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Friday, 28 February 2014

From my London case-book

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

28 February

This is a review of Nymphomaniac Vol. I (followed up with a review of Vol. II)

For a minute or two, the screen is dark, but with noises of what sounds like a railway, running water, a creak – which is what cinema is until we come to interpret it, the things with which we are presented and what they might mean. Will we even believe what we are shown, if someone is telling a story ?

Then, in what does not seem like an actual crooked alleyway, a woman lying (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and a man who has no reason to go there to find her (Stellan Skarsgård) : establishing that she does not intend to stay there, if he goes for help, a request for a cup of tea with milk leads directly to her propped up in bed, in his pyjamas, in a room with dingy, peeling wallpaper, almost out of place and time. (She gets tea, but without milk.)

As is what little we see of the exterior world, which is supposed to be Britain, but the interiors have a continental feel to them, and – even if the ticket-collector does have a British Railways badge – did trains ever seem so German in recent times ? These things aside, another bargain between Joe and Seligman, that she will explain why she thinks herself so bad, if he promises to listen to everything. A narrative that begins I discovered my cunt at the age of two is self-consciously a Freudian case-study, whatever else it might be.

The director may have tied Seligman into the bargain, but around two hours is only half the story, and does he risk half his audience not caring to come back for the rest ? So far, the mix includes resentment at an invited deflowering by an older boy, a game of conquests with a friend, an attempt to adhere to one-night stands, a little of The Dice Man thrown in for good measure, a monochrome sequence in a hospital unlike any that it seems to be supposed to resemble, and coincidences that have Seligman wondering whether the line that is being spun belongs, where we started, with The Compleat Angler.

Do we understand, or want to understand, the younger Joe (played by Stacy Martin) whom we see ? Are the increasing analogies that are being used, which twice pop up on the screen in big white letters the words Cantus firmus when Seligman is explaining how a work of Bach’s is put together, interposing layers of irritation, even if Joe thinks that it explains the parts to what she wants from three lovers ? In terms of the film, it is just taking time to display the three lovers separately, and together, in bands when, if it means anything to her, it is not a visual concept.

Amongst other things, the diagrams of streams, of layers of water within them, of the physics of parallel parking, and of the Fibonacci series and how succeeding terms are calculated, von Trier plants all these on the screen, but he would not need to, if his characters were adequately equipped to express themselves (or could be relied on)* ? Who Seligman is and what he has done, we do not know, but he tells Joe, a former medical student, about delirium tremens, as if she would not know, he likens her sex-games to angling – is this to avoid relating to what he is actually being told, as we would think, if someone did it to us, saying that it was just like x ?

Try as he might to be a sympathetic listener, always trying to find some ground for Joe to think better of herself than she does (or for him not to think badly of her), there is a clinicality that hangs over this film, which not even the gaspingly absurd nature of some of the recollected interchanges can dispel. One minute, never really having had proper duties working for Jerôme, Joe has lost it, the next we hear of work is that she somehow has a full-time job. An entertaining extended scene with Uma Thurman (Mrs H.), from which there is no going on, gives way to the one in the hospital, seemingly as much as a displacement as anything.

The way in which, at some level, Seligman is drawn in hints that whether, complete with diagrams, this is a shaggy-dog story or a fish on the hook he may regret taking care of this bruised stranger (it all looks pretty superficial, and there is no suggestion that she is caught by pain in all of this time - not at all consistent with what we will come to be shown has happened to her). Volume II alone will tell…


* Then again, he shows a Greek temple with its façade enclosed in a rectangle, but there is no explanation that the ratio between height and width is that, as the series develops, between successive terms, known as The Golden Section, which was considered most visually pleasing.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Borrowing, not stealing

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

27 February

This is a review of The Book Thief (2013)

John Williams famously gave us Hedwig’s theme, but he also scored The Book Thief (2013), and, at the opening, it almost seemed like The Hogwarts Express, snorting its way through snowy countryside, that we saw and felt. Airy solo flute, floating solo clarinet, and the ensemble as the whole, did not seem best intended for Germany of the time, for it felt a little too safe (although, in the screening, not everyone would have been conscious that the mood of the music seemed an uneasy fit), even as we made our way down one of its carriages, and – under the direction of the narrator – wondered : whose life was going to be affected ?

Perhaps, by this means, too, we wanted to be distanced from a brother’s death and burial in a foreign land, and reminded of the context of everyone’s mortality, and so do not resist being cocooned from the worst of the Nazi regime until, as maybe those in Germany did we were embedded in it*. Wrongly, arguably, Roberto Benigni was criticized for bringing humour to a father’s treatment of the horror of life in a concentration camp in Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella) (1997), but it is a more obvious example of what this film does.

For we are bedding ourselves down with the domestic arrangements of Liesel’s new home, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) welcoming, and Rosa (Emily Watson) decidedly ungemütlich, for quite a while, and even having the shock of having the camera draw back whilst the choir that she is in sings of how it will not be friends with the Jew.

Liesel’s (Sophie Nélisse’s) friend Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch) provokes more than paternal condemnation with his desire to be another Jesse Owens, but it is with Kristallnacht that the outrage of the Nazi reign comes to the fore, with its consequences for Liesel’s family. Then the full love of both Hans and Rosa come out, and the film focuses tightly on the things that matter : love, friendship, and trust. From that core of values comes all that follows, and, whilst we see just and unjust fall alike, it also shows the good done from following one’s convictions.

There are a few quibbles with the world that we are shown and hear, but they are minor ones**. Otherwise, the film may feel a little overlong, partly because of the time until the story proper begins. However, it catches all the emotion that has built up in its course and brings it out from the tensions of betrayal, feared discovery, the accidents of war, and renewed beginnings, not just speaking to a younger audience, but to those with a more mature appreciation of the background.

