Monthly Archives: December 2011

Surviving Life – Theory and Practice (Czech Republic/Slovakia/Japan 2010)

Two of the supporting cast in 'Surviving Life'

What better way to escape the madness of consumer Christmas than watching a Jan Svankmajer film? This is the potential treat for lucky filmgoers in a handful of UK cities over the next few weeks. See this distributor website for a list of cinemas showing the film. I’m usually a fan of Verve Pictures but they don’t seem to have done a great deal to promote their acquisition, despite Svankmajer’s status amongst fans of animation and surrealism.

First shown at Venice in 2010, this is only the second feature-length film from the director since Little Otik in 2000. I can’t claim extensive knowledge of his work but I’ve seen some of his earlier short films and Sílení from 2005 (a live action horror/melodrama drawing on both Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade) and therefore I had some idea of what to expect. The film begins with a prologue delivered to camera by the director himself in which he explains that his team were going to make a ‘real film’ but they had such a small budget that they decided to use only a studio set and photographic cut-outs of the actors which could then be animated. This is quite a witty opening but I was baffled as to why Svankmajer’s presentation was overlayed by an actor reading out an English translation (with the Czech original mixed down but still audible). I hate this practice and fortunately the film itself was subtitled.

The film overall is a mix of live action and stop-frame cut-out animation. The central character is Evzen, a middle-aged man, married for 25 years but without children and working in a boring office job. Evzen dreams – but not enough. He wants to have more dreams and to understand them. Inevitably he is sent to a psychoanalyst who attempts to explore his unconscious. These are some of the funniest scenes in the film with framed photographic portraits of Freud and Jung looking down from the psycho-analyst’s walls an reacting to what is happening. I won’t spoil the narrative by outlining what is in the dreams but if you know any Freudian or Jungian theories about dreams you’ll probably guess the kinds of characters, symbols and stories that emerge.

Václav Helsus is Evzen, the dreamer who spends much of his time in his pyjamas

The pleasures of the film for fans are likely to be in the exploration of the technique and the use of colour in particular (lots of vivid reds). It isn’t such a startling form of animation as that in the earlier stop motion shorts, though there are glimpses of the earlier style, especially in the eating scenes and the glee with which squidgy watermelons explode etc. For British fans there will be reminders of similar techniques used (by Terry Gilliam) in sketches in Monty Python and, more disturbingly, The Goodies (disturbing for the more cerebral perhaps because The Goodies was supposed to be ‘light entertainment’). This familiarity with the technique perhaps made the film less frightening and terrifying for me (compared to the earlier films). I’m happy to sit back and enjoy this kind of surrealism as comedy (Svankmayer calls it a ‘psycho-analytic comedy’) but I like to try to find some form of satitirical edge in the film. My knowledge of Czech culture is limited but this film fitted in with what I know – it felt ‘East European’ whatever that might mean. As well as the obvious discourse about sexuality and alienation for the middle-aged trapped in boring lives there are nostalgic references to food and music as well as metaphors about consumerism and the dangers of capitalist monetary policies – so something we can all relate to!

My Christmas message is to suggest that you choose Svankmayer over David Fincher or Tom Cruise. It’ll be more fun and better for you. Here’s the Czech trailer (no English subs but the techniques speak for themselves):

The Deep Blue Sea (UK 2011)

