. 

In fact, it’s all a bit stretched. Ritichie seems determined to keep the big set-pieces going on longer than they should. The slow-motion may be striking but several sequences seem to go on forever. There’s also a serious lack of any real tension in the plot (if you haven’t figured out Moriarty’s fiendish plan in the first act you’re not paying attention), and a shocking waste of Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo herself) as a plucky gypsy (if that sounds simplistic, so is her character). At least she looks like she’s having fun.

And fun is the point. Because as much as the film could have done with a good edit, it’s highly entertaining. Downey Jr. and Law are a fantastic double act and Ritchie’s clever enough to make the most of them.

Verdict: An improvement on the first that has more than enough moments of great escapism to overcome most of its problems.



Dreams of a Life (2011)

Image: Dogwoof

The story of Joyce Carol Vincent sounds like the stuff of screaming tabloid headlines. A woman found in her flat, dead and unnoticed for three years. Carol Morley’s documentary/reconstruction deserves much praise for refusing to use Joyce’s story either as a ghoulish piece of London urban legend or as a soapbox for a protest for our fractured society.

What Morley manages to do is find a middle ground. She doesn’t shy aware from the desperately sad nature of Joyce’s demise but she’s much more interested in finding out who this woman was. She has assembled a variety of people who Joyce knew and lived with, and loved, none of whom provide any definitive answers. 

The film shows just how unknowable people can be. While there’s the occasional mention of how London lets people fall through the cracks, there’s also the inescapable fact that none of these people seem to know Joyce completely. Even the ones who knew her best were clearly only privy to a fraction of her life. Morley stitches their differing memories into a possible chain of events but all of them admit to their fallibility. We’re given various hypotheses, and towards the end there’s some definitive proof for her reasons for wanting privacy, but no one knows why she didn’t reach out for help. Not only that, but why did no one call? 

Morley also has no interest in presenting Joyce as a saint or as nothing more than a victim. Joyce’s friends remember her as vivacious and friendly and a significant amount of time is spent discussing her bubbly personality and singing ambitions. But there’s no getting around the facts surrounding the end of her life. In the reconstructions Joyce is played by the excellent Zawe Ashton (Fresh Meat). These scenes are used more to keep the idea of her as a living, breathing person rather than a collection of anecdotes. 

It’s a desperately sad story but it’s not an exploitative trawl through Joyce’s life. It’s a respectful and deeply moving piece that’s finally frustrating because there’s just no way of knowing what happened to her. 

Verdict: Haunting and expertly handled, Dreams of a Life is a moving look at a tragic mystery.



Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Artist (2011)

Silent and golden

Image: Entertainment Film Distributors

French director Michael Hazanavicius’s film is nothing if not a hard sell. Black and white, with almost no dialogue or diegetic sound, it certainly ran the risk of being relegated to the domain of cinematic curios. However, rather against the odds, it has managed to win over audiences, and became the darling of this year’s Cannes festival.

The film sees silent star George Valentin, played by French comic actor Jean Dujardin, face the advent of the “talkie” motion picture, represented by the rise to fame of a young actress, Peppy Miller, whose career and subsequent stardom she owes to him. Valentin is a jolly silent star with a dog, while Peppy is a fabulous flapper with pizzazz – in the harsh days of the Hollywood studio system, one star must fall for another to rise.

