Saturday 31 January 2015

1,001 Films: "The Conformist/Il Conformista" (1970)

I suspect even those eyes numbed and jaded by the past four decades' overwhelming morass of moving imagery may still find Bertolucci's The Conformist astonishingly odd viewing. Ostensibly a drama of self-deception, adapted from Alberto Moravia's post-War novel and set against the forbidding backdrop of fascist Europe, it appears to divide neatly into two halves (set in Rome and Paris, respectively), but subdivides within these comforting parameters into jarring flashbacks, memories and fantasies, and often switches its strategies from scene to scene, as required. The result is like no other political thriller, no other literary adaptation, and not very much else around, then as now.

Anti-hero Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a blank young man so obsessed with conforming socially that he marries nice, unthreatening, middle-class Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) - "all bed and kitchen", as he rather ungallantly puts it - and takes a job as a fascist agent. His first assignment dispatches him to Paris to spy on a former professor of his who's suspected of distributing anti-fascist propaganda, yet where you might expect the film to follow this strand into a down-the-line spy movie, Bertolucci - one of the cinema's most prominent sensualists - turns his attentions to the women of the piece, establishing a love triangle of sorts as both Marcello and Giulia fall under the spell of the professor's polyamorous wife Anna (Dominique Sanda).

Pointedly lacking in conviction, Marcello can but watch. Here is an especially weak-willed (and, we must presume, weak-willied) fascist, the sort who, when standing trial in the immediate wake of WWII, would plead not guilty on the grounds they were "just following orders". This Marcello fellow is portrayed as a childlike individual, forever refusing his responsibilities, and his sexual ambivalence is more than likely meant to be representative of a nation that felt a pressing need for a strong man to lead them into battle; the film's closest - though still somewhat estranged - relative would be Volker Schlöndorff's adaptation of The Tin Drum, another vivid portrayal of how nations effectively suffer arrested development under fascist rule.

The Conformist, with its epochal contributions from the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, is every bit the masterpiece of lighting and architectural design you've heard about. At one point, Sandrelli can be observed wearing a dress that appears to match perfectly the light coming through the slats in the blind behind her - and it's the darnedest thing, haute couture that could only ever be worn in the one spot on the planet. What's most remarkable about the film, however, is how its content meshes with this ever-bold form: every effect here is intentional, none merely superficial.

Marcello embraces the conventional with all of what passes for his heart, but the Bertolucci of 1970 - possibly mindful of the decade of spy movies that had just passed, setting many of the genre's tropes in concrete - finds it impossible to set up a scene without some dazzling and audacious transgression front and centre. We get odd starts to scenes (the Parma Violets seller, leaning into a car window like some feral creature), odd ends to scenes (the shift in camera perspective that "replaces" Marcello's chauffeur, sitting in a park, with a tree) and, in between, supremely elegant camerawork - no-one takes the time to set up travelling shots like these anymore, not when they can strap on a Steadicam in a couple of minutes - which yields to scruffy, scrappy handheld without anything in the way of a warning.

Odd case in point: the "explanatory" flashback to an incident of trauma in Marcello's childhood. It's not, apparently, enough that the hero should be humiliated, short trousers round ankles, by a gang of marauding kids on rollerskates (parents looking on eerily, as though peering in on penguins in a zoo enclosure); he's then carried off to be raped by a gay chauffeur with a kimono, a handgun, and a major Madame Butterfly fixation. (The noise you can hear is Dr. Freud turning in his grave.) We work our way towards the clumsiest assassination ever staged - a death by a thousand cuts, which the Sopranos team surely consulted before starting work on the standout "Pine Barrens" episode - then lurch into a post-War epilogue in which Marcello, pinning his crimes on others, is reduced to (very childish) fingerpointing.

