Wednesday, April 25, 2012

John Cassavetes on actors

"To me actors are the most important thing in the world ... they are the instruments of interpretation. There will always be people who sit down and write stories and there will always be people who will want to direct them, to make them into films, but it becomes increasingly more difficult to find people to interpret those films, because there is so little value or respect given to those people. It isn't the typewritten word you see up there, it's people ... and if they don't interpret with some human feeling that the audience can relate to ... well, I think that films will be in trouble eventually."

John Cassavetes interviewed in September 1968.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Review - Marley

A single film attempting to tell the entire life story of Bob Marley has an awful lot of ground to cover. Perhaps inevitably, Kevin Macdonald's new documentary Marley feels as if it's only skimming the surface of the singer's life and art, even with 145 minutes with which to tell its story, but it's an entertaining and illuminating ride for viewers less well-versed in Bob's biography. It also wisely distances itself from other fawning documentary portraits of musical stars by interviewing only those who knew Marley and could offer firsthand anecdotes. We don't need trite contributions from commentators or other stars to help us understand how and why Bob Marley was such a huge figure in world music – it's evident every time the subject of Macdonald's film steps in front of the camera.

Clips of Marley performing or being interviewed underscore his astonishing charisma and help take the film to a level that Macdonald's filmmaking doesn't look like reaching on its own. Before this director came on board, Marley was briefly set to be directed by Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme – both filmmakers with a track record in similar documentaries – and I'm not sure that Macdonald has the feel for music that those directors possess. His Marley is assembled in a conventional manner that sometimes feels rather dutiful in the manner in which it ticks off the key moments in Marley's short but eventful life. The pacing sometimes feels a little misjudged too, with the opening section, that deals with Marley's experiences as a mixed-race boy growing up in Jamaica, feeling particularly sluggish.

The movie picks up dramatically as it begins to address Marley's musical impact with The Wailers and his more widespread cultural impact as a proponent of Rastafarianism and reggae music. Interviews with Bunny Wailer attest to Marley's musical brilliance but also to the ambition and stubbornness that caused tensions within the band. Marley is portrayed as a contradictory character in many respects; often laidback but also so driven by his need to make music that he would sleep for just four hours a night when writing new material. He had an open door policy at his home and would happily hand out cash to whoever asked, but he was tough on his own kids, with both son Ziggy and daughter Cedella remembering how competitive he was in games with them. Marley also addresses some of the more contentious aspects of his life, notably his extramarital relationships (he fathered 11 children with 7 women), a fact that his wife Rita seemed at peace with – she even helped him clear women out of his dressing room when he needed her to.

Marley is perhaps at its most fascinating when dealing with the singer's anti-political stance, as he tried to remain neutral while Jamaica's warring factions tried to claim him as their own. As we watch Marley survive an assassination attempt and then stage a concert aimed at uniting his country, it's impossible to avoid being awestruck by his determination and courage. What contemporary star, at their height of their fame, would be capable of or willing to do such a thing? Later, at a concert in Zimbabwe to celebrate the country's independence day, Marley remains on stage even as others flee from tear gas. "Now I know who the true revolutionaries are," he said as his band members returned.

Marley works largely because these important moments are skilfully handled, and the unbearably sad climactic portion of the singer's life, as he slowly succumbed to a cancer that spread from his big toe, is deeply moving. The personal anecdotes offered by his friends and family – and by the nurse who treated him – are full of emotion, with Cedella's recollection of his father looking "so tiny" when shorn of his famous dreadlocks being especially resonant. She's no longer seeing the legendary figure he became; she's just seeing her father as he passes away. Marley does an effective job of exploring the man behind the icon, and it's the kind of film that encourages the viewer to listen to more of his music (frustratingly, only aired in snippets here) and dig deeper into his remarkable story. We are unlikely to see anyone like him ever again, and the closing credits emphasise just how vast and lasting his influence has been. It's a fitting way to end a film about a man who gave himself to the world.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review - Elles

Elles is a film about prostitution that stars three women, has been written by two women, and directed by one of those two women; and yet, I'm not entirely sure what it has to say about prostitution, women, sex or anything else. We spend much of the film observing two young prostitutes, Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), as they service their clients in various ways, and we hear them talk about their experience in a very matter-of-fact manner, but the message of the film is unclear by the time we reach the muddled finale. Elles does manage to hold our interest at all points on this journey, thanks to the fine performances and director Malgorzata Szumowska's stylish visuals, but it mainly has Juliette Binoche to thank for keeping us riveted.