Hazanavicius had already shown himself to be a master at capturing cinematic zeitgeists – his two OSS 117 films, both starring Dujardin as the titular secret agent, were pitch perfect recreations of the tone and look of 1960s Bond-ian globetrotting spy films. This film succeeds admirably in being both a commentary on and evocation of silent cinema. In his use of shadows and reflection as storytelling devices, Hazanavicius betrays his deep love and understanding of early cinema. The best thing that comes of these scenes is a glorious realisation that, despite being one of the oldest of cinematic hats, expressionism still works.
Few actors would be able, in my humble opinion, to handle the lead role as well as Dujardin, who manages to embody perfectly the spirit of silent movie actors while at the same time never failing to highlight the humanity of his character. His co-star is the ravishing Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius’s wife and Dujardin’s OSS 117 co-star, who fits the role of Golden Age goodtime gal equally perfectly. Together they provide a delightfully vibrant pairing.
As one would expect, coming from the man behind both the OSS 117 films and the hilarious cult French TV movie La Classe Americaine, this is a funny film. However, Hazanavicius does not shy away from darkness when necessary, and some moments lead you to think that he might be pushing the film towards the benchmark of postmodern critique of silent cinema, Sunset Boulevard (indeed, some lines seem to pay deliberate homage). There is also a startlingly creepy moment where things suddenly start making noise, while George remains mute. Hazanavicius milks this potent, nightmarish concept for all it’s worth, cutting right to the heart of the matter.
I haven’t even got on to the dog! Well deserved winner of the Palm Dog at Cannes, he is an adorable little creature, and his interaction with Dujardin is a pleasure to watch. Some people might balk at his “Lassie” moment, but given the pitch of the film in general I found it completely forgivable.
There might be people watching The Artist who (for shame!) have never before seen a silent film. It serves as a very stylish introduction, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more directors in the near future decide to do away with words and experiment with a purer visual style. It has its rough points, particularly in the early stages of the film before the tone has fully coalesced and the hi-jinks teeter on the edge of grating, but for the most part this is a well-measured and loving ode to silent cinema.
Who needs words? With its high calibre acting and direction, a neat storyline, and some gorgeous cinematography perfectly evoking the time when talking cinema was born, The Artist makes a noise all its own.

Monday, 19 December 2011

50/50 (2011)

Image: Lionsgate

Despite the pedigree of its cast 50/50 was always a risky proposition.  Promoted as “The cancer comedy” (despite the fact that it’s very much a drama as well), it could have been insensitive, crass, or it could have given in to mawkishness. But it’s also based on the real-life experience of writer Will Reiser.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is 27. He runs, he doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, he recycles. The biggest problem in his life is that his sex life with his girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) has taken a downward turn. But when he’s diagnosed with cancer, his life and his relationships come into very sharp focus.

Laughing at death is all very well and good, but things get tricky when it comes to dealing with someone undergoing cancer treatment. This is not something that we traditionally make light of. Crucially, 50/50 does not make light of cancer or suffering. Instead it finds the humour in the extreme situations that Adam finds himself in. Everyone starts treating him differently. His best friend Kyle (Rogen) tries to get him laid, while getting himself laid in the bargain. His therapist Katherine, who is younger than he is, is still working on her doctorate and is just as uncomfortable in the therapy sessions as he is. Adam finds himself in a situation which is impossible to comprehend and that’s where the comedy comes from.

And it’s also the source for the drama. Adam’s reeling from his relationship falling apart and trying to make sense of his friendship/relationship with Katharine. Making friends with fellow sufferers (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) reminds him of the probable outcome of his illness. Everything becomes very important very quickly because of the fact that the clock might be ticking. 50/50 walks this tightrope of the absurdity of trying to deal with this kind of situation with the tragedy of time running short very well.

It’s helped enormously by the casting of Gordon-Levitt as Adam. He’s an actor who can balance comedy and drama very well and his portrayal of Adam as a good guy who suddenly needs to decide whether to continue to let things drift or to try and sort them out is both winning and heart-breaking. Rogen’s better than he has been for some time, with the best friend role allowing him to be a little less likeable but no less funny. Kendrick (Up in the Air) gives another expertly judged performance as the therapist struggling to keep her boundaries, there’s a solid turn from Howard (The Help) as Rachel, and Anjelica Huston is predictably great as Adam’s mother. 

Director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) is a good fit, knowing when to add some quirky visual touches and when to let the actors do the heavy lifting. Reiser’s script completely nails the balance between light and dark. The film goes to some emotional places but it never feels forced. There’s arguably a little too much time spent with Kyle and Adam, and not enough fleshing out Katherine or Rachel. However, it’s a smart and touching comedic drama that boasts excellent performances.