It is testament to the film, and no doubt to Markus Zusak’s novel, that it can stand alongside a more bloody account of the effects of the war in Lore (2012) and, not seeming in its shadow, be a complementary account of a youngster in the midst of it.


Robbie Collin, writing a review in The Daily Telegraph, decided to be very rude about the film - is he right ?


* Even then, it must be said that, probably seeking a certificate such as 12A, the ferocity and frenzy of Kristallnacht are underplayed.

** It probably reminds us that we are in Germany, to have (after some initial German with subtitles) English spoken with a German inflection, but it seems curious never to have no or yes, always ja or nein, and the Bürgermeister, in which he is not alone, just sounds British, e.g. when he says What is the meaning of this ?.

Also, with language, the idea of the dictionary on the walls lets us overlook the fact that these words are in English, but it seems to go too far to show Liesel finding the word ‘jellyfish’ in a text that is obviously in English, when we know that it is meant to be in German. And, finally, in proportion to the size of the school, either because period locations were scarce or it is a set and not an extensive one, the town does not have the feel of one that could fill it.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 24 February 2014

Dickens in Love

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

24 February

* Contains spoilers *

This is a follow-up piece to a review of The Invisible Woman (2013), and a question asked of actor / director Ralph Fiennes, partly about Dickens’ wife Catherine’s motives.

In Manchester, during the after-play party near the start of the film, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) is sitting next to Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan), and the former says how she had not expected anything to be so lasting in her memory as Bleak House, but is finding a rival in what she is now reading [David Copperfield ?]. One must judge with what motive, but the latter retorts ‘Tis a fiction, designed to entertain, with which opinion Nelly briefly, but strenuously, states her disagreement.

When the women meet again, Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) has sent his wife to Nelly’s mother’s house, and she asks Nelly if she is fond of Dickens. She scarcely allows Nelly to answer before she intervenes to say Silly question – he is Mr Charles Dickens !. The question arises (as it did in the Q&A with Fiennes) whether what she goes on to say to Nelly is out of any sort of envy or desire to put her off, or just from the simple motive of telling the truth, how it is with Dickens and her :

Essentially, she reports her own experience, that Dickens has an extra-marital devotion to his readership / audience that makes her uncertain to say which he cares more for, them or her. In saying what she does, she suggests that it is not easy to find his affections divided, and that may merely be a statement of fact.

But why express it to Nelly ? Out of sheer feminine feeling and a desire to be helpful ? The context is as follows :

* Some time before at the Dickens' home, Charles expresses his defiance in the garden at what his sister-in-law and Catherine are urging about the rumours, and declares that he will not stop seeing Nelly* – he then goes back to playing with the children

* At some other point that summer, it is Nelly's twentieth birthday, and we are at the Ternans' house – this is when Catherine calls, with the redirected present from Charles

* When, later that day, Charles and Wilkie (Tom Hollander) whisk Nelly away to Wilkie's home, and she leaves, she confronts Charles on the steps of her family home (just before a policeman intervenes), criticizing him for sending the mother of his children to her – he says that he wanted Catherine to see what he sees in Nelly, and says that Catherine has no understanding

* There is the ambiguous scene of proximity indoors, then the next thing is the boarding-up to partition the Dickens house, a very quick scene

* After the awkward meeting between Charles and Nelly and Charley, Charley reads the letter in The Times about the separation to Catherine

It indicates what Catherine thinks of Charles, he of her, in these clues : as early as sending Catherine around with the gift that he had intended to have delivered to Nelly, he wanted Catherine to see that it was over between her and him, and why (he tells Nelly so that day). Catherine is not stupid. She knows herself to have been humiliated by being told to call on Nelly, but she can use the call to her advantage :

Doubtless, there is truth in what she says about Charles being torn away from her by his public, and that one will never know which he cares for more, but, if one watches the scene closely, she has a subtle way of laying it on thick, and does hope to discourage Nelly, if she cannot discourage Charles, but with the subtext I've seen it all before, and let me tell you, as a friend, how it is....

What Catherine does not reckon on is that ambiguous scene of near-kisses, and that Nelly then seeks out advice from her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and from Wilkie, before making an entry, dressed and framed as a Pre-Raphaelite subject, in Charles' rooms. There, she gets close to him, in an energetic meeting of minds over the galley-proofs, through the closing chapters to Great Expectations – until then, taken to see Wilkie living unmarried with a woman, she thinks that Charles sees her as his whore.

Catherine had her own agenda, but was prudent enough to act the part of the woman on the way out looking after the new one.

At the end of the film, hurt and anxious Nelly uses the words shadow / parting / haunting to describe being separated from Charles in the life that she lives now, where she cannot admit how she knew him. As her husband says :

The memories of a child, Nelly

Or, then again, 180 years since Charles Dickens sneezed publicly in Cardiff - to great acclaim...

End-notes :

* Catherine says 'More gossip in The London Diary', as Dickens sits down with the newspaper. After comments around the table about not having kept it a secret, and denying it, she says 'You must stop this', to which Dickens replies, 'What if I do not wish to ?'. She retorts, 'Do not be foolish - you cannot keep her a secret', and a challenge to which - then and later - he rises.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 21 February 2014

I don’t want the spring to come

This is a review of Mother and Son (1997)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

21 February

This is a review of Mother and Son (1997)

* Contains spoilers *

It is not just the nature of the relationship that makes one think of it, because one’s thought is not there, say, with Kristin Scott Thomas as Iva and Marin Orcand Tourrès as Noé in Looking for Hortense (2012) (though she, arguably, is a stepmother, and he too young), but about the quality of the tenderness and the gestures between Aleksei Ananishnov and Gudrun Geyer that makes one think of Jesus and his mother Mary, of the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis), of the crucifixion (Woman, this is your son), and of Michelangelo’s Pietà.

