Monday, 28 July 2008

Day of Wrath (1943, Denmark, Carl Theodor Dreyer)

Made during the Nazi occupation of his native Denmark, Dreyer's film uses the concept of persecution and witch-hunting during the 17th century as an allegory for the situation his country found itself in at the time the film was made. Who knows whether the Nazis were aware of Dreyer's intentions; you'd think the production would have been closed down if it was that obvious, but such is Dreyer's subtlety that perhaps those for whom the film was an attack upon failed to notice the point. Set around 1623, where a strict Lutheran orthodoxy led to the persecution of Catholics and other non-Lutherans in Denmark, Dreyer shows a community that is paranoid and distrustful of others, always quick to point the finger and accuse those who act outside of the norm as witches - a crime of course punishable by torture and death.

An elderly woman is accused of being a witch, a crime she vehemently denies. In what is assumed to be a reference to the Nazis, brutal methods are used against suspected criminals; in order to force a confession, torture is used, and even this isn't enough - the authorities want the woman to denounce others. Of course, she knows of one witch and the confession of which would cause shock waves throughout the pious community. An elderly pastor, Absolon (Thorkild Roose) has recently taken a young second wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin), much to the disapproval of his mother (Sigrid Neiiendam), and it was suspected that Anne's mother was a witch, only saved from the flames by Absolon's testimony, though one suspects whether she was saved solely to win Anne's heart. Therein lies at heart the hypocrisy of the community, where the power that resides in a small religious few can be manipulated and exploited for cynical purposes.

When Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), Absolon's son from his first marriage returns to his family home, the focus shifts from interrogating suspected witches to the actual existence of a witch in the community. Martin and Anne begin to fall in love, their idyllic happiness at their love blossoming (shown in rural scenes of walks and boat journeys) contrasting sharply with the world of paranoia and persecution that Absolon inhabits. Martin is more sombre and distant by his betrayal, acknowledging his sin, but the affair makes Anne more assertive. Even Absolon and his mother notice the change. Note how she wears her hair loose now, opposed to tied back in an austere fashion. Such is Anne's desire to be with Martin that she wishes her husband dead, a wish that indeed comes to pass. Whether this is an absolute statement on Anne's power or whether it's ambivalent due to his age, it's a statement later used against her when Anne is accused, like her mother, of witchcraft.

Dreyer uses the concept of religious dogma run amok to create a haunting and atmospheric world, filmed where those with power can manipulate and persecute others for their own ends. The obvious reference to the Nazi occupation of Denmark has subsequently been made – little wonder therefore that Dreyer fled to Sweden not long after the film was made. Much like in Dreyer's 'The Passion of Joan of Arc', Dreyer has a trademark of close ups on faces to show anguish and emotion - just watch how close he gets to the elderly lady denounced as a witch during her suffering, as well as Anne's face during her growing love for Martin. Dreyer learned his trade during the years of silent cinema when an actor's face could convey just as much as dialogue, so it's no surprise that he uses this form of expression so convincingly. The film's climax is as ambiguous as much of what we've seen before - whether Anne is a witch or not, despite her confessions is probably open to debate, but this shouldn't distract us from Dreyer's true aim perhaps - depicting an austere world of terror and fear. 4.5/5

Saturday, 26 July 2008

La Antena (2007, Argentina, Esteban Sapir)

Argentinian cinema is appearing more and more on the world stage at the moment. Pablo Trapero's 'Leonera' and Lucrecia Martel's 'La Mujer Sin Cabeza' were both in competition at Cannes for the Palme D'Or, and Lucia Puenzo's 'XXY', a sensitive portrayal of the life of a teenage hermaphrodite secured a British cinema release earlier in 2008 (a film I had quite a lot of time for too). 'La Antena', a throwback to the days of silent cinema and more accurately German expressionism was too released in May in cinemas. It's an intriguing commercial decision certainly, because it's essentially a silent film in black and white which shuns modern cinematic conventions, uses hand made effects rather than CGI and would sit comfortably with more the surreal films of the 1920s - just see how the film begins with fingers hovering over a typewriter, with piano sounds being heard. It's certainly the kind of film that won't be sought out by multiplex audiences.

