Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best and Worst of 2011

Best Film

1 - The Tree of Life
It's the kind of film that gets inside your heart and mind and stays there, with its bottomless mysteries and ambiguities continually provoking further thought
2 - A Separation
It is so rare to see a film that treats its characters and its audience with as much respect as this one does
3 - Mysteries of Lisbon
To watch Ruiz unravel the interlocking stories within stories that this sumptuous film consists of is to watch a master filmmaker at work
4 - Margaret
A sprawling, unpredictable rollercoaster of anxiety, sadness and truth
5 - Meek's Cutoff
Long scenes consist of little more than these characters wandering across the square screen, the wheels of their wagons creaking incessantly, but it is utterly transfixing to watch
6 - True Grit
It possesses the kind of deceptive simplicity that only filmmakers at the very top of their game are blessed with
7 - Tomboy
Tomboy is a small film – running for little more than 80 minutes – but few pictures this year have felt more perfectly formed
8 - Senna
This is Asif Kapadia's first documentary feature, but it unfolds with the momentum of a great drama
9 - Weekend
How rare it is to see a contemporary cinematic romance that feels honest, intelligent and real
10 - Essential Killing
A film that lingers in the memory long after its incredible final shot has faded away

Honorable Mentions
The Artist
Blue Valentine
Miss Bala
Rabbit Hole
Take Shelter
Win Win

Worst Film

1 - The Change-Up
The Change-Up exemplifies mainstream Hollywood at its worst, displaying a scant regard for quality or for the taste and standards of its audience
2 - 3D Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy
I tolerated the first half and loathed the second
3 - Brighton Rock
Nothing coheres, and the film just plods forward with a complete lack of tension and menace
4 - Zookeeper
An unspeakably tedious farce
5 - Age of the Dragons
I am honestly bewildered by the idea that anyone considers it worthy of a cinematic release
6 - Tomorrow, When the War Began
More often than not, the film generates unintentional laughter
7 - Arthur
It was always inevitable that a film like Arthur would be written for Brand, and that it would ultimately expose his shortcomings
8 - Julia's Eyes
Totally bereft of imagination, emotion or genuine scares
9 - Anonymous
Nothing more than a bloated and silly period soap opera that's too trivial to have any merit
10 - The Inbetweeners Movie
I can't help wishing they'd stayed on the small screen, where they clearly belong

Dishonorable Mentions
The Beaver
Cars 2
Crazy, Stupid, Love
Film socialisme
The Green Hornet
I Am Number 4
Jack Goes Boating
We Have a Pope

Best Director

1 - Terrence Malick - The Tree of Life
2 - Asghar Farhadi - A Separation
3 - Raúl Ruiz - Mysteries of Lisbon
4 - Kelly Reichardt - Meek's Cutoff
5 - Joel & Ethan Coen - True Grit

Best Actor

1 - Jean Dujardin - The Artist
2 - Peyman Moadi - A Separation
3 - Michael Shannon - Take Shelter
4 - Vincent Gallo - Essential Killing
5 - Brendan Gleeson - The Guard
6 - Tom Cullen & Chris New - Weekend
7 - Jeff Bridges - True Grit
8 - Jim Sturgess - One Day
9 - Peter Mullan - Tyrannosaur
10 - Joel Edgerton - Warrior

Best Actress

1 - Anna Paquin - Margaret
2 - Michelle Williams - Blue Valentine
3 - Zoé Héran - Tomboy
4 - Olivia Colman - Tyrannosaur
5 - Rachel Weisz - The Deep Blue Sea
6 - Nicole Kidman - Rabbit Hole
7 - Kristen Wiig - Bridesmaids
8 - Yun Jeong-hie - Poetry
9 - Hailee Steinfeld - True Grit
10 - Stephanie Sigman - Miss Bala

Best Supporting Actor

1 - Matt Damon - True Grit
2 - Bruce Greenwood - Meek's Cutoff
3 - Brad Pitt - The Tree of Life
4 - Ben Mendelsohn - Animal Kingdom
5 - Ryan Gosling - Crazy, Stupid, Love
6 - Tom Hiddleston - Thor
7 - Simon Russell Beale - The Deep Blue Sea
8 - Corey Stoll - Midnight in Paris
9 - Nick Nolte - Warrior
10 - Albert Brooks - Drive

Best Supporting Actress

1 - Sareh Bayat - A Separation
2 - Bérénice Bejo - The Artist
3 - J. Smith-Cameron - Margaret
4 - Rose Byrne - Bridesmaids
5 - Dianne Wiest - Rabbit Hole
6 - Charlotte Gainsbourg - Melancholia
7 - Jeannie Berlin - Margaret
8 - Jessica Chastain - Take Shelter
9 - Malonn Lévana - Tomboy
10 - Emma Stone - Crazy, Stupid, Love

Best Original Screenplay

1 - A Separation
2 - Margaret
3 - Win Win
4 - Weekend
5 - Poetry

Best Adapted Screenplay

1 - True Grit
2 - Mysteries of Lisbon
3 - Rabbit Hole
4 - The Deep Blue Sea
5 - Hugo

Best Cinematography

1 - The Tree of Life
2 - Hugo
3 - Wuthering Heights
4 - Mysteries of Lisbon
5 - Miss Bala

Best Editing

1 - Senna
2 - The Tree of Life
3 - A Separation
4 - True Grit
5 - Blue Valentine

Best Original Score

1 - Snowtown
2 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
3 - The Artist
4 - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
5 - Contagion

Best Costume Design

1 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
2 - Mysteries of Lisbon
3 - Hugo
4 - True Grit
5 - Midnight in Paris

Best Production Design

1 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
2 - Hugo
3 - The Tree of Life
4 - The Deep Blue Sea
5 - Thor

Film Experience of the Year

1 - Shoah at the Prince Charles Cinema
An unforgettable, exhausting, once in a lifetime experience. Claude Lanzmann's 9½-hour Holocaust documentary is one of the crowning achievements in cinema. A relentless torrent of words that conjures images to break the heart. A humbling, monumental film.

2 - The Passion of Joan of Arc at the Royal Festival Hall
Carl Theodor Dreyer's film remains one of the most moving cinematic experiences one can have, and at this Royal Festival Hall screening it received a new lease of life from Adrian Utley and Will Gregory's excellent new score.

3 - The Devils at the Barbican
In the months before Ken Russell passed away, British film fans had two opportunities to see his notorious The Devils uncut. It was revealed to be a true masterpiece from this maverick filmmaker.

4 - Beggars of Life at the National Film Theatre
A train-hopping silent classic starring Louise Brooks, Wallace Beery and Richard Arlen, which was enlivened by a tremendous new score from The Dodge Brothers.

5 - The Clock at the Purcell Room
Christian Marclay's film is a staggering achievement. Assembled with skill and wit, it's utterly engrossing and consistently surprising. Worth devoting a day of your life to.

2011 in Review

My visits to the cinema in 2011 were dominated by questions of scale. This summer I sat down and watched the longest film I've ever seen in its entirety, Claude Lanzmann's overwhelming Holocaust documentary Shoah, an all-day experience that I will probably never repeat but one I'll similarly never forget. I also saw sizeable chunks of a 24 hour-long movie, as I managed to catch around 9 hours of The Clock over the course of two days (tip of the hat to Matthew Turner, who managed a whopping 13 hours in one sitting and archived his tweets from the evening here). Christian Marclay's astonishing feat of research and editing is a true marvel; a film that completely hypnotises the viewer and makes them forget about time slipping by even as they watch a film that constantly reminds them of it.

