22.2.15

Silver Linings Playbook

This is romantic comedy pure and simple – a genre exercise with the twist being that both star-crossed lovers have a mental illness. Bradley Cooper is bipolar and Jennifer Lawrence has bouts of depression. There's the supporting cast of wacky characters, most notably the superstitious gambling addict Robert De Niro as Cooper's dad, and there's a race for your love 5 mins before the credits roll.

What lifts this beyond the ordinary is the dark side to the humour. Bradley Cooper's episodes are used as a source of comedy, although Russell is careful not to descend into caricature – the point of the film being that people with mental illness are people too. Then there's the swooping camerawork, making full use of point-of-view shots and constantly pulling in to close-up: a visual reminder of how in your face and disruptive Cooper's illness makes him. Fittingly, there's a celebratory circle around the first kiss before the camera rushes back the street leaving the couple as pinpricks. The mania almost literally rushes out of the story. Normality is restored. Like I said: romcom pure and simple.

19.2.15

50 Shades of Grey

I haven't read the books, and watching the film was a lesson in expectations management. Every review I read started with a denunciation of the film's politics, and lamented that the director (a respected artist) was forced to work within the confines of delivering an R rated film (as opposed to an X rated one) and with E.L. James's dialogue and persistent demands for more sex scenes.

Which is fine. On the politics, it's clear enough that Christian Grey is a creep at best whose main seduction trick appears to be having lots of money. He stalks Anastasia Steele, breaks into her house, and disrupts her relationship with both her parents. If she wasn't so dazzled by his dreaminess, she would take out a restraining order and sue him for harassment.

But this is fantasyland. Although it plays to the trope of the aristocratic sadist, 50 Shades is more faithful to the Twilight model of romantic melodrama (the books started life as fanfic). But Edward's fear and repression of sex is here replaced by Christian's fear and repression of love. Which in some ways is an improvement on the original.

But in other ways not. By the end of the film Christian stands condemned in the eyes of Anastasia and the audience, and it is heavily implied that his fondness for BDSM is pathological and caused by some kind of extreme childhood trauma. The idea that those of a kinky sexual persuasion can be perfectly well-adjusted demon-free human beings is sadly missing from E.L. James's narrative. Secretary this is not.

And yet despite all these political problems and the ridiculous dialogue, I do admire Sam Taylor-Johnson and her two leading actors for managing to do so much with the script and portraying female desire so well. Although Christian's issues (described as "50 shades of fucked up" – the only nod to the title) provide the main source of narrative tension, the film would have worked out better with all of that stripped out. 50 Shades as straight-up erotica would need little narrative propulsion beyond Anastasia discovering the joys of sex with a hunky rich guy. One hopes that such a prospect would have been just as wildly popular as the creepy Christian audiences have had to settle for.

13.2.15

Ex Machina

Another ironic retelling of the Fall myth, maybe not from the title down this time. 'Ex machina' is a bit of a red herring, since there's no out-of-nowhere resolution to the plot. Nor is there a preoccupation with the presence or absence of a divinity imposing order on the world. Rather, the film is about the struggle between a Frankenstein-type creator and his creation, a well-worn dynamic here given a unique gendered twist.

Nathan is the troubled genius who wants to play God. He invites Caleb into his manicured Garden of Eden and sets up an elaborate temptation in order to test his creation Eva. If Eva manages to manipulate Caleb into helping her escape, she would pass the 'Turing Test' and be considered a true AI. During the course of the film we learn that Eva is the latest in a number of models which have served Nathan (at least in part) as slaves. The film is partly about the way women are 'created' by men, programmed to perform and conform to male desires. Which makes the film's ending all the more troubling from the perspective of the patriarchy. Eva escapes from Nathan, but she also escapes from the innocent and good-hearted Caleb, who she was designed for. She's charmed both him and us, but she has done this for no one's benefit but her own. She is not only self-aware, but independent.

It may be worth comparing this to Under The Skin, where Scarlett Johansson plays an alien forced to seduce Glaswegians at the command of fierce male motorcyclists. While she preys on other men, she is always prey herself. In Ex Machina the AI escapes the dominion of her creator and the man she has been created for – Eve is free from both God and Adam. Difficult to escape the conclusion that while it's a more straightforward genre film in some respects, it's the more confrontational and difficult.