Verdict: 50/50 is genuinely touching and funny, with another superb turn from Gordon-Levitt. 



Friday, 16 December 2011

Hugo (2011)

The last picture show

Image: Entertainment Film Distributors

We were very excited to see what a Martin Scorsese film for kids would look like. The idea of the director of Goodfellas and Taxi Driver taking on a children’s book was pretty exciting, though we were a bit worried when we heard it would be in 3D. Could he make that third dimension work for him, and could he tell a story with a U certificate?

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the Paris train station keeping the clocks running. He’s trying to fix an automaton that he’s convinced holds a message from his late father (Jude Law), but the clues keep leading back to short-tempered toy shop owner Georges (Ben Kingsley). With the help of Georges’ adopted daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), Hugo sets out to uncover the mystery.

Well, it’s not exactly aimed at kids, or at least it’s not exactly aimed at kids specifically. Scorsese has chosen a subject very dear to his heart: the preservation and restoration of silent cinema. Yes, there are adventures, and yes, there are all those great trappings of the classic children’s stories like the loss of family and the need to break the rules in order to pursue adventure, but this has the master’s fingerprints all over it.

Quite right too. As you’d expect from a director like Scorsese, Hugo is a visual wonder. Turning the bustling, smoke-filled train station into his playground, the director lets loose with the camera and flies from the train tracks to the pinnacle of the clock tower. The magic of the period setting combined with the steam-power machinery. What’s more, the fact that it’s a love-letter to the silent era provides the director with an array of visual trickery to pull out of his sleeve like a magician. It’s easy to picture him grinning as he realised that this would be the perfect opportunity to stage some silent movie jokes.

It’s difficult to say whether younger kids will care about why Papa Georges is so upset that Hugo is determined to bring the past back, or why Hugo and Isabelle’s adventure pauses about an hour into the film so that film historian Rene Tabard (Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Stuhlbarg) can deliver a lecture on Méliès, but that’s not all there is to Hugo. There’s a beating, occasionally a little too sentimental, heart at work here that’s wonderfully brought to life by the gorgeous photography and set design and by the cast.

Kingsley gives a wonderful performance as Georges, not only showcasing his tremendous rage but also getting to have some fun. Butterfield and Moretz (Kick Ass) are excellent, and there are some brief turns from Law, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, and Sir Christopher Lee. Comic relief comes in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen’s station inspector. He may irritate some but it’s a performance that grows on you as the film progresses, with some hysterically funny moments.

At over two hours it may be a little long and a little heavy on the film history for very young viewers, and there are some moments that don’t quite work, but it’s a heartfelt tribute to the wonder of cinema that doesn’t forget to bring a bit of wonder itself. Oh, and the 3D’s OK but not essential.

Verdict: Visually superb and a moving performance from Kingsley. But not only is it a wonderful love letter to a cinematic era too often forgotten, it’s a great adventure too.



Wednesday, 14 December 2011

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

Image: Entertainment Film Distributors

A film about Marilyn Monroe was always going to be tough. How do you portray her? Who do you get to play her? Michelle Williams was an inspired choice, and having Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier is a neat bit of casting. But what about the rest of it?

The film is based on the memoirs of Colin Clarke (Eddie Redmayne), who snagged a job as a third assistant director on The Prince and the Showgirl, which brought Marilyn Monroe to England and under the direction of Olivier. But as she proves an unreliable presence on set, she quickly bewitches the young and impressionable Eddie.

Yes, Williams is very good. She gives excellent on-camera Monroe, with breathiness, wide eyes, and undeniable sex appeal. She also convinces as the unpredictable, depressive, insecure, seductive little girl lost.

The problem is that it’s difficult to warm to Colin or care about his problems. The filmmakers are determined to turn this into a life lesson, a universal story of first love and heartbreak that’s special because Marilyn Monroe is the one doing the heartbreaking. But the story is so far out of the realms of possibility for most of us that a lightness of touch is required. Instead, director Simon Curtis and writer Adrian Hodges attack the audience with a hammer. Stilted dialogue reminds us of what we’re supposed to be feeling, and the film is book-ended by terrible narration.