That's what the best movies can do. They make a viewer completely lose themselves in the picture, forgetting about all other distractions, and if a film can hold my attention for an unusually long period then that's all the better. This year I enjoyed Bernardo Bertolucci's raucous and surprisingly funny fascism epic Novecento for the first time, Michael Cimino's unfairly maligned western Heaven's Gate for the second time and – the only 2011 release that stepped up to the running time challenge – Raúl Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon. That late contender for my film of the year prize was a 4½-hour movie edited down from a 6-hour TV series, but I could have happily sat there and watched the longer cut, so entranced was I by the late director's command of his labyrinthine, witty, dreamlike story.

Some films are considered momentous through the subjects and themes they choose to explore rather than their length, however, and this year the end of the world was on the minds of numerous filmmakers (maybe they're taking seriously the notion that our time will be up in 2012?). Apocalyptic tales are normally the preserve of Roland Emmerich, but while he was busy with more high-minded fare (even if Anonymous did turn out to be dumbed-down Shakespeare), some of our finest filmmakers attempted to bring their familiar style to humanity's last days. Naturally, Lars von Trier wasn't in any mood to let us off the hook, destroying Earth in Melancholia's gorgeous opening ten minutes before taking us back to see how two sisters braced themselves for disaster. In truth, I prefer the visceral, unhinged force of von Trier's more uneven Antichrist (with which this would make a fine, if draining, double-bill) but Melancholia is one of his most fully realised and dramatically powerful films, and another triumph for this ever-surprising director. It was funny too (Udo Kier as a prissy wedding planner? "I vill not look at her. She has ruined my vedding."), which certainly gives it the edge over Contagion, Steven Soderbergh's realistic but ultimately uninvolving examination of what might happen if a deadly virus made its way from person to person across the globe. Few directors can put a complex film together with the skill and finesse of Soderbergh, but sometimes the finished product can come across as a mildly interesting directorial exercise rather than something he's fully invested in.

The other major film to tackle an impending apocalypse this year was Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols' hugely impressive second collaboration with Michael Shannon. This was a far more ambiguous take on the subject than Contagion or Melancholia – is working-class family man Curtis mentally unstable, or are his visions actually Nostradamus-like predictions of a storm to end all storms? Take Shelter is a confident, absorbing and challenging film that is built upon an astonishingly powerful performance from Shannon, a great actor finally getting the platform he deserves. It's always a joy to see actors you admire receiving widespread acclaim, and 2011 offered numerous similarly satisfying performances – Jean Dujardin in The Artist, Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur and Anna Paquin in Margaret...even if Paquin had to wait 6 years for her recognition.

The strange case of Margaret was one of 2011's most memorable stories. After a torturous editing process, lawsuits, re-drawn contracts and the deaths of two producers, Kenneth Lonergan's second feature was dumped like a hot potato by a studio that – perhaps understandably – was heartily sick of the whole affair. Such a fate befalls many small movies, but what happened next was more surprising. People started to seek out Margaret, they loved it, and they began spreading the word that the film was far from the disaster its difficult production would suggest. In fact, it quickly became clear that Margaret might just be one of the year's best films and it was soon the movie on everyone's lips, with some critics (notably Jaime Christley, who started a petition) pressuring Fox Searchlight to give the film the release it deserved. The #TeamMargaret campaign seemed to pay off as the film expanded into new cities and extra screens, and there was something very satisfying about seeing passionate film fans driving a picture out of the ghetto and towards the mainstream. However, as Ashley Clark quite rightly pointed out on Twitter, it's worth asking why there was no #TeamBallast campaign when Lance Hammer's movie quietly flopped on these shores.

So many small films slip through the cracks these days and if we learn any lesson from the Margaret situation, it should be that vocal advocates in your corner can make a world of difference; and while I began this article talking about epic cinematic experiences, it's the smaller, more intimate films that burn just as vividly in my memory. Asghar Farhadi's masterful A Separation dropped us into the middle of a crumbling Iranian marriage and gripped us as it depicted the unforeseen consequences of the split, while Andrew Haigh's Weekend allowed us to spend a couple of days with two men and see a beautiful, moving romance bloom before our eyes. Essential Killing was perhaps the most minimalist film of all – consisting largely of Vincent Gallo running through various inhospitable landscapes – but it proved to be the year's most exciting thriller too, and possibly the finest use yet of the madness that lies inside Gallo.

But the film that dominated 2011 for me is a film that married the epic and the intimate like no other. After a typically long gestation period, Terrence Malick finally unveiled The Tree of Life, which proved to be both the most personal and most ambitious work of his extraordinary career. Malick's breathtakingly evocative portrait of a son torn between the virtues personified by his very different parents allowed the director to explore the birth of the universe itself and our relationship with God. For some viewers, The Tree of Life was a shatteringly moving experience that shifted our sense of what cinema could accomplish; for others it was a self-indulgence too far, only worthy of scorn and derision; a few baffled souls simultaneously took both views. However, The Tree of Life got people talking, sparking fascinating debates for and against Malick's magnum opus, and even those who criticised the film could only marvel at its visual and aural splendour, and the almost unprecedented breadth of its ambition. You couldn't walk out of this movie and say you hadn't felt something, that you hadn't been part of a singular experience, and no matter what size canvas you choose to paint on, that is surely the goal of a great work of art.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Review - The Artist

The Artist opens with the premiere of a new film starring silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). It's a thriller entitled A Russian Affair, in which Valentin plays the dashing, death-defying hero, and as the movie reaches its exciting climax, the cast and crew pace anxiously behind the scenes. Finally, the film ends and they await the expected explosion of applause, but for a moment there is only total silence, until we see the nervous filmmakers break out into broad smiles. The audience has in fact been clapping enthusiastically; we just couldn't hear it.

This is a silent movie about silent movies, and sly little tricks like the one described above are what director Michel Hazanavicius knows best. He has already proven himself a dab hand at pastiche in his endearingly naff OSS:117 films – which starred Dujardin as a suave but clueless spy – and few director-actor pairs are better suited to a silent homage than these two. The Artist, however, is a significant step up from the two OSS:117 pictures, which often felt like a rather ramshackle collection of hit-and-miss gags. Here, the structure is more solid, the gags are sharper and the whole production is a good deal more polished than the director's previous films. 1920's Hollywood is lovingly recreated through the impressive production design and crisp black-and-white visuals, all of which is contained within a 4:3 frame and interrupted only by the intertitles required to share the characters' dialogue with us. Stylistically, at least, Hazanavicius gets everything just about right, and the effect is immediately entrancing.