A painterly or sculptural sensibility in the composition and lighting of shots is evident from the opening scene, with the foreground – the mother’s dramatically foreshortened supine body, which yet seems to ripple like waves – relatively dark, and the son lying at right angles, his head by her head, in an uncertain space, and with what seems as though it might be an opaque window onto the luminous sea and sky behind him (for we can hear the ocean, the waves and the wind).

There is a playfulness as well as a more serious connection between the mother and her carer, with her saying that she is ‘pretending’ to be ill, and, though seemingly seriously, concerning herself that she has nothing to wear in the spring, whereas there seems no one to see what one wears (and the son says that he has nothing special to wear either).

When the pair are first seen together in the light, she pale, he ruddy, there is a momentary flicker of Beckettt’s Endgame (Hamm and Nell) in the contrast of the faces, and, over the whole 73 minutes, set in and around what appears to be a small former church or chapel, there is an air of finality, as of something playing itself out*. It is partly built by the fragmentary musical accompaniment, which seems to be a familiar theme refracted (it sounded like Bach, later Brahms, but is credited as Glinka, Verdi and one other), which causes the mind to ruminate, but not reach an answer.

The topography of indoors and the world beyond remain oblique, though, in the former, there is a raised area that could be an altar (or a stage), and the mother, when lying in bed, is in a recess that is surrounded by a stone lintel and so resembles a side-chapel, a bier, or a tomb. The sea that is so much part of the soundtrack is only seen twice, once indistinctly**, and near this place the railway runs, and, at one point, we half wonder whether the son might catch a train and disappear.

Atmospheric in the extreme (because of the skilful use of sound and music), and with even the motion of the train that we see seeming restrained, held back, this is a film at a pace that is determined by the body, by falling in and out of sleep (where the dreams of the two seem to be the same, and to be overladen with poetic words), and by slowly going on ‘a walk’, which is the son carrying his mother. We have no notion how many times these things may have happened before (as with Endgame), but are in the immediacy of the present :

When she is laid on a bench at the front of the building, and – until he comes back into shot and cradles her head in a sort of crouching position, which brings their faces together again – we fear that she will fall, her physical fragility is emphasized by how the camera moves around her, first from a view that heightens the sense again of her being laid out, and then by him coming into shot and the support that he gives, touching her hair, and covering her over. The direction dares keep us wait and beg our patience, time and again, and so heightens the stillness at the centre of this place, despite being in the midst of the noise of the elements.

During the walk, he at least twice puts her on her legs, and countless times lays her down in a comfortable spot, which stresses, large man though he is, at what cost he takes her out in this way. The second time, in a clump of four silver birches and where he leans her against one, we again feel that she is defying gravity, so closely do we believe that this is not an actress who is, of course, capable of standing up - the uncertainty adds to their brief moment, standing side by side and exchanging a few words.

In such a moment in particular, the external world resembles indistinct watercolours, ones that seem to have been deliberately smudged***, not unlike the impression of some of Gerhart Richter’s paintings. This aesthetic of the film, both in its visual and musical elements, feels quite akin to that of Tarkovksy, say where the lens roams over a print of The Adoration of the Magi (by Leonardo da Vinci) in The Sacrifice (1986), his last film, and where the sound of the organ approaches, and then moves away from, a motif that cannot quite be placed****.

Just in a couple of places, the translation (originally rendered into German with dubbing, so the film bears the title Mutter und Sohn) foxes us, such as where the son urges ‘Yourself, yourself’, and, less obscurely, where she later says ‘You got me out’, but this is a slight defect, and cannot detract from the intense feeling in this film.

In its heart, it embodies a meeting with the truth, such as when she says that she was told that he would be clever, but heartless, and he replies I am a cold person : bit by bit, we are subtly asked questions about our own humanity and mortality.


* Beckettt’s text has other phrases, which are resonant with this mood, such as Outside of here it’s death.

** The other time is during his walk alone, where we progress from cliffs to a glade, tree trunks, the sound of a bell, and a sailing-vessel at sea.

*** The Wikipedia page for the film suggests some of the techniques used.

**** There, as in this film, the result is more effective, and less inducive of a sensation of nausea, than Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 20 February 2014

What sort of man is Theodore ?

This is a follow-up review of Her (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

20 February

This is a follow-up review of Her (2013)

The film is called Her (#UCFF's initial response here) and she (Samantha, the voice of Scarlett Johannson) permeates it, but the person anchoring the film and about whom it arguably is must be Theodore : if this is ‘A Spike Jonze love story’, it is love from his perspective (when it feels good, and when he sits on the steps of the underpass, not understanding what is happening), and invites us to wonder what makes him tick.

He does not sleep heavily or sometimes well, but does not mind being woken – which Samantha manages with just a brief signal via his data-handset – and seems generally of a good-natured disposition. In fact, he seems a bit too amenable to have a stable and certain sense of self, for he is wedded to the idea (no longer the lived reality) of ‘being married’, which he says that he likes, and so has long delayed finalizing the divorce. (His lawyer, who appears not familiar – or maybe just not sympathetic – with how people often enough put off the final step, is irritated with him.)

Acquiescence in what does not bother him means that, although clearly troubled by the suggestion that he should stifle his unseen sex-partner with the cat (even if it is only a virtual reality), he goes along with it, and also with many of Samantha’s suggestions / interventions. Just as for his job, Theodore adopts a persona, that of a stud, for remote-sex assignations, and maybe, in effect, he also does for contentedly being on the beach, fully clothed and smiling, ‘with’ Samantha. He even seems to adorn his breast-pocket with large safety-pins (good to see that they still exist in this world !) so that the handset is at the right height for Samantha to see.

The paradigm for Theodore is where he asks a voice-controlled system to select a song of specified type (melancholy ?), in that he rejects what he first has chosen for him, but then settles for the second one. It is in the video-game that he plays at Amy’s (Amy Adams’), where he has to be the best mum, that he lets his fantasy free, bumping his way to the head of the queue, by driving riotously up the verge, as if this behaviour in the game-world is sufficient to express himself.