Rachel Weisz as Hester Collyer

It was a great pleasure to watch this adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. But I do worry about the film’s general reception. Terence Davies is a unique and highly gifted filmmaker but his work doesn’t easily fit contemporary categories of taste. When I looked at IMDB after the screening there were just three comments, two bemused or bewildered and one rather nasty and stupid. Bemusement is not surprising since this is a very personal work by a filmmaker who has made only seven features in nearly 30 years. Four of those features focus on the director’s own memories of childhood as a working-class gay Catholic boy in 1940s/50s Liverpool. The other three are adaptations realised via an obsession with the great musicals and melodramas of Hollywood in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Rattigan was also a gay man in the 1950s – but with a background of public school Protestantism and the upper middle-class. The Deep Blue Sea was first performed as a stage play in 1952 with Peggy Ashcroft and Kenneth More and was then adapted for a film by Anatole Litvak in 1955 (in CinemaScope and 4-track stereo) with More repeating his role and Vivienne Leigh as Hester, the principal character. I don’t recall having seen the play (which was also adapted for television) so the film narrative was fresh for me. I assumed that the nonlinear narrative was a Davies invention but it seems to have been in the original. The film begins (‘around 1950’) with a suicide attempt by Hester (Rachel Weisz). She is discovered ‘in time’ by the other residents of the house in which she shares a room with her lover, the ex-Battle of Britain pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). The main narrative then deals with the fall-out from the suicide bid which ensues with the return of Freddie and a visit from Hester’s estranged husband William (‘Bill’), a senior high court judge – the Solicitor-General (second highest legal position in England) Edward Collyer (Simon Russell Beale). Flashbacks reveal some aspects of Hester’s marriage and affair.

Bill (Simon Russell Beale) and Freddie (Tom Hiddleston)

My companion at the screening wondered what attracted Davies to the project and I replied that I thought it was simply the chance to have access to a budget which would enable him to return to the style of his earlier films. Apart from his documentary memoir Of Time and the City (2008), made on a micro-budget, Davies had not made a ‘fiction feature’ since The House of Mirth (2000). With even the limited budget offered by Film 4 and the other partners he was able to explore his cinematic passions – tableau compositions moving into slow tracking shots, richly detailed sets with a focus on lighting and colour, marvellous use of sound, including both popular and classical music and, at the centre, a suffering but intensely vital woman. In other words, Terence Davies makes melodramas. He loves melodramas and so do we.

In the 42 page Pressbook downloadable from the UK distributor Artificial Eye, we learn about the whole process of making the film and which other films Davies studied. (There is also a very detailed long synopsis, quite useful for remembering bits of the film.) Davies promoted the film through a wide range of interviews which are easily found on various blogs and websites. The editor of Sight and Sound, Nick James, worked on the film (organising some of the community singing – his partner Kate Ogborn is one of the film’s producers). Not surprisingly there is an array of writing about the film in Sight and Sound December 2011, including a review by Jonathan Romney. Since all of this material is easily available and you can read it for yourself, I’ll limit myself to comments on what Davies tells us and how the film works for me.

Terence Davies tells us several times that contemporary British ‘heritage cinema’ gets the 1950s wrong and that since he lived through the era he knows not only how it looked but how it felt. He was ‘around 5’ at the time when his film is set. What he remembers, I suggest, is aspects of working-class life in Liverpool, refracted through the stories of his sisters and the other women in his family, plus the imagery of the ‘woman’s picture’ genre, examples of which he was taken to see. My memories of the later 1950s are rather different even though I lived not that far from Terence Davies (but in a different milieu). I don’t make this observation to suggest that Davies is ‘wrong’ or that his critique of certain contemporary British films is misguided. But it’s important to remember that Davies is not interested in realism as such, but in emotional truths expressed cinematically. I think he is right to suggest that Rattigan knew little about London life in the early 1950s outside of his own upper middle-class world (although it would be odd if a gay man in the early 1950s did not have unsettling encounters outside his own circle). Much is made in the discussion of the film’s mise en scène about how Hester’s ‘seedy bedsit’ is more authentic than the designs for the earlier stage productions and adaptations. To me it still looks like quite a comfortable set of rooms (see the stills above). Interestingly, the DP on the film, Florian Hoffmeister said that he began his research looking at The L-Shaped Room (1962), Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of a Lynne Reid Banks novel shot by Douglas Slocombe. But he was then influenced by a screening of Letter From an Unknown Woman (US 1948), the Max Ophüls romantic melodrama shot by Franz Planer, that Davies asked to be shown to cast and crew. Here is a clip featuring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jordan.