The narrative itself plays second fiddle to an extent to Sapir's technical brilliance because it really doesn't hold the imagination that much. This is a city where no-one has a voice, where life is controlled by the hypnotic draw of television, and where some plucky central characters try to break this spell and liberate the inhabitants of the city. It's the kind of set up that has been done before, mostly in the world of science fiction, and to an extent in the films that Sapir seeks to draw inspiration from - there's a homage to 'Metropolis' in one scene, a film which has a similar plot to this one. Whether Sapir seeks to make any pertinent points about television as a tool that makes people docile and is used as a means of suppression in contemporary society, I don't know or maybe it's just a convenient enough basis for him to explore his imaginative visual ideas. Also, there's the significance of people literally having no voice - does this refer in any way to Argentinian history, where democracy has often been precariously placed and replaced by military rule/dictatorships in the past? Again, allegorical interpretations of 'La Antena' can be made, but such is the emphasis on the aesthetics of the film that you'd be forgiven for wondering this was Sapir's intentions.

I've no idea what kind of budget Sapir had to work with on this film, but as I assume it was minimal, he certainly stretches it a long way. We're used to watching modern films with gigantic budgets and you think to yourself "where did the money go"? Not so with 'La Antena', where you think completely the opposite, how did Sapir manage to achieve this with barely any financial assistance. Sapir clearly has an active imagination, a rich sense of film history (see his tribute to 'A Trip To The Moon') and a willingness to put his ideas on celluloid without any doubts. His use of subtitles for instance are different - I suppose they're aiming to be like intertitles from silent cinema, but they completely reflect every word that's said, rather than just the gist of a conversation, but they also leap from the screen. Sapir's world is also completely artificial, deliberately so. See how his distance shots of the city are clearly made from paper, but constructed to look effective as well as how such things would have been filmed in yesteryear.

Sapir is certainly a film maker of some promise and it will be interesting to see which projects he works on next. 'La Antena' is a feast for the eyes for sure and an imaginative piece of work. I'm not sure however that the narrative is much more than a slight premise for Sapir to get his ideas on screen, and that's fine - he clearly had to work with limited resources and 'La Antena' is more than the sum of its parts. Sapir's film has been likened to the work of early Tim Burton, but if we're thinking contemporary kindred spirits, then Guy Maddin is perhaps a more natural comparison and who knows whether his work has been an influence as he draws direct inspiration from surreal and expressionist cinema. 3.5/5

'La Antena' will be released on DVD on 18 August from Dogwoof Pictures.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Ikiru (1952, Japan, Akira Kurosawa)

Although much of Kurosawa's reputation rests with his samurai films and Shakespeare adaptations, it's easy to forget that before he concentrated on these genres, he was quite an adept director of contemporary films with a human conscience ('Drunken Angel', 'Stray Dog'). The finest example of such films is 'Ikiru', which in my opinion is his most complete masterpiece along with 'Ran'. If you take the basic set up; a mid ranking civil servant who has achieved nothing in his life discovers he's dying and wants to undertake one task of communal benefit, with modern eyes it seems a bit contrived, with the potential to finish the wrong side of sentimental. However such is Kurosawa's sincerity and empathy with his subject that the film emerges as a genuine triumph of human endeavour and an affirmation of life.

Acted by Takashi Shimura (one of Kurosawa's most frequent collaborators), Kenji Watanabe is a "mummy", someone who's been more or less dead for thirty decades, living for the minor achievements he's managed to accomplish, namely never taking a day off sick. It's a powerful performance, rarely relying on speech for Watanabe communicates purely in mumbles - it's all in the facial expressions. And that's part of the joy of 'Ikiru', how human faces drive the film as if it could be a throwback to silent cinema. Note how a drinking companion of Watanabe himself barely talks, just throwing quizzical looks in his direction.

Kurosawa doesn't keep us in suspense about Watanabe's health, explaining through voice over before the man himself knows, that he's dying from stomach cancer. Maybe this fact is laced with irony given that he never sought medical assistance for any illnesses in the past because he was too concerned that taking time off work would somehow be a dereliction of duty. Kurosawa then shows how Watanabe has got to the stage he has with flashbacks to his past - his wife died moderately young, leaving Watanabe to raise his son alone as he never remarried. These memories are what first springs to mind upon finding out about his impending death when he embarks on a period of soul searching (which includes copious drinking and skipping work), which then finally gives way to a moment of self-realisation - that life is short and he has to rescue the abandoned plans to build a children's playground in a poor part of the city.