She plays Anne, a Parisian journalist working on article about college students turning to prostitution to supplement their income. The deadline is approaching and Anne is feeling the pressure. On the day we meet her she is attempting to finish her piece while preparing a dinner party for her husband's boss, dealing with their errant son who has been skipping school and smoking pot and – gasp! – coping with the revelation that her husband has been watching porn on his laptop. The problems faced by Anne and the film's overall portrait of how stifling middle-class life can be feels overly familiar and the apparent attempt to draw some sort of parallel between the girls' willing exploitation of their bodies and Anne's own domestic exploitation is trite. It's too easy to predict that the stress induced by this article, the re-emergence of Anne's own sexual desires, and the series of petty annoyances that accumulate through the day will result in some sort of backlash or meltdown during the climactic dinner party – the importance of which we are so frequently reminded of.

Naturally, Binoche is as committed as ever in this central role. She's such a natural, unaffected presence on screen, somebody happy to inhabit the skin of her character even when it appears an uncomfortable fit, but there's only so much she can do with such a slight role. For a journalist writing about young prostitutes, Anne seems totally naïve to the realities of her subject, reacting with consistent astonishment at the stories recounted by Charlotte and Alicja, both of whom seem happy and confident with their choice of career. The film's sexual encounters are artfully staged by Szumowska – with the girls being alternately dominant and submissive, intimate and abused – but a sense of repetition sets in as these sequences fail to enhance our understanding of their characters or Anne's.

Elles almost lurches into self-parody towards the end, as Beethoven's 7th Symphony blasts away on the soundtrack and the boundaries between the prostitutes' lives and Anne's own begin to blur in a ludicrous fashion. Only one moment in Elles really stings, when a scene in which Charlotte is sexually assaulted with a wine bottle cuts straight to a shot of Binoche masturbating, suggesting that Anne's own mental portrait of this unpleasant anecdote has driven her to pleasure herself. But such notions are never really explored, and the film seems happy to dip a toe into the world of prostitution without really wading in deeper to form any kind of consistent take on it. Elles is a fine showcase for two up-and-coming actresses, and a valuable reminder of the class Binoche brings to any project, but all three have to rise above material that only cheapens their talents.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Review - This Must Be the Place

This Must Be the Place is Paolo Sorrentino's typically distinctive take on the American road movie, but the Italian director's first English-language feature is all over the map. It's hard to identify how and why the director has failed so comprehensively here, because simply describing the premise instantly makes it sound like some degree of entertainment is guaranteed. A Goth ex-rocker, now living in Dublin, hears that his father has passed away in the United States and resolves to hunt down the Nazi who made his father's life a misery in the concentration camp he languished in. It's an unusual plot and it deserves a most unusual protagonist, with Sean Penn giving the loopiest turn of his career as the timid, fey Cheyenne.

Penn's committed performance as Cheyenne lends the character a surprising amount of depth, with a lingering sadness being evident in his portrayal of a man who hasn't performed since two fans killed themselves some years earlier, apparently inspired by his lyrics. The makeup-clad Cheyenne now exists in a state of inertia, occasionally enlivened by games of handball with his wife (Frances McDormand) in the couple's empty swimming pool or by visits to his young friend Mary (Eve Hewson), whose mother is similarly lost, gazing out of the window for the son who left home and never returned. This sense of yearning, of wishing to accomplish something or to put things back the way they were, permeates through This Must Be the Place in a number of ways.

