Monday, November 29, 2010

Late review - London Film Festival 2010 Day 16 - INSIDE JOB

This is a guest review written by Alex, who can normally be found lurking in the shadow banking system.....

I feel roughly the same way about Capitalism that Churchill felt about Democracy; “it’s the worst form of [economic system] except all the others that have been tried.” In fact, I wouldn’t be writing for this aptly titled blog if I didn’t feel some sympathy for what Al Capone called “the legitimate racket of the ruling class”, if only because I fear the alternative. Furthermore history, albeit always written by the winners, is on my side.

It’s fair to say that Capitalism hasn’t done well out of the past few years. Its excesses are much more likely to be debated and analysed than its successes.

Narrated by Matt Damon, Inside Job aims to do just that, with a methodical and structured post mortem on the Credit Boom and the global recession which has followed. The interviewers are, overall, incisive and ferocious in their questioning of an impressive cadre of financiers (the internecine tribes which have emerged from the Credit Crunch; “the ones who were proved right” and “those who were wrong but are still rich”), academics, regulators, politicians and investors.
Despite this fine premise, Inside Job is often pantomime-like: France’s Finance Minister Christine Lagarde is vitriolic in her criticism of those evil bankers (the producers omit to mention that she herself is a former corporate lawyer for an Anglo-US law firm), and Elliott Spitzer, former New York State Attorney General and Governor, offers similarly stern invective – “hooray!” Lloyd Blankfein (current CEO of Goldman Sachs) appears – “boo!”, we are almost invited to holler.

Ironically though, often the most damning evidence came from the bankers themselves and their shills. One could wile away hours on Youtube watching film of Goldman’s executives crucifying themselves in front of the US Senate Panel. The film-makers have merely hand-picked some of the edited highlights.

There are some surprising critics; George Soros for example, billionaire financier and a great example of a speculator if ever there was one after he made millions, and cemented his reputation in the investment community, betting against Sterling. The documentary doesn’t seem bothered with these nuances.

Nevertheless there are several genuinely salient and insightful points – one being that this generation is probably the first time that Americans have been both less well-educated and less well-off than their parents.

The left guard give away their limited knowledge of finance, and it’s not just that they mis-pronounce the names of large and well-known investment banks whilst they describe their folly and hubris. Was pronouncing Lehman Brothers, “layman Brothers” a Freudian slip? One interviewer confidently asserts that derivatives were created in the early 1990’s whereas farmers in Illinois were using futures contracts to hedge their production over a hundred years before that decade. Again and again I found myself thinking “if you’re going to tell a story, tell it right!”.

Other documentaries in a similar vein include Michael Moore’s “Capitalism, a Love Story” and the excellent if lengthy “The Corporation” by Canada’s Mark Achbar. The former was more sensationalist, and therefore entertaining, and Achbar’s was more thorough. Since this has been done before, I was a little disappointed that Inside Job didn’t build on or add anything new to the body of similar work.

From the audience’s reaction throughout I sensed that, politically, I was in a minority of one in the screening of this well-made but flawed documentary, and yet overhearing two womens’ conversation on the way out I couldn’t help thinking that deep down the audience understood the limited value in demonising bankers. Despite Inside Job’s propagandising two-hour polemic, everyone knows that the money men, albeit whilst extracting a heavy price, were only the enablers for you and I to buy our dream house, max out our credit card for that luxury holiday we couldn’t afford or otherwise sink deeper in hock. Maybe somebody should have told the film-makers this.
I’ll leave you with another quote from The British Bulldog:

“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries”.

INSIDE JOB played Cannes, Toronto and London 2010, and was released earlier this year in Belgium, Portugal, the US and France. It opens in the Netherlands on December 2nd and in the UK on February 18th 2011.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Late and incomplete review - London Film Fest 2010 Day 10 - FILM SOCIALISME

We are on a cruise ship. We are in contemporary Europe. We are at the End of Days. We are in Palestine. We are in politics. We are listening to Alain Badiou. We are listening to Patti Smith.  We are in hi-def DV. We are in lo-def pixelated DV. We are in hi-camp Hollywood. We are in present-day desolation. We are mashing up images from everything and everywhere.

So what is the point? That we live in a post-political society? That we decadent capitalist Europeans care nothing for the class-struggle? That we are beyond political redemption? That we are living in a culture mediated by iconic media images, unable to disentangle reality from fiction? That we are merely repeating /parroting media image rather than critically engaging with life? Does there have to be a point? Is the point that there is no point?

FILM SOCIALISME is the worst kind of pretentious, patronising, pseudo-intellectual bilge that claims to have something profound to say about politics and the nature of cinema, but in fact is nothing more than self-indulgent, adolescent nonsense. The fact that it was produced by Jean-Luc Godard, French auteur, means that reviewers have been generous, ascribing to it meaning and coherence and earnest intentions that it simply does not possess. His film is insulting to us as viewers - it holds us in contempt. It tells us that we are not worth narrative structure or coherent exposition because we are party to the contemporary culture it is condemning. At least, that is the most generous explanation I can give for a film that plays like a collage, a scrapbook, where Godard has pasted in scenes from past films, news-reels and other sources into a layered, incoherent mess. Godard basically holds up two fingers to his audience in the film. Indeed, it is perhaps one of the most hateful film I have seen in recent years. The correct response is to walk out. And that is exactly what I did.

Now, a lot of the film's fans are going to say that basically I am just admitting my own ignorance. That I'm not well versed enough in Godard's back catalogue, that I don't speak French, that I don't understand the philosophical and political movements he is engaging with. That, basically, I am a poor creature who can only feel safe in the warm embrace of mindless Hollywood genre-cinema. To them, I say, in the words Godard might've have used as a title to this film, baise-toi! I speak French, I've watched his films, I read philosophy at university, and I like tough cinema. But this film is a case of the Emperor's New Clothes. It reflects back the pretentions of the viewers and cinema-goers who love cinema, LOVE cinema, should fight back.