The director doesn't dig into the silent era for his story, however, as films like Singin' in the Rain and A Star Is Born are the most obvious influences upon The Artist's narrative. George Valentin starts the film as top dog (with his faithful hound Uggy a close second),and such fame has inevitably resulted in a certain arrogance. One great early scene shows him, and Uggy, milking the crowd's adulation while his spotlight-starved wife and co-star (Penelope Ann Miller) fumes off stage. Few actors would be able to play such a scene of swaggering bravado while remaining so thoroughly likable, but that's the magic Dujardin brings to the role, his enormously expressive performance shining like a beacon at this movie's centre. The man radiates old-fashioned movie star charm from every pore and his Fairbanks-like performance here is a thing of beauty; light on his feet, displaying pin-sharp comic timing and able to completely shift the tone of a scene by simply raising an eyebrow. We instantly understand why Valentin was such an screen idol, and the man himself firmly believes he has nothing to fear from these newfangled talkies. "If that's your future, you can keep it!" he laughs after seeing test footage of a sound picture. We all know what happens next.

As one star falls another must rise, and the travails of George Valentin's fading screen career are set against the burgeoning stardom of irresistible ingénue Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). George is responsible for her big break, and then he has to stand by and watch as her face adorns the billboards that once bore his image. Again, the star quality that makes Peppy America's new cinematic sweetheart is obvious; some actresses might have struggled to stand up to Dujardin's formidable turn, but Bejo's dazzling smile, wit and grace makes her a perfect partner for him. The scenes they share together in the movie's opening half – their meet-cute, their multiple-take dancing on set, the delightful scene with the jacket – simply leap off the screen. This is pure cinematic magic.

The question is whether Hazanavicius can keep up the pace, and sadly he can't. After a breathless and invigorating opening, the film stalls with George's overextended slide into obscurity, and this is where the The Artist's habit of constantly drawing attention to its own construction works against it. The Artist always makes us aware that we're watching a silent film; it plays games with sound effects and intertitles ("I won't talk!"/"Why won't you talk?" etc.) and makes frequent references to other movies, including ones that exist outside the era it's paying homage to. Hazanavicius gets away with the Citizen Kane-inspired breakfast table gag, largely because of Dujardin and Uggy (a canine performance for the ages, this), but when he marks Valentin's lowest ebb with a snatch of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score, the effect is needlessly distracting. The Artist spends a long time trying to make us care about its central character's decline and fall, but the film is too knowing about its own artifice, and it spends too much time winking at the audience to achieve the necessary sense of depth when required.

The people who made silent films in the early days of cinema didn't know they were making silent films, they were just making cinema. They were creating, they were experimenting, they were trying to master this new visual language, and that sense of sincerity is what The Artist ultimately lacks. It's a stupendously enjoyable film, there's no question about that, and it overcomes its sluggish midsection magnificently with a rousing finale, but it's hard to see it as more than an expertly executed stunt. Still, as crowdpleasers go, this is one of the more unusual and commendable Oscar contenders to emerge in recent years, and one wonders what effect it will have on viewers who have never seen a silent film before. Will The Artist act as the beguiling gateway drug to a world of silent cinema, causing neophytes to eventually discover the masterworks of Keaton, Chaplin, Murnau, von Sternberg and more? Then, and only then, will they discover what silent movies can truly be.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

A great director can sometimes turn trash into art, but David Fincher can only take The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo so far. We might be inclined to wonder what attracted this filmmaker to Stieg Larsson's novel, but Fincher has always displayed a taste for pulpy, thrill-based stories, so the darkness of this tale should in theory be a good fit for him. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has already been filmed once, by Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, but his TV background was evident through his unspectacular handling of the picture, whereas the new version has at least been entrusted to a real filmmaker. Fincher attempts to stamp his own personality on the film immediately, with a rather dubious opening credits sequence involving bodies writhing in ink (or oil?) to the sound of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's version of Immigrant Song, a sequence that suggests a kinkier take on James Bond.

I guess it seems oddly appropriate, as the male lead is played by the current OO7. Daniel Craig is investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, whose attempt to take down a corrupt businessman has landed him in court and financial trouble, with his reputation in pieces. Despite this, he is offered a new job when retired millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) invites him to his remote estate and asks him to solve the forty year-old mystery of his daughter's disappearance. As he gets down to business a parallel storyline plays out, introducing us to the real star of the movie, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Whereas Daniel Craig strolls around being Daniel Craig and opting out of the Swedish accent every other actor adopts, Mara seems completely committed her character. Her waif-like frame makes Lisbeth a more vulnerable figure than Noomi Rapace's embodiment of the role (though she lacks Rapace's ferocity), and she bears the scars of a lifetime of abuse more readily, but she also brings a welcome sly wit to the role and an effective directness. I liked her delivery of the line, "Lie still. I’ve never done this before – and there will be blood," as she took a tattoo-based revenge on her rapist, as well as her condescending sneer and "please" when Mikael asked how she accessed his encrypted files.

Lisbeth is a stunningly proficient computer hacker, you see – but then, I presume you know that already, which is why I haven't gone into much detail over the plot here. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie then you're going to be a very small proportion of this film's potential audience, which gives Fincher some peculiar challenges to overcome. There is no tension here – we know the beats of the story very well and when the characters are in peril we know both that they will escape and even how they will escape. For much of the film the key differences between the 2009 film and this one are in style and mood. Fincher's film is as slickly watchable as we might expect – we've seen before how he can make computer hacking and the dogged pursuit of clues into mesmerising cinema – with Jeff Cronenweth's coldly atmospheric cinematography and the unsettling rhythms of Reznor and Ross's score ensuring this is a far more professional production than the original film. But The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remains a sordid piece of work, no matter how gleaming the surface of Fincher's picture is, and it remains a pretty shoddy piece of storytelling too, something that is only thrown into sharp relief by the extra style this American version possesses.

The most successful film adaptations of novels often make significant changes to the structure of the narrative, and that's something The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was crying out for. Steven Zaillian's screenplay does make a few small changes to the plot – one alteration towards the end is a smart move – but the essential structure of Larsson's story remains in all its ungainliness. Significant issues remains: that Lisbeth and Mikael don't meet until over an hour of the film has elapsed; that so many revelations are congested into a few stodgy and unconvincing sequences; and that the film ends not with the uncovering of the murderer, but with a rather dull and inconsequential sequence in which Lisbeth plays dress-up and steals some money.

I wish Fincher and Zaillian had completely re-thought The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and dared to give us a fresh take on a story that has already been told through one book and movie. Instead we have that same old story, with all of its inherent problems, lifted mostly intact and given an expensive makeover. It's not really enough, and watching The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a strangely empty experience, as we watch in the knowledge that the film exists beneath the level of the talents that have been working on it. It's always a pleasure to see a filmmaker like David Fincher at work, but sometimes he's only as good as his material allows him to be.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Review - Mysteries of Lisbon (Mistérios de Lisboa)

Everybody in Mysteries of Lisbon has a story to tell, and over the course of the film's 4½-hour running time, Raúl Ruiz is going to tell every single one of them. To watch Ruiz unravel the interlocking stories within stories that this sumptuous film consists of is to watch a master filmmaker at work, confidently unfurling his film at a pace that is guaranteed to transfix an attentive audience. The film begins simply enough, in a 19th century Portuguese college where a young orphan has been taken under the wing of a kindly priest, Adriano Luz's Father Dinis. The boy longs for his mother and, as he recuperates from a fever, Ângela (Maria João Bastos) suddenly appears at the side of his sickbed. She presents him with a toy theatre, a touch that reminded me of Ingmar Bergman's similarly expansive Fanny and Alexander.