It is, I should say, a very effective thriller. The CGI is a muted presence, and the film is largely about three actors on a couple of sets trying to get the audience to second guess their characters' intentions. The tension is tightened largely through the forceful presence of Oscar Isaac's glowering turn as Nathan, and the doe-eyed innocence of Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson who seem caught in a labyrinth with a Minotaur. I thought it was cold in the auditorium I was in, and ended up wrapping myself in my jacket, but tbh I think that was just the effect of the film's icy and uncertain atmosphere.

2.2.15

The Story of Sin

From the title down, this film is an ironic retelling of the Fall myth. It starts with Eva going to confession and being advised by the priest to remain humble and chaste when confronted with advances from admirers (inevitable apparently, given her beauty). Even the priest isn't immune, casting a longing glance as she walks away. The 1908 novel that supplies the story was serialised, making the plot rather loopy, but the climax comes two thirds of the way through when Eva is forced to tempt and kill an innocent man by two villains. As someone who enjoys his fair share of blasphemy, that restaging of Adam's temptation felt particularly succulent. At the end of the film, Eva atones for her crimes by saving her lover from the same two villains. She is martyred for that, although Christian symbolism is muted in that scene. The film certainly makes for uncomfortable viewing, but I think it's supposed to be.

This is my first encounter with Walerian Borowczyk. I've read that with this project he set out to make a melodramatic popular film, although the costume drama is spiked by frank scenes of nudity and a focus on the grim realities of life. Eva is destroyed by her hyper-romantic attachment to her first lover, a married man who vanishes (and appears to have forgotten her) for much of the film. Borowczyk's instincts on questions of class, gender and sexuality seem correct on an initial viewing, but then my DVD had a very interesting short clip of an interview with Grazyna Dlugolecka (the leading lady), who talked about the way Borowczyk treated his actors like marionettes and obsessed over the mise-en-scène. The sets are indeed beautiful, and great use is made of props (particularly photos and paintings) as scene-setters. However, the most harrowing sequence in the film is more impressionistic – handheld, lots of cuts and point-of-view shots – showing Eva killing her newborn baby. It was done entirely by the cinematographer Zygmunt Samosiuk, who may deserve quite a bit of credit not only for the look of the film, but for the excellent performances in it.

1.2.15

The Conformist

David Thomson detects a gap between this film's baroque style and the substance – a protagonist who wants more than anything to be "normal". That urge is so potent it has an impact on Marcello's sexuality. Only when hearing of his wife's first sexual experience (at 15 with an uncle) is he turned on enough to sleep with her – repeating what other men have done before. Perhaps the unconventional Anna – married to an intellectual, living in Paris (and bisexual?) – holds out the promise of alternative possibilities and the end to Marcello's fascism. But he isn't brave enough to enter her topsy-turvy world (unlike the hero of The Dreamers – still my favourite Bertolucci film).

If The Conformist is supposed to be a psychoanalysis of fascism, it's not sophisticated: childhood sexual trauma, bullying, a broken home, shame, and the urge to conform. And then there's the lush look of the film – money, glamour and sleaze. But all of that adds up to less that I was hoping for. At the end of the film, Marcello wants to disassociate himself from his previous life and blame his murders on his childhood abuser. Perhaps he's not wrong to do so. But this isn't a serious look at what fascism was. It's just one broken man. And I'm not convinced this character suggests something symptomatic of modernity, as Thompson suggests.

27.1.15

Sawdust and Tinsel

The film starts with a near-silent precis of the plot and themes - cuckoldry and the exhaustion of life on the road. But the characters are more interesting than that. Albert is a immature free spirit, whose wife prefers the comfort and stability (and income) of running a tobacconist. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, she denies her husband the right to come back into her life. She will not compromise her freedom.

Albert is a child. The final scene comes back to the cuckolded clown and introduces the idea of going back to the womb - finding some security with whoever you can, even if they have betrayed you. Albert's voluptuous mistress is enticed away by a fashionable actor, who tricks and rapes her. She is an innocent as well, but Albert mistreats her almost as badly. At the end of the film she has nowhere left to go but back to him.