The opening section of the film in Ireland may have little to do with where This Must Be the Place ultimately ends up, but it's the best part of the picture, where Sorrentino successfully introduces this intriguing character and scores with his eccentric comic tone. A scene in which Cheyenne awkwardly but endearingly attempts to set up Mary with a date is amusingly played, and McDormand brings a vital spark to her performance, suggesting the good humour and affection that has kept this marriage going for thirty years. Sorrentino's three previous features have centred on inscrutable and frequently unlikable characters; but while Cheyenne is initially a hard figure to read – with his childlike voice posing non-sequitous questions such as "Why is Lady Gaga?" –he's at least a character whose company we enjoy, and someone we're keen to know more about.

We never really do get to know Cheyenne, beyond what we can gleam from Penn's curious and consistently fascinating performance. When he makes the trip to America (sadly leaving McDormand behind), the film becomes more about the strange journey he undergoes and the collection of interesting/eccentric/threatening characters he meets on the road. Judd Hirsch brings a pleasing down-to-earth frankness to his performance as Nazi Hunter Mordecai Midler, but too many of Cheyenne's encounters leave us wondering what the purpose of them was. The film is episodic and facile, and while some individual sequences have entertainment value (It's hard to not chuckle as Cheyenne is trapped in the corner of a kitchen by a troublesome goose) they don't accumulate any weight. I'm not sure what Sorrentino has to say about America as seen through an outsider's eye, and I'm not sure that he does either. A single-scene cameo from Harry Dean Stanton only reminds us that other filmmakers such as Wim Wenders have taken us down this road many times before.

Of course, the film is directed with panache and wit, as we have come to expect from Sorrentino. The centrepiece of the film is a performance of David Byrne's This Must Be the Place, which is superbly staged, and in isolated moments such as this, Sorrentino's film briefly possesses a mesmerising quality. But too often that spell is broken by the director dropping the ball in a clumsy fashion (in this instance, it's a stilted and unnecessary acting cameo from Byrne), and the film continues to proceed on its uneven, unfocused way to a climax that feels horribly misjudged. When Sorrentino tries to draw pathos from the reappearance of the mother pining for her son, it didn't work for me because I had completely forgotten she existed, so wayward and inconsequential the intervening hour had been. I was also baffled by Penn's altered appearance in this coda, and unable to draw a line between the two incarnations of Cheyenne that we see. The star's central performance feels like the one ingredient of This Must Be the Place that's sure of itself, that feels consistent and thought-through, but even this aspect of the film, in the movie's closing moments, is finally cut adrift.

Monday, April 02, 2012

"I am a filmmaker not a pixelmaker" - An interview with Aki Kaurismäki

Aki Kaurismäki once claimed that he has directed half of his features sober and half of his features drunk, and so far nobody has been able to tell the difference. It's hard to know for sure how serious the director is being when he makes statements such as this, as everything he says is delivered in the same morose deadpan with the air of a man who is frankly tired of life. And yet, his new film Le Havre is one of his most endearingly optimistic pictures, as it tells the story of a shoe-shiner living in a French harbour town who befriends an African illegal immigrant and helps protect him from the authorities. Once again, the film is marked by the director's distinctive compositions and sly humour, and it strikes a lovely balance between the light and dark shades of his story. Kaurismäki was in London recently and I met him to talk about Le Havre.

How are you today?

Not good. I haven't had a drink or a smoke for two months.

Two months? Is that by choice?

Yeah, I was supposed to get organised. [lights cigarette] But not anymore, I guess.

You made a film in London twenty years ago with I Hired a Contract Killer. Have you ever thought of shooting here again since?

Sure, I will shoot anywhere. But the laboratories are bankrupt and so is Kodak, so why not me also?

Do you intend to stick with film, even as the whole of cinema seems to be going digital?

Yes, I will die with my boots on. I won't make a digital film in this life. Cinema is made from light and I don't even know what you call a filmmaker these days...maybe a pixelmaker, and I am a filmmaker not a pixelmaker. I wish them luck, not all of them but most of them.