Watanabe is just one part of the bureaucratic minefield though. When the local citizens first petition the council for the playground, there's an amusing scenario in which they are passed from one council department to the next before finally ending up back where they started (Public Liaison, which Watanabe heads) several hours later. Even when the playground has been completed, council departments all claim responsibility, sidelining Watanabe's efforts, especially the cynical and unscrupulous deputy mayor who has one eye on his forthcoming election. At his wake, prompted by the local citizens who mourn him, comes an acceptance that Watanabe was chiefly responsible for the playground's construction, and inspired by his zeal, his colleagues vow to follow his lead. Of course nothing changes - people are shown being passed from one department to the next in the very next scene.

Much like in the later work of Ozu, tensions between parents and children in post-WW2 Japan are apparent. In 'Tokyo Story', when the elderly parents from the countryside visited their city dwelling children, they had no time for them and regretted this when they passed on. The same occurs here, where Watanabe's selfish son and daughter in law are interested solely in Watanabe as a source of money - he overhears them discussing his retirement bonus and he subsequently neglects to tell them he's dying. Respect amongst the younger generation for their parents and elders appears to be lacking in both films and continued to be an issue in the works of Ozu for instance.

As typified in the iconic scene of Watanabe sitting on the swing in the playground in the snow, cooing a 20s love song as he awaits death, 'Ikiru' is one of the most profound and moving films anyone is ever likely to see. Thanks to Shimura, Watanabe convincingly transforms from a man whose entire life had been meaningless and unfulfilled to a man whose death-inspired zeal and determination was able to achieve something positive for the common good. Kurosawa's empathy for the man is evident and its this which allows the film to remain honest and not feel forced or manipulative, as well as offer substantive insights into the human condition. 5/5

Monday, 21 July 2008

The Red Shoes (1948, UK, Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)

Justifiably selected as one of the ten best British films of all time in a recent BFI poll, 'The Red Shoes' is a dazzling reminder of the golden age of British cinema and perhaps the most famous example of the brilliance of The Archers production team (Powell and Pressburger). It's a film that works superbly on both a narrative and visual level - on one hand it's a moving melodrama about a dancer torn between her love for her art and her love for her partner, whilst on the other it was like nothing British audiences would have seen at the time, a dizzying explosion of colour and expressionism. Little wonder therefore that Martin Scorsese cites it as one of the most influential films upon his career.

Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a humble dancer in the Lermontov ballet troupe is discovered by the driven yet charismatic Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) and made a star of, whilst simultaneously falling for the composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). However in true melodramatic fashion, one can't have what one both loves, and Victoria has to make a choice - to marry the love of her life, or become a slave to her art. Add into the mix the ballet of The Red Shoes itself, based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale about the girl whose shoes would not allow her to stop dancing until tragedy struck. Victoria's life ultimately is fated to echo hers. Whilst this has the potential to sound a little contrived and unoriginal - the love triangle dimension has been done before (though this is love between a man and one's art), it's handled so confidently by film makers at the peak of their powers, it's always convincing.

Most discussion about the film rightly rests with its visual brilliance. Consider that the norm for British made films was to use black and white stock; very few films had been filmed in colour by the late 1940s. 'The Red Shoes' was something different, something new. The eye-popping use of colour would have been a revelation. The ballet sequences are a masterful example of expressionism, with Victoria's fragile psychological state laid bare for us to see. As she takes off in 'The Red Shoes' ballet, the theatrical setting transforms into something much more dreamlike and artificial, with Victoria floating in space whilst seemingly hysterical and traumatised by the prospect of being torn between Craster (love) and Lermontov (art). This sequence exists as a microcosm of the film's visual artistry; an assault on the viewer's senses, but the film is much more than that. It's a demonstration of British cinematic confidence during its peak by arguably it's finest film makers. A masterpiece. 5/5

Blind Beast (1969, Japan, Yasuzo Masumura)

Diverting exploitation fare from the versatile Japanese director Masumura (who made the Frank Tashlin-esque 'Giants and Toys' and the lesbian melodrama 'Manji' amongst other films), which must have seemed pretty out there to late 60s Japanese audiences, though it fits into quite suitably amongst the new wave of films during that period. Coming over as a precursor in many ways to Nagisa Oshima's 'In The Realm of the Senses', which followed a few years later, 'Blind Beast' focuses on an equally sordid affair based upon seemingly S&M ideals.

