Sunday, September 30, 2012

LFF Review - Amour

There's a scene in Terence Davies' film The Deep Blue Sea in which the romantically inclined Hester is confronted by her no-nonsense landlady, who takes a break from caring for her invalid husband to educate the younger woman on the real meaning of love. "A lot of rubbish is talked about love," she tells Hester. “You know what real love is? It’s wiping someone’s arse, or changing the sheets when they’ve wet themselves, and letting them keep their dignity so you can both go on.” I was reminded of that moment as I watched Michael Haneke's Amour, in which an elderly couple fight against the ravages of age and illness. The title may seem a strange one for a Michael Haneke film to possess, but it is entirely appropriate. Amour is one of the purest and most devastating portraits of love that I have ever seen in the cinema.

It is moving precisely because it deals with the infirmities and indignities that so often afflict the elderly. This is something we have all witnessed or experienced in our own lives, but the depiction of this universal condition on screen is so rare that Michael Haneke's film almost feels revolutionary. There's nothing particularly special about the couple played by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, who are named, like every couple in this director's films, Anne and Georges. When we first see them they are just two faces in the crowd, part of an audience engrossed in a classical music performance. They return home to the apartment in which we will spend the next two hours, and they are in high spirits, hardly perturbed by the damaged lock on their front door from a failed break-in.

That damaged lock is an early indicator of this couple's vulnerability, later underscored by a chillingly effective nightmare sequence which is superbly orchestrated by Haneke. Such jolting moments are rare, though, as Amour instead observes the slow and gradual deterioration of a person's body. When Anne suffers a stroke as the couple enjoy breakfast, this seismic turn of events is dealt with so quietly, as Georges struggling to come to terms with the sudden change in his wife and Anne initially seems oblivious to what has occurred. After this point, with his wife confined to a wheelchair, Georges does all he can to care for her while she insists that there is no need for such fuss, determined to retain some independence; but they must soon bow to the inevitable. "Things will go downhill, and then it will all be over," Georges bluntly states.

Amour is essentially a two-character film, although other figures arrive from time to time. Isabelle Huppert plays the couple's daughter Eva, William Shimell is her husband, Alexandre Tharaud is a former student, a few nurses come and go, and a couple downstairs awkwardly offer to help Georges in whatever way they can. But to Georges, nobody else seems to exist. He closes ranks around his ailing wife and devotes himself to her care. Trintignant and Riva make us believe in these people and in the relationship that has sustained them for decades; a relationship built upon a shared intelligence, humour and love of music. It's unbearable to see all of that slip away as it does here. Trintignant remains so resolute in his determination to relieve his wife's suffering, recounting stories from his youth that he somehow never shared with her, and snapping at anyone who he feels infringing on their remaining time together. Riva undergoes an astonishing physical transformation during the course of the film, and it is heartbreaking to see her lying immobile, her delightful smile turned into a grimace, and only capable of uttering a single moan: "Hurts..."

All of this unfolds under the unflinching gaze of Darius Khondji's camera, as Haneke's flawless compositions capture Georges and Anne's difficulties in a typically clinical manner. Of course, we are used to Michael Haneke films being tough to watch, but there's something markedly different about this picture that we haven't seen in his work before. Amour contains a number of scenes that are moving in the most delicate way – Georges remembering a time when his wife would play music for him, or stroking her hand to ease her cries of pain – and even the symbolic pigeon that flies into their apartment is dealt with in a more tender fashion than I could have ever anticipated. Amour has been made with all of the intelligence and rigour that we have come to expect from Michael Haneke, but the depth of compassion on display is a new element, and it is that welcome addition to this director's formidable arsenal that makes his latest film a masterpiece.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Review - Holy Motors

When audiences walk out of Holy Motors, they may echo the words of a photographer who ecstatically snaps pictures of a strange goblin-like creature in one of the film's many bizarre sequences – "So weird." Holy Motors is weird, there's no doubt about that. Before making this film, Leos Carax hadn't directed a feature in 13 years, and at times it feels like he has simply poured every idea, fantasy, dream and nightmare he had in that period into a single extraordinary picture. One of those ideas will be familiar to anyone who saw Carax's contribution to the portmanteau film Tokyo! in 2008, as Holy Motors reprises the sewer-dwelling, flower-eating, armpit-licking Monsieur Merde from that anarchic short. This time, however, Monsieur Merde is just one of many elaborate characters performed by Denis Lavant.

Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar, who is a businessman of apparently some importance, and we first see him settling into a limousine and looking at the heavy schedule of appointments he has ahead of him. When he emerges, however, he is no longer dressed in a suit. Instead, he is in the guise of an old beggar woman; stooped over, shabbily dressed, with one arm extended as she beseeches pedestrians for some spare change. In Holy Motors, Lavant adopts a series of disguises and immerses himself into these extremely varied roles. The inside of the limousine is decked out to resemble an actor's dressing room, but for what purpose? For what audience is Monsieur Oscar going to this effort? We never really find out, and I'm not sure if that matters anyway.