In his game at home, he appears stumped by a verbally abusive character, but gets a prompt from Samantha that it is a test and swears back. (A brief shot later shows him not playing the game, but communing with the character.) At work, the effusive compliments of Paul (Chris Pratt), who also talks about Theodore’s feminine side, seem to feel awkward to him and he does not seem to find it easy to accept them, but, having met Tatiana, Samantha and he go on a double-date with Paul and her.

He is at ease with Samantha, and he does value her, but one feels that he is better understood and more able to express himself with Amy – probably still just as friends, but, newly divorced, maybe he does not need more than that and to discover himself…

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

It’s not serious…

This is an initial review of Spike Jonze's Her (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

18 February

This is an initial review of Spike Jonze's Her (2013)

Loneliness, loss, fear, and guilt are a sample of what is going on in the life of Theodore Twombly (named after the artist Cy Twombly¹ ?), and, to an extent, the film meditates on those emotions, but also, at the same time, engages thoughtfully with AI (artificial intelligence) and what some call The Singularity, which they say will come soon and where there will no longer be a divide between human intelligence and AI : more acutely than with Air Doll (2009), where our focus and our sympathies are solidly with Doona Bae as Nozomi, this treatment of the Pygmalion-type story is more even handed.

Moreover, the scenario interestingly juxtaposes a technical world, where Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) plays a game that projects into the space of his room and, almost as now, everyone walking along is talking to someone else who is not there, with his job. He works for Beautiful Handwritten as a ghost writer for those who want another person to receive a real letter in his or her script (rather than an e-mail) – and we learn more as the film progresses (including that some books are still printed, too).

A familiar enough notion from at least as far back as Shakespeare (let alone various versions of Cyrano de Bergerac, Flaubert (?), or Woody Allen), but here the writing appears, Harry Potter like, directly onto the page from dictation, and, moreover, in script as if the intended writer had written it. One should probably not take for granted what it is that satisfies Theodore in it : he clearly does value what he does, and does not appear to yearn to be any other sort of writer. (He is known to Paul (Chris Pratt) on reception as Letter Writer No. 612, from whom he receives immodest praise, which initially appears to hint at homoeroticism, rather than an unbiased appreciation of his art.)

What we have already contrasted is the notion of what is real and what is a lovingly created fake (for that is how Theodore comes to talk about his work), this in a world where he can be lying in bed awake, select – based on choosing from a sample of messages – a similarly sleepless woman to talk to and, within a minute, be chatting up and having phone sex with a stranger (as it turns out, a rather strange stranger)². On another level, his flat seems to bear continuing witness to the separation that his wife and he have gone through, because there are pine dining chairs facing inwards, as if missing an absent table, and there are books in disarray on the shelves, suggesting that his wife’s and his books had once been integrated, and, without them, there is no cohesion.

In crude terms, the digital world, which puts him in touch with a fellow insomniac, seems more sorted out than the analogue one of life in the flat after Catherine. His occupation, in a bachelor sort of way, is with video-games (where the player has to explore the virtual territory, but not employing a multi-player mode) and looking at the nightscape. (It is Los Angeles, which was beautifully rendered at night in Drive (2011), but melded in some way with Shanghai (which is credited as a location, along with having its own unit).) With Theodore’s job, digital and analogue are more integrated, because the former allows the production of a physical object, even though, as an artefact, it is an illusion.

Enter Samantha, who is no illusion, and who comes into Theodore’s life when he is sold a new ‘operating system’ as a result of a large video display by OS. (Arguably, she / it is an application (some would say ‘app’), not an operating system ?) Neither knows what to expect of the other, and that exploration is the nub of the film – Theodore only seems to know that he does not want something when he has it, as with the date that Samantha encourages him to go on (and which we see at the time, and, afterwards, from his perspective), whereas she does things and presents him with various faits accomplis of increasing audacity (even the acquisition of a body by adoption).

The film evokes all parts of Theodore’s married life with Catherine (Rooney Mara), from which some of his guilt and all of his sense of loss stem, in montages of carefully thought-out snippets. He has the naivety – though also, unlike him, the insight – of the title-character in Lars and the Real Girl (2007) in thinking that Catherine will be pleased for him to hear about Samantha – this tells us how deeply involved he is, that he is telling all the world. For their analogue / digital dating feels daring, as the first gay or lesbian kiss in some long-running serial might have done, and Theodore embraces Paul’s suggestion, on meeting his girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen), of a double-date.

Having Scarlett Johannson as the unseen Samantha avoids her physical angularity, which would not complement Phoenix’s own, and allows her voice to float wonderfully and be highly attractive and reflexive. The joy of the film is that Theodore’s and her conversations feel like a real interchange, so one wonders whether it was done with her on set, to take her cues, rather than put in separately. In a sense, she feels more real than Theodore does, because, no matter that we never she her, she jokes, feels, uses inflexions and speaks wise words, to name but a few, and seems to embody life.

The resonant topic of a creature of any sort growing in capacity and in knowledge³ is even made more potent by not having a simulacrum, such as an avatar – instead, we have just the voice, which, by nuance, intonation and what it says, has to convey the sense of discovery and of a remote, yet somehow intimate, other. What the film aims at representing is a variety of experiences of otherness, and, in its course as in its ending, achieves far greater subtlety than films such as, for example, Piercing Brightness or The World’s End (even if they may also aim at other effects).

The main thing that flaws this film, other than it very slightly outstays its welcome through the number and length of episodes towards its end, is Phoenix’s sometimes imprecise diction (as in The Master (2012)), at which times he appears to be speaking without opening his mouth properly, and subtitles would help, if the words are significant.

A very minor defect in a fine performance, though Johannson’s is impressive and probably betters it. (Oh, and, for the fastidious (as Theodore has to be with his writing), the case of the title – unless in answer to the question ‘What do you want ?’…)

More here : The Agent Apsley meditates further on the nature of Theodore...

