Tuesday, June 28, 2016

NOTES ON BLINDNESS


NOTES ON BLINDNESS is a truly extraordinary film that sits some way between documentary and fiction. At surface level this is a film that tells you about a man losing his sight and how it affects his relationships, sense of self and sense of purpose.  On another level, it's the story of a loving and supportive marriage.  When we meet John Hull he's looks like the caricature of the bearded woolly professor, and so it's not surprising to see him meticulously document his loss of sight - first blurriness at the edges, then just shapes, and finally nothing at all. At first he clings on to wearing his glasses despite the fact that they serve no purpose other than being reassuringly familiar.   And he continues to dream lucid vivid visual dreams.  He and his wife has children. There are moments of despair and helplessness but also wonderful normal family life.  Ultimately, when we see him shed his glasses it's a moment of graduation and acceptance.  

At first, I was unsure of what to make of the choice of directors Pete Middleton and James Spinney to have John and his wife Marilyn's recorded audio lip-synced by the actors playing them.  It felt as though it might be distracting. But it's testament to the fact that the actors are so good that not only do you learn to not notice the lip-syncing but actually enjoy their performances. Simone Kirby is particularly affecting as the strong but supple Marilyn who has to learn to bend with John's condition as much as he does.  But the ultimate praise has to go the team putting together the visuals and the sound design that take us into John's world of fading sight and heightened layered audio.  In fact, the film-makers are actually releasing a version of this film with a heightened sound design to appeal to blind and partially sighted viewers, which I am quite intrigued to experience. The movie will also be released alongside a virtual reality element that adds to the layered nature of this experience, and the film-makers desire to really take us inside John's experience.  The result is a really moving, beautifully acted film with a really memorable sound design.

NOTES ON BLINDNESS will be released in the UK on July 1st. The movie has a running time of 90 minutes and is rated U.  The film won the Special Jury Award at the San Francisco Film Festival, the Storytelling & Innovation Award at the Sheffield DocFest and the Storyscapes Award at Tribeca.  The movie is on release in cinemas and on demand on Friday 1st July.

NOTES ON BLINDNESS


NOTES ON BLINDNESS is a truly extraordinary film that sits some way between documentary and fiction. At surface level this is a film that tells you about a man losing his sight and how it affects his relationships, sense of self and sense of purpose.  On another level, it's the story of a loving and supportive marriage.  When we meet John Hull he's looks like the caricature of the bearded woolly professor, and so it's not surprising to see him meticulously document his loss of sight - first blurriness at the edges, then just shapes, and finally nothing at all. At first he clings on to wearing his glasses despite the fact that they serve no purpose other than being reassuringly familiar.   And he continues to dream lucid vivid visual dreams.  He and his wife has children. There are moments of despair and helplessness but also wonderful normal family life.  Ultimately, when we see him shed his glasses it's a moment of graduation and acceptance.  
At first, I was unsure of what to make of the choice of directors Pete Middleton and James Spinney to have John and his wife Marilyn's recorded audio lip-synced by the actors playing them.  It felt as though it might be distracting. But it's testament to the fact that the actors are so good that not only do you learn to not notice the lip-syncing but actually enjoy their performances. Simone Kirby is particularly affecting as the strong but supple Marilyn who has to learn to bend with John's condition as much as he does.  But the ultimate praise has to go the team putting together the visuals and the sound design that take us into John's world of fading sight and heightened layered audio.  In fact, the film-makers are actually releasing a version of this film with a heightened sound design to appeal to blind and partially sighted viewers, which I am quite intrigued to experience. The movie will also be released alongside a virtual reality element that adds to the layered nature of this experience, and the film-makers desire to really take us inside John's experience.  The result is a really moving, beautifully acted film with a really memorable sound design.

NOTES ON BLINDNESS will be released in the UK on July 1st. The movie has a running time of 90 minutes and is rated U.  The film won the Special Jury Award at the San Francisco Film Festival, the Storytelling & Innovation Award at the Sheffield DocFest and the Storyscapes Award at Tribeca.  The movie is on release in cinemas and on demand on Friday 1st July.

SUBURRA


Stefano Sollima's neo-noir Italian political thriller is obvious in its condemnation of corruption, over-stylised, and sometimes worryingly objectifying of its lead female actress. Set in near-contemporary Rome, the plot sees a coke-snorting whore-mongering politician (Pierfrancesco Favino) cover up the murder of a prostitute with the aid of her colleague Sabrina (Giulia Gorietti). Doing so entangles him in a debt to rival gangsters trying to muscle on a real estate deal that relies on the politician rezoning some land for gambling, to be funded by the Vatican Bank.  The plot is opaque, the women objectified, the use of a sideplot reminiscent of the abdication of Pope Benedict, under-explored. Worst of all some of the highly stylised tableaux set to pop hits felt like a rip off of the kind of thing Paolo Sorrentino does so well. Overall, I feel that Sollima is better suited to the long-form TV serial format he is known for with Gomorrah, and indeed the forthcoming Netflix series based on this film.  I felt as though I'd seen those issues explored before and better in IL DIVO