Perhaps Holy Motors is Carax's meditation on the nature of performance, or a metaphor for the way we all wear masks and present ourselves differently in different situations in our own lives. It's hard to get a fix on Holy Motors because it keeps wriggling away and reinventing itself every few minutes. Just when we have recovered from the shock of seeing Monsieur Merde kidnap a fashion model (a very game Eva Mendes), the film presents us with a father-daughter scene that is very touching in the natural honesty of its emotions. A strange motion-capture scene segues into an even stranger sexually charged CGI sequence, while a segment in which Monsieur Oscar attempts to assassinate his doppelganger develops towards an amusing and very clever punchline. There's even a musical interlude, which may be my single favourite moment in this year of cinema.

Inevitably, the film is episodic and some of these vignettes work better than others (the deathbed scene is a weak link), but such missteps are rare. Towards the end of the film, Carax deals another surprise, with Kylie Minogue turning in a surprisingly effective and affecting cameo as another of these mysterious performers, who shares some unspoken link with Monsieur Oscar. In fact, all of the actors cast in the film manage to make a memorable impact despite the mysterious nature of their characters: Michel Piccoli pops up in the limo to offer words of advice to the jaded actor; Edith Sciob is the driver tasked with transporting Monsieur Oscar around town all day (she also sparks one of the film's more on-the-nose cinematic references); and the director himself kicks things off by appearing in the opening scene. He plays a man who wakes in a strange room and finds a portal in the wall that leads to a darkened cinema, where an audience is transfixed by the bright screen. The link between cinema and dreams made explicit right at the start of his remarkable film.

But Holy Motors is Denis Lavant's film, and he seizes his multiple roles with breathtaking skill and conviction. Not since Beau Travail in 1999 has the actor been granted a role that takes advantage of his unique physicality in such a thrilling manner. Carax has said that if Lavant turned down this role he would have "offered the part to Lon Chaney or to Chaplin. Or to Peter Lorre or Michel Simon." Like their great iconic roles, it's easy to see Lavant's staggering multiple performances here going down as one for the ages. Like the film around him, the actor is exhilaratingly fearless, boundlessly imaginative and, of course, "So weird."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Commentary Tracks - A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda (1988) with writer/star John Cleese

Comments on the Film

On Charles Crichton
Of all the reasons for doing this movie, the greatest was Charlie Crichton. Charlie, who is sadly no longer with us, was a really wonderful director. He started cutting film in 1932 and he always announced that he was an editor before Hitler came to power, but I never knew quite what the connection was. In 1946, after 14 years of editing, he started directing and became one of the great Ealing comedy directors, and I nearly worked with Charlie in 1967 or 68. The producer, for some extraordinary reason, wouldn't touch Charlie and didn't want him on the movie, so I walked away from it. I said to Charlie – who was the most expert director I ever worked with – "We'll do something one day," and my God, how many years later, 19 years later we did work together. We started by meeting up in France and we sat at a little table by the swimming pool drinking coffee to work out the story, and Charlie, if you can believe it, celebrated his 77th birthday while we were shooting. He was nominated both for an Oscar and by the Director's Guild of America, so it was the most extraordinary swansong. After this he was offered a couple of movies but I think he knew this had been a good experience so he turned down all offers, and instead he bought a place in Scotland where he could spent his time fly-fishing. He was famously irascible – it was never serious, just his way of communicating – and the place in Scotland was called Grumbles.

On dialogue
This scene probably contains one of the best-known lines in the movie, when Kevin says "I'm DISAPPOINTED!" It's an interesting kind of line because it's almost impossible to write that when you're sitting at a desk. It comes out in the course of rehearsing. One of the things I was able to do with Kevin was to stop for ten days before we got anywhere near shooting the movie, and I went through the movie with him, all the scenes, just to see what he would come up with. He came up with some wonderful lines – like this one – and also some wonderful physical stuff, like sniffing under the armpit. All of that came about because we were very loose, very relaxed, we had lots of time and we were just able to play. Jamie also contributed a lot of lines; I was sending her early drafts of the movie, particularly asking if there was anything colloquial from an American point of view, because I don't feel I write very good American dialogue. So Kevin and Jamie were constantly phoning me and faxing me with suggestions; in fact, I'm rather proud of the fact that I think 13 different people contributed to the dialogue.

On Ken's stutter
One of the things I started with when I was trying to work out Michael's character is that I simply had the idea of the scene at the end of the movie. In fact, I think that was the very first idea I had for the movie, of someone with a stutter trying to get information out and not being able to. The reason I knew that would be beautifully played by Michael is that his father had quite a stutter, and he was able therefore to observe it throughout his childhood. There's a very obvious way to do a stutter that I guess most actors would do, which wouldn't be right and wouldn't be funny. It's the little sort of subterfuges, the little tactics, that people with stutters use to try and hide it that Michael knew about and was able to incorporate in his performance.