You last made a film in France in 1992 with La Vie de Bohème. Have you had a strong desire to go back and film there over the past twenty years?

No, in fact I planned to shoot the story in Spain but I couldn't find a real harbour town there. Then I wanted to shoot in Marseille but it was too complicated to shoot there because the streets are so narrow. If I put my tracks there it would block the traffic, and it would take six hours to the location and six hours back, so which hours would I shoot? My logical mind told me it couldn't be done. I drove all over the coast of the Mediterranean and France and Le Havre was my last hope, but it was perfect.

Did you have the whole story in your head at this point or did you develop it when you found the right location?

The story was ready but I needed a town. I couldn't start writing without the right place to set it in.

Why did the subject of immigration attract you?

It's a shame, that's why. I am European and it is a shame for Europe that we have this kind of disgraceful situation going on all the time.

Immigration stories are often very dark but this one feels optimistic.

I can't help my natural optimism.

It's a good thing to have, some faith in humanity.

No, of humanity I know nothing.

I know in the past you have often had a happy ending and sad ending ready and have made a late decision about which one you will use.

Since I knew this question would come, I counted yesterday. It seems to be quite mathematical that every second film is either a happy ending or sad ending, but with Le Havre it was always a happy ending, always a fairytale. In fact with Le Havre I have two happy endings, which is something new, but don't tell the audience.

How different is it for you to write French or English characters instead of characters from Finland?

There is no difference; people are people. My eternal plan is always to make a film that a Chinese lady from the countryside can understand without subtitles.

You live in Portugal now, right? Have you considered making a film there?

No, never. I have been there 23 winters now and I still can't understand the way they think. They are not like the French or Spanish or English. It is an interesting country.

Is silent cinema a big influence on your work? I imagine Buster Keaton was someone who inspired you.

Yes, Keaton and Chaplin were the best of all time. Both of them. I particularly like the pale silence of Keaton.

He was someone who could express so much through his face alone. Is that something you ask of your actors?

The eyes talk, not the face. That would be overacting. If they don't smile or move their hands like a windmill, they are hired.

Jean-Pierre Darroussin is someone you haven't worked with before, but he seems an actor who is a perfect fit for your world.

Yes, he was lucky. That was his only chance to survive and have a career, with me. To be honest, I dislike overacting to the extreme that I don't allow acting at all.

So how do you work with your actors on set?

If needed, I will act in front of them, to show them how they should act. If that's not needed, I will just tell them "more" or "less," and it's usually less. Casting for me is hiring the right actors so normally I don't have to direct at all, which is good for a lazy man.

That's what Hitchcock used to say, "75% of directing is casting."

Is that what he said? I always thought it was my idea.

Going back to your point about making films that can be understood without subtitles, you made a silent film in 1999 with Juha. Now that The Artist is proving a big success, do you think that's something you might explore again?

No, I have done it already. I made the last silent film of the twentieth century and in fact I started this boom with the best possible film, so I don't need to make a silent film anymore.

I understand Le Havre is intended as the first part of a new trilogy.

Well, there are lots of plans in this life. I'm so lazy that I have to make these illusions of films in the future. It keeps my mind busy. I would like to say that this is my last film but it wouldn't be a fact because I'm too young to die.

You have been taking quite a long time out between your most recent films. Your last picture was Lights in the Dusk in 2006 and before that it was The Man Without a Past in 2002.

I used to be the fastest in the world. In the late 80's I made four films a year but as you get older you get slower. Even Jarmusch is faster than me now.

Do you find it harder to get money for your films these days or is the support always there if you want to make a film?

Money was never a problem, and if I couldn't get money I would make it without. Not having money is just an excuse for lazy people.

I did read that you and your brother are responsible for one fifth of all Finnish movies over the past thirty years.

Nowadays I think it's more like one quarter.

What is the film culture like in Finland? Is it a big cinephile country?