Aki (Mako Midori), a spunky young model, poses for some fairly kinky "artistic" photographs which are shown in an exhibition alongside a life sized clay model of her body. When she visits this exhibition, she sees a young blind man caressing this model in a way that doesn't seem natural. Of course this concerns her as the man's hands running up and down the clay model are practically felt by her, as if it is her body that is being fondled. The same man, Michio (Eiji Funakoshi), turns up later as her masseur, kidnapping her with the help of his mother. Thus begins a perverse episode as Michio first forces Aki to act as his model for his new artistic endeavour, though their growing closeness causes a rift between Michio and his domineering mother.

Although the narrative and drive of 'Blind Beast' barely stays together, Masumura's handling of this slight material is enough to make it more than watchable. The film's real success is in its set design. Michio's studio is a terrific recreation of his sensory capacity; with walls adorned with body parts and sensory functions - eyes, noses, breasts, arms (like those in Cocteau's 'La Belle et Le Bete' or Polanski's 'Replusion', though motionless). It's so elaborately designed, you can't help but watch with wide eyed wonder. There's amusement to be gained from Aki and Michio's initial cat and mouse games through large nude models. Michio explains his motivations for his studio's design and kidnapping of Aki - that he has senses other than sight, that touch is the only sense that means anything to him.

The kidnapping also reveals Michio and Aki's nascent interest in power games and sexual quirks - his sadism, her masochism ("I only like it when it hurts"). Michio's sexuality had been repressed before, with a creepy Oedipal complex apparent, but he's now liberated by not only his mother's death, but Aki's acquiescence towards his sexual desires. When she loses her sight from the near darkness in which she resides, they share the ecstasy of caresses, of achieving sexual gratification through touch only. As the violence inflicted upon each other increases to achieve enjoyment or "exquisite pain", there's not much territory to explore, and explore they do, with the final sexual ecstasy achieved through cutting of limbs, symbolically shown through the falling of a clay statue.

In many ways, 'Blind Beast' is rather ridiculous; a kinky little film that's actually quite chaste in what you see, but the exploration of more intense sexual adventures was rather groundbreaking and laid the path for the more notorious 'In The Realm of the Senses' as mentioned above. I guess if anything, the S&M infused affair is related to the sensory (lack of) capacities of Michio and Aki, that by lacking certain senses, they have something to make up for, which manifests itself in the methods they use. Not that it should be taken too seriously though, and it might easily be forgettable if not for the fact that Masumura knows what he's doing and the use of an elaborately designed set to highlight Michio and Aki's sensory and sexual issues. 3.5/5

Monday, 14 July 2008

Close Up (1990, Iran, Abbas Kiarostami)

One of the earliest features that brought Kiarostami to the attention of Western critics (indeed this was one of Cahiers du Cinema's top five films of 1991), 'Close Up' is a curious film that is based on a real life incident where a man named Hossain Sabzian was initially mistaken for the Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, but then assumed his identity to immerse himself in a middle class Iranian family's house and lives for no obvious reason. The stylistic conceit here is that Kiarostami films partly in documentary style and also partly as a standard re-enactment of events with the real individuals involved (thus you have Sabzian repeating his fraud over again and so on). Kiarostami himself films the trial of Sabzian (which apparently isn't standard practice - even the judge wonders why he's filming such a trivial case given the standing of him as a film maker) and a journalist (Hossain Farazmand) who wants to understand the whole incident.

Thus what Kiarostami presents us with is a world where nothing is quite as it appears. The lines between fact and fiction become blurred, especially in the mind of Sabzian who maintains the pretence that he is Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami has always shown an interest in "cinema" in his films - his later 'Through the Olive Trees' was about the making of an actual Kiarostami film in many ways. Is Kiarostami suggesting cinema is a chronicler of real life (hence the pseudo-documentary nature of them) or that they're distinctive entities? The media are partly shown to be culpable for the fraud of Sabzian too. Their constant reporting on Makhmalbaf surely made his life appear glamorous to Sabzian and therefore encouraged his deception when the opportunity arose.