On playing a romantic lead
I have to tell you that this is the first time in my entire life that I had played a proper romantic scene, for obvious reasons. But on this occasion I was playing one, mainly because I had written it. I had no idea how to play this kind of scene and Jamie was very helpful. But there's a moment when I used a little trick I'd seen in a movie called Outrageous Fortune, when I was very impressed with the way one of the actors indicated to the audience that he had fallen in love with someone. It was a particular look at the other actor's mouth that did it, and I actually pinched that moment. I think it works reasonably well.

On loosening up his acting style
In comedy, I believe in endless, endless, endless rehearsal. Do it again and again, because each time a little smoothness creeps in, you discover something else, you find a new rhythm. Jamie said to me that it isn't like that with a romantic scene, and she said she didn't want to rehearse this. She would catch me rehearsing my lines in the corner and she'd wave my finger at me and say 'No'. So for the first time in my life I suddenly found that acting is not about this strict rhythm that comedy demands – like I had no idea she was going to pick up the wig there – and it was rather fun. When you're playing comedy normally, the demands of the timing are so great it sometimes seems to me like there's a huge metronome at the back of my head, just clicking. I've got to do everything on the click – line on two clicks, another line three clicks, turn head on another click – and I can get it very grooved. I can reproduce almost exactly the same performance again and again, and it surprises people but I am a very technical performer. So going into these scenes with Jamie having no idea how we were going to play them, I found that intensely liberating. I was suddenly released from the metronome and was just able to play in the moment.

On writing farce
This is the beginning of one of my favourite sequences in the movie because I've always had a terrible weakness for farce. I should add for 'good' farce, because there's nothing worse than bad farce. Bad farce is where none of the characters are believable at all. But I do love it when relatively sane, ordinary people get into situations where they are maximally stressed and start behaving more and more oddly. It's one of my favourite forms of comedy, and I think some of my happiest nights have been spent at the National Theatre in London watching Feydeau farces. When I started to write this sequence I made a map, almost a model, of the set and I got some little figures to start moving them around. In fact, at one point I had Michael Palin's character Ken following these guys on his little moped and he then got into the house in the big farce sequence, but that didn't quite work out unfortunately. It would have been wonderful if it had, but sometimes you just find if you go over all logical possibilities that certain apparently good ideas just don't lead anywhere, and it's rather sad when that happens.

On Ken's attempts to kill the old lady
The idea of Michael's character Ken trying to kill the old lady came to me as the last funny structural idea that I had, and I reached it by pure logic. I could not think what Michael was up to in the middle of the movie, and I remember my wife at the time Barbara and I took a house in Malibu to get away from the English winter. I sat there for two weeks and thought, 'What is Michael Palin's character going to do in the middle of the movie?' and I slowly got there by starting from the fact that he would be trying to kill the old lady. Then I thought that every time he tried to kill her something else will happen; then I thought "What's he going to kill instead? it's obviously a pet"; then I got to dogs; then I thought that was much funnier and more ironic if Michael was an animal rights activist. So the whole thing was constructed entirely logically. One of the things I often say to people, when I'm doing little comedy classes for students, is that very frequently the funny idea is inherent in what you've already got. You don't necessarily have to have a new idea, you just have to examine as closely as possible the nature of what you already have and try to see if you might be missing it.

On Otto torturing Ken
This scene caused quite a lot of trouble. When Kevin started to push French fries, or chips as we say in England, up Michael's nose, the audience became very, very distressed. When Kevin put the apple in Michael's mouth they really started to worry about whether Michael could breathe properly, which is extraordinary because it is a movie and the whole thing consists of a number of cuts. This is the man who was trying to kill an old woman for half of the movie – but no, that doesn't matter, they're more worried that Michael couldn't breathe very well. When I saw these scenes in rushes, particularly when he had the apple in his mouth, I have never laughed so much in my life. I thought this was quite simply the funniest sequence I had ever seen, and it was a considerable disappointment when we started playing it to audiences, to discover that it distressed them and we had to keep shortening it. They were even worried about the chip up the nose! I remember doing some publicity photos in New York after the movie opened where I had chips put up my nose, because I said I didn't want any of the actors doing a stunt that I was not prepared to do myself. I suppose it's slightly disgusting, but I do love the way they play this. It's absolutely insane and it's completely real.

Bits and Pieces

One of the things that annoys me usually when I'm watching movies is that they put the names of the starring actors up very frequently over other people. So I deliberately here wanted to do these little thumbnail sketches in the right order and with the right names up.

Charlie and I made a big mistake here. When we went to the close-up of the squashed dog, Charlie had actually got a bucket of innards from a local butcher and had lovingly arranged them around the dog. When we started previews the audience absolutely froze and the laughter stuck in their throat, so we went and shot that close-up which doesn't even look like a dog if you look at it for more than three seconds, it looks as though it's made out of a raffia mat. Anyway, it didn't bother the audience anymore so they went on laughing.

A little joke there that of course Cary Grant had a real, non-stage name of Archie Leach, so I popped it in. I thought it would amuse about 25 people, but to my amazement about 8 million people got it.

Incidentally, Jamie thought I was a rotten kisser, and I did point out to her that I was trying to kiss in character, because I don't think Archie is a very sexy man...whereas I, of course, am enormously sexy.