Little cardboard characters appear on this stage occasionally, as more stories are recalled (and fresh mysteries created) by Father Dinis. He is the key figure in Mysteries of Lisbon; the cog around which the movie elaborately revolves. Father Dinis appears to know everybody's secrets and histories, even popping up in their stories in various guises and intervening to turn the tide of events. Keeping track of this character's switches of identity and functions within the plot(s) would be challenging enough, but in Mysteries of Lisbon there are so many revelations that completely upend our understanding of the characters involved in this drama and their relationships with one another. For much of the film, you simply have to follow the various narrative trajectories as best you can and trust that it will all add up to something in the end. What holds our attention throughout Mysteries of Lisbon, however, is less the stories being told than the manner in which Ruiz is telling them.

Mysteries of Lisbon is one of the most fluid and mesmerisingly beautiful films I have seen in a very long time. Every shot is ravishingly designed and the director gives us plenty of time to admire the scene he has set, as he allows the film to play out in long takes with very little cutting. Within those takes, André Szankowski's camera glides around the characters, circles them, rises above them or sneakily peeks at them from behind the furniture. When Ruiz observes two lovers the morning after their scandalous tryst, he does so between the crack in a door, or half obscured by curtains, as if we have crept into the room unbeknownst to the players in the scene. His camera continues to rove curiously along corridors as of seeking out further dramatic disclosures, and every such directorial flourish is carried off with a remarkable lightness of touch, the whole film being imbued with this sense of mischievous playfulness.

Ruiz certainly appears to be in his element here, and if Mysteries of Lisbon is about anything then it's surely about the sheer pleasure of storytelling. Characters often say things like "That's another story" or "I'll explain later" and every time the film takes us off on another tangent the whole picture feels revitalised, as a new set of characters add fresh layers of complexity and drama to the film. Somehow, it makes sense that the revenge-fuelled plotting of a French aristocrat in the film's most modern sequence is linked to a love triangle involving two Napoleonic soldiers decades earlier, or that the two crooks who almost killed the child that Ângela was carrying should later become such significant figures in young João's life. Ruiz withholds key information from us throughout, allowing us to get to know the characters from one perspective before he offers us another take on who they are.

When you make a film that runs for 4½ hours (Mysteries of Lisbon was edited down from a six-hour TV series), you'd better justify that running time, and Ruiz does so magnificently. This might be the swiftest and most consistently engaging 4½-hour film I've ever seen; Ruiz can't afford to let the pace flag with so much incident to cover and so many mysteries to solve. Raúl Ruiz died this year at the age of 70 and although he was already working on another film, Mysteries of Lisbon feels like a fitting swansong. It feels as if all of the storytelling techniques the director learned during his long and eclectic career have been utilised here; the film is a summation of everything that Raúl Ruiz loved about movies and moviemaking. It's one of those rare films that feels like an instant classic even as you are watching it, and although Ruiz's passing came too soon, his final film is a gift to us all.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Review - Margaret

Pity poor Margaret. Kenneth Lonergan's second film has finally arrived in cinemas after six years of confrontations, reediting and legal wrangling, although the term "arrived" is perhaps a too polite one to describe the way Fox has dumped it so unceremoniously. To treat a film in such a manner – denying press screenings, offering no publicity and restricting it to a handful of cinemas (just one screen in London) – suggests the film is a disaster that will only bring embarrassment upon the studio, and it will better for everyone if they just quietly bury it. The curious thing about Margaret, however, is that the film isn't a disaster. In fact, Margaret is one of the most adventurous and impressive American films that you're likely to see this – that is, if you can see it.

It feels so odd to have to seek out a film like
Margaret because if it had been released this time five years ago, with a supportive studio behind it, then might have been viewing it in the middle of its awards push, and remarking upon the leaps and bounds that Lonergan had made between his first two features. His 2001 debut You Can Count on Me was a low-key but perfectly formed independent film and we might have expected him to subsequently have the kind of career that someone like Tom McCarthy has carved out for himself. Instead, Lonergan has produced a work of startling ambition and lacerating emotional content that remains utterly fascinating even as it occasionally threatens to veer out of control or buckle under its thematic weight.

It also features one of the year's greatest acting performances in the lead role. Anna Paquin plays Lisa Cohen, an ordinary 17 year-old from New York City. When I say Lisa is an ordinary teen I mean just that – she's a smart girl who does stupid things; she presents herself as a more mature person than she is and then finds herself in difficult situations as a result. Many viewers will watch Lisa and describe her as a nightmarish central character, but Lonergan and Paquin deserve enormous credit for never pandering to audience expectations by attempting to make her sympathetic. They simply let her exists in all of her complicated, abrasive, turbulent glory, and Paquin's conviction in the central role is something quite wondrous to behold.
Margaret is chiefly a film about the deep sense of guilt and shame that Lisa feels when she inadvertently causes a fatal bus accident, but it's about so much more than that. Perhaps too much.

As Lisa attempts to make amends for her actions we see how her behaviour affects everyone she comes into contact with. She makes life extremely difficult for her mother (J. Smith-Cameron, a wonderful sparring partner for Paquin), who already has enough on her plate with a new man in her life (an odd, droll cameo from Jean Reno) and a play approaching its premiere. She has a huge impact on the lives of the bus driver responsible for the accident (Mark Ruffalo) and the closest friend (Jeannie Berlin) of the woman who died in it, and she has intimate interludes with a slacker (Kieran Culkin), a besotted classmate (John Gallagher Jr.) and a teacher (a startlingly young-looking Matt Damon). You want even more than that? How about a few lengthy debates on American foreign policy in a post-9/11 world, which would have presumably felt more resonant and organic five years ago than they do now? Lonergan certainly fits a lot into his two and a half hours, and you can see why he spent so many years fighting for a longer cut.

With such a surfeit of plot and metaphorical allusions,
Margaret inevitably feels a bit overstuffed and unbalanced at times, and some characters feel short-changed in this version (Damon's teacher in particular), but on a scene-by-scene basis Margaret feels thrillingly alive. The flat – occasionally downright ugly – shooting style adopted by Lonergan and DP Ryszard Lenczewski (who has done impressive work in the past) doesn't prevent us from becoming engrossed in the often explosive drama they capture. Almost every scene in Margaret hinges on a vivid sense of emotional honesty that Lonergan and his exceptional actors manage to access with unerring consistency, and the editing skilfully keeps us on our toes, frequently cutting away at what feels like a crucial juncture. The film is a sprawling, unpredictable rollercoaster of anxiety, sadness and truth, and it's a film blessed with an all-too-rare sense of vitality and intelligence.

In fact,
Margaret is so good it's almost inconceivable that Fox have treated it so shabbily. They may well feel they have already lost enough money and pulled out enough hair over Lonergan's long-gestating passion project, but surely they can see that they have something of value on their hands here? The excellent performances, the sense of ambition and the undeniable emotional impact the film possesses mark it out as something special, and it's astonishing to consider that it almost never saw the light of day. Margaret is flawed but invigorating, and in an American cinematic landscape that so rarely offers surprising, challenging fare, its re-emergence from the ashes feels like something of a miracle.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Review - Hugo

"Time has not been kind to old movies." This line could have been delivered by Martin Scorsese, as he continues his mission to rescue and restore lost classics from cinema's past, but instead it's delivered by a character in Hugo, the director's first film aimed at a family audience. On one level Hugo is the broadest, most commercial film that Scorsese has ever made, but on another level it is his most intensely personal, with this great director – who has spoken admiringly of filmmakers who "smuggled" their own ideas and themes into studio pictures – turning this Christmas-time blockbuster into a heartfelt paean to the magic of cinema. At one point the kids' adventure that provides the ostensible narrative backbone to the picture simply stops, and Hugo begins to deliver an illustrated lecture on the earliest days of filmmaking and the work of Georges Méliès in particular. This is America's greatest living director paying tribute to one of cinema's greatest visionaries, and as I watched these scenes I felt I'd died and gone to movie heaven.