FILM SOCIALISME played Cannes, London and Toronto 2010. It was released in France in May 2010 and was released on DVD last month.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Late review - London Film Fest 2010 Day 5 - UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES is a much-feted Thai film that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year and has been almost-universally lauded as a kind of magical, whimsical, poetical take on love and death.

Uncle Boonmee is a humble man dying of kidney failure in a Thai village where he is cared for by his sister-in-law Jen and shiftless cousin Tong. One night, the ghost of Uncle Boonmee's dead wife fades into the picture, in an entirely unassuming, matter-of-fact way, and simply becomes part of the household. It's as though these characters, in this culture, live in a philosophical world where the separation between the living and the dead is miasmic and we shouldn't be at all surprised to see either side break through to the Other. Indeed, there is no Other - but rather different layers of reality for those that have the seeing of them. So, once you settle into this strange way of perceiving reality, it should come as no surprise to see Uncle Boonmee's son, who disappeared years ago, return as a Chewbacca-like Monkey Spirit with flashing red eyes, or for Cousin Tong to go on retreat and be in the same room with another version of himself. Nor should you be surprised to see a princess-spirit mate with a fish, or for the quixotic director decide to break off for a few minutes to make a political point by showing stills of guerilla fighters in the Thai jungle.

For many reviewers, this strange, exotic mix of magical realism and sheer left-field craziness casts a powerful spell. For then, UNCLE BOONMEE is that rare of rare things - a truly original and Fantastic movie. But for me, the whole thing was a case of the Emperor's New Clothes, where directorial self-indulgence and piss-poor special effects (still photos, Monkey Spirit) undermined the flashes of poetic brilliance (a intimate scene where Uncle Boonmee, on dialysis hugs his ex-wife, as though accepting death; the beatiful fish-fucking scene). It was a movie where individual scenes left me breathless at their audacity and beauty, but which frustrated me with its obliqueness and randomness. Ultimately, I'm glad I saw it for those flashes of brilliance, but god I wish I'd had a remote control fast forward button for the rest.

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES played Cannes and Toronto 2010 and was released earlier this year in Thailand, Belgium, France, Canada and Germany. It is currently on release in the UK, Denmark, and Spain.  It won the Palme d'OR beating BIUTIFUL, ANOTHER YEAR, CERTIFIED COPY, POETRY, ROUTE IRISH....

Friday, November 26, 2010

Late review - London Film Fest 2010 Day 5 - LEAP YEAR / ANO BISIESTO

Not to be confused with Anand Tucker's excruciatingly schmaltzy rom-com, Australian writer-director Michael Rowe's film is brutal, raw, honest and captivating. It is no surprise to me that LEAP YEAR won the Camera d'Or at Cannes this year, and of all the films that claimed to be a tough watch at this year's London Film Festival, LEAP YEAR was not just the toughest, but also the one wear that explicit sexual violence was most justified by the emotional heart of the story.

Monica del Carmen gives a stunningly brave and open performance as Laura, a provincial girl who has come to the City. She is desperate to portray herself as a successful, strong, independent woman to the people back home, but in reality she is desperately lonely and alienated from life. She spies on her neighbours, resenting their happiness, and subjects herself to humiliatingly exploitative one night stands. Except, except, as the movie progresses the twist is that it is Laura who is really exploiting the men, and one particular man in particular. Arturo becomes her regular lover. He seems a kind man, but soon rough (largely unsimulated) sex turns to extreme sexual violence. As the acts become more extreme, we learn more about Laura's motivation and her past, and come to pity both her and Arturo. There's an absolutely breathtaking scene near the end, where she is taunting him, tempting him, to do something that she wants, but that he is resisting, and we see just how much power she has over him, despite the fact that in their sexual games she is the masochist and he is the sadist.

LEAP YEAR is tour-de-force film-making - unforgettable. It goes to show that once flashy camera-work and visual effects are set aside, all you actually need are compelling characters and actors and directors willing to push themselves. But, be warned, this movie is incredibly sexually explicit, and aside from that, deals with very disturbing psychological material. I don't think it ever does this lightly or in an exploitative manner, but if tough material makes you uncomfortable, you should definitely avoid it.

LEAP YEAR / ANO BISIESTO played Cannes, where it won the Camera d'Or, London and Toronto 2010 and opened earlier this year in France and Mexico. It opened in the Netherlands and the UK in November 25th.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST is based on the final installment of Swedish investigative journalist Stieg Larsson's wildly popular Millenium Trilogy. The novel picks up from the previous installment. The anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander - genius hacker, emotional anorexic, victim of sexual abuse - spends half of the film in hospital recovering from an attempted murder at the hands of her father and brother - and the other half in court, defending herself for the attempted murder of her father. In both cases she is isolated, communicating with the outside world through an internet connection to her hacker friends, or by means of an autobiography she is writing. Many people risk everything to help expose her enemies and bring her justice - but she is so introverted she can barely register thanks. The first is kindly doctor Anders Jonasson who keeps the rozzers at bay; the second is Mikke Blomkvist, crusading journalist, who plans to expose all in his magazine, with the help of the entire Millenium staff.

The book is compelling for two reasons. First, as we see the conspiracy against Lisbeth exposed, we realise just how high up it goes - to the office of the Swedish Prime Minister, no less. The stakes are high, and as the court case proceeds, the tension mounts. In short, the book is a thriller that is genuinely thrilling. But more importantly, the book works because we've come to care about the characters. Lisbeth and Mikke may not be in the same room together but we feel there connection. And in the novel, Mikke's long-time colleague and sometime lover Erika Berger takes front-stage, when she leaves Millenium for the Swedish Morning Post and starts being bullied with explicit emails and texts. I thought the portrait of a successful career woman trying to balance her job with her emotions was particularly authentic.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, this Swedish adaptation, originally intended for the small screen, fails to do justice to the novel. The direction is visually uninspired, workmanlike and plodding, sapping all pace and tension from the narrative. The character of Erika Berger suffers most in the editing down of the novel to a still unwieldy two and a half hour run-time. The acting is just fine, but the actors have little to do but work through the text. Of the new characters, Aksel Morisse is sympathetic as the doctor Anders Jonasson but the rest are pretty unforgettable. The result was that I was so bored I almost walked out several times, preferring to remember the denouement as I had read it rather than in this insipid, tedious adaptation.

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST / LUFTSLOTTET SOM SPRENDGTES opened in Denmark, Norway and Sweden in 2009 and in Finland, Iceland, Spain, The Netherlands, Greece, Estonia, Canada, Germany, the USA, Switzerland, Austria, Singapore, France and Japan earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in Indonesia in January 2011.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Greta Garbo retrospective - CAMILLE (1936)

CAMILLE is one of the many adaptations of Dumas Fils La Dame Aux Cameilias - the story that became La Boheme, Rent and Moulin Rouge. This version is directed by legendary Hollywood director George Cukor (THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, MY FAIR LADY) and stars Greta Garbo as the beautiful prostitute, Margeurite aka Camille. She is kept by a wealthy baron, but because of a mix-up, turns her attention to the dashing Armand Duval (Robert Taylor - QUO VADIS) and falls in love with him. She gives up her luxurious life to be with him, but after a harsh pragmatic conversation with Armand's father, (Lionel Barrymore - IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE), decides to abandon Armand. She knows he might follow her, but decides to sacrifice their love to save him from a life with a courtesan, and one dying of tuberculosis no less. Initially angry and disaffected, eventually Armand pursues her and comes to realise her self-sacrifice. Finally, she dies of tuberculosis in his arms, after one of the most affecting and legendary scenes of romantic declaration in the history of cinema.

The movie feels lush and romantic at every level - it's every inch an Irving G Thalberg production from the glory days of MGM. The interiors are rich and detailed, the countryside setting beautiful, and Greta Garbo's sumptuous gowns by Adrian (THE PHILADELPHIA STORY) make Garbo look even more stunningly beautiful than usual. Her hard beauty is perfectly suited to playing the woman in love whom life has taught to be practical nonetheless. When she finally melts, it's all the more moving for knowing the real risks she faces in compromising her profession. Has there ever been an actress who could portray such nuanced and conflicting emotion, barely uttering a word? And when she speaks, the dialogue might seem soupy on the page, but my goodness, it gets a little dusty in the theatre in those final scenes.

CAMILLE is one of those rare things - a romantic tragedy that never feels manipulative or melodramatic - that has the sheen of a melodrama but communicates a genuine chemistry between the leads and makes us believe in their love. It is for that reason that this seventy year old film of an eighteenth century love story still feels fresh and still moves us.

CAMILLE was released in 1937. Garbo was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar but lost to Luise Rainer in THE GOOD EARTH.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Greta Garbo retrospective and Pantheon movie of the month - NINOTCHKA (1939) - Garbo laughs!

NINOTCHKA is a marvellously spiky satirical romance that manages to mock capitalist decadence and communist dogma in equal measure, as well as giving us Greta Garbo's most versatile performance. She stars as a dour Soviet agent sent to Paris to castigate her three comrades who have so completely failed in their mission of selling confiscated jewellery to raise hard currency for the state. The irony is that the harder than hard Ninotchka is seduced, just as her comrades have been seduced, by fine wines, beautiful clothes, and yes, laughter and love. The seduction comes in the form of Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas), a Parisian rogue, who discovers something finer in himself when he meets Ninotchka and is even willing to go to Russia to get her back. Ninotchka discovers love through laughter rather than melodrama, just as we see the absurdity of dogma through satire. It's a wonderful mix and absolutely pitch perfect, from Billy Wilder's scabrous script through to Garbo's silly hat and the fascinating cameo by Bela Lugosi as the Commissar. But, ultimately, as much as the dialogue shines, it's Garbo's deadpan delivery that kills us - her willingness to send up her cold, unapproachable beauty and to deaden her endlessly expressive face in the early scenes only to truly laugh at herself and her love of champagne as the movie builds.

Ninotchka: We don't have men like you in my country.
Leon: Thank you.
Ninotchka: That is why I believe in the future of my country.

Ernst Lubitsch (TO BE OR NOT TO BE, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER) was famous for directing sophisticated comedies for Warner Brothers, and brought his famous "Lubitsch touch" to MGM in the 1930s, typically directing comedy musicals. Given his facility with comedy, he might've seemed a perfect fit for Billy Wilder's scabrous, satirical script, and for the movie marketed as "Garbo laughs!", but he was actually drafted in as a replacement for George Cukor, who had gone off to direct GONE WITH THE WIND. At any rate, no matter how he came to the project, he certainly gave it that wonderful mix or wry humour and genuine warmth. NINOTCHKA feels like it lives in a strange half-world - not quite real but not completely absurd either. It feels like emotions and politics are heightened - lifted above the floor by an inch or two, thanks to the sheer charisma of the cast and genius of the script. The real-unreality reminds me of one of my favourite plays, Peter Ustinov's satirical comedy Romanoff and Juliet. The play is set in a surreal fairy-tale land somewhere between the Cold War and reality and is told with a wry detachment but subtle understanding that, I feel, only comes from the cultural cosmopolitan. Maybe it's pushing it a little too far, but I can't help but wonder whether there's something in both Ustinov and Lubitsch being Russian émigrés, with that outsider's ability to look coolly at the folly of different political regimes.

That cool urbanity runs through every scene of the film and is part of its central concept. NINOTCHKA feels modern - post-modern even. It takes one of the most beautiful romantic leading ladies in Hollywood - a woman famous for the deathbed romance of CAMILLE - and made her play against herself. Without make-up, suppressing her innate charisma, refusing to be romanced, Garbo subverts her natural place in the Hollywood movie. That subversion - that brilliant daring - is what keeps NINOTCHKA fresh and captivating today.

NINOTCHKA was released in 1939 and was nominated for Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Story. It lost to Gone With The Wind in the first three categories, and to Mr Smith Goes To Washington in the last.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Greta Garbo retrospective - ANNA CHRISTIE (1930) - Garbo speaks!

"If anyone wants to get drunk, if that's the only way they can be happy, and feel at peace with themselves ... they have my full and entire sympathy. I know all about that game from soup to nuts. I'm the guy that wrote the book." Hickey, in The Iceman Cometh.

ANNA CHRISTIE is a powerful and moving film about living with two emotionally destructive forces: illusions and alcoholism. It was based on a play by Eugene O'Neill, a writer who was himself an alcoholic, and who writes with an acute perception and empathy that seems utterly modern and shocking in a major MGM movie, until you realise that Anna Christie was released pre-Code. How brave, though, for silent movie star Greta Garbo to pick ANNA CHRISTIE for her first "talkie". To shatter the illusion that her fans had of her as a brittle beauty, with a movie about a woman who is herself perceived to be virginal and pure. The reality is that rather than having milk ordered for her by her father and lover, she'd rather wash away her memories of an abusive childhood and her years as a prostitute with whiskey.

The movie is a ninety minute exercise in disciplined story-telling, and the taut structure combined with director Clarence Brown's largely static camera gives the film a stagey feeling. No matter. A modern director might have tried to open the play out for the film, but with Brown - Garbo's favourite director - he was too busy opening out the emotions to care.

The first fifteen minutes sees Chris Christoffersen (George F Marion), a humble sailor, brimming with joy that his daughter, an au pair, is returning home. Marthy Owens (Marie Dressler), a bar-room drunk, and Chris' friend resents his lionising of his daughter, and is only too happy when, in the second fifteen-minute segment, Anna walks into her bar and orders, iconically, "A visky, ginger ale on the side, and don' be stingy, baby." The film comes alive as these two women edge into a friendship over a shared need to drink. Anna hints that her life has been hard and that she resents that her father abandoned her to their distant family. Marie Dressler and Garbo spark off of each other, and it's a joy to watch. In the third fifteen-minute segment, we see Anna and her father on their boat. Her father is reluctant for her to take to the sea, fearing it's no place for any proper person, but Anna, melancholy, comes to love it. And so, we sail into the second half of the movie. A storm strikes, and a fellow sailor appeals for help. So, Anna meets Matt Burke (Charles Bickford). Initially, she resists his advances, and we sense that she hates men just as her father hates the sea. But slowly they settle into a kind of domesticity on the boat and fall in love with each other. This prompts a proposal, and the final twenty minutes of the film gives us the full dramatic results of that. Anna feels she can't accept until her father and lover know the full truth about her.

This is Garbo at her best - strong, honest, upright, and yet vulnerable, damaged, self-sacrificing. Ultimately, through revealing the truth, she becomes the stronger person, leaving the men around her with their shattered illusions - literally throwing them off of her as each one grabs one of her arms as though she is a rag doll to be fought over. The irony is that she becomes strong by revealing her vulnerability - the truth about how damaged she is.

ANNA CHRISTIE is a wonderful film - raw, honest, perceptive, powerful. Garbo gives an amazing performance and dominates the screen, and Marie Dressler is fine in support. But ultimately it's O'Neill's play that is the strength of the film, with its empathy for the damaged alcoholic and its need to confess all.

ANNA CHRISTIE was released in 1930. Garbo, Clarence Brown and William H Daniels were nominated for Oscars but Norma Shearer for THE DIVORCEE, Lewis Milestone for ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and Joseph T Rucker and WIllard Van der Veer for WITH BYRD AT THE SOUTH POLE respectively.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Greta Garbo retrospective - ANNA KARENINA (1935)

Anna Karenina is my favourite novel. There are novels that I think are better written, though not many, and those that I admire more. But Anna Karenina has my heart, and I read it typically twice a year. When you love a book so passionately - when you have visualised every scene and every character - it becomes incredibly hard to give another person's vision a fair viewing. And so, in general, I have avoided watching the many film and TV adaptations of the novel*. However, I have recently been rewatching a lot of Greta Garbo's films on my many train journeys to Paris, including her 1935 ANNA KARENINA directed by Clarence Brown.

Anna Karenina is a beautiful society woman who's love for her son compensates for her marriage to a staid and self-satisfied man.  She is pursued by the dashing Count Vronsky, and knowing what is at stake, refuses his advances at first. When she gives in she sacrifices her place in society and access to her son.  Worst of all, cut off from the air of society, Vronsky becomes clasustrophobic and Anna becomes insecure and paranoid with tragic consequences. This story is set against that of Anna's sister-in-law Kitty, who's heart is broken when Vronsky leaves her, but is courted by the fascinatingly ill-at-ease, philosophically mired aristocrat Levin.

This movie adaptation is just 95 minutes long and much is sacrificed to get the movie down. The story of Kitty and Levin is given very short shrift, as well as anything more dark and searching in Levin's philosophical quest. This is of particular pain to those who, like me, think that Levin is the true hero of the tale. When it comes to the story of Anna and Vronsky, Garbo is of course, perfectly cast. Her magisterial beauty makes Vronsky's reckless behaviour unsurprising, and her ability to play against that, and show deep vulnerability and doubt, is deeply affecting. It might be a cliché, but in the final scenes, when we see Anna in the extremity of suffering, one can't help thinking that only a silent movie heroine would know how to convey such complexity and depth of emotion as Garbo does.

I also rather like the direction. Brown was apparently Garbo's favourite director and he took her from silent films such as FLESH AND THE DEVIL into her first talking feature, ANNA CHRISTIE and beyond. Of what I'd seen of his earlier films, Brown was not a director with visual flair - rather leaving his camera static to observe a beautifully framed tableaux the better to fix our attention on Greta Garbo's face. But ANNA KARENINA starts with a tour-de-force scene in which he shows Count Vronsky in his element - at a lavish officer's dinner. It isn't a scene that exists in the novel, but perfectly captures the decadence of that era and the capacity for self-indulgence that Vronsky will display. It also foreshadows the tragedy that will occur when Vronsky is cut off from the oxygen of these society events. The officers are tucking in to luscious food, almost like unruly schoolchildren, and then, we realise, this has only been a starter! As they are called to dinner, the officers start singing and line up at a long banqueting table, richly laden with yet more luscious food. The camera tracks back slowly down the length of table, at food rather than officer height, and the effect is powerful and overwhelming. Truly brilliant film-making. This understanding of the fact that much of Russian high society at that time was about creating spectacle carries through into the first ball-room scene, in which a mazurka is staged. William Daniels photography is once again superb, and as we see high society indulging in emotional games in their lavish frocks, there is no mistaking that this is a David O Selznick film with all the MGM glitz and glamour that that entails.