When I sat down with Charlie on the first day I said, "I want to have a scene where a man with a really bad stutter is trying to tell someone some very important information but he just can't get it out" and he said, "Alright, we can do that, and I've got one scene I want to do. I want to run someone over with a steamroller." So those were the two scenes we started with.

Final Thoughts

I haven't watched this for many years and I have to say I got some good smiles watching it again. It's so lovely to be with people you enjoy, and so nice to see them again. It was a very happy production, we did it in 52 days, plus the reshoots, and Charlie was so efficient he used to finish at half past six every night, so nobody got too tired and we all had a really good time. I think that contributes to the good spirit that you see up there on the screen.

Monday, September 24, 2012

London Film Festival 2012 - Part 2

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Benh Zeitlin's debut film arrives in London having charmed audiences everywhere since its Sundance debut, and I can see why so many people love it. In fact, for a while I was confident that I was going to love it too, before it revealed just how little is going on beneath its gorgeous surface. The film takes place in an impoverished region of the Louisiana Delta referred to only as The Bathtub, and its central character is Hushpuppy, who is played by instant star Quvenzhané Wallis (6 years-old at the time of shooting). Hushpuppy lives with her father, a volatile drunk with a weak heart, and we are invited to view the world from her perspective, as she reshapes the environment through her own imagination. When Hurricane Katrina hits, Beasts of the Southern Wild becomes a tale of defiance and survival, as Hushpuppy and her father try to stay one step ahead of the mythical creatures she pictures roaming the land. Zeitlin and his cinematographer Ben Richardson certainly conjure some magical images in Beasts of the Southern Wild, from an early fireworks display to a beautiful interlude at a brothel late on, but the film never knits these individually striking moments together in a satisfying way. The film's first half is propelled forward by the spirit of its diminutive protagonist and the devastating impact of Katrina, but as it progresses, the narrative grows increasingly wayward, notably during a rushed detour at a disaster relief centre and an attempt to blow up part of the levee. ("They built a wall that cuts us off," Hushpuppy muses.) In Quvenzhané Wallis the director has a wonderful lead, an actress who is guileless and empathetic while also possessing a resolute toughness ("I'm the man!" she roars at her father's behest), and she certainly didn't require the overwritten voiceover that Zeitlin misguidedly saddles her with. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film you may well fall head over heels for, but I felt that too much of it – including many of the key emotional moments – felt forced by Zeitlin when they should have felt serendipitous and organic.

The Comedian

Despite its title, this is not a film about a comedian. Sure, we see Ben (Edward Hogg) onstage at the start of his film, performing in London pubs and comedy clubs to mixed results ("I'll tell you something else that makes me sick. Being a bulimic," gives you an idea of his quality), but the film's interest lies elsewhere. Bored with his deadening call centre job and frustrated by the lack of progress he has made on the stand-up circuit, Ben is a man stuck in a rut, and it is only when he meets young artist Nathan (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) that things start to look up. The pair begin a relationship that seems promising, but Ben is afraid of commitment...or he has confused feelings for his flatmate (Elisa Lasowski)...or he...well, what exactly is Ben's problem? In lieu of a script, The Comedian was developed by director Tom Shkolnik through improvisation workshops with the cast, and the result is a film that features a number of scenes in which characters inarticulately attempt to express their feelings, but it offers no real insight. Only the charming Nathan Stewart-Jarrett brings a sense of life to his portrayal, and one of the few scenes that sparks with any kind of real emotion is one in which Ben and Nathan are confronted by a group of homophobic teenage girls on a bus. Beyond that, The Comedian is oblique and irritating, hampered by uninteresting characters and Shkolnik's dull visual sense. Even though it runs for just over 70 minutes, the film drags interminably; a bad joke with no punchline worth waiting for.

Keep the Lights On

For his fourth feature, Ira Sachs has drawn on his own past, and the result is a film that is both his most ambitious and his most accomplished to date. Keep the Lights On charts the many vicissitudes in the relationship between Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and Paul (Zachary Booth), who meet initially for sex before their physical attraction develops into love. That love is sorely tested on numerous occasions in subsequent years, as Paul's drug habit grows ever more serious and Erik resolves to stand by his man, even as Paul threatens to pull him into the abyss with him. As they tell a story that unfolds over the course of a decade, Sachs and his co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias dip into the relationship every couple of years, showing how Erik and Paul have progressed – or regressed – and underscoring the cyclical nature of addiction. The two leads share a tangible chemistry that really drives the picture, and Lindhardt is particularly impressive, with his open nature immediately winning our sympathy as we see the emotional toll this destructive relationship is taking on him. Shot with a vivid sense of intimacy by Thimios Bakatakis (of Dogtooth and Attenberg fame, and impressing here with a different style), Keep the Lights On feels raw and honest in its depiction of a long-term relationship that's gradually falling apart. Sachs writes and directs with intelligence and insight, finding a crucial balance between high and low points, compassion and pain, while Arthur Russell's melancholy songs provide the perfect accompaniment. It's a sincere and moving film that stands as a fine achievement for its director, and hopefully a cathartic one.