There are some saving graces beside Williams. None of the supporting cast have any compunction about going big, so there’s Dominic Cooper as Marilyn’s manager and Dougray Scott (Hitman) as a laconic Arthur Miller, while Zoe Wannamaker (Harry Potter) has fun as her method acting coach. Julia Ormond (Surveillance) makes a welcome appearance as the professional and astute Vivien Leigh, Branagh tears into his Olivier, and Judi Dench is, thankfully, delightful as Dame Sybill Thorndike.

But the romance between Colin and Marilyn never really grabs us. Redmayne is an interesting choice as he usually plays morally ambiguous characters, and Colin certainly makes some questionable decisions, including ditching Emma Watson’s likeable costume designer. But this isn’t a drama about morality; it’s a wish fulfilment, coming of age story that isn’t light or funny enough to get us onside.

Verdict: Some good moments courtesy of the cast, but generally rather vapid and heavy-handed.



Friday, 9 December 2011

Another Earth (2011)

Somewhere out there

Image: 20th Century Fox

Mike Cahill’s low-budget sci-fi received tremendous buzz from the Sundance Film Festival, and made its UK debut at the Raindance Festival at the end of the summer. A low-budget sci-fi drama might seem an odd choice as we approach the habitual blockbuster season, but we recommend seeking this one out.

On the night that astronomers notice a planet seemingly identical to Earth in the sky, Rhoda (co-writer Brit Marling) crashes her car, killing the wife and son of composer John (William Mapother), who survives. When Rhoda is released 4 years later, she applies for a competition to travel to this duplicate Earth. She also tries to apologize to John, but loses her nerve and poses as his cleaner to help improve his life. As the two connect and ponder what their other selves are doing on Earth 2, she must decide whether to tell him the truth.

It’s easy to compare Another Earth to Monsters, which received almost unanimous acclaim from critics. Both are micro-budgets that use sci-fi as a backdrop to tell a two-handed character study. While Gareth Edwards used an exotic location, Cahill and Marling chose wintry Connecticut. While the pondering of what an alternate version of you might be doing isn’t particularly original (strangely enough, it made us think of Rabbit Hole), the positioning of it as a visible reality makes the idea even more potent. And although Another Earth is occasionally prone to over-earnestness and a touch of navel-gazing, what makes it work is the grounded location, the character of Rhoda, and the performance of Marling. 

When writing an essay on why she should be the one to go Earth 2, Rhoda compares herself to the convicts and outcasts who travelled to find America. She’s disconnected from her family and chooses to work as a cleaner at her local high school rather than resume her studies. Marling plays downcast and disconnected beautifully, but is sadly unmatched by Mapother’s not-quite convincing performance as John. To be fair to the actor, we only see him with Rhoda. Their budding relationship doesn’t quite come off either, as her desire to make things better for him inevitably gets more complicated.

While there are faults here, they’re by-products of an ambitious attempt at a sci-fi dramatic tragedy from filmmakers early in their careers. Cahill does some very impressive work, with beautiful digital photography and seamless effects. The music is superb, and Rhoda’s journey towards forgiveness is both moving and compelling. Finally, it relies on its lead which, due to Marling’s interpretation of an excellent character, ensures Another Earth’s success.

Verdict: Its reach may only just exceed its grasp, but only just. This is a very impressive and moving debut from Cahill and both he and Marling are ones to watch.



Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Rum Diary (2011)

 Johnny’s round.

Image: GK Films

Johnny Depp’s friendship with Hunter S. Thompson has had a big influence on the actor’s career. Watching his turn as Captain Jack Sparrow, it’s impossible not to see the late gonzo journalist jostling with the more obvious Keith Richards impression in his performance. Depp’s been committed to getting this, Thompson’s only novel, onto the big screen for years.

Paul Kemp (Depp) is a hard-drinking failed novelist who arrives in Puerto Rico in the 1950s to write for an American newspaper. Will he be swayed by the oily crooks like Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who want to exploit the island’s beauty for profit or will he finally uncover his voice and speak the truth as a journalist?