Whether a lesson in the life and times of Georges Méliès is what children want from their cinematic entertainment is another question entirely. Hugo is – thankfully – a million miles away from dancing penguins or squealing chipmunks, but hopefully the story of resourceful young orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) should contain enough adventure, comedy and emotion to hold their attention, even if the two distinct portions of Scorsese's film don't always mix elegantly. Hugo's problems tend to exist at a script level, and there's a certain awkwardness about the manner in which John Logan's adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret handles exposition in the film's opening half. Scorsese's issue seems to be more a question of how to play it, and the film veers drunkenly between moments of quiet emotion – Butterfield and Ben Kingsley (as Méliès) give sensitive performances – and scenes of ostentatious clowning, which tend to centre on Sacha Baron Cohen's bungling Station Inspector.

The story revolves around Hugo's desire to find out what secret is hidden inside the automaton his late father left him with. This is the catalyst that leads him to Méliès – now running a failing toy shop, his artistic achievements forgotten – and to Isabelle (Chloë Moretz), who mysteriously wears a key around her neck that fits the automaton's lock. Scorsese brings a great sense of directorial verve to their clandestine quest, but he can't do much about the fact that the story is thin and repetitive, with too many scenes of Hugo running away from the Station Inspector and narrowly avoiding onrushing trains. It starts to feel like padding, as does the Amélie-like side story of romance blooming between Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. It has been over 25 years since Scorsese made a film that ran less than two hours, and Hugo certainly feels like it could have used some disciplined tightening.

Because when Hugo is good it's an absolute wonder to behold, and it reaches its zenith during the sequences that take us behind-the-scenes on Méliès' sets, lovingly recreated by Dante Ferreti. Méliès leaps around the set in full costume (he acted in the films he directed), enthused by the possibilities of this amazing new medium. It seems almost fitting that Scorsese has adopted 3D for this particular picture – he recalls audiences flinching as they watched the Lumières' Train Arriving at the Station in 1896 – and he utilises it to create a wondrous sense of depth and space, inviting us into the impossibly beautiful world the film has created for us. There are gorgeous, magical sequences here, with Scorsese giving free rein to the fantastical in the same way that Méliès did over a century ago, and the sense of love and compassion that Scorsese brings to the silent film element of Hugo is so palpable it moved me to tears.

It's a shame, then, that the human element of the film failed to ring true in the same fashion. Moretz gives a stiff, unconvincing display and Baron Cohen's performance quickly grows tiresome, with his tentative courtship of Emily Mortimer's meek flower girl being another unnecessary addition. But Scorsese ensures Hugo is always dazzling to watch, and despite my misgivings about the manner in which it tells its story, it had a deeper emotional impact on me than any Scorsese film has in years. It's a beautiful, spectacular, ambitious picture about a man's love of making movies – whether that man is Méliès or Scorsese – and I hope it finds an audience among its intended demographic. When I looked around me halfway through the film, all of the children in my vicinity certainly seemed spellbound by it, quietly following the action with rapt attention, and at its best Hugo did make me feel like a kid again; gazing with awe at the big screen, and delighting in cinema's ability to let us see our dreams in the middle of the day.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Win L'amour fou on DVD

The life and times of a style icon should really be explored in a stylish documentary, and that's the tribute Yves Saint Laurent receives in L'amour fou, Pierre Thoretton's slick and touching film. Focusing on the five-decade relationship between the designer and his great love Pierre Bergé, the film skilfully weaves together extensive testimony from Bergé, well-chosen archive footage and eye-opening shots of the extraordinary art collection they amassed as it is auctioned off for a fortune. Although his genius for innovation and design is obvious, the real Yves Saint Laurent remains something of an enigma throughout, with Bergé's observations only taking us so far beneath the surface of his character. Nevertheless, L'amour fou is an elegant film that provides viewers with an accessible and intriguing introduction to the man and his work.

L'amour fou is out on DVD now and Phil on Film has three copies to give away. To have a chance of winning, just send your full name and postal address to This competition is open to readers from around the world (just make sure you can play region 2 DVDs) and winners will be notified on December 9th.

Good luck!

Friday, November 25, 2011

"If it doesn't feel right, don't do it" - An interview with Terence Davies

Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea is the director's first narrative feature since The House of Mirth over a decade ago, and it is a welcome reminder of the gifts that have made him one of this country's finest filmmakers. This story of a woman who abandons her marriage for a passionate but self-destructive affair is an adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play, and it proves to be a perfect fit for Davies, allowing him to once again travel back to the 1950's where he feels most at home. It's a beautiful, brilliantly performed film and I had the opportunity to talk to Terence Davies about it shortly before the film's UK premiere at the London Film Festival.

When we last spoke in 2008 you mentioned some projects you were working on but The Deep Blue Sea wasn't one of them. How did this come to be your next film after Of Time and the City?

Well, it came about by accident. Sean O'Connor, one of the co-producers, got in touch with me and asked if I would like to do a play of Rattigan's because his centenary was going to fall this year. I had never seen the plays staged, and the only ones I knew were the 1952 version of The Browning Version, which I love, and the late-1950's version of Separate Tables, which I also think is very good. I said I couldn't do them because I think those films are good and it would be very difficult to rethink a play. Anyway, I read the entire canon and I said I might be able to do something with The Deep Blue Sea. I had been taken to see it by my mother and all I could remember was one scene with Kenneth More coming down these stairs, so I didn't really know it, and I thought I could do something with that. So that's how it came about.

How did you go about adapting the play? You have adapted novels in the past, but was this a very different process?

At first I was a little worried because I had never done a play before. What I found from reading the entire canon is that Rattigan likes to put all of the exposition in the first act, and I don't particularly like that. It's telling me what went on before the curtain went up and it's not that interesting, I don't think. I felt that it had to be told from Hester's point of view, which means a lot of that exposition can go, simply because we can't know about it if she's not privy to it. That made it much easier, if I did it from her point of view, but of course it meant restructuring it, and I thought, "Where they're talking about the past, I want to see the past," so it was very much the subjective point of view of Hester's that then determined how it was written. The first draft was very, very tentative, because I was a bit worried and didn't think I could pull it off, but Alan Brodie of the Terence Rattigan Trust was absolutely wonderful and he just said, "Be radical with it," so I did. I always work in the same way – first draft, notes, second draft, notes, polish, and that's what we shoot – and that's what happened here. But I had to get the sub-textural meaning, not just what the story is, and in that tentative first draft I didn't really know what the subtext was. By stint of reading the play again and again and again, I realised what it was about. The subtext is about love, three forms of love, and a love that each person cannot get from the other, it cannot be reciprocated. Once I knew that, it made it relatively easy to adapt the rest of the play.