The We and the I

Michel Gondry's new film largely takes place in a single confined location, but that shouldn't be a problem for a man of his imagination and ingenuity, right? The We and the I takes place on a bus in the Bronx, which is carrying a group of students away from school on the last day of term. As is traditional, a gang of teenage boys have commandeered the back seat, where they spend the journey trading stories and jokes and bullying other students and passengers. This is pretty much what the first half of the film consists of, as Gondry's camera flits from one set of students to another, alighting on conversations that reveal their cruelty, anxiety, desires and frustrations. The non-professional cast all appear relaxed and authentic in their roles, but much of the material is inevitably hit-and-miss and largely dependent on how funny you find the often puerile humour of teenagers. In truth, I'm not sure if Gondry really knows what he's trying to achieve here, and sometimes he seems to be simply throwing everything he can think of at the movie, including mobile phone clips and fantasy sequences (shot in his trademark lo-fi style). But what The We and the I does do very effectively is to show the pack mentality and braggadocio that teens use to cover up their innate insecurities, and as more passengers leave the bus, those underlying emotions are exposed in surprisingly interesting and affecting ways. The We and the I feels like a slightly underdeveloped experiment from Gondry, and the director is guilty of trying to pile a little too much content onto a slight conceit, but it is an intermittently entertaining and touching film that takes the director into some intriguing new areas.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

London Film Festival 2012 - Part 1

The London Film Festival starts on October 10th, but over the coming weeks I'll be sharing my views on the films in the programme that I've already seen. Here's the first of this year's capsule review collections.

After Lucia (Después de Lucía)

In cities across the world it seems that the troubles faced by teenagers every day are largely the same, and one particularly difficult hurdle is the task of fitting in at a new school. Alejandra (Tessa Ia) has moved with her father (Hernán Mendoza) to Mexico City, where they hope to rebuild their lives after the death of her mother in a car crash. She is initially popular at her new school, but one stupid drunken mistake at a party quickly tarnishes her reputation and makes her an outcast. From this point onwards, After Lucia observes Alejandra's ongoing silent despair as she is subjected to the most horrific bullying from her classmates, with Michael Franco's long takes and fixed camera angles refusing to spare us any details of her ordeal. Unable to open up to her grief-stricken father, Alejandra withdraws and simply accepts her place at the bottom of the food chain, becoming almost catatonic as abuse upon abuse is heaped on her. The cruelty of Alejandra's fellow teenagers sometimes feels a little overplayed, both in the disgusting extremity of their attacks and the complete lack of adult supervision or dissenting voices as the entire classroom gangs up on her, but the power of Franco's film is impossible to deny. It may be unbearable to watch in places, but the tender performances at its centre from both Ia and Mendoza make it equally hard to look away, and the film becomes particularly riveting during its extraordinarily tense final stretch, which builds to a shocking climax. Franco's ultimate point, that violence begets violence, has been very forcefully made.

Boy Eating the Bird's Food (To agori troi to fagito tou pouliou)

While most of the films coming out of Greece in the past few years have been marked by their absurdist, deadpan sense of humour, Boy Eating the Bird's Food is a picture far more in tune with the harsh realities facing Greeks today. Yorgos is a young man who appears to have suffered more than most from the country's economic crisis, as we see him nibbling on his pet canary's birdseed, rummaging for scraps in dustbins, stealing from his elderly neighbour and resorting to extreme measures in one explicit scene that may be hard to stomach (excuse the pun) for many viewers. Throughout all of this, Yannis Papadopoulos delivers an intense and entirely committed performance as a desperate man who is slowly falling apart. Director Ektoras Lygizos keeps the camera inches away from him, creating an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia and refusing to flinch in the protagonist's most despairing moments. Boy Eating the Bird's Food can be a little obvious in its allegorical intent, and even at 80 minutes it sometimes feels slight. If some more effort had been put into fleshing out Yorgos' situation and relationships – particularly with the girl he watches from afar – it could have added even greater resonance to his sad inability or refusal to ask for help. Nevertheless, this troubling character study certainly marks another impressive debut from a Greek filmmaker.
The Capsule [a short film screening with Boy Eating the Bird's Food]

This 35-minute short from Attenberg director Athina Rachel Tsangari had my attention from its arresting opening shot, and from that point onwards it just kept topping itself with ever more bizarre and imaginative imagery. Set in a remote convent-like building, we observe six young women as they crawl out of their hiding places, get dressed, and participate in a series of rituals seemingly designed by their impassive leader to groom them for tasks ahead. Tsangari's interest in physical movement and the female form is again evident, and the film's mostly silent sequences are hypnotic to watch while also managing to spring consistent surprises. It's a cryptic piece of work but also a beautiful and haunting one, and a lovely rendition of America's A Horse With no Name is just one of its many pleasures.

