Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Review - In the Loop

In Armando Iannucci's
In the Loop, the utterance of the single word "unforeseeable" has, well, unforeseeable consequences. The man responsible is Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the Minister for International Development, who uses that phrase to describe the possibility of a military intervention in the Middle East. Having already blundered by deviating from the official government line, Foster then compounds his error when he is asked to clarify his position by TV reporters, and the flustered politician mumbles, "To walk the road of peace, sometimes we must be ready to climb the mountain of conflict." Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), Downing Street's director of communications, is not amused: "Climb the mountain of conflict?" he rages, "You sound like a fucking Nazi Julie Andrews!"

Fans of
The Thick of It, Iannucci's brilliant political sitcom, will be instantly at home in this milieu, as most of the cast members from that shows are present here, with almost all of them taking on slightly altered roles. The exception, of course, is Peter Capaldi, who once again plays Malcolm Tucker with all of the aggression and spite he can muster. The (unseen) Prime Minister's chief attack dog, Tucker is one of the great comic creations of recent years; a vicious master of spin who uses profanity as punctuation, and will not rest for a second until he has annihilated whatever unfortunate victim has incurred his wrath. "I will marshal all the media forces of darkness to hound you to an assisted suicide" he vows at one point, and Capaldi's snarling turn is so convincing you instantly believe he's willing and capable of carrying out his many threats. Along with his equally volatile aide Jamie (Paul Higgins) – described as "The crossest man in Scotland," – Tucker is an all-too-real monster.

But while Tucker is unquestionably the top dog in
The Thick of It, In the Loop cleverly shifts the balance of power, setting him against the world of American politics, a setting that almost lands him out of his depth for the first time. When Foster's comments are picked up in the US, he is invited to Washington, where he finds himself caught up in a power struggle between pro and anti-war factions within the government. Iannucci's feature debut casts a satirical eye on the "special relationship" between Britain and America, depicting Foster and his young aide Toby (Chris Addison) as being terminally star-struck by Washington. They react with childlike glee during a ride in a motorcade, and they are desperate to win the approval and recognition of their American counterparts, even though diplomat Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) and General Miller (James Gandolfini) are using them as puppets and nothing else. They are reduced to hanging around outside the toilets in the hope of discovering where the war commission is due to meet – the corridors of power these are not.

Iannucci has a wonderful ability to construct such farcical scenes, which escalate with a screwball pace and inventiveness. He puts Gandolfini's general in a young girl's bedroom, working out potential troop casualties on a toy calculator ("It’s important to have some soldiers left at the end of a war, otherwise it looks like you lost"), but Iannucci always has an important point to make behind the near-constant laughter. When Simon Foster tries to convince himself that it might actually be braver to do the wrong thing, and that some wars turn out to be positive ("The Crimean war...we got a lot of nurses out of that"), we laugh at the absurdity of it, but it also has the ring of truth, highlighting the way politicians twist and turn in a ridiculous fashion to justify their actions. As played by the brilliantly hapless Hollander, Foster is a decent, honest character who is lost in the merciless political machine. He finds himself supporting a war he's morally against, and even when he claims to be on the verge of resigning in protest he seems unsure which way to go; "I'm standing my ground..." he insists hesitantly, "...on the verge."

Hollander is one of the new faces joining the established
Thick of It ensemble, and they all slip seamlessly into the groove. Gandolfini plays effectively against type as a general who has seen the horrors of war and doesn't want to go back, while David Rasche is great as the warmonger who keeps a live grenade as paperweight. There's funny support from Zach Woods and Anna Chlumsky as a pair of squabbling interns, while Steve Coogan cameos as a Paul Calf-like character from Foster's constituency, who wants someone to mend the crumbling wall in his mother's back garden. With Washington calling, Simon Foster obviously has bigger things on his mind, but Iannucci and his co-screenwriters tie the big picture to the minor details, and it's a seemingly irrelevant issue in Northampton that eventually causes the walls to fall in on the politician's world.