 

The Ophüls film is one of the greatest romantic melodramas ever made and I’m sure someone who has studied Davies in more depth could tell us exactly what he has taken from the master of the tracking shot. More on Ophüls in a moment, but I think it is worth noting the range of British films that cover the period of the late 1940s/early 1950s, some of which Davies might have consciously referenced and others that he might not know (given that his focus is usually Hollywood). The Deep Blue Sea begins with an exterior shot which reminded me of the opening to London Belongs to Me (Sidney Gilliat, 1948) about a boarding house in South London in 1939. I was also reminded of two Michael Powell films, The Small Back Room (1949) set during the war and featuring dingy rooms and smoky pubs and Peeping Tom (1959) with its studio sets of Soho streets and alleys. Most of The Deep Blue Sea (as might be expected in an adaptation from a stage play) takes place either in Hester’s rooms, on the street outside or in the pub. The strangest sequence in the film sees Hester move seamlessly from room to dark alley and into the pub where the communal singing is underway – immediately taking us back to the Liverpool of Davies’s earlier Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). Davies himself several times refers to Brief Encounter (1945) which was the inspiration for the Underground scene in which Hester remembers sheltering from the Blitz and hearing someone singing ‘Molly Malone’. (Only Terence Davies could combine Molly Malone with songs by Jo Stafford and Eddie Fisher in order to comment on the theme of his film.)

Distant Voices Still Lives:

Jo Stafford on the soundtrack of The Deep Blue Sea:

The most recent trailer for Brief Encounter (1945):

 

I’m not sure about Brief Encounter. In some ways it seems to me that Hester is a much stronger character than Laura, the character played by Celia Johnson. Brief Encounter now seems a delicate film about repressed desire whereas Hester is a woman who has bravely, recklessly (?) acted on her desire. I think that the best way to approach Hester as a character is to forget about Rattigan altogether. (I’m happy to acknowledge him as an important playwright of his period and as an innovator who was perhaps wrongly ignored from the 1960s until the present revival.) Davies, whether or not he is interested in the sociology of British Cinema, does foreground the question of  the possibilities of fulfilled life for a woman in the UK ‘around 1950’. He says that what Hester did in leaving Bill and living with Freddie was deeply shocking in that period and that we have to take this on board in judging his film. What is at issue here is precisely the representation of women in British Cinema in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Because it is refracted by the lens of Hollywood mostly, the view Davies has doesn’t seem to explore the breadth of female characters in British Cinema or the ways in which restrictions were imposed by austerity and the struggles to transform the class basis of British society. Having said that he does recognise that equivalents to his Hollywood ‘strong women’ were present in British Cinema. He refers to Googie Withers seen here in Ealing’s It Always Rains on Sundays (1947) in which she plays a married woman sheltering her ex-lover, a criminal on the run played by her ‘real life’ husband John McCallum. This clip also shows a late 1940s London street scene.

I think some of my unease can be explained by considering the casting decisions on the film. Rachel Weisz I thought was wonderful. She appears not to act at all, simply embodying the role like a classical Hollywood star. Simon Russell Beale is also excellent but I sensed him acting and seemed to notice specific things that he did to convey his inner feelings as Bill. In other words there was a difference in approach. Tom Hiddleston seemed to me to be mis-cast. He’s a fine young actor but I couldn’t believe in him in the role. I presume that this is an issue about the Rattigan play. Hiddleston is too young to be a 30 year-old ex-RAF pilot who I would expect to be either seedy/shifty or blown out after 10 years of recovering from 1940. I couldn’t help thinking of David Farrar as the ex-RAF villain who seduces Jean Simmons in Ealing’s Cage of Gold (dir. Basil Dearden, 1950).

I can’t think of a modern actor who could convey what David Farrar manages here – his best roles were in Powell and Pressburger melodramas. The support cast in The Deep Blue Sea are all very good and it’s a pity we don’t see more of them.