Sabzian's motivations though aren't nefarious - he is a poor and humble man whose wife has left him and he lives with his mother. He has no hopes and ambitions and contemporary Iranian society has no obvious place for him. He has no job and self-esteem and admits that the fraud gave him the only chance in his life to feel important and to be respected - people actually listened to him and his opinions. Sabzian (as Makhmalbaf) explains that he is visiting a family because directors should show humility and live closely with those people he wishes to film. Sabzian is a man who would live a normal life if given the chance. His fraud was born out of desperation. Kiarostami's ultimate display of sympathy is one of the final shots of the film, as he rides with Sabzian on a motorcycle before visiting the man he impersonated. 'Close Up' is a shining example of Kiarostami's humanism and another superb demonstration of his interests in the distinction/convergence between cinema and life. 4.5/5

Days of Heaven (1978, US, Terence Malick)

Terence Malick is one of the very few great contemporary American film makers. I know it's easy to suggest a director has never made a creative mis-step when his entire career only exists of four films, but it's still the case that all of Malick's films to date could be described as masterpieces by any yardstick. 'Days of Heaven' is in my opinion though, the finest of all. It's odd that for all the talk of a new Hollywood generation in the 70s, Malick often goes unnoticed and seldom mentioned in the same breath as his much more highly regarded contemporaries such as Scorsese and Coppola - time to set the record straight, I think. 'Days of Heaven' is easily the match of their greatest works ('Raging Bull' or 'Apocalypse Now' say).

Set in 1916, Malick traces the tale of three itinerant workers (Bill - Richard Gere, Abby - Brooke Adams, Linda - Linda Manz) who escape to Texas after Bill murders a co-worker. They end up working for a farmer (Sam Shephard), who Bill learns is dying. Knowing that the farmer is in love with Abby, they hatch a foolproof scheme - if Abby marries the farmer, then when he dies, the three of them will be set up for life. Of course in cinema, the best laid plans never succeed, and so it goes. The plan is jeopardised on two fronts; the farmer shows no sign of becoming more ill and that Abby begins to fall in love with the farmer. Bill and Abby had been passing themselves off as siblings, when of course they're more intimate than that, and whether the farmer suspects or not (his foreman does though the farmer fires him when he raises his concerns), what results is a tumultuous jealousy from both men as they are unable to wholly love the woman they are in love with, which naturally results in tragedy.

Most critics praise 'Days of Heaven' for its visual rush, and it's certainly true that the Oscar-winning cinematography of a near-blind Nestor Almendros (known for his work for Francois Truffaut) and Haskell Wexler paints an evocative image of the rural South. It's one of the best looking films you'll ever see, up there with 'The Red Shoes' or 'Barry Lyndon'. The film is much more than a superb demonstration of visual style though, as the moral implications of Bill, Abby and Linda's plan unfold in a jealousy-soaked climax of literally Biblical proportions. Two prominent references to the Bible are used in the film - Bill and Abby passing themselves off as siblings reflect the same circumstances of Abraham and Sarah, and also the Plague of Locusts from Exodus is used as the farmer's wheat fields are ravaged; the trauma of which directly drives the tragic stand-off between Bill and the farmer. Malick disappeared from film for two decades after the post-production of 'Days of Heaven', which reportedly itself took two years to complete. We should be fortunate he returned to film making. 5/5

The Damned (1969. Italy/West Germany, Luchino Visconti)

'The Leopard', widely regarded as Visconti's finest film charted the decline of an aristocratic family during the rise of Garibaldi and Italian nationalism. It was sympathetic towards its main characters who were swept up by events and the inevitable course of history. 'The Damned' is thematically fairly similar. A German industrialist family, the von Essenbecks (rumoured to be based on the Krupp family) align themselves with the rising force of Nazism and find their own existence torn apart by family friction and divisions as Nazism takes control of German society. This is one dysfunctional family where you feel absolutely no sympathy with anyone as each jockeys for position and favour with the Nazi elite, each tries to set the other up, and where sexual abuse and immorality is the norm. It's now common for Nazism to be related to sexual dysfunction in cinema, but 'The Damned' is one of the original films that developed this concept - note how Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, two of the actors in Visconti's film, were reunited for Cavani's 'The Night Porter' - surely no coincidence.