The estrangement and entrapment Trintignant evokes is partly that of his character, a prisoner of some fairly banal and sterile desires, but also possibly that of the actor who finds himself at the mercy of extraordinary direction. You could argue the tragic dimensions of Marcello's story get lost, or at least softened into the weirdest of black comedies, by the warping excess of the staging. But where the later Bertolucci would keep capitulating to that excess - excess in performance (Last Tango in Paris), spectacle (The Last Emperor) and sex (The Dreamers) - The Conformist still feels like the work of a filmmaker at the absolute height of his creative and critical powers, capable of pulling out all the stops with one hand while otherwise maintaining a perfectly disconcerting equilibrium with the other.

The Conformist is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Arrow Films.

Friday 30 January 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 23-25, 2015: 
1 (2) American Sniper (15) ***
2 (1) Taken 3 (12A)
3 (3) The Theory of Everything (12A) ***
4 (4) Into the Woods (12A) **
5 (new) Ex Machina (15) **
6 (5) Paddington (PG) ****
7 (new) Mortdecai (12A) *
8 (new) The Gambler (15)
9 (8) Birdman (15) **
10 (7) Whiplash (15) ****


My top five:   
1. Duck Soup
2. The Last of the Unjust 
3. Au Revoir les Enfants
4. Whiplash
5. Testament of Youth

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) What We Did on Our Holiday (12)
2 (3) A Walk Among the Tombstones (15) **
3 (4) Before I Go to Sleep (15) **
4 (re) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (12) *** 
5 (2) The Inbetweeners 2 (15) ***
6 (6) Edge of Tomorrow (12) ***
7 (5) X-Men: Days of Future Past (12) ***
8 (7) How to Train Your Dragon 2 (U) *** 
9 (re) The Fault in Our Stars (12) **    
10 (9) A Most Wanted Man (15) **** 

My top five:  
1. Maps to the Stars
2. A Most Wanted Man
3. Leviathan
4. Night Moves
5. The Rover

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Shawshank Redemption (Saturday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
2. Parenthood (Friday, ITV1, 10.40pm)
3. Ginger and Rosa (Saturday, BBC2, 10.30pm)
4. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Sunday, five, 6.50pm)
5. True Grit (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)

"Tales of the Grim Sleeper" (The Guardian 30/01/15)

Tales of the Grim Sleeper ***
Dir: Nick Broomfield. With: Nick Broomfield, Pam Brooks. 110 mins. Cert: 15

Nick Broomfield’s new doc picks over the grisly bones of a serial-killer case that continues to haunt South Central L.A. In 2010, Lonnie Franklin Jr. was charged with murdering ten women over the previous quarter-century; he’d gained the nickname “Grim Sleeper” from the theory he’d rested 14 years between killings, but Polaroids scattered around Franklin’s pad suggest other victims may simply have vanished into this impoverished, crack-scarred, deeply misogynist landscape. Broomfield’s follow-ups with friends and neighbours reveal how normalised Franklin’s behaviour had become – one thought nothing of the “motor oil” he cleaned from Franklin’s carpets – yet their oversight pales against the LAPD’s institutionalised indifference: you gulp upon learning Franklin was only apprehended via an evidentiary fluke. Tough viewing, but the filmmaker’s commitment is unmistakable: even after being pulled over for driving without a seatbelt – a trademark Broomfield bumble – he still thinks to ask the cop what he knew of this tragically compelling episode. 

Tales of the Grim Sleeper opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Pelo Malo/Bad Hair" (The Guardian 30/01/15)

Pelo Malo/Bad Hair ***
Dir: Mariana Rondón. With: Samuel Lange Zambrano, Samantha Castillo, Beto Benites. 93 mins. Cert: 15

This breakthrough drama from Venezuelan writer-director Mariana Rondón starts small – sketching a somewhat tetchy, resentful relationship between a single mother and her nine-year-old son in latter-day Caracas – and gradually builds an idea of a society constructed along restrictively gendered lines. Both main characters are brushing against the grain: mama Marta (the excellent Samantha Castillo) quitting menial cleaning work to try out as a security guard, Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano) struggling to straighten the unruly moptop he inherited from his macho deceased dad and become a singer. (He’s a little like the crossdressing hero of 1997’s French crowdpleaser Ma Vie en Rose.) Rondón charts their progress in unemphatic slices of life, just playful enough for the whole not to feel like a tract: a pre-teen female neighbour’s gabby obsession with rape – funny, but with a chilly undertone – is typical of a quietly perceptive work that teases out insights without undue strain. 