It used to be a cinema country; Godard used to have more audiences in Finland than Paris in the old days. Now it is all the usual Hollywood shit because the distribution is a problem.

Is that why you and Mika started the Midnight Sun Festival?

That was more because of the rage we had against festivals where nobody meets nobody. We decided to have a festival in the middle of nowhere so everybody has to meet everybody, nobody can escape. We tell the directors, "If you want to escape you're welcome to. The airport is 150km that way." Nobody has left so far. Have you ever been to Finland?

No, I haven't.

Don't go. Life is boring enough.

When you and Mika were growing up, what films were an inspiration to you?

Thanks to our father we lived in the middle of nowhere throughout our childhood. Tiny villages and if there was a cinema they would be showing gladiator films from the 50's. It was a graveyard for Hollywood films, so the first serious films I saw were when I joined the film club when I was 16. My first real cinema experience was a double-bill of Nanook by Flaherty and L'Âge d'Or by Buñuel, and that's when I thought, "OK, this is a serious business." Between these two films you can put all of the cinema ever made. It's a pity for me that I never got to that level.

You have often said that you're a bad filmmaker and a lazy filmmaker, but you haven't done badly over thirty years, have you?

Well, in the kingdom of the blind even the one-eyed jack is king.

Have you ever been satisfied with one of your films?

If I had been satisfied I wouldn't have continued, so obviously not. It's not nice to die without being satisfied just once, so I keep trying.

How closely do your scripts match the final movie?

If I have a script it's 1:1, there are no changes. Sometimes I don't have a script and I improvise – the actors don't improvise at all but I improvise – and I make the story when I shoot. I can write very fast and the ideas are there so it doesn't matter if I write the film or improvise, it's the same thing.

When I told people that I was meeting you they all said they wanted to me to ask me about The Leningrad Cowboys. I recently saw for the first time the short you made with them, Rocky VI.

Yeah, it was one of the first rock videos in Europe. The band told me they had a good title for a band, The Leningrad Cowboys, and they had an idea to make some kind of movie. I improvised that day, we shot the next day and I edited the third day. I had a good time doing that, they used to be a good band. Their records were never good but they were wild live.

What are they doing these days?

They still exist but they were always a band where the best musicians would hang around for a while and then leave, so a band called Leningrad Cowboys still exists but it's not the same band.

Music is such an important component of your films. When do you start thinking about the soundtrack?

I make the film first and then I go to my record shelf. I only use music which I happen to have. It's a way to avoid dialogue, because the music talks so much and provides a kind of balance to the story. It's interesting. The only thing that interests me in cinema nowadays is to edit music because you can change everything. You can make comedy into tragedy and the other way too.

One of the great scenes is Le Havre is a performance from Little Bob. Where did you discover him?

Little Bob is the Elvis of Le Havre and Elvis is the Little Bob of Memphis, Tennessee. You can't go to Le Havre without bumping into Little Bob. He used to be a big star in Europe before your days, and he even toured Finland in the late 70's. I knew his music but I had never met the guy before. So when I met him I decided I had to write him into the film. I always use live music in my films for some odd reason. I like to make one song true.

Do you know already what the next film in this trilogy will be?

Who knows? Maybe I will retire, I don't know. Will I still have film in a few years? Anyway I am planning to go back to my original profession writing, which I never even started. I will start with short stories, but it's such a bloody lonely and complicated job. When I say, "let's shoot" we hire people and equipment, and then I have to be there on the first day with some idea. With writing I can always say, "Oh, I will start tomorrow...I will start tomorrow..." Filmmaking is the only career for a lazy man.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

LLGFF 2012 - Kiss Me & Beauty

Kiss Me (Kyss mig)

For its release in some international territories, Alexandra-Therese Keining's Kiss Me has been renamed With Every Heartbeat, after the Robyn track that plays over the opening credits. It's hard to avoid drawing comparisons with Lukas Moodysson's Fucking Åmål, which took the much more marketable title Show Me Love and, coincidentally, was the last lesbian-themed Swedish film to make waves abroad. Keining's film is reminiscent of Moodysson's in other ways too, with its deft balance of humour and insight, and exemplary collection of ensemble performances. It charts the complicated and awkward romance between Mia (Ruth Vega Fernandez) and Frida (Liv Mjönes) in such an engaging and skilful manner, we don't really mind how rigidly it adheres to genre conventions.