SUBURRA has a running time of 130 minutes and is rated 18 for strong sex, violence and drug misuse. The movie was released last year in Italy, Switzerland and France and opened earlier this year in Finland and Portugal. It's currently on release in cinemas and on demand in the UK and Ireland. It opens in Sweden on September 9th. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

TALE OF TALES


Matteo Garrone hangs a sharp right from quasi-docu-realist Mafia dramas into seventeenth century Italian fantasy horror with his new portmanteau film TALE OF TALES.  The movie is based on three tales collected by Giambattista Basile - tales that went on to inspire the Grimms and Hans Christian Anderson two centuries later.  But rather than give us the familiar precursors to Cinderella or Puss In Boots we get three tales of weird unfamiliarity and satisfyingly gruesome meaning.

In the first, Salma Hayek plays a queen desperate to bear a child no matter what the cost of trusting a malevolent wizard.  The poster art of this film shows one of its most memorable visuals - Hayek eating a giant bloody sea-monster's heart in a stunningly ornate white room.  But this story is full of arresting visuals - from John C Reilly's king in a diving suit battling the monster, to two albino twins escaping under that same sea.  For the Queen never truly realises what the wizard tells her - that every life and every action is bought at a price, and that the closer one tries to force love, the further it slips away.

In the second tale, Vincent Cassel plays a lustful king desperate to bed the owner of a celestial voice. She insists on a darkened room because in reality she is very old.  When he realises he is shocked and she tries to commit suicide.  But a witch intervenes and gives her the appearance of youth and thus a royal marriage.  All this is deeply traumatic for the woman's similarly old sister, played with desperate sympathy by Shirley Henderson under prosthetics, and the true horror of this story is what she will do to attain youth.

In the the third tale, Toby Jones plays a king who becomes obsessed with a flea and grows him to the size of a Cronenbergian man on steak. When he dies the King stages a contest for men to guess the animal that shed such a monstrous hide: the prize is the hand of his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave).  The story then becomes one of how Violet must escape the Ogre who wins her, and has some tenderness for her.

There's so much to admire in this literally fabulous and fantastic film, it's hard to know where to begin.  The script weaves the three stories together slowly, starting with one and then occasionally drip-feeding in the others until we start to see the whole pattern.  There's little dialogue, which might have been a genius move to make the movie easier for small children to understand, were it not for the occasionally and arguably unnecessary scenes of rumpy-pumpy.  The casting is heterogenous and universally good.  I was particularly pleased to see Salma Hayek back in a meaty role - remember FRIDA? - we need more of her on screen.  But most of all, this is a movie of visual and thematic audacity.  The costumes and settings feel at once medieval and modern - real and highly stylised.  Thematically, although a surreal and absurd set of stories they touch on themes that are desperately relevant to women today: the pain of infertility; society's harsh judgment of ageing forcing a cult of youth; the desire of young girls to be free of their families and see the world.

The result is a movie that is at once other-wordly and deeply felt - strange and familiar - and like all the best fairy-tales, dark, sexual and violent. Bravo!

TALE OF TALES has a running time of 133 minutes and is rated R. The movie played Cannes 2015 and was released last year in Italy, France, Germany, Russia, Kuwait, Finland, Poland, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Spain and Estonia. It opened earlier this year in Norway, Portugal, Brazil, Canada, South Korea and in the USA on streaming services. It is currently on release in the UK and Ireland, both theatrically and on streaming services.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

VERSUS: THE LIFE AND FILMS OF KEN LOACH

I got quite depressed when Ken Loach's latest and perhaps final feature, I, DANIEL BLAKE, won the Palme D'Or a few weeks ago.  Not because it's a bad film - I haven't seen it yet and it sounds amazing - but because it felt like he was the only film director daring to tackle the big social issues of our time.  I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Ever since the Global Financial Crisis, and more specifically the Tory response to it, the UK has been living through a period of deep fiscal austerity. But the artistic response seems to have been rather meagre. I contrast that to the angry, loud and multifarious response to the social upheavals wrought by Thatcher in the early 80s. Where's the protest music?  Where are the angry plays like GBH and Boys From The Blackstuff?  Where are the new Ken Loaches, Alexei Sayles, Billy Braggs, Communards?  Don't get me wrong. I'm happy that Loach is still working and able to tackle the issue of people struggling to survive in poverty and Britain - the sheer human tragedy and inexcusable horror of men and women in a developed nation going to food banks.  But shouldn't there be young angry film-makers tackling this stuff too?  The other thing that depresses me about this sort of film-making (or the lack thereof) is its efficacy.  I'd almost class some Ken Loach films in that category of agitprop documentary that preaches to the converted.  In other words, the majority of political film-making attracts an audience that already thinks the issues are important.  How many right-wing Fox-news watching people actually pay to watch a film like AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, for instance.