I want to end with a reference that struck me during the film and which became more interesting when I began to research it. The image at the top of this posting shows Hester reflected back to herself in the window. You’ll see something similar in the Brief Encounter trail above (which may have prompted Davies to use it), but it made me think of Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944). The sequence comes part through this clip from the opening of the film:

 

Now, I can see that the image is actually rather different, and so is the film, but Joan Bennett herself is interesting as the kind of female star that Hollywood didn’t really know how to handle. Some of her best roles were in the 1940s for Lang and indeed for Max Ophüls. Here is a clip from The Reckless Moment, the 1949 film noir in which she is a mother trying to hide the evidence of a murder (Tilda Swinton played the role in the 2001 remake, titled The Deep End). Check the wonderful tracking shot at the start of the clip:

 

I seem to have drifted quite a way from The Deep Blue Sea, but I’m trying to suggest that Terence Davies has made a highly cinematic film that encourages an exploration of the films and performances that have influenced him and in turn us, his audience. The Deep Blue Sea is brilliant but slightly off kilter as it adapts a British story partly using the vision of 1940s Hollywood filmmakers – albeit often with European aesthetic roots. I want to watch it again and think about it some more.

Apologies to Europe!

Ironically, when British Cinema has had arguably its best year as a cultural producer for a long time, we are saddled with a Con-Dem government that makes me ashamed to whisper my national identity. The Europhobic zombies who sit on the Tory backbenches look as if they have managed to damage everything this last weekend by putting pressure on a cowardly Prime Minister who has used his veto to take the UK into exile while the rest of the EU tries to work co-operatively.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. The British film industry has often been slow to take advantage of European audio-visual support programmes, preferring to spend time worrying about Hollywood rather than looking towards our European partners. There are plenty of exceptions of course and this year we have celebrated the success of the new StudioCanal operation and the UK/French/Swedish co-operation on Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy.

Most independent film producers in Europe look for support from Eurimages – the fund set up by the Council of Europe and its 36 member states. Today it was announced in a Screendaily report that Eurimages, “the Strasbourg-based fund” had “an interest in working relationships with third countries who are close to Europe and have a European tradition such as Israel, Argentina, Canada and South Africa where you have a certain common understanding about film.”

This seems like a good idea. It’s interesting to note that only one European state is not a member of Eurimages. Which country could that be I wonder? See if you can find the UK amongst the 36. No? Well that will be because the UK is a ‘special case’. It’s pathetic really.

My Week With Marilyn (UK/US 2011)

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl

We sat in a large Odeon screen with just two other couples to watch My Week With Marilyn on a cold and wet Sunday afternoon. What a shame there wasn’t a bigger audience for what is undoubtedly a superior entertainment. OK, director Simon Curtis is a veteran of TV series without a cinema track record, but this is a well-made film with good pacing and the sense to let its obvious attractions shine for the audience – a cast of generally well-known and well-loved actors, some rather touristy shots of Kent and Buckinghamshire dressed up as 1950s locations and a wonderful central performance by Michelle Williams which is alone worth the price of admission.

The story is based on the diary of Colin Clark, younger brother of the more feted diarist Alan Clark. In 1956 Colin used his family connections (as the son of the art historian Kenneth Clark) to wangle a job with Laurence Olivier’s film company and his first production role was ‘3rd’ (Assistant Director) on The Prince and the Showgirl in which Olivier attempted to adapt the successful West End play in which he played opposite his wife Vivienne Leigh. But Leigh was considered ‘too old’ (at 43) and Olivier made a deal to bring over Marilyn Monroe, recently married to Arthur Miller and seeking the opportunity to show that she could act opposite Olivier. The shoot was extremely difficult for all concerned and according to Clark’s diaries he befriended Marilyn and helped her through. This friendship is the focus of the film.

Kenneth Branagh plays Olivier and gives a delightful and convincing performance in terms of dialogue and facial expressions – even though he doesn’t look much like Olivier. Similarly Judi Dench presents herself as Sybil Thorndike. But it is Ms Williams who steals the show. We know she is one of the best female actors of her generation but my limited exposure to her skills has been through more downbeat roles in American Independents such as Brokeback Mountain and Meek’s Cutoff. Here she ‘acts’ rather than impersonates Marilyn, brilliantly handling the insecure off-set Marilyn, the warm companionable fun girl away from the film business and the flirty Marilyn in performance mode.