The film begins in 1933 when Hitler recently became Chancellor but his position was still fairly unstable, although this changes with the Reichstag fire, which is mentioned in the opening family dinner. The patriarch of the family has his reservations about the new regime, and one son is ideologically opposed to it, predicting the danger to come. Conveniently, the former is murdered and the latter flees Germany after the SA charge him with the murder, though clearly this is just a set up. The company then passes down to the widow (Ingrid Thulin) of the deceased eldest son, who marries a social climbing executive (Bogarde) to secure their control, which naturally upsets the rest of the family who have seen their birthright pass over to an outsider, and each attempts to undermine the other and cosy up with the Nazi regime (seen in that the ultimate victor is indeed the Nazis who control the company by the film's conclusion, even though it's headed by one family member), which threatens the stability and position of the entire company. In the best melodramatic tradition, we know what the outcome will be but relish the excessive loathing and decadence that brings the family down.

The neo-realist roots of Visconti's work were long since past, as Visconti uses an explosion of lurid colour (reds, blues, greens) for metaphorical purposes, highlighting the depravity of a family in which incest and abuse of minors is commonplace. Perhaps it goes too far in that respect, coming over as too farcical and exploitative to work as a truly impressive account of a family's decline, and the pan-European acting talent ensures that much of the acting in one language comes over as a bit stilted. Still, for those looking for slightly campy and kitsch entertainment, this works fine (including one drag tribute to Dietrich in 'The Blue Angel') - it's just a little uneven overall. 3.5/5

Friday, 4 July 2008

Eyes Wide Shut (1999, UK/US, Stanley Kubrick)

Possibly the most divisive film of Kubrick's entire career, 'Eyes Wide Shut' opened to fervent admiration in some critical circles and utter bewilderment in others. My opinion is that it's certainly a masterpiece, albeit it a flawed one, and comparable with many of his most acclaimed films. Even though I'm a huge admirer of Kubrick's work, I'd like to think I'm pretty objective about it at the same time. For instance, I'm not that keen on the two films that preceded it; 'The Shining' and 'Full Metal Jacket'. To use a cliched and well worn phrase, 'Eyes Wide Shut' was a return to form for the director who passed away almost as soon as the final cut was completed.

Using 'Traumnovelle' by Arthur Schnitzler as his template, Kubrick and fellow screenwriter Frederic Raphael, create a hypnotic and dizzying account of a marriage threatened by jealousy and insecurity. Bill (Tom Cruise) and Alice (Nicole Kidman) are a married couple with a young daughter with superficially the perfect lifestyle - he's a successful GP, they live in an expensive apartment, attend swanky parties hosted by Bill's clients. One such party starts a chain of events that force the couple to explore their marriage with great insight. They flirt with others, though avoid actually infidelity itself. This is the crucial moment in the film. The following night, Alice, whilst stoned and angry at what she perceived was Bill's attempts to commit infidelity with two young models, reveals her own imagined infidelity and confesses her own desires for other men in the past.

Bill then retreats into a sexual odyssey of his own where temptation and attraction awaits at every turn, which culminates in the infamous orgy sequence at an out of town mansion. It's this scene which is perhaps the source of contention of those critics who reviewed the film negatively - it's incredibly unerotic despite all the nudity and sexual acts being performed and written off as the work of a lecherous old man. Still, what was one to expect from Kubrick whose films always defined human relationships in such as cold and clinical way? I think that sequence actually works given that the film as a whole is so artificial, existing in a world between dreams and consciousness, where one more or less cannot tell what is real and what isn't. The whole setting of the film is totally false - a turn of the 20th century Vienna set novel is updated to what looks like 1970s New York but was filmed in various locations in London and the Home Counties. 'Eyes Wide Shut' is a film that exists outside of time and place. If one wants realism from films, try something else! Then there's the use of colour to increase the dreamlike status of the film - rooms painted out in deep, rich reds, whilst the lighting through windows is always a cool blue.