It’s a relief that The Rum Diary doesn’t try too hard to align itself with Terry Gilliam’s film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Yes, there’s drinking, drugs, hallucinations, and overweight American tourists, but there’s a story here. Admittedly, it’s not much of a story, but as it moves along it becomes clear that the film is also meant to serve as an almost-prequel to an as-yet unmade Thompson biopic. As Kemp realises he can channel his hatred for “bastards” into his writing, his mission is unmistakeably Thompson’s.

Depp also managed to convince Bruce Robinson to direct. The Withnail and I filmmaker hasn’t made a feature since 1992’s unloved crime drama Jennifer 8 but he does a good job of wrangling the meandering story into some kind of shape. The details of the corruption sub-plot never seem particularly important to the filmmakers. They’re more concerned with lining up these seemingly unassailable forces that Thompson would fight against from the 60s onwards. So we have Sanderson, with his plans to desecrate untouched paradise, Kemp’s editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), with his spineless bowing to corporate pressure, and finally TV footage of Nixon himself.

Depp underplays Kemp, which works well when reacting to the madness surrounding him, but doesn’t really create a particularly rounded character. Michael Rispoli (Kick-Ass) does excellent work with a rare meaty role as Kemp’s equally hard-drinking, loyal photographer Sala, Eckhart does tightly-wound and slimy, Amber Heard (Drive Angry) is well-cast as Sanderson’s flirtatious, alluring girlfriend, and Jenkins (Let Me In) has fun as the toupée-sporting editor. Finally there’s an entertainingly unhinged turn from Giovanni Ribisi (Public Enemies) as an unhinged, Hitler-loving reporter. 

At two hours, The Rum Diary stretches itself a little thin. It’s always enjoyable and there are some fantastically funny sequences, most often when Depp and Rispoli are on screen, but in trying to balance Kemp’s growing outrage with greed and corruption with the more out-there comedic scenes it can’t quite land on a tone. However, it’s about the experience more than it is about the specifics of the story, as evidenced by the cheeky postscript.

Verdict: Often very funny and with some committed performances, The Rum Diary doesn’t quite intoxicate like it should but it’s an enjoyable love-letter to the King of Gonzo.



Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Wuthering Heights (2011)

Image: Artificial Eye

It was only a couple of months ago that we had Cary Fukanaga’s visually exquisite version of Charlotte Bront’s Jane Eyre on our screens. Now, Andrea Arnold, acclaimed director of Red Road and Fish Tank, gives us her take on Emily Brontë’s classic. 

Heathcliff is a street urchin who’s taken in by Mr Earnshaw to work on his farm on the Yorkshire moors. He quickly forms a fierce bond with the Earnshaw’s daughter Cathy, but the harsh realities of life stand in the way of his happiness. 

In a way it’s hard to believe that no one has taken this approach with Wuthering Heights before. A gritty, grim take on, let’s face it, pretty damn grim source material. Arnold may have done away with some of the more gothic elements of the novel (admittedly not all), but otherwise it’s surprisingly faithful for a film that’s been discussed as a complete re-imagining. Yes, Heathcliff is black, but it’s not a major story point, just yet another barrier between him and his goal. It also takes place entirely from his perspective. While he’s still pretty unknowable, Heathcliff grows into less of a scheming manipulator here and more of a raging force that can’t break free.

Arnold paints the moors as a gloriously vivid swamp teeming with insect and plant life and wreathed in mist. The moors are not only the place where Cathy and Heathcliff can go to be alone, they also seem to restore him, as Arnold frequently shows him lying in the mud staring at the sky. The contrast between the Earnshaw’s farmhouse and the Linton’s manor house is also played wonderfully, as is the brutally thin line between life and death. No sooner does someone cough or look a little peaked than we see them lowered into the ground. Animal lovers should also be cautioned: things don’t go well for furry creatures here.