Here’s the trailer:

And the ‘original film’, The Prince and the Showgirl:

. . . Marilyn performing ‘That Old Black Magic’ in Bus Stop (1955) (the film is dubbed in French):

 

 

2011 End of Year Lists

It’s that time again and the lists of ‘best’ films. ‘favourite’ films etc. are appearing everywhere. Keith has already commented on the Sight and Sound list and here it is in the January 2012 issue (with links shown to our posts):

The Tree of Life, Terence Malick, US

A Separation, Asghar Farhadi, Iran

The Kid With a Bike, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy

Melancholia, Lars von Trier, Den/Swe/Fra/Ger/Italy

The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius, France

6=  The Turin Horse, Bela Tarr, Hungary

6=  Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Nuri Bilge Cylan, Turkey/Bosnia & Herzogovina

We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay, UK/US

Le quattro volte, Michelangelo Frammartino Italy/Ger/Switz

10=  This Is Not a Film, Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmash, Iran

10=  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson, UK/Fra/Ger

The list is based on the 5 top films nominated by 100 ‘international critics’ (although the selection of ‘critics’ seems skewed towards the UK and several of the UK names are unknown to me.) Titles are included if they have been seen this year. Several of the films selected have yet to be released in the UK (although some have appeared in festivals here). It’s interesting that between us we’ve covered all of the Top 11 that have received a UK release. S & S editor Nick James gives a brief summary of how the votes went. The most significant observation is perhaps that few European critics have much time for the Lynne Ramsay film which has been snubbed by the European Film Awards apart from the award for Best Actress to Tilda Swinton. We’ll no doubt return to Kevin, which Keith was less taken with than Rona and Roy, at some future date (Melancholia won Best Film) The other surprises were that Senna didn’t make the Top 10 nor Wim Wenders’ Pina. As an overall comment, it’s worth pointing out that the list has two Iranian films but nothing else from Asia. Latin America is also not mentioned though Las acacias, released in the UK this week is ‘bubbling under’ – having won many festival prizes over the last twelve months. Apart from Ramsay there are no other women as directors in the Top 11.

Here’s my selection of the 11 new films that have most impressed me over the last twelve months in UK cinemas (leaving out films that have only appeared in festivals). In no particular order:

A Separation, Asghar Farhadi, Iran

We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay, UK/US

Le quattro volte, Michelangelo Frammartino Italy/Ger/Switz

Wuthering Heights, Andrea Arnold, UK

Incendies, Denis Villeneuve, Canada-France

Poetry, Lee Chang-dong, South Korea

Bal, Semih Kaplanoglu, Turkey-Germany

Senna, Asif Kapadia, UK

A Screaming Man, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Chad/France/Belgium

Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichs, US

Mademoiselle Chambon, Stéphane Brizé, France

I should point out that it isn’t necessarily the story or the theme of these films that makes me want to single them out, but rather their cinematic qualities in terms of ideas and imagination, performance, cinematography, editing, direction, use of sound/music etc. A review of Senna will appear when I get time. This has been a particularly strong year for British Cinema and that is reflected in my choices. I haven’t watched as many Indian films as I would have liked and although I’ve seen several interesting Latin American films in festivals, few have got a UK release. I have seen four new Japanese films on release and I was tempted to include at least one. I realise that I’ve also left out Black Swan, which was released in the UK in January and is an astonishing film in many ways, but perhaps not so much in need of a boost.

Comments? Other suggestions?

Addendum: Just received the list of winners at the British Independent Film Awards and reminded that we haven’t mentioned Tyrannosaur. I haven’t seen the film – largely because I have seen the original short film which was extended by Paddy Considine to feature length. That was excellent but harrowing and I wasn’t sure I was ready for the full-length version. Here is the list of BIFA winners:

BEST BRITISH INDEPENDENT FILM Tyrannosaur

BEST DIRECTOR Lynne Ramsay for We Need To Talk About Kevin

THE DOUGLAS HICKOX AWARD [BEST DEBUT DIRECTOR]Paddy Considine, Tyrannosaur

BEST SCREENPLAY Richard Ayoade, Submarine

BEST ACTRESS Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur

BEST ACTOR Michael Fassbender, Shame

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS Vanessa Redgrave,Coriolanus