Bergman has a lot of sympathy for the circus performers and spends some time on the snooty and condescending treatment they receive from the theatre troupe. Interestingly, Bergman started out in the theatre, so I wonder whether he identifies the film-making process to be similar to the circus - cruder, less well-respected, a haven for fools and innocents - and a more noble persuit as a result.

25.1.15

The Eclipse (L'Eclisse)

Antonioni may be inspired by Camus, but the beginning of this film feels more like Beckett. There is a sense of entropy and the absurd in the couple's dialogue and actions that is straight out of Beckett's Endgame.

This is the most accessible part of the trilogy partly due to the straight-talking Alain Delon. A modern man unlike the void that makes Monica Vitti so batty.

Antonioni is rightly considered to be an original stylist rather than an original thinker. The film connects the crisis at the Bourse with the crises of young lovers. But did Italy's boom and the commercialised society it created transform values to the extent where people become alien beings unable to relate to each other? Antonioni posits that our sociability has been eroded, and the only gravitational force still active between human bodies is lust. The end of the film presents harbingers of apocalypse - war and nuclear holocaust. Prophesies that have yet to be fulfilled.

But it's the visual and narrative innovation that has been lauded the most. The title Eclipse suggests spinning bodies only occasionally forming a relationship with each other, and then only from the perspective of a third body - the watching audience. I'd be lying if I said I noticed it, but apparently the film is shot so that compositions at the beginning and end aim to create heavy contrasts between black and white, while the middle is brighter. The final transition seems to nod to this - a dark street cuts to a bright streetlight saturating the screen.

But the more effective effect (bleh) is the the one the film is famous for. We see two lovers arranging to meet. Then we see the familiar street corner - the scene of their appointment. We get shots of the surrounding buildings and people moving through the location. But the actors we have become familiar with are nowhere to be seen, and yet we keep looking for them to turn up. That upending of expectations at the audience's expense feels cruel (Antonioni shines a light in our faces instead), if it wasn't for the air of detachment permeating the entire film. Antonioni shoots people as if he were an extraterrestrial tourist wandering around in 1960s Italy, and that's why his films are worth watching. 

24.1.15

A Most Violent Year

Like a lot of gangster films, this one is really about the American Dream and the myth of the self-made man. Morales wants to grow his business in the "right" way, and finds that working hard and playing by the rules can only get you so far. Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.

Morales is an archetypal American hero, completely self-possessed, fighting fit, a breadwinner. His wife is smart, sexy and an excellent mother to his three girls. Under enormous pressure, they steer their family into the clear. The film sets up a contrast between this power couple and one of Morales's drivers which leads to a confrontation at the very end. The example Morales sets proves to be an impossible standard for his employee. The two men's different fates may be a way of undercutting and critiquing the ideal the film presents.

Perhaps significant that Morales's business concerns fuel, or oil. One of the most memorable shots in the film is Morales stepping over a dead body to plug a leak in a blood-splattered container of the precious fluid. An image that may nod to American compromises abroad (something the recent death of the Saudi king has highlighed).

10.1.15

"Conventional empires, such as the first Roman Empire, the British Empire, or the current American Empire, typically come into existence when the imperial centre develops such a surplus of demographic and/or economic and/or technological resources that it is in a position to bring large tracts of territory into line either by conquest ('formal empire') or by intimidatory regimes of stick and carrot ('informal empire'). These kinds of empire will generally last only as long as the advantage in resources is maintained, plus maybe a couple extra generations thanks to force of habit, before its disappearance is recognised, and they are overturned. It was precisely because a new equality in levels of development across the European landscape had made the old Roman-type empire impossible by the end of the first millennium, that the new Papal Roman Empire came into existence, and the kinds of advantage that create more normal empires usually are time-limited, not least because the act of imperial projection tends anyway to erode them. This was certainly the case with Europe in the first millennium, and is arguably the case now, where America and the West have encouraged massive economic expansion in Asia for their own purposes, but created in the process what is likely to become the next world superpower."

...

"Limited as it certainly was in political and military terms, the papacy certainly created an empire nonetheless, and in some important ways a much more powerful and oppressive one than the first Romans had ever managed. The projection of their imperial values never got past the landowning elites, where their papal successors targeted the entirety of the population" - Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome