Thursday 28 February 2013

1,001 Films: "The Cloud-Capped Star/Meghe Dhaka Tara" (1960)

It was both the director Ritwak Ghatak's fortune and his misfortune to come along in the wake of Satyajit Ray. Ray had just completed his landmark Apu trilogy when The Cloud-Capped Star first emerged, and Ghatak's film would come to be swept up and promoted internationally under a banner of New Indian Cinema, notionally far from Bollywood norms. In fact, there were clearly marked differences between the two filmmakers. Ray was the stronger storyteller, I think, but Ghatak had the greater eye and ear for composition, an even surer grasp of the sights and sounds cinema could make available: consider the opening scene here, in which a soaring tree extends up and across the frame

More than this: Ghatak's characters weren't as close to Ray's as they were to Ozu's in Japan, though the filmmaker also worked in latent traces of Mikio Naruse's feminism and Antonioni's concerns as to the dehumanising effects of modernity. With their gabled front gate and career aspirations, the family at The Cloud-Capped Star's centre are representatives of a nascent Indian middle-class - the shock is the extent to which even this strata of society is seen as mired in poverty. After an ambling first half-hour - introducing us to the constituent members of this extended clan: the professor father and his wife, their two sons and two daughters - the narrative proper kicks in when the father and sole breadwinner (Bijon Bhattacharya) breaks a leg, forcing his eldest daughter Nita (Supriya Choudhury) to abandon her studies and find work.

The film keenly evokes this sense of drift. Ray appeared to impose order on all his narratives, but Ghatak ensures that events are at all points beyond his characters' control; this is a film of sudden revelations and nasty surprises. And where his contemporary was famously critical of the melodramatic Bollywood tradition, Ghatak has no issue with integrating storms, swoons and songs - the latter becoming a rare element in this universe that these characters can cling to and master. Throughout, the use of sound is tremendously bold and original: listen to what's happening in the scene where Nita discovers her boyfriend's infidelity, or for the whiplash effect at the end of the ballad her mother teaches her.

For all this, The Cloud-Capped Star remains a slumpy sort of classic, stuck as it is with a martyr of a heroine muddling through a despair of a plot, and I'm not sure I don't prefer the full-on exuberance of Bollywood to this halfway house of realism and melodrama, however singular it may be. The one area in which Ray and Ghatak were very closely matched in, however, was in the matter of complete empathy for their protagonists. Star's title derives from a letter its heroine receives from her boyfriend, suggesting she hides her light under a bushel - but, as Ghatak recognises, that's to say that she has a choice in the matter, and that budding intellectual promise stands a chance of blossoming when faced with the practicalities of this particular hardscrabble existence.

The Cloud-Capped Star is available on DVD through the BFI, and is available to watch online here.

Monday 25 February 2013

On DVD: "Nenette et Boni"

Previously unavailable on DVD in the UK, the 1996 film Nenette et Boni hails from a moment when Claire Denis was building both a reputation in her native France, and the ensemble that would serve her so well in years and films to come; its tale of North Africans scraping by in latter-day Marseille now looks like something of a warm-up for the Paris-set 35 Shots of Rum. The focus is on a pair of teenage tearaways: posturing lad Boni (Grégoire Colin, a recurring figure in the director's later work), who spends his days shooting at cats with an air rifle and fuelling his own masturbatory fantasies concerning the local baker's wife (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi); and his sister Antoinette, a.k.a. Nenette (Alice Houri), who turns up on Boni's doorstep, having fled the broken home she'd been sharing with her father.

Around this pair, you sense Denis refining her MO, moving further and further away from conventional narrative constraints and towards the kind of intimate moments that might well be set to a twinkly Tindersticks score - even if these involve, as here, no more than Boni knocking one out, or a slow, tantalising pan over the contents of a patisserie's front window, and the Bruni-Tedeschi décolletage. (The mouth, truly, waters.) This conjunction of masturbation and baked goods might now have Nenette et Boni pegged as a French precursor to American Pie, yet if anything, it's a teen sex comedy in slow-motion, guided by a filmmaker more concerned with character than anybody's instant gratification. The aggressively horny Boni soon finds family ties getting in the way of his boner; taking Nenette in forces him to co-exist with an actual (rather than fantasy) woman, and confront the consequences of all that thrusting. 

"Your mother was never a real woman to me," admits the boy's father (the peerlessly seedy Jacques Nolot) when he, too, shows up; what Denis' quietly radical approach does is make time and space for the film's women to register, and for Boni to soften to some degree, like the dough he kneads in the film's indelibly abstract (non-)sex scene. This director's last truly playful film before she entered the pantheon reserved for Serious Filmmakers, it's a real charmer, earning an attachment to these characters such that Denis can negotiate a broadly smooth last-reel shift into darker territory - which, speaking of teen sex comedies, may just hit the spot for those who found Juno evasive and candy-coated. Even the Vincent Gallo cameo - as a baker who loathes croissants, and scrubs up delightfully well in sailors' whites - proves oddly winning.

Nenette et Boni is available on DVD through Artificial Eye separately, or as part of The Claire Denis Collection, reviewed here.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Oscar predictions (ST 24/02/13)

Best Picture

What will win:
It’s the most even field in years – partly because the films are a generally ordinary bunch. Pacesetter Life of Pi may have been overtaken by Ben Affleck’s Argo, in which starry Hollywood ingenuity bests faceless Iranian treachery.

What should win:
Either Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s rediscovery of magisterial storytelling instincts, or Silver Linings Playbook, the liveliest nominee, for setting about a careworn story arc in sparky, unconventional fashion.

Its lingering, unresolved mysteries have divided critics and audiences, but The Master, one of the foremost American screen achievements of last year, deserved a nomination at the very least.

Best Director

Who will win:
With BAFTA-winner Affleck going without nomination – the stench of Gigli seemingly lingers – it’s a two-horse race: Pi’s Ang Lee looks the likely beneficiary, with a certain Mr. Spielberg waiting in the wings.

Who should win:
Deserving as they are, Lee and Spielberg already have Oscars, so let’s hail Silver Linings supremo David O. Russell (Three Kings, The Fighter) for consistently jazzing up material that might have become flatly generic.

Paul Thomas Anderson, for his chancy, visionary work on The Master; on a more commercial note, erstwhile Academy fave Sam Mendes was unlucky to miss out with Skyfall, his triumphant 007 reinvention.

Best Actor

Who will win:
Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln. Day-Lewis has become as reliable a shoo-in on Academy acting ballots as Meryl Streep; watch him slipping quietly, unshowily, and wholly persuasively under Honest Abe’s stovepipe and you realise why.

Who should win:
If not Day-Lewis, then Joaquin Phoenix: no less Methody and no less unforgettable as The Master’s damaged, drunken sailor. Props to Bradley Cooper, too, for putting The Hangover’s crassness behind him with Silver Linings Playbook.

Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour’s tormented other half; Matthew McConaughey, whose wiry assassin in the Academy-unfriendly Killer Joe reminded us of the electrifying sparks this perennial romcom smoothie is capable of generating.

Best Actress

Who will win:
Another open field: sprightly Hollywood hares Jessica Chastain (the controversy-dogged Zero Dark Thirty) and Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) are being challenged by tortoise-like veteran Emmanuelle Riva, clinging to whatever dignity remains in Amour.

Who should win:
Cinephiles won’t argue if Riva wins, but Lawrence – a runner-up for 2010’s Winter’s Bone – makes a tough and compelling case for her character, choosing life, where Amour settles in for death.

A trio of Brits: Judi Dench, for seizing control of Skyfall, Keira Knightley, for lighting up Anna Karenina, and Andrea Riseborough, going pale with uncertainty as the MI5 informant in Shadow Dancer.

Best Foreign Language Film

What will win:
Amour. The only film among the nominees to also make the Best Picture shortlist, it’s a stone-cold certainty – and there’s nothing Academy voters like more than having their certainties confirmed.

What should win:
Pablo Larrain’s formally bold, narratively stirring Chilean entrant NO, currently wowing UK audiences in recounting how a dissident group of ad execs helped to unseat Augusto Pinochet.

Pointed Swiss contender Sister, about a teenage thief stalking a ski resort, and Barbara, Christian Petzold’s gripping micro-drama of life under the Stasi, just missed the shortlist. Aleksandr Sokurov’s eye-popping Faust didn’t even get that far.

The 85th Academy Awards take place in Los Angeles this evening.

Saturday 23 February 2013

On DVD: "The Claire Denis Collection" (Daily Telegraph 23/02/13)

The Claire Denis Collection (15) ****

The films of the French writer-director Claire Denis are typically a collection of moments: vivid, self-contained, narrative-resistant renderings of indelible human experience. As Artificial Eye’s new four-film boxset makes apparent, this was an aesthetic choice right from her semi-autobiographical 1988 debut Chocolat, where memories of a fraught household in 1950s Cameroon quietly insinuate an entire history of colonial misrule. The pointillist approach gets refined further in 1996’s previously unavailable Nenette et Boni, an often charmingly abstract sex comedy that spots the softening effect a teenage girl has on her testosterone-inflamed sibling.

That film’s easy eroticism clearly fed into 1999’s Beau Travail, Denis’ breakthrough moment: a sinuous, shimmering, desert-set riff on Melville’s Billy Budd involving rival Legionnaires that, in its emphasis on male bodies at work and play, may just count as the most physical film ever made. 2009’s White Material brings us full circle, with a newly tiny and vulnerable Isabelle Huppert trapped on an African coffee plantation by civil war, and gradually summoning the force to fight back. Part gripping siege-thriller, part post-colonial reverie, it’s the moment Denis was confirmed as one of the most distinctive filmmakers at large in world cinema today.

The Claire Denis Collection is available on DVD from Monday.

Friday 22 February 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of February 15-17, 2013:

1 (new) A Good Day to Die Hard (12A) [above]
2 (1) Wreck-It Ralph (PG) ***
3 (new) This is 40 (15) ***
4 (2) Les Misérables (12A) *
5 (new) Beautiful Creatures (12A)
6 (3) I Give It A Year (15)
7 (4) Django Unchained (18) **
8 (new) Sammy's Great Escape (U)
9 (7) Lincoln (12A) ****
10 (5) Flight (15) **

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Cloud Atlas

2. The Road: A Story of Life and Death
3. Madame de...

4. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
5. Lore

Top Ten DVD rentals:
1 (2) The Bourne Legacy (12)
2 (1) Ted (15) ***
3 (4) The Dark Knight Rises (12) ***
4 (3) Looper (15) ****
5 (new) The Perks of Being a Wallflower (12) **
6 (5) The Sweeney (15) *
7 (10) Ice Age 4: Continental Drift (U)
8 (6) Lawless (18) **
9 (new) Sinister (15) ****
10 (9) Total Recall (12) ** 

My top five:
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Gladiator (Friday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
2. Armageddon (Friday, BBC1, 11.20pm)
3. Runaway Jury (Sunday, C4, 10.50pm)
4. Unstoppable (Sunday, C4, 9pm)
5. The Black Shield of Falworth (Saturday, BBC2, 2.15pm)

Range: "Song for Marion" and "Cloud Atlas" (ST 24/02/13)

Song for Marion (PG) 93 mins ***
Cloud Atlas (15) 172 mins ****

Cinema’s biggest growth area in the wake of The King’s Speech has been matinee fare: films aimed at older viewers keen to avoid teenage texters and get home by a reasonable hour. These grey-pound grabbers have varied in their content – Judi Dench’s sudden prominence arguably made Skyfall part of the cycle – but they’ve largely inhabited the same stifling tonal range: somewhere between cute and cosy, as though the target audience were incapable of processing anything challenging at 2pm on a wet Wednesday, preferring to be tickled under the chin for ninety minutes.

The one surprise with Song for Marion, which otherwise fits the template squarely, is who’s holding the tickling stick: writer-director Paul Andrew Williams, whose tough genre experiments London to Brighton and Cherry Tree Lane preferred taking baseball bats to everybody’s heads. Maybe it’s opportunism, maybe Williams is mellowing with age: either way, his latest plays like an update of the time-honoured Full Monty formula – public exhibitionism vanquishes English emotional reserve – for a post-Glee world. (The documentary Young@Heart may also have been an influence.)

Its central conflict is established during the opening credits. Terence Stamp’s grumpy Arthur, weighed down by the heaviest of overcoats, is trudging joylessly through his housing estate; he’s off to pick up happy-clappy wife Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) from her weekly date with a pensioner acapella group known as “The OAPz”. Marion, we will learn, has a tumour to go with the tunes inside her head, giving the plot its mild momentum: the question is whether the music can get the terse, socially awkward Arthur (“you know how I feel about enjoying things”) to open up before it’s too late.

Where Williams’ earlier films possessed the grim urgency of midnight movies, here he defaults to the look and feel of afternoon TV: all that’s missing are the ads for walk-in baths. The pitch is somewhere on the level of Pensioners Do (And Sing) The Funniest Things. As Gemma Arterton – whose too-sweet-to-be-true vocal coach really ought to be named Miss Honey or Miss Virtue or something – guides the oldtimers through a toe-tensing rendition of “Let’s Talk About Sex”, some may feel that Arthur’s crotchety demeanour is entirely reasonable.

Yet this kind of community-centre cinema is dependent more than most on who shows up, and here Stamp proves Williams’ trump card. Rarely sounding a false note, he’s often seen willing the material past its own limitations: one off-screen howl of regret comes as both unexpected in a film so determinedly peppy and strangely, suggestively musical. After that, we’re but a song away from an understated finale: Arthur, repositioned centre stage to croak Billy Joel’s “Lullaby” while a single tear trickles down Stamp’s skull-like features. Extraordinary thing, the potency of cheap music.

In Cloud Atlas, we have a genuine folie de grandeur. In this often staggering adaptation of David Mitchell’s Booker-shortlisted novel, three directors and a half-dozen stars circumnavigate time and the globe, pursuing souls in the process of transmigration. One moment we’re aboard an 1840s cargo ship, the next we’re watching an automaton uprising in 22nd-century Seoul; connecting these and other stories, the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix) and German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) weave an elaborate tissue of recurring motifs: high dives, chance encounters, forbidden passions, cannibalism literal and figurative.

Mitchell’s unifying theme of freedom inspires the film’s most rewarding tactic: disguised in latex, the actors escape into multiple selves. Having relocated his sense of fun in voicing Aardman’s The Pirates!, Hugh Grant re-emerges in costume as, variously, a chauvinist nuclear bigshot and a post-apocalyptic people-eater. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry require rather more make-up to disguise the fact they are, well, Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, but the dual roles of cranky composer and fugitive publisher provide further illustration of Jim Broadbent’s unflashy virtuosity.

It’s a bold gamble – something like the most transcendental showreel ever filmed – and not every strand goes places: the fall of mankind, involving Hanks and Berry plodding round forests swapping mumbo-jumbo dialogue, is a destination that never quite lives up to the journey. Still, it’d be a dull soul who didn’t respond to the risks the film takes, the boundaries it pushes, and the resonances it finds between disparate lives. How a vision this brazenly eccentric snuck past the Warner Bros. beancounters is a mystery, and something to be amazed by in itself, but its dreamy peregrinations will almost certainly account for the season’s most daring and adventurous release.