So, there is much to like in ANNA KARENINA - Brown's visuals and Garbo's performance. But for me this can never quite be a great film because of the liberty taken with the text by screen writers Clemnece Dane and Salka Viertel (QUEEN CHRISTINA) and in particular the downplaying of Levin-Kitty as a counter-point to Anna-Vronsky. Doctor007 thinks I am being unfair on this point - and that the movie stands up perfectly well on its own terms. Maybe he is right, but I am far too enmeshed in the novel to be able to make that separation.

*Anglo-Saxon versions began with J Gordon Edwards' 1915 Anna starring Betty Nansen, Edward Jose and Richard Thornton; and Julien Duvivier's 1948 film, produced by Alexander Korda and starring Vivien Leigh as Anna, Ralph Richardson as Karenin, Kieron Moore as Vronsky with a score by Constant Lambert and a score by Cecil Beaton. More recently, Bernard Rose's 1997 Anna starring Sophie Marceau, Sean Bean, Alfred Molina, James Fox and Danny Huston.

Russian Anna's include Tatyana Lukashevich's 1953 version starring Anna Tarsova; Aleksandr Zarkhi's 1967 movie starring Tatyana Samoljlova as Anna; and Margarita Pilikhina's 1974 film, with Maya Plisetskaya as Anna and Alexander Godunov (Karl in DIE HARD) as Vronsky. German Anna's include Friedrich Zelnik's 1919 Anna starring Lya Mara and there are versions from France, Italy and Hungary from the silent era.

ANNA KARENINA played Venice 1935 where it won the Mussolini Cup for Best Foreign Film (shudder) and was released in 1935 and 1936.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1 - Everything is possible and nothing is meaningful

David Yates continues his plodding, faithful, uninspired direction of the Harry Potter series with the first half of the final book. After ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and HALF-BLOOD PRINCE we should've known what to expect - a workmanlike film adaptation of the novel, with neither the gothic style of Alfonso Cuaron's AZKABAN, nor the ability to portray emotion without mawkishness from Mike Newell's GOBLET OF FIRE. In David Yates hands, this franchise has become a dreary endurance test for anyone other than hard-core Potter fans - descending from the banality of the last installment to unwatchable boredom interspersed with cringe-worthy emotional scenes in this film. I'd blame screenwriter Steve Kloves too, but somehow I can't imagine that these emotional mis-steps can really be the fault of the man who, in a happier earlier career, penned WONDER BOYS.

The upshot is that HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1 is unwatchable - dull, badly acted, ploddingly paced, full of failed attempts to tug at our heartstrings and basically a complete waste of time. The producers should have had the balls to condense the admittedly baggy source-text into just one film, cutting out scenes where the teenagers sit and brood and focusing on the destruction of the horcruxes. Because this film basically reads as two and a half hours of prologue. I left the cinema thinking, "Is this it?" and worst of all, "Dear God, if Guillermo del Toro wanted to direct this, why on earth didn't they let him?!"

In fairness, it must be hard to inject these films with suspense and emotional shocks - after all, most of us have read the books. Indeed, I am lucky enough that having read them on release, and forgotten most of the detail in the interim, I was more likely to be drawn into the plotting than true fans. As the movie opens another year is beginning at Hogwarts but Harry, Ron and Hermione aren't going back to the happy, colourful adventures of the early films. The world has changed - fascist goons fill the Ministry of Magic; Dolores Umbridge has installed Snape as headmaster of Hogwarts; and there are dark rumblings about registering all muggles. The tone of the film is established - it will be dark, cool-coloured, cold, and full of mis-trust and peril. The film opens and closes with the death of a trusted character and the death of minor characters litters the film throughout.

As the movie opens Harry is being transported by convoy from the Dursley's house, where he has spent the summer, to a safe house run by the Weasleys. The friends are betrayed and Harry, Ron and Hermione set off to destroy the horcruxes that contain Voldemort's soul. Problem is, they don't know where the horcruxes are, or even how to destroy them. And in carting the horcrux around, it fouls their temple, Ring-style. As the film progresses the kids find the sword of Griffindor; discover that Dumbledore had a brother; and that a kid called Grindelwald has been nicking stuff from Bellatrix Lestrange's bank-vault. But we don't really get much further along in understanding the bigger picture of what is actually happening. The plot of the film is thus made up of long periods where the teens sit and brood, inactive, and short spurts of danger where they find, or destroy a horcrux or escape the clutches of Death Eaters. By the end of the film, you are no clearer as to key characters' motivations than at the start.

I was so bored by the inaction, or numbed by the CGI fuelled action, that I started to contemplate the logical holes in the plot. Harry is in such danger his friends have to put him in hiding. And yet he can walk through the Ministry of Magic for a good few minutes before any of the fascist goons recognise him! And, even before that, Harry's friends risk his life to transport him to safety. Why don't they just apparate him to the safe-house? And why didn't Ron, Hermione and Harry just apparate out of the Ministry of Magic once they found the horcrux? After all, apparating is used to get them out of plenty of holes later on in the film - unless the director feels we need a good chase scene. And if apparating has been used too much, they can use the convenient fiction of the house-elf, who can apparently go where he pleases and find what he wants. If it's so easy for Creature and Dobby to locate Mundungus and bring him to Harry, why don't the kids ask them to find the Horcruxes and sit back and relax? Now I know that's just ridiculous, but by using these deus ex machina so often, J K Rowling damages our belief in the rules of her universe and makes everything possible and nothing meaningful.