Epilogue :


¹ IMDb does its usual trick of not knowing what his surname is, throwing one back one one’s own resources…

² Nothing new there, except the interfaces offers direct and immediate connection (when we hear Theodore’s user-name).

³ It is familiar, say, from Agent Smith in the trilogy beginning with The Matrix (1999) (which, in turn, has its roots in Akira (1988) and, amongst other things, what becomes of Tetsuo).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 16 February 2014

I’m not a trained poodle !

This is a review of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

16 February

This is a review of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

* Contains spoilers *

It seemed inevitable that Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) would bear resemblances to Woody Allen’s 1997 film Deconstructing Harry, if not in terms of the nature of the soundtrack (the film’s title was also asked to serve as the name of the character’s debut solo album, or vice versa¹) : however, unlike Harry Block (writer’s block ?), Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) seems to come to a rather slight realization of his nature, and the film prefers to take comfort in the ploy of using one version of the film’s ending to open it, and then lead us back unawares (on which, more below), as if it is the greatest of ploys.

Either that or it is a Sisyphean world-view, which endorses both Beckettt’s choice of Giambattista Vico as a precursor of James Joyce and his then ‘Work in Progress’ (which became Finnegans Wake) and Stephen’s assertion, in Dimensions (2011):

Now, I believe that every single possible combination of events has happened already, is happening right now, and will happen again in the future

An unexpected attack (which we are made to wait to learn is for insulting someone’s wife) takes us right back to George Bailey, in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), sounding off down the phone to his daughter’s teacher, and then getting a sock in the jaw from her husband in Martini’s Bar, and there are instances where, as Bailey’s do, Davis’ meanderings go from bad to worse – just when it could not be conceived that they can : perhaps this is where the Joycean notion fits in, with Davis having his own (extended) Bloomsday (both are Jewish ?), since this film’s principal cat is called Ulysses ?

Likewise, the upsets that befall Allen’s Block (also Jewish) on his journey, and which – to a very appropriate track – even have him being led down into Hell. Of course, there will almost always be parallels, since no work, even if it aims at originality, exists in a cultural vacuum and can easily claim uniqueness. Whereas, to provide a background to the cat’s reappearance (and, perhaps, to dispel the whiff of the end of the same year’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)), The Coen Brothers seem unable to resist invoking The Incredible Journey (1963) with its Disney animals travelling 200 miles across Canada, even if blows the idea that we are really in 1961…

In Inside, though, the cat (the wrong cat) has no choice about travelling, and we are also in the territory of On The Road (2012), its particular company of grotesques as travelling companions being a driver grunting monosyllables or John Goodman’s forthright, stick-wielding jazzer. The contrast with Davis is unmistakeable – Roland Turner is an established artist, and, as so many of the great jazzers were, can afford to be a monster, unimpressed by Davis’ three-chord tunes, and probably, for Davis, sufficient reason to strand him in the car when the driver gets pulled in².

The nomadic life of Davis even reminds of that of Frances Ha (2012), down to the fact that his Chicago is her Paris, his Mike her Sophie (she goes to Tokyo, rather than dying). As with Frances vaguely hoping to meet a friend in Paris (to substitute for Sophie ?), it simply does not bear thinking about why Davis does not post his LP to Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), in case it went astray : for, when he has got himself there with Grossman in Chicago, other than a foolish crack about ‘That’ll be five dollars’ when he hands over the record, Davis seems to have nothing prepared.

As Davis is ‘in the business’, one might think that he would not just have no notion that Grossman is likely to want to hear something or what that ought to be, rather than expecting him to be impressed by being handed yet another record (this is where we learn its title). This half-hearted Davis is the same person makes bold claims to his sister about understanding the music industry when she shows him some embarrassing early recording that he wants to disown.

One might as well turn up for an audition or screen-test without having thought through some of the things that one might be asked to do (as in the embarrassing audition scene in Staub auf unseren Herzen (2012)) – Davis sings well enough³, but he has chosen something that comes from (or sounds as though it does) the older tradition of folk song. Given that he did even know what he was going to perform until he started, he has scarcely calculated his opening gambit, by knowing his audience, in trying to get coverage or representation from Grossman.

In these respects, the meeting, though the song is pleasant enough, mirrors the trouble that Neo, in The Matrix (1999), has to go to reach The Architect, only to find that doing so was only an intermediate goal, and to be told that, after all, he is not The One : yet Davis seems to ingest fully what he is told, and it is only one of his own booby-traps that prevents him going back to sea. As a slice of life, do we believe that he then had a good gig and, despite being beaten up, things are on the up ? Maybe, maybe not, but do we care any more ?

For we have seen the rumpus that he caused at The Gorfeins’⁴ when, perhaps through grief at being reminded of his partner Mike Timlin’s death or perhaps at recalling his loss of a meal-ticket (since Grossman declares him not a frontman), he violently challenges Lillian Gorfein harmonizing ‘Fare Thee Well’ and petulantly objects to the idea of having been asked to give a song at all – not as if he had not (thought they do not know it) lost their cat, and, as it turns out, brought them someone else’s.

In the scene immediately after her screaming ‘Where’s its scrotum ?’, he is seen, as if he does not have wits to do anything else with it, getting into the car bound for Chicago with it – when he first lost Ulysses, he did not have any notion of what to do (with the problem that he had created, allegedly humorously) other than take it across town to Jim and Jean’s⁵. Definitely plot driving character, for, however much fun it is to see him with the cat and people’s responses to that situation, he did not seek far for solutions, let alone where the time goes (unless he rose very late) between leaving The Gorfeins’, leaving the cat at Jim and Jean’s (as if he can, just because he has the need), seeing his agent Mel, and arriving to be confronted with Jean’s hostility.