Arnold has chosen to use a non-star cast. Probably the most familiar faces are Kaya Scodelario (TV’s Skins) as the older Cathy and Steve Evets (Looking for Eric) as the Earnshaw’s servant Joseph. It’s Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave who are truly outstanding as the young Cathy and Heathcliff, giving superbly passionate and naturalistic performances. Scodelario is excellent;  manipulative but easily hurt, but James Howson’s performance as the older Heathcliff, with its impressive physicality, is sadly overshadowed by the knowledge that he has been dubbed.

Things do get a bit shaky with the transition from younger to older adults. Having made Heathcliff a more physical, muttering presence and less Machiavellian, the filmmakers don’t seem to know quite what to do with the final third. It’s still effective, but it doesn’t quite have the same raw emotional impact as the first two acts that preceded it. However, the central relationship is as brutally affecting as it ever was, and overall this is a vivid and undeniably emotional version of an often-told story.

Verdict: A very impressive take on the novel. It may wobble a little towards the end but it’s stunningly photographed, wonderfully performed by Beer and Glave, and it’s genuinely powerful.



Monday, 5 December 2011

Old Marks and Burn Marks: The 51 Homes of Cadine Navarro

Last weekend, this Wandercat was invited to an open studio by artist Cadine Navarro. Not having done this before, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Fortunately this was not a formal affair, but rather an intimate and friendly occasion. I was warmly invited into the studio, situated in a magnificent old distillery in the suburbs of Paris, by Cadine herself (who is currently in the process of leaving the space).

Her artwork was arranged around the large room, some of it mounted on the walls, some on tables, one piece on the floor just as it had been when she had drawn it. The other guests and I were free to move around and examine the pieces at our leisure, and also had the benefit of Cadine on hand to answer our questions.

Born in Japan and holding both American and French nationality, Cadine has spent most of her life moving between different countries, through what she describes as 51 homes, and her artwork reflects this transiency. The first piece by the door was a looped video of circling pigeons, as seen from her window in one of these homes in Brooklyn, and it was an entirely appropriate introduction to her work, both revelling in liberty and at the same time imprisoned – a dichotomy of the travelling life which recurs throughout her art.

The next image crystallised the sense of this exhibition: a list of her homes, written horizontally but presented vertically like a bar chart, with each one colour-coded to country and given a few words to describe her emotions when living there. It felt like a barometer, or an ECG machine sharing the beat of the artist’s heart.

Many of Cadine’s paintings and sketches show the aftermath of meals – the act and rituals surrounding eating being something which is replayed in every country. “No matter where we go we have these daily rituals,” she explained, “We all need to nourish ourselves, and these are universal forms…these recognisable shapes since the beginning of time”.

The presence of circles and rings in the pictures, often as plates or glasses, reflects the idea of the Buddhist mandala, in which one can seek wholeness of the self, and equally the turning of the cup within a Japanese tea ceremony. They also refer to the idea of life existing in cyclical patterns: what we leave we will eventually rediscover, or be rediscovered by. Cadine’s pictures give a gravitas to objects which might be seen otherwise as banal – one of the standout pieces manages to sublimate a teapot.

I found myself attracted to half drawn or hidden elements – many of the rings or arcs are imposed over other images, or built into the picture with texture. Often they resemble stains left by coffee cups or wine glasses, or hot dishes – the sort of mark we are used to seeing in everyday life, stains on the palimpsest of experience and existence.

I asked Cadine about these old marks and burn marks:

“Each experience makes up our identity, and we try to wipe them away, perhaps, but they are always there and they define us…To move from place to place is not just an easy step, it’s actually quite a challenge to pick yourself up and to move on…all these things, they texture your identity”.

“I like charcoal because it has in itself a grit, a texture to it…you can wipe it away like a word; it’s almost the same as lead for writing.”

The primarily dark tones of her work were offset by some pieces featuring startling blue, visual shocks which counterpointed and strengthened the rest. The pictures managed to be at the same time ephemeral and lasting, something passed and yet resurgent; the whole series of work is infused with a sort of message-in-a-bottle hopefulness, as though proving that in recording fleeting moments we can preserve and protect them.