It's true what you say about the three forms of love at the heart of the film, because while the film is essentially Hester's story, all three characters find themselves placed in a difficult situation and dealing with emotions that they are ill-prepared for.

Yes, exactly. When Hester married William Colyer, she was probably like a lot of men and women who didn't know a lot about love and sex. He was obviously a very cultured man and they shared cultural things together. Perhaps he didn't have much of a libido, but that was part of the package and you didn't question it – well, certainly in the 50's you didn't, especially if you were a middle-class woman – but she discovers sex through this ex-flyer and that changes her completely. In a way she wants them both, she wants the culture that William brings and the eroticism Freddie brings, but he likes popular culture, he just doesn't respond to art or the highbrow, and while she gets that from William there's very little sex life there. They all want that different kind of love and they can't give it. William wants things back the way they were but she can't do it, even though she does love William in a way, she wants this intense physical relationship – all intense, all the time – but Freddie can't give her the cultural comfort she desires. Freddie, really, has been destroyed by war. When you're 18-20, as those fighter pilots were, you survive and you come back to a bankrupt, shoddy Britain, what do you do? Life seems to be crushingly dull. So it's about the nature of that ménage à trois, really.

You mentioned having to cut the exposition from Rattigan's play and one of the most striking aspects of your film is the way you open it, with an incredibly intense sequence scored to Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto. How did that come about?

It was always written like that because what I wanted to do, in mirroring the shot at the end that moves away from the house, is to say that in the whole of London you have this little house and this little tragedy. You have to introduce the people who are in the tragedy with succinctness so you know who they are. That's just a practical thing, but what I wanted to do with the Barber was to give that sense of, whenever you're going through whatever traumas you're going through, they're huge in your life. They might not be huge outside or to other people, but they're huge in your life. I wanted to make it succinct and say, this is a potent story about a woman who's driven to do this, and she's driven to it by love and erotic love. That concerto I've known for many years and I think it's one of the great concertos, the slow movement is so wonderful, and I just knew it was right. It wasn't originally written to accompany the first nine minutes, because that's how long the slow movement lasts, but I thought as we cut it that we could get rid of the voiceover – in fact we got rid of all of the voiceover, except over the credits, which really works – and just set the whole of that nine minutes to music. We show her trying to kill herself and we show her dilemma, why she's doing it. That evolved as we cut it.

In recreating 1950's Britain, how much of it was drawn from your own memories of that time?

The thing that is really important – and this is something that they often get wrong when they do the 50's in this country – is that while I know how it looked I also know how it felt, and that's a huge difference. I can remember everything being broken and shabby, because you couldn't buy on HP, that came later, so you had to make do with what you had. There was still rationing, for God's sake, and everything was down at heel, because the country was bankrupt. The cinematographer, the man who designed it for me and the woman who costumed it for me; the three of them talked about colour as a metaphor, and I've never heard anyone talk like that. That was thrilling because I thought, "I've got the right people, they know what they're doing." We had long discussions, I always do a lot of tests for the stock and the look of the film, and when you have three people talking about colour as a metaphor you know you're onto a good thing.

As well as evoking a period of British history, it feels like The Deep Blue Sea is also evoking a particular era of cinema. As I watched it I felt the influence of directors like Douglas Sirk, David Lean and Max Ophüls. Did you have any specific films or directors in mind as you shot it?

[Laughs] Well, that's very complimentary. They were sort of half there because you can't see Letter From an Unknown Woman and forget it, you can't see The Heiress and forget it, and of course you can't see Brief Encounter and forget it - you just can't. They were there subliminally. In fact, when she stops short of killing herself on the tube, that was a direct lift from The Passionate Friends, and when she's in the chair at the very beginning in front of the fire and she looks at her husband, I've stolen that from Brief Encounter. [Laughs] I suppose we don't say stolen, we say homage, don't we?

As long as you're stealing from the best you're doing OK.

Yes, it's not bad is it? [Laughs]

Another thing that reminded me of that bygone era of cinema is the supporting characters who pop up in the film from time to time. The no-nonsense landlady and the man who acts as doctor for Hester felt like they could have appeared in a David Lean or Michael Powell film.

Well, when Ann Mitchell came in to read for Mrs Elton it leapt off the page. I mean, she had known these women and had been brought up with these women, so she just inhabited this role. I had always wanted Karl Johnson to do Mr Miller and I said, "I don't want you to audition, I want you to do it. I don't know who to ask if you say no" and he said of course he'd do it. He's so wonderfully crunchy and irritable, he was just a joy, they both were. In fact they all were a joy, I had a wonderful cast. They don't do any "character acting," they just are. That's what I said to all of the cast, I said, "don't act it, feel it" because the camera captures truth but it also captures falsity. If it doesn't feel right, don't do it.

The other thing I liked about Mrs Elton is that you give us a glimpse into her home life with her ailing husband, and that goes back to what you said about everyone having their own tragedies behind closed doors.

What Ann loved about that particular scene was that we gave a working-class character the role of telling Hester about love. She tells her that love isn't all the rubbish that's spoken about it, love is about wiping someone's arse. That's what you do, you go on and you do it in a way that they can carry on and keep their dignity, that's what real love is. I think at the end, Hester does find true love, because without overtly saying it she can say, "If you're happier without me, you can go, Freddie." God knows, her future is bleak, she's not trained to do anything, but she has found a strength by letting him go. That's true love, I think.

Rachel Weisz is extraordinary in this film and while I have admired many of her performances in the past I think she's working at another level here. Was she always your Hester?

No, not at all. I saw her when I was watching television one night. I don't watch a lot of television but I switched it on and there was a film on, I think I had missed the first ten minutes, and then this fabulous girl came on. It was Beeban Kidron's Swept From the Sea and I waited for the end credits. Then I rang my manager and said, "Have you heard of someone called Rachel Weisz?" and he said, "Terence, you're the only person who hasn't" [Laughs] I just thought she would be wonderful as Hester. We sent her the script, she rang me, we talked and I said, "If you say no, I have no idea who I'll ask," and she said she'd do it. The same with Simon Russell Beale, they just said they'd do it.

And Simon Russell Beale is somebody who doesn't do a lot of cinema.

No, and he should! He's wonderful on camera and he gets the tempo very, very quickly. I've told him that he has to do more. It's just tragic that he's not doing film.

It has been over a decade since The House of Mirth so you must have experienced such a thrill being on set and working with actors again.

It always is a thrill. That's my raison d'être, it really is. I'm very proud of it because we only had a small budget of £2.5 million and we shot it in 25 days.

That's amazing, it looks great for such a small budget.

When you know what you want you can husband your resources, you really can, if you know the meaning of the scene and you know the number of shots that it needs. Very often on set you'll think, "Oh, that's a bit dull, I can improve that by doing it another way," and I'm pretty good at thinking on my feet. On two occasions the camera broke down and we lost half a day each time, but I wasn't worried because I knew what the shots were and I knew we'd get them, and we did. We did it because everybody pulled together and everybody, I mean literally everybody, was so committed to the film. It was the most wonderful display of commitment from everybody, from the people who financed it right down to the actors. It was quite marvellous.

All of your films have been set in the past. Can you imagine ever making a contemporary movie?