Clip (Klip)

Although it closes with a disclaimer that no underage performers were involved in sexually explicit scenes, the knowledge that its star was 14 years old at the time of shooting often makes Clip a very uncomfortable viewing experience. First-time director Maja Miloš frequently risks falling into the trap of making a cautionary tale about teenage sex that's also guilty of prurience, with some of the lingering shots of lead actress Isidora Simijonović in her underwear being reminiscent of Larry Clarke's excesses. She plays Jasna, a frustrated Serbian teenager who indulges in sex, drugs and partying in an attempt to escape the complications of her family life and the bleak future prospects that she envisions for herself. She falls for older teen Djole and begins partaking in a submissive sexual relationship with him, acceding to all of his demands in the hope of winning his heart. Watching this pretty girl debase herself for a boy who couldn't really give a damn about her is troubling and upsetting, particularly as Simijonović's turn as the teen protagonist is so convincing. Although she is sullen around the house and puts up a confident front for her friends, Jasna has a couple of nicely played scenes in which this mask slips to reveal the naïve and unsure girl underneath, which is often very affecting to witness. In fact, I'd like to have seen a little more of that, as Clip's frequent scenes of Jasna playing the role of sex doll for the brutish Djole become too repetitive to retain their impact. Miloš directs with vigour and frankness and displays a good eye for locations, but beyond using the prevalence of phone cameras to make its story feel current, what exactly is Clip telling us that we haven't been told many times already? It's ultimately a rather depressing experience, even if it provides a fine showcase for a exceptional young performer.

Death of a Man in the Balkans (Smrt čoveka na Balkanu)

Death of a Man in the Balkans begins with the sight of a man in tears facing the camera and then shooting himself in the head. At this point you may be inclined to double-check your programme to make sure that this film really is listed in the LFF's "Laugh" section, but Miroslav Momčilović’s picture does reveal its comic side as more characters join in. The deceased man's neighbours, alerted by the gunshot, turn up and wait in his apartment for the police to arrive, and we watch their idle chatter as they pass the time. Some of this dialogue is pretty funny ("I saw him carrying a watermelon just was like he knew..."), and as they talk the characters gradually reveal deeper prejudices and resentments: speculating on the dead man's sexuality, complaining about the effect this will have on house prices, coveting his possessions. As a comedy of manners and satire of the Balkan mentality, Death of a Man in the Balkans is often sharp and observant, and as more characters bundle through the door – from a venal undertaker to a couple of lazy cops – it sometimes looks like Momčilović may have the ingredients for a pitch-black farce. But Death of a Man in the Balkans never quite takes off, and the reason for that has a lot to do with the storytelling device the director has opted for. When the suicidal man commits his act in the opening scene, he does so in front of his computer webcam, and everything that follows is viewed from that vantage point in one long, unbroken take. The director's blocking and staging of his single location is impressive, but Death of a Man in the Balkans could have been elevated by some tight editing and variety in its shooting. As it is, the film feels flat, restricted and underpowered; the victim of a gimmicky and unnecessary approach that cripples its potential.

Room 237

The Shining is film littered with inexplicable continuity errors, which are surely the mark of a sloppy filmmaker – but wait! The director in question is renowned perfectionist Stanley Kubrick, so surely these random discrepancies aren't so random. As every single choice that Kubrick made in his films was a deliberate one, surely we can therefore divine some deeper meaning from exploring those choices. That's the starting point for Room 237, an endearingly eccentric documentary that allows a group of Shining devotees to share the theories they have developed about the film in the three decades since its release. Some of these are quite persuasive – there's no doubt that The Shining is more than the mere horror film it was first taken as – but this picture is at its most entertaining when it explores the more crackpot theories. Is The Shining a tacit admission by Kubrick of his involvement in faking the moon landings? Is it all really about minotaurs? No matter how far-fetched these notions may be, the interviewees make their case with utter conviction, and it is fascinating to see just how deeply into the picture they have delved. Some have constructing detailed maps of the Overlook Hotel or examined every item in the background of each shot, and one even projected the film backwards on top of itself (some of the images this experiment conjures are very striking). Room 237 doesn't seek to explain The Shining because director Rodney Ascher presumably realises just how futile a task that is; instead, his film is a lighthearted tribute to a masterpiece that remains as eerily ambiguous as ever. The structure is a little iffy in places, and I wish Ascher had used better recording equipment for his participants, but the playful editing and judicious use of footage makes it an enjoyable, occasionally very funny journey. No matter how many times you've seen The Shining, Room 237 is guaranteed to ignite your desire to watch it once again, this time with more attentive eyes than ever.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Commentary Tracks - Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights (1997) with director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson

Comments on the Film

On the film's length
There was never any concern from New Line originally about the length of the movie. When I sat down with Mike de Luca, I had just come from a situation making my first movie where I had gotten so royally fucked over that my back was up and I was so paranoid. I felt that what I had to do with my next movie was to sit down with the guy paying for it and go through every single word and say, "Are you reading this? Have you really read the script?" I sat down with de Luca and came at him, because he was instantly the enemy and I was just this paranoid freak saying, "Let me tell you something right now, buddy. It's going to be three hours long. Have you read this? See where it says the camera follows him? It's going to be a three-minute shot and I'm not going to cut it." I went at him and he just said, "Calm down, what the fuck is your problem? Relax. What you went through is not the normal thing." I did calm down and trust him enough but I wanted to really map the movie out for him because I didn't want a surprise in the editing room. If you like this script you'll love the movie, but if you have problems with the script now they'll only get worse. So there was a real clarity between de Luca and I about what the movie was, and the one concession he asked me to make was to not make it NC-17, because they can't stock it in Blockbuster and they lose a lot of money in video returns. So I took the challenge to make an R-rated movie, and they're just happy that it's 20 minutes shorter than I said it would be.