Reading between the lines of her anger, and her affront at his saying that ‘It takes two to tango’, Davis seems to have forced himself upon her (maybe worse), which later, when she (Carey Mulligan) is on stage with Jim (Justin Timberlake) at The Gaslight Café, he brags about : no other explanation seems likely to explain what she says about Davis.

In Frances Ha, she smacks of something like borderline personality disorder (which therapy can help, and so make the ending less implausible), whereas, with Davis, it could be something in the nature of narcissistic personality disorder, which may be less amenable to change.

At any rate, Davis is not very likeable, he seems to have the same vividly dark beard without ever needing to groom it, and expects the world to revolve around him (he has paid his back dues, but seems to think that, having settled the debt, he can just ask for it back), to the extent that he is always after favours, and blames his sister for his lack of thought when she throws out his box of things when he tells her to.

There are nice touches with him thinking that he has found the cat again, with learning later why Jean is angry with him, and with Pappi claiming that Jean slept with him to get Davis a slot, but they are not enough to support the piece, or its structure. And does even this have significance ? : as against at the beginning (where it finishes with 'Hang me, oh hang me' (Trad., arr. Isaac & Burnett), at the end of the film, Davis concludes his set with a further song, ‘Fare Thee Well’ (Trad., arr. Mumford, Isaac & Burnett), the song that he recorded with his former musical partner Timlin. Also, unlike the opening version of the attack, which ends with him on the floor, he is shown staggering to the top of the alleyway after he has been attacked, and seeing the man get into a cab. He mutters to himself – is it in some recognition that, at some level, he deserved what happened for his coarse heckling of the man’s wife ?

On balance, for depth, balance and musicality, another film about a musician who has a lack of empathy and warmth is far more compelling than this one, Daniel Auteuil in Un Cœur en Hiver (1992), and without the gimmicks or the feeling of being derivative.


An interestingly negative review, somehow classified by as 'fresh' when it is 'rotten' to the core (not that tomatoes have cores), is by Ryan Gilbey, New Statesman. Mark Kermode's review, in The Observer, also has criticisms to level, but maybe giving 3* counts as being positive...


¹ Calling a film Inside Llewyn Davis offers the obvious prospect of getting under the skin of a man with a made-up Christian name (as far as one can tell), but, when one realizes that it is the exercise in PR that is an album-title, maybe one lets go a little of such expectations…

² As if he would be, without resolving the problem that had led to his arrest of the vehicle being inappropriately stopped…
³ Unlike some of the other numbers, where the disjunction between the full-stereo studio sound and the visible acoustic makes one aware of the artificiality, this sounded to be miked / recorded fairly naturally. That said, the songs are, apart from providing the background to the realized image from the poster of a guy loping around with a cat, really the best thing about the film.

⁴ Who seem enlightened in their willingness to entertain not only contact with him a matter of days later – but they are supposed to be intellectuals, who do not bear grudges – but also to put him up again.

Then again, at The Gaslight, Pappi is not an intellectual, but allows back as a performer a man whom he had thrown out the night before.
⁵ He keeps trotting out, as if this both explains and excuses his behaviour, that it is not his cat, it is The Gorfeins' cat.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 14 February 2014

Britten Sinfonia Voices : life, song and wine

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

14 February

A concert given by Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia) at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, on Tuesday 11 February

This concert comprised three compositions by baritone Roderick Williams (two of which had received their World premiere at the Sinfonia’s concert in Norwich the previous week), four-part songs by Schubert and Schumann, and a Lied by the latter.

It started with Williams’ Red Herring Blues for clarinet and piano (from 1994), which opened with a jaunty solo from the former, played by Joy Farrall. Tom Poster then joined in, but with similar material that yet sounded different on a different instrument. As it developed, there were some violent gestures from the piano, reminiscent of moments in Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus when some powerful chords are struck, and even of that composer’s birdsong. A short, meditative piece, it ended with what seemed like a quotation from the first bars of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Next, the four members of Britten Sinfonia Voices (Susan Gilmour Bailey, Alexandra Gibson, Nicholas Mulroy, and Eamonn Dougan) gave two multipart Lieder of Schubert, Der Tanz (D. 826) from 1825, and then the earlier (1816) An die Sonne (D. 439), the second much longer than the first, which gave a taste of the operatic quality of these voices, which happily reached right to the back of the auditorium, and with very clear German diction. An die Sonne allowed us to hear what good voices they are individually, before blending them again so well.

Whereas the other Lied contrasted the despondency and infirmity of age with the energy and dancing of youth, this writer, Johann Peter, turns to weightier things : the poet’s persona enjoying creation in the immediate moment, even praising it, but suddenly realizes the truth of his mortality along with it. The line-ending of the final stanza, Staub (dust, in the phrase ‘Return to dust !’) is followed by a somewhat creepy tone from Mulroy’s tenor, but, as the stanza is reprised, resolving into a happier conception (via the word Laub, meaning ‘foliage’).

The first of Williams’ two commissions by the Sinfonia and Wigmore Hall was The last house on the river, for all forces, and had an eerie quality to its opening, and hints of Boulez’ writing for piano, before we heard from the clarinet in its chalumeau register. The work went round in cycles of Williams responded to by the singers in close-harmony style, and with regular instrumental intermissons.

Karen Hayes’ highly poetic text (she is the librettist for both works) is deftly set by Williams, and the very English sound of the group of four anchored this very specific evocation of time and place, with the intensity of the what is perceived picked out by the almost improvisatory feel of the clarinet writing. An enthusiastic round of applause met this new work, and the sensation in West Road Concert Hall was that there was appreciation for a well-conceived and performed programme of music by and sung by Williams and his colleagues.

A solo Schumann Lied followed, Auf einer Burg (from Liederkreis, Op. 39, setting Joseph von Eichendorff), where Williams’ mastery of his vocal resources, and of telling a story with his intonation and phrasing, were to the fore. As with the earlier Lieder, where there was a movement from a joyous state to – or to contemplating – a state of decline, this Lied leads us up, through all the surrounding circumstance, to a wedding, but the final image is that the beautiful bride (die schöne Braut) is crying.