The one thing that might count against this superb and riotously entertaining satire is the possibility that it will appear as a film from a previous age, intent on attacking Bush era politics with a cynicism unwelcome in this time of renewed hope; but Armando Iannucci is not interested in targeting specific politicians or decisions here. Instead he is lampooning the kind of venality, self-interest, stupidity and shortsightedness that courses constantly through the veins of the political world. Even the writer/director himself would be surprised that one of his more throwaway lines – about the possibility of hotel porn appearing in a politicians expenses – has gained pertinence and knowing laughter thanks to Jacqui Smith's recent indiscretions, and that's why a picture like
In the Loop will always feel relevant and vital. There will always be cheats, fools and crooks in politics; there will always be leaders willing to sacrifice their own colleagues for personal gain; there will always be hawks and doves within the same government – and, we can be sure, there will always be a Malcolm Tucker.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jack Cardiff: 1914 - 2009

When I heard about the death of Jack Cardiff yesterday, I went to my bookshelf and retrieved my copy of
Magic Hour, his 1996 autobiography, which instantly raised my sombre spirits. Within these brilliantly entertaining pages, you'll find a series of anecdotes that the author shares with great relish – struggling to maintain his dignity while photographing Marlene Dietrich in the nude, laughing at Henry Fonda's practical jokes, or accidently punching King Edward VIII on the nose – and the book as a whole is a testament to a life lived to its fullest. Cardiff tried his hand as a film director in the 60's and 70's, making the fine DH Lawrence adaptation Sons and Lovers (for which his great contemporary Freddie Francis won an Oscar), but it is for his peerless contribution to the art of cinematography that he will long be revered. He began his career in the silent era and earned his last credit – unbelievably – in 2007, and in the intervening decades, he established his name as a byword for visual excellence.

Cardiff's list of credits as a cinematographer is hugely impressive by any measure. He photographed Joseph L. Mankiewicz's
The Barefoot Contessa, King Vidor's lavish adaptation of War and Peace, and John Huston's The African Queen, but nothing in his body of work compared to the magical sights Cardiff conjured when he worked with that other great English artist Michael Powell. After serving as a camera operator on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Cardiff was the sole director of photography on Powell and Pressburger's next three 1940's masterpieces, and he took the art of Technicolor cinematography to extraordinary new levels. By his own admission, Cardiff knew little about technical photography at the time, but he was hired as one of the first British Technicolor camera operators after impressing his interviewers with his wide knowledge of art. He was inspired the likes of Vermeer and Rembrandt, particularly in their use of light, and he brought those skills to bear on his film work. The earliest Technicolor cameras were huge beasts employing the three-strip process, and Cardiff knew how to manipulate them with a deft touch that few – if any – could ever match.

When Cardiff and Technicolor met Powell and Pressburger, they embarked upon a cinematic adventure unprecedented in its vivid imagery and boundless imagination. Powell was a fantasist, a dreamer, and in Jack Cardiff he had found the man who could bring those dreams to glorious life. On their first full collaboration, Cardiff suggested the monochrome shade for
A Matter of Life and Death's afterlife scenes, in stark contrast to the lush, romantic colour of the "real" world. In 1947, Powell and Pressburger made Black Narcissus, and Cardiff faced an extraordinary challenge – to convincingly recreate a Himalayan mountaintop setting entirely inside Pinewood studios. His achievement remains one of cinema's great artistic feats, and every frame of Black Narcissus is elevated by Cardiff's rich, imaginative, sensual camerawork; not least the gripping climax, when Kathleen Byron's appearance still sends a shiver down my spine. That was a hard act to follow, and yet many would argue this amazing team outdid themselves just a year later on The Red Shoes, the centrepiece of which is a stunning 18-minute ballet sequence that Martin Scorsese described as "a moving painting."