In the artist herself I saw this duality of form – someone both looking for a fixed place in the world and unwilling to be constrained. The final word must come from Cadine herself: “52nd home? Good question. I will have to start looking now.”


Thursday, 24 November 2011

Intouchables (2011)

Image: Gaumont

This is the based-on-a-true-story tale of a poor young black man from the ghetto who ends up caring for a rich white quadriplegic man, leading to both of them learning new things about themselves. No, no, come back! Admittedly, describing the plot in such a way makes this sound like a mawkish mess of a film to avoid at all costs, but doing so would mean missing out on one of the most effortlessly enjoyable and heart-warming films of the year.
The film begins in medias res with a funny sequence featuring some great Paris driving action. It might be nicked wholesale from Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights but it works, and provides a wonderfully cinematic opening. We meet Philippe, who was paralysed from the neck down in a paragliding accident, and Driss, the wayward young man who looks after him. Next we go back in time to their meeting, and witness how this odd coupling came about.
Driss comes to a job interview for the position of Philippe’s carer solely in an effort to get the requisite amount of signatures to allow him to claim his unemplyment benefit, pinching a Fabergé egg from Philippe’s house while he’s at it. Philippe, however, is impressed with the candid candidate (especially compared to the milquetoast bunch of applicants we see being interviewed in an amusing sequence reminiscent of Shallow Grave) and gives him the job.
Obviously what comes next is not hard to guess at: Philippe teaches Driss to appreciate art and classical music; Driss opens Philippe up to sensual (ear) massages and bling. These scenes could have turned out painfully trite and cheesy, but are saved by the joie de vivre which illuminates them. The writing-directing team of Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache have made a truly beautiful film, with some breathtakingly staged moments. An obvious highlight is the paragliding sequence, joyfully set to Nina Simone, but the less grandiose moments are also charmingly done. Driss’s joy at having his own bath is brilliant, as are his endless attempts to bed Philippe’s assistant Magalie.
The filmmakers were gifted with François Cluzet and Omar Sy as Philippe and Driss. Cluzet (who gained the César for his role in Ne Le Dit A Personne) brings a quiet gravitas to his role, perfectly capturing a man who has come to realise that life is about more than mobility. His desires to escape the confines imposed on him by dint of his handicap are realised through Driss, and Omar Sy too is flawless as the hardened, lonely man who learns the importance of responsibility and friendship.  There are some great supporting actors too, notably Audrey Fleurot as Magalie, whose role is a huge contrast to the ice cold bitch she plays in French TV hit Engrenages, and Anne Le Ny, who does a great line in bemusement.
I went into this film worried that I wouldn’t find anything new in it. I rather feared that I’d not be able to shake the mental image of Tea Leaf and Mr Lomax from BBC Two’s Psychoville. It is a credit to everyone involved in the film that such an old formula seems so fresh. This might be due to the underlying truth of the story. Without giving too much away, if the final moments of the film don’t bring a lump to your throat, you are made of stone. It might be that repeated viewings will diminish the film’s impact but for the moment, as La Simone would say, I’m feeling good!
Verdict: Life-affirming, funny, gorgeous and, yes, touching, Intouchables is a slice of pure celluloid joy which, if you let it, should sweep you away.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Contagion (2011)

Image: Warner Bros.

Steven Soderbergh’s reputation is built on constantly flitting between inaccessible art-house and star-studded, big budget blockbusters. Just by looking at the cast you can see that Contagion definitely falls into the latter category, but it’s always tough to predict whether a Soderbergh multiplex movie will actually work.

A virus similar to avian flu starts to spread throughout the world. Scientists race against time to find a vaccine but the virus is spreading faster than they can keep up with it. As fear takes hold, can the world’s governments maintain order and cure the disease?