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR Michael Smiley, Kill List

MOST PROMISING NEWCOMER Tom Cullen, Weekend

BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN PRODUCTION Weekend

THE RAINDANCE AWARD Leaving Baghdad

BEST TECHNICAL ACHIEVEMENT Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Maria Djurkovic (Production Design)

BEST DOCUMENTARY Senna

BEST BRITISH SHORT Chalk

BEST FOREIGN INDEPENDENT FILM A Separation

THE RICHARD HARRIS AWARD (for outstanding contribution by an actor to British Film) Ralph Fiennes

THE VARIETY AWARD Kenneth Branagh

THE SPECIAL JURY PRIZE Graham Easton


Departures (Okuribito, Japan 2008)

Daigo (Motoki Masahiro, right) enjoys a Christmas meal with his work colleagues.

Departures won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in a year when Waltz With Bashir was a strong contender. It’s not hard to see why Departures won. It deals with an unusual and potentially ‘difficult’ subject in a light and sometimes comedic way. It also has that crucial element that seems to make American audiences happy – a father-son (and a surrogate father-son) relationship in the background that comes to the fore at the end. I enjoyed the film but overall it was possibly too cloying for me. The worst aspect was a score by the usually excellent Joe Hisaishi which didn’t work for me at all.

The story is fairly straightforward. Daigo (Motoki Masahiro) is a man in his thirties who is forced to give up a career as a professional cellist when his orchestra is wound up. However, he is relieved to have to sell his expensive instrument because he was never sure that he had the talent to be a great player. With his wife Mika, Daigo decides to leave Tokyo and to return to the small town where he grew up (Sakata in Yamagata prefecture on the west coast of Honshu) and where his mother has bequeathed him the old coffee-house that his absent father bought before running off with a waitress. Daigo then stumbles into a job that, as the English title of the film implies, he hoped was in the travel business but which turns out to be about the departure of the souls of the dead. Diago becomes the person who prepares the deceased for their coffin – in view of the family and via strict procedures/rituals.

The drama comes from the perceived social status of the job. At first Daigo doesn’t tell Mika where he is going and later an old schoolfriend tells him to “get a normal job”. Clearly there is a taboo about handling the dead just as there is in the West. The best parts of the film involve the boss of the funeral preparation business and his secretary/office manager, both of whom are interesting characters. Mika is pretty but rather vacuous and Daigo experiences everything stoically. Flashbacks reveal that he learned the cello as a child and he still has the child-size cello which he plays in a montage of outdoor shots as well as at home and for his colleagues over Christmas dinner. The story is quite conventional with each negative experience matched by something positive. The snowy landscapes of the plains and the mountains in the distance certainly add to viewing pleasure.

For me, the interesting aspect of the story is the discourse about employment and work status. As I understand it, the job which Diago learns to respect is actually a relatively recent invention and it is paired in the story with a traditional bath house operation which Diago remembers from his childhood. I won’t spoil the narrative by exploring the links between the two operations but this theme links Departures to those films that have directly addressed the pressures on traditional Japanese ideas about loyalty to employers and a ‘job for life’ (e.g. Tokyo Sonata, also from 2008).

Writer Koyama Kundô has a background in television and director Takita Yôjirô is a veteran of Japanese cinema. His credits suggest a background in popular genres. Direction of the actors in the film is fine and it is the script that is more problematic (and the pacing). In one short sequence in the film I noted a perfect combination of acting, camerawork and editing that made a point economically and with emotion. Yet a few minutes later a very clumsy jumpcut almost destroyed another scene. The DP had worked with the director several times, so how did this happen? Departures is good, solid entertainment – what used to be called ‘middlebrow entertainment’ in the UK. It reminded me of the charming Shall We Dansu? (1996) – in which Motoki Masahiro had a small part. In that sense Departures is a worthy Oscar winner – but not necessarily an example of cinematic art to set the pulse racing. Just enjoy!