Pelo Malo/Bad Hair opens in selected cinemas from today.

Friday 23 January 2015

1,001 Films: "Ma Nuit Chez Maud/My Night with Maud" (1969)

In 1969's Ma Nuit Chez Maud/My Night With Maud - either the third or fourth of Eric Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales", depending on your chronology - a devout, buttoned-down, solicitudinous engineer (Jean-Louis Trintignant), described as "the quintessential Jesuit" by his closest friends, finds all his hypotheses on life, love and "mathematical hope" tested by proximity to two very different women: first, the striking blonde student he locks eyes with at Mass - in what would surely count among the cinema's most daring pick-ups, had their relationship gone any further - then, having been snowed in at her apartment one Christmas Eve, by the spiky brunette of the title, a divorced single mother who becomes our hero's conversational and philosophical sparring partner, and eventually, against the odds, his lover.

The shock, 40 years on from Maud's first release, comes from encountering a film this frontloaded with lengthy, unexpurgated, sleepover chat. The picture is primed with talk, much as Michael Bay's movies are primed with explosions - and, like Bay's movies, Maud might be an equal turn-off for those who aren't really in the mood. (All Trintignant's fussing about Jansenism is Rohmer's version of that unfathomable technobabble Bay has the rocket scientists in his films speak.) There's an especially exasperating (not to mention emblematic) scene early on chez Maud when - having been invited to stay for at least dinner - Trintignant sits with the remains of his cheesecake poised upon his fork, and proceeds to talk, and talk, and talk. Rohmer's characters like to chew things over; you may well prefer them to swallow.

Indeed, without Nestor Almendros' atmospheric photography of Clermont-Ferrand in the snow and after dark - the regional equivalent of what Godard and Varda were trying to pin down in their Paris films - it would be easy to write Maud off as anti-cinematic: to conclude that its lengthy stretches of jawing would play just as well, if indeed not better, on the page, or on the stage, particularly if we could retain Rohmer's superlative ensemble. Only by listening closely, however, do we grasp that talk is actually the film's subject of study - the manner through which these characters stave off action, justify themselves or seek to absolve their guilt. In these lives, talk has become a weapon in an ongoing battle against insecurity, which is why the film's fundamentals feel oddly timeless: these are young adults striving to articulate a path for themselves between the unnameable forces in the universe.

Talk is also Rohmer's own way of seducing the viewer (and, more precisely, the viewer's good intelligence: these are conversations we might actually like to have), just as Maud has to talk her reluctant suitor under the covers with her. As with that onscreen process of seduction, it takes a while, but it happens sooner or later, and it's why these individuals - Françoise Fabian's eponymous heroine, in particular - come to seem like real, flesh-and-blood people, rather than the hepcat signifiers and autobiographical avatars we observe in other French New Wave projects. In this bold directorial statement - a film that's effortlessly good with words, and which ranks among Rohmer's clearest and crispest pronouncements - the characters talk, therefore they are.

Ma Nuit chez Maud is available on DVD through Artificial Eye. A Rohmer retrospective continues at the BFI Southbank, London - full details here.