On Jack Horner meeting Eddie Adams
We shot this twice actually. We shot it once very early in the schedule and it always gnawed at me that it was not right. It didn't feel right in the writing, the acting, the shooting, in everything, and I think everybody felt that way but for the longest time nobody said anything. Then Joanne Sellar my producer came to me with two weeks left and said, "We're about to wrap up, we're doing OK, we've got enough money. Is there anything else that you want to get?" and I said, "I want to reshoot scene two." I went to Burt and Mark and they felt the same way, and Dylan my editor certainly felt the same way, because he had seen the massive amount of bad footage that I shot trying to get it right. I was really happy to rewrite it and make it shorter, better, more direct. I'm not sure I'm happy with the scene yet, but it's fine.

On dialogue scenes
It's really hard to get people to fucking pay attention to people talking. I don't blame it on the audience, I think a lot of people blame it on MTV-style audiences, but I blame it on the storytelling and filmmakers who are getting lazy and buying into condescending to an audience. They're structuring their movie in a way that if they want to have two people stop and talk it's not going to flow within the movie. It's all about how you tell the story, and there just aren't enough good storytellers these days. LA Confidential is so fucking great and that's all talk, the structure of it is just well told and it's set up to be that. But (a) you don't see much talking and (b) you don't see much silence, which is probably even harder than just having people talking.

On John C. Reilly
I've known Reilly a long time. John C. Reilly is definitely one of my favourite actors but he's certainly no.1 on the scale of making me fucking laugh. There's no one that makes me break down crying, falling on the floor, thinking I'm going to throw up laughing, and every single thing he does makes me laugh. It's kind of criminal and it drives Dylan my editor nuts, even though Dylan loves him. I just can't see the forest for the trees with John Reilly, and maybe he sucks in this movie and maybe he'll suck in the next movie, I don't know, but it's all good to me and I can't get enough of him. I can stare at that fucking face all day long. God, he is so good. It's so great to be around him and have him as a friend because so much stuff that we do when we joke around ends up in the movie. This whole conversation while making the margaritas is just me and Reilly fucking around one summer, and the stuff in the pool, it's all just me and him. I saw him in Casualties of War when I was 17 years old, it was his first movie and I thought "That's the fucking guy." I wrote Sydney for him before I knew him personally and I was able to get the script to him through his agent at the Sundance lab. Maybe someone else would want to meet Robert de Niro or Tom Hanks or something, I wanted to meet John C. fucking Reilly and have him be my best friend and in every one of my movies, and now I have him.

On the ensemble cast
First of all, the reality of pornography is that there are so many great stories, you know, there really is a million great stories. It really came from wanting to write parts for a lot of great actors, either actors who were my friends or that I'm a fan of. My first movie really only has four characters in it, and this one has got 80 speaking parts, with probably 10 or 12 main characters. It was about wanting to work with a lot of actors and knowing that this is a story and a world that can accommodate a lot of different stories and characters, and we can just keep adding on top. I'd keep adding characters because I'd think of Macy, I'd think of Julianne, I'd think of Reilly, I'd think of Phil Hoffman. And I think everyone gets covered pretty well because I have a lot of actors who are my friends and I want to write them moments. They all have to participate in the ensemble but they are all going to get their moment too, and that may not be the best for the storytelling, but it's certainly a kick for me and it's a kick for that actor. In a selfish way that's what comes first.

On his influences
As far as influences go, I'm pretty aware of all that stuff. I mean do watch a lot of movies and I'm pretty film-literate. It's funny, because people talk about Scorsese and certainly I've learned a lot from him and riffed off his style, and I've seen where he's taken it from, guys like Truffaut and Ophüls and people like that. But my greatest influence style-wise is Jonathan Demme, and I remember talking to him on the phone, telling him he's my idol, and I asked him if he's seen all those shots I ripped off from him, and he said no. Nobody else does either, but somehow I interpret these shots he's done and they affect me in such a way that it's really the most profound influence, and when it vomits out of me I'm hopefully adding on top of what he's done in an interesting way. As far as that topic goes, it's like, every song we hear now is basically a Beatles song, you know? Verse/chorus/verse/chorus, and now the job is just building on top of that. I think a lot of people are ashamed to feel free or to do stuff with the camera because they don't want to feel self-conscious or feel good about making a movie, to celebrate making a movie, and I think that's bullshit. But I also think that it depends on the story, and this is a good story for a lot of good show-off moments, and I hope I took advantage of every single one of them.