Part of the appeal of Contagion is seeing Soderbergh take on what’s traditionally a B-movie plot staple. It’s interesting to note how large the influence of 70s horror movies is on Contagion. From the banality of the local government’s bickering over budgets to the masked soldiers disposing of corpses, Cronenberg and Romero loom large over Soderbergh’s epidemic drama. There’s even a hint of John Carpenter thanks to the soundtrack. Perhaps most of all, however, it’s hard to ignore the influence of writers like Michael Crichton and Stephen King, especially during the excellent first half with the international cast of characters quickly realising that the situation is developing far too quickly.

The plot mostly focuses on six characters: Matt Damon’s normal-guy immune widower, Marion Cotillard’s Swiss scientist, Jude Law’s anti-establishment blogger, Kate Winslet’s CDC operative who works for Laurence Fishburne, who in turn places all his hope in Jennifer Ehle’s (The King’s Speech) quick-talking scientist. Add Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Enrico Colantoni (Veronica Mars), and Elliott Gould and you’ve got a cast to die for. However, fitting all these actors into a 100 minute movie and giving them enough to work with proves to be a task too great.

While the film excels at showing the (horribly believable) spread of a deadly disease, the wide-reaching script means that none of the characters are developed enough for us to care, and the film relies on the A-listers to connect with the audience. Damon, Winslet, and Fishburne do good work, and Ehle does an excellent job spouting scientific spiel, but Law irritates and Cotillard disappears from the story early on. By the time the second half kicks in and the body count (including, admirably, the name cast) grows, the non-essential storylines become distracting. It feels like several scenes got cut to keep the running time down. Maybe it would have worked better as a mini-series. 

Verdict: Starts very well but peters out before the end. The first half and the star studded cast make it worth a look, if a little disappointing.



Friday, 18 November 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

Every day, it’s a-gettin’ closer

Image: Artificial Eye

Director Lynne Ramsay made her name with the highly respected British art-house films Ratcatcher and Movern Callar. Both were stylishly shot, both had tough subject matter, but it was the latter that really put Ramsay on the map. Nine years after her last film, she’s adapted Lionel Shriver’s best-seller.

Eva’s (Tilda Swinton) life is thrown upside down when her teenage son Kevin (Ezra Miller) commits a shocking crime at his high school. As she struggles with getting through each day, avoiding the parents who lost their children, and cleaning the red paint off her house and car, Eva looks back at Kevin’s life and how he became a monster. 

Well, Ramsay’s certainly stuck with the tough subject matter and she’s also taken on much higher-profile source material. However, she’s sacrificed none of her stylistic verve. The film is a visual treat, with bold reds and blues a consistent presence. Repeated shots of crushed or spoiled food and the nostalgic soundtrack convey fractured domesticity, and the structure is a mostly perfect mosaic of present-day and flashback. 

Kevin may be the one we need to talk about but the film belongs to Swinton, who gives a stunning performance as Eva. Eva is not the perfect mother, far from it. She takes against the (very difficult) Kevin early, and despite occasional efforts to bond, she realises that her son does not like her and that he goes out of his way to upset her. Kevin may be a terrible child as a young boy, and it’s suggested that there was never any other possible outcome, but it’s important that Eva isn’t a patient, saintly mother figure. These scenes in which Eva acts inappropriately contrast excellently with the scenes of her trying to lead a normal life in the face of constant harassment and abuse in the present day. She can’t do anything without being reminded of what her son did, either incidentally or all-too-physically.

Kevin is played by Jasper Newell as a young boy and Miller as a teen, and both nail the unsettling stillness and shocking obnoxiousness that make Kevin such a striking, horrible figure throughout his young life. John C. Reilly is perfectly cast as Eva’s good-natured husband Franklin, who is unable to see the darkness in his son. 

The film’s structure means that you’re constantly being thrown off balance. Unsettling scenes are followed by outright upsetting ones. There are occasional moments that don’t quite work, and it’s hard to believe that Franklin is quite so blind to his son’s disturbing behaviour. However, thanks to Ramsay’s superb direction and Swinton’s stunning performance, it’s a highly effective and unnerving piece of work.

Verdict: Perhaps not as snare-drum-tight as it could have been, but it’s a troubling and unsettling film that consistently finds ways to challenge its audience.