At the start of the film, Mia is ready to marry her longtime boyfriend Tim (Joakim Nätterqvist), announcing her engagement at the party her father is holding to announce his own forthcoming nuptials. This is the first time that Mia has met Frida, her future stepsister, and she can't keep take her eyes off her throughout the evening. When she admonishes Tim for his flirtatious behaviour towards Frida, is it a playful jab, a sign of her own insecurity or a pang of jealousy at his close proximity to this beautiful light-hearted blonde? Keining gets a lot of mileage out of these loaded, surreptitious glances as the closeted and conflicted Mia edges towards a romance with the out Frida, and the emotional waters are muddied further by the fact that Frida is also in a relationship. The smartly balanced screenplay doesn't lose sight of the collateral pain these women will cause by following their hearts.

Kiss Me is a fairly standard and familiar romantic drama but it is elevated above its generic conventions by Ragna Jorming's great eye for composition and use of light, and love scenes that possess an honest sensuality, which is heightened by the tangible chemistry Fernandez and Mjönes share. The film is given an added dimension by the performances from Krister Henriksson and especially Lena Endre as Mia and Frida's parents, both of whom deal with revelations about their daughters' sexuality in different ways. Keining is commendably adept at handling the messy, entangled emotions of her characters, but the ending to the film feels too neat by half; a clichéd finale that might offer a satisfying sense of closure, but feels forced and conventional in a way that so much of this movie doesn't.

Beauty (Skoonheid)

The opening shot of Beauty tracks slowly through a crowd until it settles on the face of a handsome young man and stays there. When Oliver Hermanus made his debut with Shirley Adams in 2009 he favoured a nervy, handheld style, but here his approach is much more deliberate and composed, mirroring the gaze of his protagonist. François (Deon Lotz) is a middle-aged family man living in South Africa, and the object of his lingering looks across the hall at this family celebration is Christian (Charlie Keegan), the 22 year-old son of a family friend, with whom François shares a close, jovial relationship. François wants Christian, and soon this desire consumes his every action. Beauty is a study of obsession, repression and self-loathing.

François is a deeply conflicted character. He laughingly joins in with disparaging comments about "faggots" but we later see him drive out into the country to take part in an orgy with other married, middle-aged men. These men don't define themselves as homosexual, though, and one of them is admonished for bring a feminine-looking, dark-skinned boy to their gathering with the words, "No coloureds and no faggots." This clandestine meeting is the only way François and these other men can act upon their urges without the risk of being "outed" in a society where homosexuality is still a taboo issue. When it comes to Christian, all François can do is admire the object of his affection, which he does with increasing frequency throughout the film, contriving reasons for them to be together and even stalking the youngster to the beach or his college campus. Hermanus makes us party to his voyeurism through the way he uses his camera, with the use of focus and the excellent sound design placing us in François' shoes, making us share in his yearning and torment.

Beauty is built around an astonishing lead performance from Deon Lotz. Controlled and understated, he makes us fully aware of the dangerous desires raging underneath his placid surface. The film skilfully develops a tension that commands our attention as we wait for François to make his move, a tension that finally culminates in a shocking sequence that's genuinely difficult to watch. But Hermanus seems unsure about how exactly to handle the fallout from this event, and his reluctance tackle some aspects of his story head-on is frustrating. The director has spoken of his desire to make an ambiguous film, but much of Beauty feels unnecessarily opaque, particularly the final scenes in which we are left to puzzle over the nature of a phone call, a stash of money and a drive into the darkness. These niggling loose ends have the unfortunate effect of distracting out thoughts from some admirably brave filmmaking and a tremendous central performance.