Song for Marion and Cloud Atlas are now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"The Road: A Story of Life and Death" (Guardian 22/02/13)

The Road: A Story of Life and Death (PG) 75 mins ****

The road in Marc Isaacs’ highly engaging documentary is the A5, the 300-mile Roman legacy connecting Holyhead to Marble Arch. Isaacs installed his camera at various points to record its travellers: marching Muslims, Buddhist monks seeking nirvana in Colindale, an alcoholic ex-navvy whose loneliness is horribly compelling, and rarely observed this honestly. As proposed by his 2001 doc Lift – which sought out characters within a tower-block’s confines – Isaacs may be British cinema’s pre-eminent people person, locating strangeness, melancholy and joy within both the urban landscape and those who inhabit it. Almost every subject here might have merited their own film, but the brisk diversity is central to what emerges as a subtly pointed, humorous and above all humane contribution to the immigration debate: the road has been retraced as a lifeline, pumping fresh blood into the city’s heart. 

The Road: A Story of Life and Death opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Fire in the Blood" (Guardian 22/02/13)

Fire in the Blood (PG) 87 mins ***

A slightly dry yet very solid reportage on a humanitarian disgrace: the failure of Western pharmaceutical companies to provide affordable drugs to Third World patients. As presented, the corporate defence sounds horribly racist: that poorer Africans’ inability to read packaging or tell the time leaves them ill-suited to following any medication program. For some while, director Dylan Mohan Gray is limited to restating the same depressing story, using input from doctors, campaigners and international spokespeople to punctuate footage of families grieving around child-sized coffins. The Noughties, however, saw hope emerge in the form of the Indian physicist Yusuf Hamied, whose company Cipla undertook to produce cheap generic drugs in defiance of the Pfizer patent lawyers. As the indignation rises, the outcome of this battle cannot entirely be guessed, although one closing credit appears to address Big Pharma directly: “Help prevent a sequel.” 

Fire in the Blood opens in selected cinemas nationwide from today.

"Breath of the Gods" (Guardian 22/02/13)

Breath of the Gods (U) 100 mins **

Ominously billed as “A Journey into the Origins of Modern Yoga”, this one’s niche, to say the least. German documentarist Jan Schmidt-Garre has gone to India and brought back a wearyingly attenuated history of stretching: footage of sages discussing stretching, intercut with footage of people stretching, and scratchy archive footage of people stretching as they used to in olden times. (It hasn’t changed much.) Schmidt-Garre does little to turn this scholarly exercise into cinema, and his Teutonic seriousness is grinding when not ripe for parody. Where’s Mad Lizzie when we need her? 

Breath of the Gods opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Mama" (Metro 22/02/13)

Mama (15) 100 mins **

There were fears this hokey adoption-from-hell chiller might be more damaging to Jessica Chastain’s Oscar prospects than any of Zero Dark Thirty’s controversies, but let’s be forgiving: it’s exactly the type of project an up-and-coming actress might take in a bid to prove her range. Stuck with an unflattering black crop and bad tattoos, she’s playing Annabel, a rock guitarist whose hunky beau (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) elects to take in two young nieces after their father’s sudden disappearance. A commendably mature move – except that these skittering foundlings have fallen under the protective spirit of a murderess helpfully referred to as “Mad” Edith.

As Guillermo del Toro’s semi-meaningless executive producer credit suggests, Mama clearly wants to import the restrained seriousness of recent Spanish-language horror smashes for subtitle-resistant audiences. Yet while its finale gestures in the direction of something emotional, getting there involves mucho familiar multiplex filler: loud screeches atop the soundtrack, and some pretty silly business involving the girls’ sinister way with wax crayons. Chastain hints at a toughness that isn’t a thousand miles away from her Oscar role, but her smarts are wasted on a largely reactive character. Not embarrassing, just terribly ordinary.

Mama opens in cinemas nationwide today.