The perverse marketing of the film is another triumph for me. It was certainly a long shoot, and because of such, rumours circulated about the film and what it comprised. The trailer featured Cruise and Kidman naked in each other's embrace, which was pretty much the only moments we see the couple undressed or intimate. Kubrick always cherished the idea of making an "adult" film with famous actors and this example provides that to an extent though is quite misleading (in a good sense) about what it wants to achieve, though that brings us back to the cold and clinical orgy sequence that the films detractors loathe.

Now the dust has settled and the hype of the film's release has long since passed, 'Eyes Wide Shut' demands critical rehabilitation. The best Kubrick film since 'Barry Lyndon', a quarter of a century before it (though to be fair, there's only two films between them), it shows the late director at least on a technical perspective on top of his game, with meticulous attention to detail and superb tracking shots, such as during the first party. Whether the film was in part responsible for end of the Cruise-Kidman marriage, who can say, though it must have taken its toll - Kubrick manages to get better performances out of them than you'd expect, and Kubrick hardly has the reputation of being an actors' director. And to those who often accuse Kubrick's films of lacking emotional impact, then it's not true here, as 'Eyes Wide Shut' is a thorough examination of marriage, desires and emotions, and whilst one has to acknowledge a few faults (some varying performances from supporting actors and so on), it's more or less perfect. 4.5/5

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Naked (1993, UK, Mike Leigh)

A corrosive view of London in the early 90s, reflecting the effects of Thatcherism, 'Naked' won two awards at Venice for both Leigh's direction and for David Thewlis in his role as Johnny, a misanthropic and existentialist drifter. Previously known for his more light hearted comedy dramas with a social and political agenda of their own, 'Naked' is Leigh in truly darker terrain where any comedy that exists is of the blackest kind. Leigh opens with a completely ambiguous scene in a Manchester alleyway where Johnny has brutal sex with a woman which either is consented to or not - it's hard to tell, and this sets the tone for the entire film. Fleeing Manchester, Johnny heads for London to meet with an ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp) and completely turns the worlds of everyone he meets upside down. It brings to mind the Devil/Christ figure of both 'Theorem' by Pasolini or 'Brimstone and Treacle' by Dennis Potter - Johnny similarly arrives from nowhere, leaves everyone's world in upheaval and vanishes.

Full of bile and self-loathing, he speaks to anyone and everyone on the London streets with a rapid fire delivery, which either bamboozles them or provokes violence, or in the case of Louise's flatmate Sophie (the late Katrin Cartlidge), she falls in love with him. What does Johnny represent? A Britain torn apart by the policies of Thatcher? A Britain that has lost hope, that has lost its place in the world? Despite his moral ambiguity, there is at least a sense of sympathy about him, even though he lies, cheats and betrays. Maybe it's his fierce intellect - he's a slightly more dangerous Jimmy Porter using the power of language to assert himself. Contrast this with Louise and Sophie's landlord Jeremy (Gregg Crutwell), the prime example of Thatcher's policies run amok. A vulgar, nasty yuppie who spits people up and chews them out, who wants nothing more than to assert his control over others, Jeremy's existence makes Johnny seem a salvageable cause. It's another Leigh cliché about the vulgarity of the upwardly mobile middle class, albeit a far more contemptible and violent stereotype than we're used to.

'Naked' presents contemporary London is a raw and macabre light, a world away from the cosiness of Richard Curtis's London, with more in common with say Stephen Frears' 'Dirty Pretty Things' - certainly that's the only film I recall since than shows London in such a tourist unfriendly fashion. This is a film about lives on the edge, lived dangerously, with a true sense of something near apocalyptic about to occur. Johnny's self-destructive behaviour is all he has in a world that has cut him adrift; perhaps his sole means of revenge upon the world. 4/5

City Lights (1931, US, Charles Chaplin)

Silent comedy has always been a genre I know very little about - only seen the odd Chaplin film but never a Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton. 'City Lights' was the first film Chaplin made during the sound era, and whilst he was under pressure to make 'City Lights' as a talkie, he had enough clout to film it as a silent though inventively compromised by inserting sounds, rather than speech. The "speech" in the film's opening scenes as a statue is being unveiled (which Chaplin's tramp is sleeping on) was recorded by Chaplin through a comb.