Well, I did write a contemporary comedy but I couldn't get the money for it. Whether it will ever happen or not I don't know, your guess is as good as mine. I would have liked to have done it because I thought it was a good and funny script. You never know. Maybe one day.

One of the projects you mentioned the last time we spoke was the novel Sunset Song. I've since read it and I think it's an extraordinary book that I'd love to see adapted for the screen. Is that likely to happen?

Oh, I really want to do it. I've actually got four projects. There's Sunset Song, which is written. I've just got to do a polish on a script about Emily Dickinson, because I love Emily Dickinson. There's an adaptation of an American novel by Richard McCann called Mother of Sorrows, and I've already finished an adaptation of an Ed McBain novel. So there are four, potentially.

That's great, so much to look forward to.

Well, I hope so. It's just as long as I get the production money. If not I suppose it's back to the old Labour Exchange. [Laughs]

Review - The Deep Blue Sea

"Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly." Those words of warning ultimately prove prophetic for Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) in The Deep Blue Sea, but Hester doesn't heed that advice. She is a woman consumed by a passion that has transformed her and has convinced her to disrupt the stable, comfortable life mapped out for her in order to taste something more exciting. Hester has walked away from her wealthy and respected husband (Simon Russell Beale) for a younger man, former RAF pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), whose dashing, devil-may-care attitude has a rejuvenating effect on woman tired of spending quiet nights in front of the fire with a husband who loves her, but not in the way she needs to be loved. She has pursued her desire for physical, erotic satisfaction, but when we meet Hester at the start of the film, she is contemplating suicide in Freddie's small flat. Her mother-in-law's pointed words have come true, and her passion has led to something very ugly.

The Deep Blue Sea is an adaptation of the play by Terence Rattigan and the most notable aspect of its production is that it marks Terence Davies' return to narrative cinema more than a decade after his superb take on Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. It's wonderful to have Davies back and within minutes of The Deep Blue Sea beginning we feel as if we are in safe hands with a man who is in his element in this milieu. The film takes place in the early 1950's, an era that Davies recreates in a detailed, richly atmospheric fashion. The film feels lived-in, with the drama largely taking place in a shabby bedsit or smoky London boozers, where everyone partakes in one of Davies' customary singalong scenes. As well as evoking a particular time and place, the film also gives Davies the opportunity to pay homage to the cinema of that bygone era, with the early films of David Lean, the beautiful style of Max Ophüls and the melodrama of Douglas Sirk all being notable influences on his approach here.

In fact, the opening of the film is pure melodrama, as Davies condenses the backstory and Hester's suicide attempt into an intense montage accompanied by Barber's Violin Concerto. It's a bold move that creates a heightened sense of emotion immediately, but after this prelude, the film settles into something rather more traditional and reserved. It's a resolutely old-fashioned film, and one that easily leaves itself open to accusations of being little more than a filmed stage play, but to do that is to ignore Davies' extraordinarily elegant and deliberate use of the camera. His direction creates a sense of intimacy with these characters and allows us to experience their emotional tumult first hand as they each deal with the thorny dilemmas Hester's infidelity has created for them. I was particularly moved by Simon Russell Beale's performance as Sir William Collyer, a man deeply in love with his wife and incapable of comprehending her course of action or doing anything to win her back.

The film is a real showcase for Weisz, however. As in The House of Mirth, Davies has drawn from an actress a subtle, complex, emotionally charged performance that instantly eclipses all of her previous work. Hester is an intelligent woman torn between her head – which tells her that a life with Sir William is the only sensible option – and her heart, and Weisz's portrayal of her inner conflict is incredibly astute. Davies shoots her like a 40's movie star and gives her the space she needs to bring Hester to vivid, multi-dimensional life, ensuring it's fascinating and affecting to watch as she falls apart under the duress of this self-destructive relationship. The Deep Blue Sea is a film about loving someone intensely and also realising when the time has come to let that person go, and in Davies' hands it handles these themes with honesty and perception.

What the film perhaps lacks is the powerful and cathartic emotional climax that audiences will crave, instead leaving us with a quiet sense of sadness and resolve that is embodied in Weisz's performance. That is a minor gripe, however, because The Deep Blue Sea is a gorgeously crafted film that is clearly the work of a great filmmaker in tune with the very essence of his material. Despite the success of Davies' documentary Of Time and the City, this feels like the director's real return to filmmaking, allowing him to once again display his uncanny visual sense, deep empathy with actors, piercing emotional insight and – above all – his deep and abiding love for cinema, which he brings to bear on every frame of this marvellous film.

Read my interview with Terence Davies here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Blu-ray Review - Touch of Evil

The Film

Orson Welles's career is a tale of genius, compromise and heartache. By the time he was hired to direct Touch of Evil in 1957, he was already regarded as something of a spent force, a man who peaked with his debut and had grown into a liability for studios. Touch of Evil was supposed to be his way back into the studio system. He delivered the final cut of the film on time and on budget and felt he had elevated the story into something special with his dynamic direction and close work with the actors. The next thing Welles knew, Touch of Evil had been reedited by Universal into something that he recognised only as a cheap, chopped-up version of the film he wanted it to be. It had lost almost twenty minutes and some of Welles's most daring stylistic choices had been discarded. Frustrated and angry, the director wrote a 58-page memo explaining what exactly he felt the film needed to be to achieve its maximum potential. His plea was ignored.

It is natural to take sides with the aggrieved artist in situations such as this, but looking back, perhaps it's not so hard to understand why Universal hesitated over releasing Touch of Evil as Welles presented it. They expected to sign off on a straightforward cop thriller with big stars that they could sell to a mass audience, and they were surely knocked off balance by the film they received. Touch of Evil is overblown, lurid and morally ambiguous; full of mannered performances and grotesque close-ups of sweaty, leering faces. For all these reasons we can understand why Universal hated it, but it's for all of these reasons that I love it.

Welles knew what he had with Touch of Evil. The story is a piece of trashy pulp noir, and he plays it to the hilt, developing a menacing, seedy atmosphere that permeates every corner of the cheap bars and motels that the film takes place in. It's the story of a police investigation into a car bombing, which is depicted at the start of the film in one of the most audacious tracking shots ever conceived and executed on film. Shorn now of the opening credits and Henry Mancini's score, the restored version of Touch of Evil allows us to appreciate even more the brilliance of this sequence, with the tension being developed through the deliberate camera movements and use of diegetic sounds. Welles also introduces two lead characters as the car, carrying its ticking cargo, drives past, with Mexican cop Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his new bride Susie (Janet Leigh), who are drawn into the plot when the car explodes just as they share a kiss.

Enter detective Hank Quinlan, a larger-than-life character unforgettably played by Welles, who looms into view hobbling on a cane and casting a narrow eye over the Mexican cop daring to enter his jurisdiction. Quinlan is one of the great screen antagonists; a casually racist detective who always gets results and is willing to play fast and loose with the facts and due process in order to obtain them. He has some marvellous scenes with Heston ("You bet your sweet life I won't" Quinlan retorts when Vargas insists that he won't have any trouble from him) but the scenes that really sting occur between Welles and Marlene Dietrich, making an indelible cameo as a fortune teller who once shared a relationship with Quinlan. A lifetime of regret lingers in their brief interactions. "You haven't got any," Dietrich tells Quinlan when he asks her to read his fortune, "Your future's all used up."