Jack Cardiff had a long and eventful career, making a number of good films and a number that weren't so good (he lent his talents to
Rambo II in 1985), but it is his work with Powell and Pressburger that meant the most to me. When working with these like-minded artists, he was allowed to express the full range of his talent, and these pictures will surely act as his most lasting legacy. I remember seeing Jack Cardiff a few years ago at the NFT, when he and I were both attending a Thelma Schoonmaker-hosted tribute to Michael Powell, and even in his early 90's he appeared to have lost none of the wit, charm and zest for life that characterised his career. In his foreword to Magic Hour, Martin Scorsese wrote, "I've never met Cardiff, but I feel a deeply personal connection with him through all that he's given me in the films that he's photographed and directed." That sentiment is one cinema lovers around the world will be sharing today.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review - Il Divo

Paolo Sorrentino's
Il Divo is subtitled: The Spectacular Life of Giulio Andreotti, and the director certainly opens his film in suitably spectacular fashion. In a superbly assembled montage, we see a number of bankers, politicians and journalists meeting their deaths, including "God's banker" Roberto Calvi, who was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge, and Aldo Moro, who was kidnapped and killed by the Red Brigade terrorist group. The suggestion is that all or some of these incidents had something to do with Giulio Andreotti, a man who dominated Italian politics for fifty years, serving seven terms as prime minister and being named as a senator for life in 1991. During his career, Andreotti has also come under investigation by the parliamentary committee no less than 26 times, and on each occasion he has walked away without being charged. As one character in Il Divo puts it: "You're either the most cunning criminal in the country, because you were never caught, or you're the most persecuted man in the history of Italy."

The mystery of Giulio Andreotti is at the core of Sorrentino's film, the young Italian director's fourth feature, and his first masterpiece. Trying to prove Andreotti's guilt one way or another would be a fool's errand, given that he has already escaped prosecution from the state on so many occasions, so Sorrentino instead presents
Il Divo as an oblique character study and a portrait of a political system built on corruption. It is set in the early 90's, during Andreotti's seventh and final government, and prior to the trial at which he faced accusations of links with the mafia. Before the film begins, Sorrentino offers a glossary of terms aimed at helping the uninitiated through the murky, complicated world or Italian politics, and each time a new character appears onscreen, they are accompanied by a caption explaining who they are. These notes are appreciated, but they didn't entirely dispel the haze of confusion Il Divo frequently cooked up, and while a second viewing and some thorough research helped me untangle a few (not all) of the film's complexities, there's no doubt plenty of non-Italian viewers will find a number of allusions and references flying over their heads.

Trust me, it doesn't matter. Even while I was perplexed by
Il Divo I found myself utterly intoxicated by it, and that's down almost entirely to Sorrentino's breathtaking directorial style. There are few filmmakers working in cinema today who are as confident, brash and outrageously talented as this Italian auteur, and he attacks Andreotti's story with all of the verve we've come to expect from him. In fact, the cinematic sensibility on show in Il Divo is a step up from that which Sorrentino displayed in The Consequences of Love and The Family Friend; you won't find a single mundane, predictable or obvious shot in the film. In conjunction with his brilliant cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, Sorrentino creates a series of striking compositions – replete with witty, surreal touches – and the dynamic but graceful camerawork propels the film ceaselessly forward. Sorrentino sets off at such a pace, I did start to wonder what was going to run out first – his energy or my patience for the bombastic style. But the director finds a perfect balance in the picture's tone, and just as we've finished marvelling over a glorious tracking shot through a party scene, he switches the pace, and draws us into an intimate encounter between Andreotti and his loyal wife Livia (beautifully played by Anna Bonaiuto).

Even while Sorrentino is generating a hive of activity in
Il Divo, the centre of the picture remains eerily calm. As in The Consequences of Love, Toni Servillo rivets the audience's attention in the central role by seemingly doing nothing at all. His performance is a masterpiece of understatement, refusing to show any signs of emotion beyond the odd sly smirk, and deflecting questions with his droll aphorisms. Sorrentino and Servillo have a ball playing up Andreotti's ambiguity, managing to create a character that is real and complex while also being utterly mysterious. One of the Il Divo's most startling moments comes when Andreotti abruptly breaks the fourth wall and "confesses" to the audience, become more and more animated as his monologue spills forth. It is, of course, a fantasy, and only in a fantasy sequence could this man's carefully controlled veneer crack in such a manner. Most of the time – with his hunched back, stiff gait, oddly shaped ears and grim demeanour – he resembles nothing less than Nosferatu, particularly when he, closely followed by an armed escort, takes to the deserted streets for his nightly walk.