Described in the first titles as a "comedy romance in pantomime", the film is all this and more, both sentimental and funny. Chaplin's tramp, a clumsy and comical figure who constantly contrives to find himself in farcical circumstances meets a blind girl selling flowers in the street, and she mistakes him for a millionaire (she heard the door of an expensive door slam as he walked by), and that's pretty much the entire narrative. Saving an actual millionaire from drowning (which involves Chaplin almost drowning himself trying to save him), he gets access to that lifestyle, thus making his pursuit of the blind girl a bit more credible - he borrows the millionaires car and gives her a ride. Hilariously though, the millionaire only befriends Chaplin when drunk; when sober he remembers nothing.

Upon discovering that the girl's family is about to be evicted and also that she could have her sight restored with the right amount of money, Chaplin seems to address both these issues - the millionaire gives him the money but of course when he's sober forgets and assumes Chaplin has robbed him. Although the girl now anonymously has both her problems resolved, Chaplin went to jail. Upon release, he then seeks to find her in a conclusion that is remarkably sentimental by modern standards but is exceptionally moving with a killer final line that would have even the toughest and most cynical amongst us in bits. 'City Lights' is a staggering one man achievement, rightly considered one of the best comedies of all time because it balances the light hearted humour with emotional resonance. The pratfalls and humiliations Chaplin endures have a genuine romantic purpose to them, and the film isn't without it's darker moments, notably when Chaplin is arrested for theft and sent to jail. Plus there's also the issue whether the blind girl who now has her sight will fall in love with a tramp who's not what he appeared/claimed/was assumed to be. 'City Lights' is a comic masterpiece. Superb. 5/5

Matewan (1987, US, John Sayles)

John Sayles is a very unique film maker, operating both within and outside the Hollywood system. By working as a script doctor on large budget films such as 'The Spiderwick Chronicles' or sole script writer on many early Joe Dante films, he's been able to quietly pursue a directorial career with a distinctive left-wing agenda. 'Matewan' is one such film, a celebration of organised labour in the 1920s in the face of hostile big business. The miners of the small town of Matewan want to become unionised, which is strongly opposed by their employers. These employers use force, introduce black and Italian workers into the community to create tensions between these different ethnicities and nationalities - a divide and rule policy if you like. Naturally it works as the miners consider each other enemies rather than their exploitative management.

Then Joe (Chris Cooper) arrives in town, looking for work. Giving an impassioned speech at a union meeting, he explains how management divides their workers, creating conflict and tensions to ensure they don't organise and mobilise. Joe seeks to unite the different sets of workers, introducing the black and Italian workers into the union and the community. Naturally as his methods succeed, the employers exert more pressure - infiltrating the union, attempting to evict families, labelling Joe a Communist (which he accepts with pride) and using violence indiscriminately. Note how the church, an integral part of the community, seeks to uphold the status quo (to protect their own interests). A preacher played by Sayles proclaims socialism to be the new form of the Devil, though this contrasts with the preaching of the young miner Danny (a wonderful Will Oldham - now more widely known as the singer/songwriter Bonnie Prince Billy) which calls for unity and integration. Of course as the management and labour become more steadfast in their positions, a tragic and violent climax is inevitable.

Sayles' film is impassioned and optimistic, if completely biased in its tone and characterisation. That's fine; he has his agenda and it's a welcome contrast to the times during which he made the film - Reagan's America where organised labour and socialism were dirty words. I was constantly reminded of Paul Thomas Anderson's 'There Will Be Blood' when I saw 'Matewan' - I wonder if Anderson has ever cited it as an influence upon his own film. The dark, dirty and claustrophobic conditions in which coal was retrieved mirror those in which Daniel Day Lewis's character struck oil in the opening scenes of TWBB. There's the use of religion in both films with child preachers becoming increasingly influential over a community, and also how religion is entwined with the current consensus of opinion or indeed instigates it. These are intriguing parallels, and though I think Anderson's film is a much richer and ambitious piece of work; far more morally ambiguous as well, 'Matewan' makes a worthy accompanying piece and makes the most of its modest origins with stunning performances and cinematography (from an Oscar nominated Haskell Wexler) as well as Sayles tight script. 3.5/5