Touch of Evil is not the perfectly crafted masterwork that Citizen Kane is, but I'd argue that it's something even better. It's a huge, bombastic affair and the style of the thing overwhelms the stodgy story – but what style. The bravura opening sequence suggests right at the start that this is a director utilising his full box of tricks. Every time I watch Touch of Evil I'm staggered by his striking camera angles, thrilling long takes, superb use of light and shadows, and bold editing patterns. I love Touch of Evil because it gives us Welles at his most adventurous and daring, and because it represents the last flowering of his undeniable brilliance within the studio system. He was some kind of a man.

The Extras

There have been many different versions of Touch of Evil, and this new Masters of Cinema package brings the all the cuts and offers them in both the 1.85 and 1.37 aspect ratios. There are fantastically informative commentaries and documentaries, as well as the customarily fascinating Masters of Cinema booklet, all of which shed fresh light on the film and its troubled history. This really is the only Touch of Evil you'll ever need.

Touch of Evil is available on Blu-ray now.

Buy Touch of Evil here

Monday, November 21, 2011

Review - Snowtown

To all outsiders, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) appears to be a nice guy. An affable, easygoing character with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, John steps in to shore up a one-parent family that has recently been shattered by revelations of paedophilia. He encourages the boys abused by neighbour Jeffrey to write the word "FAG" on his windows and helps them splatter ground-up kangaroo remains over his porch, until this campaign of intimidation drives the man away. By this point, 16 year-old Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) and his younger brothers adore the new man in their mother's life, but John has not yet revealed the depths of cruelty and violence he is capable of.

Snowtown is the story of the most notorious serial killer in Australia's history. Between 1992 and 1999, Bunting was responsible for 11 murders, with the victims mostly being those on the margins of society. Justin Kurzel's film refuses to sensationalise the story, or even attempt to conform it to a familiar narrative, which makes Snowtown an extraordinarily tough film to watch; a detached, impressionistic portrait of horrific crimes that keeps the emphasis on absolute realism throughout. The film is shot in bleak hues by Adam Arkapaw (who also worked on Animal Kingdom, with which it shares some similarities), and the intense score provided by the director's brother Jed Kurzel plays a key role in the film's oppressive atmosphere. However, while you might suspect that Snowtown is a tough viewing experience because of the violence, that's not really the case. There's only one notable scene that shows a murder in all of its agonising, gory detail, and for the most part it's Kurzel's craft that gets to you, as well as his keen sense of what to show and what not to show.

What Snowtown does show so brilliantly is how a damaged, vulnerable young man like Jamie could easily fall under the spell of a man like John Bunting. He takes advantage of the destabilised Vlassakis family to give himself a platform in the town and then he manipulates the widespread hysteria over the paedophile menace to justify his own murderous desires, as he targets perceived gays and perverts who he feels won't be missed if they suddenly "disappear." He starts exerting his control over Jamie. We notice how he is always lurking in the background of shots in which Jamie is the focus, controlling the youngster's actions, and Henshall's stunning portrayal slips from avuncular chumminess into sadism and intimidation in the blink of an eye. Henshall is the only professional actor in Snowtown, the rest of the cast being drawn from the local area, but the naturalistic performances are convincing across the board.

But for all of its qualities, I'm having a very hard time recommending Snowtown. Ultimately, I left the screening wondering what I actually got from the film, beyond a general sense of emptiness and depression after witnessing such nihilistic cruelty. The final straw for many will be the already notorious "bathroom scene," which is crucial from a story point of view – cementing Jamie's complicity – but it's almost unwatchable as cinema. Snowtown is hugely admirable as filmmaking and I respect its completely uncompromising approach to telling this story, but the film seems inconclusive at its close, having failed to fashion a sense of purpose from these horrors. We despair at what we've witnessed and congratulate ourselves for having endured such a gruelling experience, but then we walk away from the picture knowing we never want to watch or think about it again.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review - Wuthering Heights

There have been many screen versions of Wuthering Heights but we haven't seen one quite like this. Andrea Arnold's take on Emily Brontë's novel is very much the work of the same young director who showed through her films Red Road and Fish Tank that she is a filmmaker with a distinctive, uncompromising voice. That voice may be just what a tale as familiar as Wuthering Heights required to make it feel fresh and new on screen, and for at least half of this extraordinary picture, Arnold appears to do just that. For many independent filmmakers, such a prestige project might be seen as a step towards mainstream respectability, or a bid for awards credibility, and there's something appealingly perverse about the fact that Arnold has in fact taken this opportunity to produce her most challenging work yet. However, while it's easy to applaud her refusal to adhere to the customary tropes of so many genteel literary adaptations, the unforgiving austerity of her approach does make this Wuthering Heights a tough film to love.

Arnold immediately immerses us in the harsh world of 19th century Yorkshire, with the moors being filmed in a richly atmospheric fashion by the director and her supremely talented cinematographer Robbie Ryan. Even if it fails in certain departments,
Wuthering Heights is an undeniably impressive visual achievement; visceral, beautiful and replete with striking images. Arnold and Ryan often let those images take prominence over the dialogue, which is blunt and naturalistic (I'm not sure Brontë ever penned the words, "Fuck you all. Cunts."), and that's a smart decision. Shooting in 1.33 and utilising handheld, intimate camerawork, they find shots that speak volumes about the relationship that develops between orphan Heathcliff (played as a child by Solomon Glave) and the spirited Cathy (Shannon Beer): their clasped hands plunging into mud, the torrential rain hitting their upturned faces, furtive glances stolen through a crack in a door.

The two untested young actors who play the lead characters as youngsters repay Arnold's faith in them. Glave has an interesting sullen quality while Beer is a thoroughly engaging screen presence, who superbly portrays her character's growing curiosity about and interest in the dark-skinned addition to their family. Their performances are a little raw but their scenes together feel terrifically alive, aided by the director's frequent cutaways to shots of the natural world that surrounds them; images of death and bleakness acting as a counterpoint to their charged emotional connection.

Alas, that's only half the movie. When
Wuthering Heights jumps forward a few years to find Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) now married and Heathcliff (James Howson) returning to Earnshaw farm after a long, unexplained absence, I immediately started to sense that something had gone awry. All the vitality and boldness of the first half had drained away, and the two adults who step into the roles of Cathy and Heathcliff struggle to invest their turns with the same natural depth of feeling that their young co-stars possessed. In particular, the casting of Howson proves almost disastrous for the film, with his flat, uncharismatic and shapeless performance creating a hole in the centre of the picture where a complex, fascinating protagonist should be.

But it's not just the actors who fail to build on the fine work done in the first half, as Arnold also seems to lose her grip on the material in its latter stages. The film grows repetitive, recycling shots and motifs from the first half but without any of the accompanying impact, and this film about obsessive love, violence and passion ends up feeling oddly detached and increasingly unsure of itself as it progresses.
Wuthering Heights is an arresting attempt to capture the dark nature of Brontë's novel, but as brilliantly evocative as Arnold's rendering of the wild, windswept landscape is, it fails to capture the similarly turbulent emotions at the heart of the tale. On a number of occasions in the film's second half, Arnold has Howson headbutt a wall or a tree, presumably in an effort to show us how much the lovesick Heathcliff is suffering, but while it certainly looked very painful, I never felt a thing.