Staying with Schumann, Britten Sinfonia Voices brought us Mondnacht, from 1840, which had a feeling of floating, of calm, with a change of mood as it ended just with piano. Then Schubert again, Schicksalsenker (D. 763) from eighteen years earlier, which began with tenor voice, and gave the feeling of being taken back in time, partly in the restraint with which the quartet sang, and partly in the repetition of the word from the title (Fate’s Anchor). The link is that there is a feeling of transcendence, of the soul stretching wide its wings (Und meine Seele spannte / Weit ihre Flügel aus), and of a world where every pain has escaped far away (Fern entfoh’n ist jeder Schmerz).

The feeling of Gemütlichkeit in the Trinklied (D. 183) from 1815 set the mood for this final group of works, with even a table and drinks of some sort as the Stammtisch of the Voices, as they gave us this drinking song, praising friendship and wine, and with variants of the sentiment of Ohne Freunde, ohne Wein, / ich nicht im Leben sein (‘Without friends, without wine, I should not like to be alive’) as the closing couplet to each verse.

Next, the second Williams’ commission In His Cups (again setting Karen Hayes), so one could see why it was keeping company with this Schubert genre. For this piece, Joy Farrall played off stage in a piece that evoked a Britten-like sort of Englishness, of a village pub, and of secular and church life in small communities in an earlier decade, and with outbursts from the piano. The diction and syntax of Hayes’ poetry takes one beyond John Clare and ‘The Deserted Village’ even to Shakespeare : But in his cups he’d thought her beautiful could evoke the topers in Twelfth Night, and Williams had carefully matched his setting to a pastoral of yesteryear, such as might parallel an inland Peter Grimes.

The final two short songs, both by Schubert (Lebenslust(D. 609) from 1818, and another Trinklied (D. 75) from 1813), ended the recital, and both stir up the notions of friendship. In the first, we have allein sein ist öde, wer kann sich da freu’n (‘To be alone is bleak, who could enjoy being there ?’), and the delivery was both crisp and emotional. The second had a clarinet line added to the scoring for tenor, chorus and piano, so it was a rousing close to the proceedings, with even a Schiller-like invocation of the spirit of brotherhood in Laßt uns all Brüder sein ! (‘Let us all be brothers !’) – perhaps the correct context of the ‘Ode to Joy’ is the pub ?!

A recital that delivered many flavours and juxtapositions, all of which seemed to enrich each other.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Ain't misbehavin'

This is a review of August, Osage County (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

12 February

This is a review of August, Osage County (2013)

Just hearing the dialogue of the trailer, it had been clear that this film was a mess, and not a very appealing one. Still, though one chose not to face it in the case of Polanski’s Carnage (2011), some tasks cannot be ducked.

Quite apart from the fact that this film is not very cinematic in nature, sometimes it is just inadequately or even poorly shot – opening shots of landscape to set the scene do not, of course, have to be vibrantly beautiful, but these were mediocre, whereas a different unit, later in the film, produced some very nice work in and around the lake, and another ambiently showed when Little Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch) is met by from the coach by his father, Charlie Aiken (Chris Cooper).

Inside the house, another sequence of Barbara (Julia Roberts) lying, rising, going out through the screen-door, and birds flying was all nicely filmed. Compare that with the distracting variable focus around the infamous lunch table, and no doubt some of the time the back of the chair was sharp so that Violet (Meryl Streep) was in soft focus, but other times her wrinkles were crisp, and there seemed no rhyme or reason as to what the camera was most on from one shot to the next. In this respect, this must take some beating as an entirely arbitrary approach that acts against concentrating on the swordplay.

Some of the lighting and composition of shots was not much better. No, not every shot need be composed so that it gives one an aesthetic thrill, but the sequence after the three sisters come out of the conservatory, and Violet tells her tale about the boots, is clunkiness itself, worse than many a holiday snap – if you have a visual medium, you cannot just offend the eye to feed the ear with dialogue and a faltering speech, as you might on the stage.

Tracy Letts is credited with the screenplay from her own stage-work, but, in the translation, she has in no way freed it just because there are cars (overtaking cars, even), a gathering at the Baptist church, and a few other moments outdoors. Some might say that the paucity of life outside the restless confines of the house throws one back on its claustrophobic quality and intensifies it, but, equally, it could have the effect of stressing the stage-bound nature of the writing, conception and direction.

Streep and Roberts are both nominated for awards, which seems to send the message that people who shout, say ‘fuck’ a lot, and declare that they are in charge are the best at acting. As to whether the repetitive lines given to Roberts, urging Streep ‘to eat the fish, bitch’, represent the heights of dramatic inspiration or its nadir may divide opinion, but it all seems to be about to set off the fuse off another lunch scene when, starting with Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), three plates of fish are dashed to the ground :

Which is the essential message, If you smash your food on the floor, I’m damned if I’m not going to do the same, more loudly and messily, if possible. Against all this rebellion, the best speech from Aiken was when he tells his wife, Violet’s sister, that they will not make it to their thirty-ninth anniversary unless she changes. Which begs, of course, the question how he ever made it to the thirty-eighth, and Violet’s husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) survived as long, because, at the rate at which emotional and relational ammunition is being fired off in the compass of the film, even the grass that is supposed to get Aiken through would have worn thin.

The plot tries to be like an Ibsen play, with secrets from the distant past back to haunt, let alone like Chekhov (Violet being in the position of Firs in The Cherry Orchard ?), and all this ‘truth-telling’ that Violet indulges in makes the stressful wedding reception in Melancholia (2011) seem like a walk in the park, except that one ultimately does not much care, because the film frankly does not, whether she is like it because of abusing psychiatric medication, because of any actual psychiatric condition and / or whether the abuse has made it worse, and / or because it is just in her nature.