All of which preamble brings us to Louise Osmond's new documentary about Loach's work (ignore the title - the life's only in there insofar as it sets up the work).  It's a nicely constructed retrospective with interviews from key collaborators.  We get the social context of Loach's iconic works, such as KES, CATHY COME HOME and LADYBIRD,  and something of the public conversation they caused.  I think CATHY COME HOME may the one of the few examples of a feature that does what I claimed most agit-prop doesn't - it broke out of the arthouse and into national conversation, changing attitudes.  One certainly hopes the same will be true of I, DANIEL BLAKE.  But what could have easily turned into a piece of hagiography dares to make some bold statements.  Several people refer to Loach's ruthlessness in getting the shot or telling the story he wants to.  (The famous scene where little boys are caned in KES is case in point). Another interview refers to his child-like narcissism which is certainly enabled by being a director. However, I feel the doc. could have explored key controversial incidents more.  In particular, Loach was involved in a production of a play that was pulled because it was deemed anti-semitic.  The way it's told here (and I'm not unsympathetic with that view) is that this was a mistake and that Loach was righteously angry.  But given his record of boycotting festivals and films with Israeli funding one might have wanted to interrogate those highly controversial and potentially offensive views further.

VERSUS: THE LIFE AND WORK OF KEN LOACH has a running time of 94 minutes and is rated 12A.  It is currently on limited release (schedule here) and is available on several streaming services.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP


Jane Austen's novel Lady Susan is an odd fowl - full of the same sparkling wit as her more well-known novels, but with none of their moral conservatism. After all, Austen's best-loved heroines are those that go on journeys of self-awareness and humbling. Emma, Lizzie and Marianne misjudge their love interests, and though, clever, must be humbled before ending up married under the benevolent guidance of their rich older husbands.  In her later novels, it is the men who must do the learning, but nonetheless the novels are conservative in their final choices.  Both Fanny Price and Anne Elliot are ultimately rewarded for their quiet virtue when flashier rivals have been undone.  

By contrast, Austen's Lady Susan is a quite radical novel, and one utterly in contrast with the novels published either in or shortly after her lifetime.  The eponymous heroine has all the sparkling brilliance and beauty of a Lizzie or Emma, but also something of the hard-hearted cynicism and slippery morality of a Becky Sharp.  As a result, the novel and indeed this wonderful new film adaptation, feel rather more like Oscar Wilde than a more staid costume drama.  And this feeling of brilliance mischief is only enhanced by Whit Stillman's superb feeling for comic timing and framing.

Lady Susan is a beautiful, clever but impoverished widow in the late eighteenth century. She's conducting an affair with the divine but married Lord Manwaring, but must simultaneously find both herself and her daughter good husbands. She begins by flirting with her brother-in-law, Reginald de Courcy who is closer in age to her meek daughter Frederica, while trying to foist Frederica on the dull-witted Sir James Martin.  Meanwhile the de Courcy family would of course far prefer the virtuous Frederica for a daughter-in-law, and Lady Susan would rather like to have her cake and eat it.

In Whit Stillman's retelling of this story we move through the various flirtations and marriage plots at a brisk pace and with crackling wit. In a sense, we are in familiar territory to Stillman's DAMSELS IN DISTRESS. For Kate Beckinsale's Lady Susan is very much like Greta Gerwig's Violet - tremendously self-assured and clever and yet brutally bossy and unaware of how absurd half of her pronouncements are.   The best thing you can say about the casting is that you're simultaneously enchanted by Susan and horrified by her.  Indeed, I left the film with a profound regret that Beckinsale has been shoe-horned into schlock B-roles in Hollywood when she could've become a fine dramatic or comedic actress, and certainly someone I would've loved to see play Becky Sharp.

The supporting cast is brilliant although it's the unknown names that shine. Indeed, Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Fry are rather wasted in the smaller roles of Mr and Mrs Johnson - a sly joke being that she will be punished by being taken back to Connecticut ("My dear, you might be scalped!")  There's far more fun to be had watching Tom Bennett as Sir James - in fact, I'd go so far as to say that he almost steals the movie.  And Justin Edwards is superbly funny in a smaller role as Charles Vernon.

The resulting film is laugh out loud funny and satisfyingly cocks-a-snoop at all the predictable morality of classic costume drama.  All the women are clever, even the ones who initially look meek, and all the men are puppets whose emotions and fortunes are directed by them.  To that end, I suspect this might tempt fans of writers such as Thackery and Trollope as well as the Austen fans out there. The only slightly bizarre thing is why Whit Stillman decided to rename Lady Susan as LOVE & FRIENDSHIP unless poking fun at a movie that might have easily been called SEX & MONEY?

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP has a running time of 92 minutes and is rated U.  The movie played Sundance 2016 and is currently on release in the UK, Ireland, the USA, Kuwait and Canada. It opens in Norway on June 17th, in France on June 22nd, in Poland on June 24th, in Portugal on June 30th, in Australia on July 31st, in Denmark on August 11th, in Taiwan on September 2nd, in Sweden on September 23rd and in Brazil on October 27th.