As Andreotti stalks those streets, he is accompanied by Gabriel Fauré's
Pavane, and the repeated use of that piece of music is another of Sorrentino's masterstrokes. The director has a remarkable knack for making eclectic musical choices and weaving them into his picture in ingenious ways, and Il Divo's soundtrack runs the gamut from Vivaldi to Trio's Da Da Da, to the Morricone-style chorus of whistles which greets Andreotti's inner circle. The members of that faction are memorably characterised – Carlo Buccirosso's cunning and sprightly Pomicino, Massimo Popolizio's grinning, shark-like Sbardella – but Andreotti remains the endlessly fascinating dark heart of the picture. "I know who you are," Livia tells him when she hears about the mafia investigation, "You can't live with a man for decades and not know who he is"; but in a haunting late scene, she stares searchingly at her husband's profile as they sit in front of the TV. Does she really know who her husband is? Does anybody? Paolo Sorrentino has got as close as any filmmaker could to unravelling the nature of the beast, but Giulio Andreotti has slipped away once again.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

March Round-Up

Gran Torino
Clint Eastwood has had an amazing career, both in front of and behind the camera, and in the course of forty-odd years he has picked relatively few duds, but for a long time I thought Gran Torino was going to be a rare turkey from this indefatigable filmmaker. It's so broad, clunky, and obvious – full of thin characters and variable performances – it makes Crash seem like a model of subtlety by comparison. But Gran Torino is anchored by Eastwood's magnificent central performance as the misanthropic racist Walt Kowalski, who snarls at anyone and everyone, who is unafraid of calling his Asian neighbours "zipperheads" and "gooks," and who walks up to a group of blacks teens and says, "What are you spooks up to?" It's so in-your-face the only possible reaction is too laugh, and I laughed a lot during Gran Torino, with Eastwood's dry, raspy delivery milking laughs from the bigoted one-liners that litter Nick Schenk's screenplay. I was having so much fun with the picture, I didn't notice the ways in which Eastwood was gradually deepening and darkening the mood, and the film builds to a moving climax in which Clint sets up an old wild west confrontation, before subverting our expectations. Gran Torino may well be the last time we ever see Clint Eastwood on the big screen, and it's a fitting final turn; a role which simultaneously acts as a celebration, parody and critique of his entire career. There will never be another film star quite like him.

In the City of Sylvia (En la ciudad de Sylvia)
The man sits at a café watching beautiful women at the other tables, staring at their backs, their faces, their arms, and their hair. He sketches a few of them in his notebook, then one woman catches his eye, reminding him of a lost love, and he is compelled to get up and follow her into the street. That's In the City of Sylvia's story neatly summed up, and one suspects it would have worked just as well – if not better – as a short, but there's something weirdly entrancing about José Luis Guerín mysterious film nonetheless. With very little dialogue, the film's pleasures are chiefly visual and aural, as Natasha Braier's cinematography makes superb use of sunlight and reflections, and the exceptional sound design turns this into a subjective and fantastically immersive experience as we follow Xavier Lafitte on his journey. In particular, the audacious midsection of the film, in which Lafitte pursues Pilar López de Ayala up and down the backstreets, is repetitive but mesmerising. In the City of Sylvia might not add up to much in the grand scheme of things, but it's a distinctive and hugely engaging film to experience, and by the end of the picture, we too have fallen under Sylvia's spell.