So, is this film worth seeing? No, not unless you're a mega-fan. The only things that really work as cinema are a beautifully animated sequence telling the tale of the Three Brothers, made by Ben Hibon; and the character Dobby the House-Elf, voiced by Toby Jones, who alone delivers lines that are genuinely funny and genuinely moving. Together these two factors make up perhaps twenty minutes of screen time leaving two hours of dross. Low-lights include a scene where Harry tries to cheer Hermione up by making her dance - the actors looked as embarrassed as the audience - and a gauche scene where Ron imagines Harry and Hermione kissing.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1 is on global release in all bar France, Switzerland and South Africa where it opens next week and Hong Kong and South Korea where it opens on December 16th.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Blu-Ray / DVD Release - THE KARATE KID (2010)

The Jaden Smith-Jackie Chan remake of THE KARATE KID is a high quality, intelligent enterprise, with just enough charm and good humour to get you through the two-hour plus run-time. But it lacks the effervescence of the original, and by making the Kid a twelve year old rather than a sixteen year old, the screen-writers have fundamentally altered the dynamic of the story. Thus, while the original KARATE KID is as much about getting the girl as it is about winning the tournament, in this remake it's pretty much all about the karate and the Mentor-Mentee relationship.

The story follows the original closely. A Kid is uprooted to a new town when his single mother moves to a new job. Immediately, he's singled out but the cool kids as a loser and beaten up, turning up to school on his first day with a black eye.  The bullying continues until finally he's bailed out by the janitor, who turns out to have mad kung-fu skills.  Except, this knowing rename tells us, it's not kung fu, it's karate. The janitor negotiates a truce with the bullies and their mean karate teacher - leave the Kid alone until all matters can be decided at a karate tournament. During the truce, the Kid does repetitive chores for the janitor, not realising that he's really learning mad karate skills, as well as how to respect his elders. And, obviously, when the tournament finally comes, the Kid gets the trophy and the chick, but most importantly, self-respect and a much-needed father figure.

If the story is basically the same, the look and feel of the film is very different. Nothing in director Harald Zawart's back catalogue (which includes the risible PINK PANTHER remakes) could've prepared me for his elegant portrayal of a long-haul flight, or his lush photography of the Chinese landscape. There's also a light touch in his handling of the pre-teen crush that the Kid has for a Chinese violinist that is entirely absent from Zwart's PANTHER movies or indeed the AGENT CODY BANKS flics. There's also a lot to like in the script from relative newcomer, Christopher Murphey. I like how he plays with our expectations for the film, and nods to our nostalgia for particular scenes. For instance, the first time we see Mr Chan, he looks like he's about to catch a fly with his chopsticks, the classic move Mr Miyagi pulled. But, no, Mr Chan, actually just uses a fly swat.  And while Mr Chan is repairing a car, Mr Miyagi style, the reason is quite different than in the original film. The source of Mr Chan's sorrow manifests itself tragically where Mr Miyagi's sorrow was darkly comic. And while Jackie Chan was more than able to convey that tragedy, I couldn't help but be relieved that he hadn't been asked to mimic Pat Norita's Oscar-nominated performance.

There's a lot to like in this remake. The film-makers clearly took a lot of time to work out how best to use the Chinese locations, and incorporate some small details that feel authentic - such as Chinese fascination with curly hair. Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith have real chemistry, and while we all know that Jackie Chan is a charismatic and sympathetic screen presence, Jaden Smith holds his own.

But there are problems with the film too. First, it is woefully sentimental, right from the opening scene. The Kid's best friend gives him his skateboard to take to Beijing. The Kid protests but the bet friend insists. Cut to the Kid looking out of the window as his best friend runs after the car in slo-mo. Please.  Later, we get to Beijing, and Jackie Chan has just given it his all, letting us into the reason for Mr Chan's sorrow. And what happens next? The Kid leads him out of himself with a device that is pure fructose syrup.  It totally brought me out of the moment, and out of the film.

Still, all this syrupy nonsense was more than offset by the film's earnest attempt to give us some insight into modern China, and the intrinsic charm of Chan and Smith. What really sunk the film was its closing scene. All of us who grew up in the eighties know how important the final two scenes of the film are. First, we get the Karate Kid defeat his opponent with a highly difficult, daring move that Mr Miyagi taught him. It shows his courage and self control and skill. Ralph Macchio totally pulls it off. But in this remake we get Jaden Smith have to pull of a hypnotic-cobra-type movie that looks utterly punk and ridiculous. I mean, seriously, it's one thing to train for balance and kick your opponent in the head. It's another to think you can move like a cobra and hypnotise your opponent into losing his guard! When the Kid started shifting his head from side to side I started laughing, and not in a good way.

Worst still, the final scene of the original film is arguably the strongest of all - it's the ultimate victory - but it doesn't even exist in the remake. In the original, sure, the little bully teenagers are vicious but basically they've been made that way by their mean teacher. The Karate Kid has a good teacher in Miyagi and so can defeat them, but the real battle is between two ways of teaching - two different ways of forming children. Accordingly, it is right and fitting that the final scene of the movie sees Miyagi face off against his rival teacher, beat him, but not with brutal force but with kindness. It is the ultimate victory of the Miyagi way.  But in this flick, there is no wider message. The Kid wins, the bullies acknowledge his victory, honour Mr Chan and it's game over.  It was just too simplistic and kid focussed - I wanted closure for Mr Chan too.

Am I being too harsh on the remake? Am I holding it up to an impossibly high threshold - the high bar of eighties nostalgia?  I hope not. I watched the original Karate Kid recently, when it was re-released on Blu-Ray, and the movie still holds up. It's still funny, romantic, tragic, heart-warming and wise, all at the same time. This new movie takes the production values to a new level, and does a genuinely good job of showing us modern China, and Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith are just fine. But I definitely feel the script-writers short-changed us with too much syrup, a too hasty ending, and too long a build-up in the first hour.