Thursday 22 January 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 16-18, 2015: 
1 (1) Taken 3 (12A)
2 (new) American Sniper (15) [above] ***
3 (3) The Theory of Everything (12A) ***
4 (2) Into the Woods (12A) **
5 (5) Paddington (PG) ****
6 (4) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12A) **
7 (new) Whiplash (15) ****
8 (8) Birdman (15) **
9 (new) Wild (15) ** 
10 (new) Met Opera: The Merry Widow (12A) 


My top five:   
1. Duck Soup
2. The Last of the Unjust 
3. Whiplash
4. Testament of Youth
5. Foxcatcher

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy (12) **
2 (2) The Inbetweeners 2 (15) ***
3 (new) A Walk Among the Tombstones (15) **
4 (10) Before I Go to Sleep (15) ** 
5 (3) X-Men: Days of Future Past (12) ***
6 (4) Edge of Tomorrow (12) ***
7 (new) How to Train Your Dragon 2 (U) *** 
8 (5) 22 Jump Street (15) ***
9 (new) A Most Wanted Man (15) ****
10 (6) Mrs. Brown's Boys: D'Movie (15) *

My top five:  
1. Night Moves
2. The Circle
3. Obvious Child
4. Stations of the Cross
5. The Galapagos Affair

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Artist (Saturday, BBC2, 10pm)
2. The Wooden Horse (Tuesday, BBC2, 3.35pm)
3. Thirteen Days (Saturday, BBC2, 12.35am)
4. The Departed (Saturday, C4, 12.10am)
5. Shaun of the Dead (Friday, ITV1, 10.40pm)

Friday 16 January 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 9-11, 2015: 
1 (new) Taken 3 (12A)
2 (new) Into the Woods (12A) **
3 (1) The Theory of Everything (12A) ***
4 (2) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12A) **
5 (3) Paddington (PG) ****
6 (new) Foxcatcher (15) ****
7 (4) The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (12A) ***
8 (7) Birdman (15) **
9 (5) Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (PG) **
10 (8) Annie (PG)


My top five:   
1. Duck Soup [above]
2. The Last of the Unjust 
3. Whiplash
4. Testament of Youth
5. Foxcatcher

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy (12) **
2 (2) The Inbetweeners 2 (15) ***
3 (3) X-Men: Days of Future Past (12) ***
4 (5) Edge of Tomorrow (12) ***
5 (7) 22 Jump Street (15) ***
6 (4) Mrs. Brown's Boys: D'Movie (15) *
7 (6) Transformers: Age of Extinction (12)
8 (8) The Fault in Our Stars (12) **
9 (9) The Expendables 3 (15) 
10 (new) Before I Go to Sleep (15) **

My top five:  
1. Night Moves
2. Obvious Child
3. Stations of the Cross
4. The Galapagos Affair
5. Nas: Time is Illmatic

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Sunday, C4, 1.45am)
2. The Naked Gun (Saturday, C4, 12.15am)
3. Last Orders (Sunday, BBC2, 11pm)
4. The Pact (Sunday, C4, 11.05pm)
5. A Simple Plan (Monday, BBC1, 12.20am)

1,001 Films: "Night of the Living Dead" (1968)

Thirty years on from Hollywood's first wave of monster movies and creature features, and with America in the middle of a decade of civil-rights turmoil, George A. Romero cobbled together the funds to make what would prove a landmark indie. Informed to some degree by the sudden outbreaks of violence that had punctuated American life over the previous decade, Night of the Living Dead would benefit from both a flourishing drive-in circuit and a newly relaxed attitude towards screen censorship that meant the crucial action was allowed to be more explicit than it was in those old Bela Lugosi vehicles: let's face it, once you've seen the First Lady getting covered in the contents of her husband's cranium, there would be no particular reason to flinch from the maraudings of crazed brain eaters.