Yet what all that says is that it has all happened in the past, because we are told both that Beverly has disappeared before and Violet has been in rehabilitation, so nothing is different now, but we are expected to believe that severe home-truths, which could not be unsaid, are being told for the first time. Apart from a fleeting suggestion that Violet might be a Lear-like figure to Barbara’s suddenly tyrannical Regan / Goneril, which might have been interesting, some more actually powerful moments than the fireworks around the table are :

* When Ivy tells Barbara and Karen (Juliette Lewis) that they have both left her to it, but she is going to New York (Three Sisters meets Uncle Vanya ?)

* Earlier, Karen’s monologue, overpowering Barbara in the car, and into the house

* Charlie meeting Little Charlie (as mentioned above)

* Ivy joining Little Charlie to watch t.v.

In this world, Lewis for turning herself into Karen, and Nicholson for a very nuanced performance, go unnoticed in the shade of the nominations, but not on this blog…

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The way you play cards !

This is a review of Dallas Buyers' Club (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

11 February

This is a review of Dallas Buyers' Club (2013)

* Contains spoilers * : Best seen cold – you might even avoid the poster, which seems to suggest that it is about a car auction – so quit reading now

A harsh generalization, but a film that needs you to know what it is about beforehand is a failure – this one starts off where it ends, but rodeo is not what it is about, but a man who keeps losing consciousness and ends up in hospital with news that he is quick to reject as a mistake. He is quick to reject it, but not slow to find out all about it – we had taken him for some sort of a hick, with his trailer, so it is a surprise to find him, when his eyes will co-operate, deep in research down at the library.

Ron Woodroff may not have been quite like this, but Matthew McConaughey creates a compelling figure (and, as a fleeting headline suggests, he may have had access to Woodroff’s diary), even to the extent of being stick-insect thin at the start of the film. Yes, he is HIV+, and he is even told that he has full-blown AIDS and just thirty days to live, but that is where Woodroff’s considerable will to win, which had him excitedly take bets and then scarper when he lost the bet, begins to kick in.

The hospital will be one of our ports of call, and the four most important people are there together right at the start : Woodroff, Dr Sevard (Denis O’Hare), his junior doctor Eve (Jennifer Garner – IMDb can be a bit short on recording names, which one has heard in films, but does not recall), and Rayon (Jared Leto)*. (Everyone else, relatively speaking, is on the periphery of the narration, including Dr Vass, Richard Barkley, and Woodroff’s mate on the police force (ditto IMDb).)

The question that the film poses is this one : does one see more of Woodroff’s character, and beyond the man who calls Rayon (and others) a faggot when trying to be friendly at the hospital, because we spend more time with him, or because he is fighting the rules and the warped system to save his own life (and that of anyone else who can afford to pay to keep him afloat), and that brings out the best in him ?

When we first see him, he is using the charged and close atmosphere of a pen at the rodeo to have sex with two girls, which – as we are judging creatures – gives a negative indication of his attitudes, not least when he runs off with the stake-money (in a very quick-thinking way). And then he keeps collapsing, ends up in Dallas Mercy (ironic, as it turns out), and is confronted with the level of his T-cells and other test-results.

The incidental meeting - because of being in neighbouring beds - with drag-queen Rayon (for which Leto deserves an Academy Award for best supporting actor), whom he does not understand or want to be touched by, but plays cards with (pitiably badly, according to Rayon), is his prompt to realize that they have common needs, and to learn about the trials of the drug AZT. The dynamic of the film is not so much to make us approve of Woodroff in himself, but as battling the unfair and self-interested regulation of the FDA (Federal Drug Administration) on behalf the members of the buyers club that Rayon and he set up :

We admire him because he takes the risk of seeking to do all that he can for them, because it also helps save his life, but it is individually how he softens towards Rayon, and how Eve finds herself more and more out of step with her superior (and valuing what Woodroff is doing), that the film has its emotional core. Seeing him, with much neck and no small amount of humour, pretending to Barkley to be a priest, and spinning a yarn about how much medication he needs to take, is priceless, and the film is unobtrusively laced through with all sorts of comic touches.

A very different film, although it has the same transformational account of Joe Miller coming to change his view of Andrew Beckett, is Philadelphia (1993), because of how the film ‘feels’. Despite having HIV and AIDS in common, the parallel feels even less close than with Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1985), based on Manuel Puig’s novel, because, as already suggested, Leto’s portrayal gives a potentially weighed-down film the right amount of buoyancy. Yet in no flimsy or tokenistic way, and with the crushing poignancy of the scene when he goes to see his father at the bank and moves him to pity, not least by how he refers to Woodroff, an origin that he casually passes off, in handing over cash to Woodroff, as having cashed in a policy.

Where, despite opportunistic Woodroff showing that he will happily have sex with one of the members of the club because he knows that he cannot infect her, we might feel that we are heading for an anodyne romance is with Dr Eve, but the film seems aware of that being too pat, and the closest that we really get to corny smooth-talking is when he buys her dinner - and that is fun, since it is so knowing. Medically, she sees that what he is doing is better than the AZT regime, and is won over by it, even if the FDA, changing the rules, stymie things. The politics of that, if not the subject of a film or two already, soon will be…

This is not a feel-good film, although accepting Rayon and obliging a former drinking buddy to shakes his hand is one of those moments where one embraces the feeling behind what Woodroff has done, and cringes at the means - just as much as his stealing Dr Eve’s pad of prescriptions, and how he responds on being challenged by Barkley that the names on the prescriptions are all members of the Dallas Cowboys. Yet, far more profoundly than a film like Gravity (2013)**, it is about adversity, the human spirit, and the capacity to reach out to others.


* Plus it was really interesting to spot the name Griffin Dunne (as Dr Vass) in the credits…

** #GravityIsGravy on Twitter (the film lacks ‘it’).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)