Afghan Star
While I have nothing but disdain for Pop Idol, X Factor, Britain's Got Talent and whatever other formats Simon Cowell has dreamed up to exploit the public and fill his own pockets; Havana Marking's excellent documentary casts different light on the power of TV talent shows. In Afghanistan, the ability to listen to music is a novelty in itself, with the Taliban-imposed ban on music and television only being lifted in 2004, so a show like Afghan Star has unsurprisingly captured the public's imagination, with the programme being proclaimed by many as a symbol of unity, self-expression and democracy. The film paints an intriguing picture of a country in which western culture is slowly taking root, and Marking's camera captures such odd juxtapositions as a woman in a head-to-toe burqa snapping pictures of her favourite contestant on a camera phone. That contestant is Rafi, and he's one of the four individuals Afghan Star focuses on, following his progress through the competition along with Hameed, Lema and Setara. Of these characters, the most interesting are the two female competitors Lema and Setara (three women were among the original 2,000 entrants), who are risking their lives by merely appearing on the show, and the open-minded Setara unwisely causes a major scandal when she uncovers her head during a performance and dances provocatively. She receives widespread condemnation and even death threats for her actions; and while such a unpleasant fate happily doesn't come to pass – we learn at the end that she has returned to Kabul to record an album – it seems freedom of expression in Afghanistan's new age only goes so far.

If Afghan Star reminds us how eye-opening and involving good documentary filmmaking can be, then Fuck is an unfortunate reminder of how crass and pointless the same format can be in the wrong hands. Steve Anderson's film purports to chart the history and development of the titular word, but it's a shallow, unenlightening trip, which has been shoddily constructed from glib celebrity soundbites, random clips, chunks of trivia, and irritating cartoon segments. Billy Connolly offers some respite by being genuinely funny in his passionate defence of the word ("Fuck off doesn't mean "go away." Fuck off means fuck off!"), but what does listening to Tera Patrick's husband listing sexual positions add to this debate? Perhaps the most perplexing thing about this dismal film is how dated it is. Most of the contributors bemoan the effect the Bush administration has had on free speech in America, which feels like a stale argument when the film is appearing in cinemas a few weeks into Barack Obama's presidency, but when I looked up Fuck on IMDB after the screening, the mystery was partially resolved – this film was made in 2005! It has been sitting on the shelf gathering dust for four years, so why the (excuse me) fuck did they bother to release it now? Fuck is an empty, juvenile, repetitive and amateurish take on a subject which even an imaginative filmmaking team would have struggled to turn into an interesting 90-minute feature. Regrettably, the film even hints at a sequel towards the end: "When are you guys going to make the 'cunt' documentary?" Drew Carey asks.

After watching Duplicity, the latest from Michael Clayton director Tony Gilroy, I've decided I don't really like this kind of film. You know the type I'm talking about – lots of twists, cons, reversals, flashbacks and double-crosses, as gorgeous movie stars in gorgeous locations try to pull a fast one on each other. My main problem with them is that so much of the viewing experience consists of straining to follow the tricky narrative, trying to work out who has the upper hand on whom, and there's very little room left to just enjoy the damn thing. Duplicity is supposed to be a breezy, romantic, star-driven caper, but I found it a tiresome chore, even if individual parts of it are undeniably impressive. There's a nice tension in the relationship between Julia Roberts and Clive Owen – as ex-spies who have fallen for each other but can't entirely trust each other – and Owen is terrific, but I've never liked Roberts as an actress, and a number of scenes are stolen by supporting players Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson and a particularly wonderful Carrie Preston. The whole film is a lush, slick, sharp package; but it's also a little too clever for its own good, and I spent the last third of the film – as I always do with this kind of story – just waiting for the final big twist to arrive. Duplicity isn't quite charming, romantic or funny enough to really pull us into its labyrinthine world, and perhaps the best analysis of the film lies in the following quote from Alfred Hitchcock:
"I dare say you have seen many films which have mysterious goings-on. You don't know what is going on, why the man is doing this or that. You are about a third of the way through the film before you realise what it is all about. To me that is completely wasted footage, because there is no emotion to it."

Now, you can't argue with the master of suspense, can you?