THE KARATE KID was released in summer 2010 and is available on Region 2 DVD and Blu Ray tomorrow.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Late review - THE ILLUSIONIST / L'ILLUSIONISTE - Will you still love a man out of time?

Sylvain Chomet is a wonderfully old-fashioned animator. He still draws his characters by hand, rather than using CGI. And he uses very little dialogue, relying instead on subtle suggestion and sight-gags. The result, in BELLEVILLE RENDEZ-VOUS, was a film full of whimsy, charm and real heart. Viewers looking for that same odd-ball humour in THE ILLUSIONIST will be wrong-footed, as I was. For THE ILLUSIONIST, while similar in technical style to BELLEVILLE, is quite different in tone. Whimsy and charm are replaced by a rather unrelentingly bleak and depressing feel, and while THE ILLUSIONIST is just 80 minutes long, it felt far longer because the material was tough and problematic.

The movie is based on a script written by the legendary French vaudevillian and film-star, Jacques Tati. Written in the late 50s, it is the script of a man painfully aware that modern culture - the creaton of the "teenager", pop idols and film-stars - was rendering Vaudeville a dying art. As M. Hulot, his supremely popular film alter-ego, Tati had shown an anachronistic man struggling to deal with modernity in a comic light. But in his script for THE ILLUSIONIST, he confronted the true tragedy of the Man Out Of Time. It is no surprise to me that Tati never filmed THE ILLUSIONIST. It is a film so full of bleak reality - so self-negating - that it feels more like a shadowy form of therapy than a realistic project. And so it fell to Sylvain Chomet to finally bring the film to screen.

THE ILLUSIONIST sees a M.Hulot magician called Tatischeff - Tati's real name - performing to small indifferent crowds in music halls now filled with teenagers screaming for pop music. He leaves Paris, and then London, in search of work, and finds himself in Mull and Iona. There, the locals are still enamoured of his tricks, although it's only a matter of time before he's obsolete there too: they applaud him, but the jukebox is being installed. So ends the pre-amble. The story really takes off when a teenage girl called Alice believes Tatischeff really is a magician, and follows him to Edinburgh. They take up together - he is perhaps trying to recreate a father-daughter relationship - and he desperately tries to maintain the illusion that he really is a magician. Tragically, the production of coins from behind her ear, or pretty dresses and shoes, requires real, degrading work that he hides from her. It is exhausting, ultimately unsatisfying, and cannot be sustained.

The film - in particular its ending - makes a number of key statements - all of which are bleak. First, vaudeville is dead:  the crowds that once laughed have discarded it and its artists most cruelly, with desperately tragic consequences. Second, vaudevillians gave happiness to others at a great price - the travelling deprived them of real personal relationships, and left them economically at the mercy of rapacious agents and fickle audiences. Third, that the illusions that once gave happiness can become a source of dangerous delusion, enabling a deeply damaging relationship. By the end of the film Tatischeff has realised this - all of this. Little Alice will have to struggle with these lessons after the film ends.

Maybe if I'd been better primed I would have liked THE ILLUSIONIST more. I love the idea of exploring tragedy through animation. But even if I had been warned, and as much I appreciate the intention of the film, I still found it deeply problematic. The relationship between Tatischeff and Alice seemed to me sinister. It wasn't clear to me that she really thought the money appeared my magic. Rather, that she was simply playing him for money. Was she really so self-involved that she couldn't see what it was costing him? And if he could really magic money for clothes and shoes why wouldn't he magic money for rent in a better lodgings? Alice is either stupid or conniving - either way - a gaping hole where empathy should be at the heart of the film. Or maybe that was intentional? Maybe Tati wanted to show that Alice was just another example of fickle youth screaming for pop? Hard to square this with Chomet's contention that Alice is a stand-in for Tati's real-life daughter Sophie. Stylistically, I also thought there were some mis-steps. I loved the attention to detail in recreating 1960s Edinburgh, but why break the beautifully hand-drawn world? There is a scene where Tatischeff releases his white rabbit into the wild and the camera lifts up and gives us a whirling panoramic aerial view of Edinburgh. It's stunning, but it feels very CGI and quite out of keeping with the rest of the film.

Overall, then, I found THE ILLUSIONIST to be a bleak, often dull, and problematic in terms of the central relationship, and occasionally the technique. A great disappointment, and greater still because the central ideas are so powerful.

THE ILLUSIONIST played Berlin, Telluride and Toronto 2010 and was released earlier this year in France, the Netherlands and the UK. It opens in Turkey on October 29th; in Italy on December 3rd; and in the USA on Christmas Day.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Pantheon movie of the month - ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS (1969) - This year's girl

1969 was a year when Old Hollywood was being challenged by New Hollywood. Movies like MIDNIGHT COWBOY addressed sex openly, and featured protagonists that were unpalatable, urban and grimy. Movies like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID took well-worn genres and reworked them, infusing them with a modern sexual sensibility, strong female characters and ambiguity. THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE is a movie so scabrous and seditious it still seems as sharp and tart today as it did then.

It might seem odd, then, that I am championing a movie which was a commercial failure, and while nominated for ten awards, remains comparably unloved and undiscussed - Charles Jarrott's debut feature ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS. It is, in some ways, a deeply old-fashioned film: a lavish costume drama full filmed on location at no expense, filmed in cinemascope, and dripping with talent. It was produced by Hal Wallis at the end of a career that began in 1931, and went from silent flicks, to subversive noir, navigated the strictures of the Hays Code, and came out the other side. He'd done the greats in the old classic American style - THE MALTESE FALCON and CASABLANCA - morphed into a producer of Elvis' commercial hits - and still produced challenging genre pics - notably THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER and TRUE GRIT. He also had form when it came to challenging historical dramas - having produced the seminal Burton-O'Toole BECKET in 1964. Hal Wallis, then, knew what he was doing when he took on adapting Maxwell Anderson stage play for the screen. He wanted the big-budget lavish look of a commercial hit, but he also wanted an intellectually honest movie.