The opening pulls up just shy of parody, and we're reminded The Rocky Horror Picture Show was only a few years away. A couple of squares find themselves under attack when they go to lay a wreath on the grave of the girl's father; the guy, unable to take the threat remotely seriously, is knocked out cold, but his gal escapes to a nearby farmhouse where she holes up with a passing stranger and attempts to see off a wave of reanimated "ghouls". This state of crisis is taken as a given; what's crucial is how these characters react to it. Some immediately hymn the merits of isolationism, and suggest going into lockdown; other survivors insist they should stick their necks out to save anyone else who might be in trouble. Around its halfway mark, Night of the Living Dead starts to mirror the fractious political discourse America had been prone to ever since Hitler came to power around the time of White Zombie.

The film is undeniably savvier than most B-movies up to this point: its most convincing elements are the reconstructed news bulletins that carefully reproduce the tenor of 1968 reportage (even when the reporters are obliged to say such things as "kill the brain, and you kill the ghoul"), and suggest Romero was very much of that generation who'd watched enough TV to know exactly how to replicate its tropes. By comparison, the idea of making the hero African-American - and of making of him a most capable de facto leader, an Obama-in-waiting - now appears rather less groundbreaking than first claimed, not least as the studios had given us Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night not one year earlier.

Forgotten in all the analysis of what the film may or may not say about the America of the time is the fact it's still a film possessed of the ability to creep up behind you and whisper "boo!" in your ear - albeit in a fashion as creaky and clumsy as its own zombies sometimes appear. It is uncanny that the zombification process should apparently start from nothing - radiation from a Venus probe is the official explanation, but we don't know that when the couple in the cemetery first come under attack - and the ghouls' slow march on the farmhouse remains an eerie experience, shot on make-do monochrome stock, scored only to the chirping of cicadas.

It should nevertheless be said that Romero was to refine his technique and his themes in subsequent films, taking on board more funds and better actors: the film's nasty secret is that there would be more accomplished entries in the Dead series. Like Easy Rider, another zeitgeisty gamechanger, Night may be one of those works more significant for what it represented - a rediscovery of a horror aesthetic that came to seem oppositional when set against the lavish slickness of the era's studio productions, a framework for subsequent genre efforts, a reengagement of some kind with pressing social themes - than for what it in fact was: in this case, a patchy low-budgeter whose rep has come to be inflated over the years by those doing the sterling work of making horror a respectable area of study. Clearly something of note is going on within these unruly, indisciplined frames, but you may do better to approach it as no more (and no less) than an above-average midnight movie: let it creep up on you, in other words.

Night of the Living Dead is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through StudioCanal.

Friday 9 January 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 2-4, 2015: 
1 (new) The Theory of Everything (12A) ***
2 (1) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12A) **
3 (3) Paddington (PG) ****
4 (new) The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (12A) ***
5 (5) Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (PG) **
6 (2) Exodus: Gods and Kings (12A) *** 
7 (new) Birdman (15) **
8 (4) Annie (PG)
9 (6) Dumb & Dumber To (15)
10 (8) Penguins of Madagascar (U) ***


My top five:   
1. The Last of the Unjust [above]
2. Foxcatcher
3. National Gallery
4. The Green Ray/Le Rayon Vert
5. Exhibition on Screen: Girl with a Pearl Earring...

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy (12) **
2 (2) The Inbetweeners 2 (15) ***
3 (new) X-Men: Days of Future Past (12) ***
4 (3) Mrs. Brown's Boys: D'Movie (15) *
5 (6) Edge of Tomorrow (12) ***
6 (4) Transformers: Age of Extinction (12)
7 (5) 22 Jump Street (15) ***
8 (new) The Fault in Our Stars (12) **
9 (7) The Expendables 3 (15) 
10 (8) Godzilla (12)

My top five:  
1. Night Moves
2. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
3. Nas: Time is Illmatic
4. The Guest
5. Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Aladdin (Sunday, five, 5.30pm)
2. Borat! (Friday, C4, 12.30am)
3. Skyfall (Saturday, ITV1, 9.20pm)
4. Shrek 2 (Sunday, BBC1, 4.10pm)
5. The Girl Next Door (Wednesday, C4, 1.50am)