The film is yet another take on the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. It's a story that we are all familiar with, and have seen on screen many times: from the philosophical debate of A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (one of my favourite films of all time); to the domestic soap opera of THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL and television's THE TUDORS. Each production has its particular angle, but few face it as head on as ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS and even fewer give us as strong a pairing as Richard Burton and Geneviève Bujold. And I realise that there is an irony here. Richard Burton apparently thought his is a weak performance and hated the film. I, however, think this is a great Burton performance! 

The film opens with Cromwell asking Henry VIII for his signature on Queen Anne's death certificate, convicted of adultery, witchcraft and incest. He is torn - is she really adulterous? Should he give her another chance to bear him a son? What is God's will? And so we move into Act One. Anne is at court, in love with Percy, but the King maliciously stops her marriage so that he can amuse himself with her. She refuses, genuinely in love with Percy, and painfully aware of how the King threw over her sister once he had had his way with her. In Act Two we see Anne move from genuine opposition to the King's advances to falling in love both with him as a man - an intellectual equal with whom she gains pleasure from sparring - and equally with power - his power, and her power over him. She is not a coquette - as in THE TUDORS and THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL - but a clever girl who wants to protect her position, and not be used and rejected by her King. In the Third Act, Anne is undone. She produces a daughter and then a dead son. Henry's eye roams; Anne manoeuvres to protect Elizabeth's right to succeed him; both are undone by Cromwell. We never doubt that they love each other, but the marriage is unworkable. In the epilogue, we see the tragic consequences: Henry is given the freedom to marry Jane Seymour, but he knows he has been complict in killing the woman he loved and respected. Anne is, however, supreme, in the very final scene - it is her daughter who will reign after all.

Why do I love this film? First, because many a worse film survives thanks to the intrinsic fascination the world has with the story of Henry and Anne. Second, because the film decries the modern fashion to make Anne a capricious, manipulative woman who over-shot her place (curious misogyny that harks back to her original trial, and speaks volumes about the state of modern feminism). By contrast, Geneviève Bujold's Anne is clever, clever, clever. She is neither capricious nor manipulative. She understands the stakes, she knows the strength of her hand, and when she acts it is because she wants to protect herself from being used, and then to protect her daughter. She is rational, loving and prescient. She is, in short, the true hero of this film, and Bujold is equal to that portrayal at every turn. Th third reason why I love this film is for Burton's Henry. He is neither the arrogant boor of A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS nor the insufficiently-regal, easily-turned incompetent of THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL. Rather, he feels fully formed, and for every vice there is a virtue. Yes, he is arrogant, but he also respects Anne's intelligence. Yes, he is lustful, be he is also loyal to Anne, and genuinely grieved at her death. He does what he does not from over-weaning pride, but because he desperately wants to preserve the Tudor dynasty.

Thus, to my mind, ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS is one of the most even-handed and fascinating of the many portrayals of Henry and Anne. Just see them in combat! It's a sheer intellectual joy. And for dignity, pathos and power, I defy you to give me a better valedictory speech than Bujold's Anne. Just watch her un-man Wolsey in Henry's eyes. This is bravura screen-writing and acting. And better still, it is the highlight in a film that features location work, a superb score, a solid supporting cast of British character actors, and Arthur Ibbetsen's camera-work.

ANNE OF THE THOUSANDS DAYS was released in 1969 and was nominated for ten Oscars. However, it only one Best Costumes. The strength of film-making that year - and the revolution sweeping Hollywod that would make big budget costume dramas seem old-hat, is shown by a quick survey of the films it lost to in the other categories: MIDNIGHT COWBOY, TRUE GRIT, THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE, THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, HELLO DOLLY!

Monday, November 01, 2010

Late Review - MR NICE

Director Bernard Rose takes a break from contemporising Russian literature, with his straight-ahead adaptation of Howard Marks' autobiography, MR NICE. The charm of Marks' story is that he stands against the cliché of the drug dealer typically seen in films. He doesn't grow up in a mean urban setting - he doesn't push drugs to survive - he isn't particularly flash - he doesn't do whores - he's faithful to his wife and kids - and he studiously avoids Class A drugs - both dealing them and taking them. In fact, he is rather more like a hero of an Ealing Comedy - stumbling into drug dealing quite by accident and permanently amused that he is getting away with it.

Marks was basically just another middle-class kid studying at Oxford and smoking hash when a mate asked him to do a favour and drive a car stuffed with drugs back from Germany. Marks was quite happy to quit teaching for easy money-making and soon hooked up with the Provos to bring his hash into UK airports without the inconvenience of customs checks. Before long he's got the biggest outfit in the UK and tries to crack America. Moreover, he's been recruited by his old college chum to be a spy in Kabul - after all, he moves in circles they can't penetrate! The first time he's busted for dealing he gets off on grounds so spurious he seems to be amazed, but he does eventually serve time - and not because of hubris, or narcissism, or betrayal - but basically because he was too bored to quit.

The film is charming and fun, and uses a deliberately lo-fi amateurish style, with live action footage digitally inserted into grainy old vintage footage of the 60s and 70s. Rhys Ifans is suitably bumbling and charming as Marks and he and Chloe Sevigny as his wife seem genuinely in love. I also love David Thewlis - who has just that edge of danger required to play the Provo, Jim McCann. The charm and the fun is entirely in keeping with Marks' carefully cultivated persona as Mr. Nice. Yes, that was his real alias, but he also wants to be seen as basically a good guy. To that end, this movie drips with family values, and to watch it, one would think that his wife and daughters never blamed him for one second for being absent from their lives. The film also refuses to question how far his involvement with the Provos was morally pretty nasty - after all, the dodgy money they were earning wasn't going into real estate, was it? And there is a deliberately cultivated equivocation about how far he ever really did any spying for the British.

So, MR NICE is basically a rather fawning film - frothy, light, charming, disposable. It doesn't get to grips with Howard Marks - but provides him with a yet another self-justificatory platform. Is that bad? Who knows. But there is something rather, well, distasteful in an international drug dealer who consorted with the IRA palming himself of as a charming rogue.

MR NICE is currently on release in the UK.