On piracy
It's ironic that we're talking about this on a DVD, but when you make a movie you want people to see it in a movie theatre, that's what you plan to happen. A big cinemascope production in stereo at the Mann Chinese, hopefully, and it's a criminal thing when you hear about people seeing the movie on videotape – (a) on videotape and (b) on videotape before the movie is even finished. Over the summer that we were cutting the movie we heard stories of bootleg videotapes that had gotten out, and it's just like a needle in your eye. You think "Fuck, how did this happen?" We traced some of the tapes and I found out who had the tapes on the grapevine, and I'd call them on the phone and say "Hi, this is Paul Thomas Anderson, director of Boogie Nights." They'd say, "Oh hi, how are you doing?" and I'd say, "I'm fucking terrible, you have my movie on videotape. Where did you get it?" A couple of people would say "I'm not going to tell you, I can't tell you, please don't make me" but some people did tell me and we were able to trace it back to a commercial production house that was assigned to cut trailers and commercials. They were dealt with accordingly...well not really, to tell you the truth. The funny thing is that in the middle of the summer, here we are dealing with the MPAA about the rating, and the bootleg tape thing falls under the category of the MPAA, who are supposed to deal with that. They are supposed to call people up and say "This is against the law, you're going to get fined, or the FBI is going to come to your door" because it's a serious thing, you know? I guess a portion of it is flattering because there's such an excitement about the movie that people were paying $100 for a bootleg tape, but this is a movie not a TV show, please don't do this. It's like if I broke into your house and looked at work on your computer. It's not done, and it was really hard for me to deal with."

On the changing porn industry
This scene, where Floyd Gondolli comes in and talks about the introduction of video, this was the major hook that once I had latched into it really freed me up to write the movie. My sort of romantic notion is that back in the old days of the 70s, when porn movies were shot on film, there was a major difference. First and foremost there's just a technical difference. When you're shooting on film it's more expensive and you really have to concentrate, you have to focus and you have to think about where is the best place to put the camera in order to tell this story well. That's not even getting into the emotional factor, which to me is that I look at the porno stars of the 70s and I think they can draw a straighter line between themselves and legitimate movie stars. They were both being shot on film and they were both running at 24 frames per second and being thrown up through light onto a big white screen, and it was easier to think "I'm a movie star." In this business that was so degrading so quickly, they could hold onto a shred of their dignity and think 'I'm a movie star.' But when video came along it ruined that and created this assembly line mentality, which was "It's $5 a take, keep shooting and we'll figure it out later." The quality of work went down and they're not movie stars anymore, they're video stars. Not to mention that if you're a director you're making your movie for an audience and the market is...what? The market is a guy at home with a fast-forward button. You do not have time for a plot because he has a fast-forward button. So it really stripped away any version of dignity that might have been in the business at that time.

Bits and Pieces

You're listening to a guy who learned a lot about ripping off movies from listening to laserdisc audio commentaries. My favourite one is John Sturges talking about Bad Day at Black Rock. It was the first one I ever listened to, so maybe that has something to do with it, but it is wonderful, really wonderful.

I'm really proud of the score that Michael Penn put to this movie, because there's so much disco music, funk stuff and soul stuff, and I think the score was somewhat underappreciated. People were so busy being excited about the pop songs they forgot about the score.

Macy comes from that Mamet school of acting and dialogue, and he's so wonderful at talking. Macy's voice is his greatest tool and most actors forget their speaking voice, but Macy doesn't, he enunciates in a wonderful way. And everything you write, you'd better know what you've written because he is going to say every single word exactly as written. He'll look at the punctuation and find out what it means – a dash means this, an ellipsis means that, this is in quotes, this has been underlined, this has been italicised. He's all about finding out what the writer means, and he studies the script so well that as a director you don't have to do shit, you just have to watch him. I feel like I did my job as a writer so being a director was just being a fan.

The thing about this first sex scene where Julianne Moore and Mark Wahlberg do this bad porno dialogue – she is unbelievable. I don't know how she did it. I remember asking her about it and she said it was all about being uncomfortable with her hands, trying to find something to do with her hands, and if she just thought about her hands and got through the scene then she would do good, and she did. God, she's incredible. I remember telling the actors, "You're all fucking good, but if you think you're good just wait until you have to act bad, then we'll see who the real man is." I think Julianne won.

When I was 17 I saw Exhausted, a documentary which is just this love letter to John Holmes, it's not really a documentary. It's two hours about how great John Holmes is, what his cum tastes like, how big his cock is and how many women he's fucked. And there's something wonderfully natural about his acting and something wonderfully goofy about his karate, and karate and porno together... that's how I want to live my life.

This is a song I wrote, by the way. I just wanted to point that out to everyone. Feel the Heat was written by me. I wrote this. No, I can't sing it, Mark Wahlberg is the only one who can sing it, and I would never desecrate this beautiful, rocking song called Feel the Heat by trying to sing it. And John Reilly with the music, boy I'm proud of this. I'm sure the suspicion is that Mark really can't sing, but the truth is that I'm not going to give away if this is really good acting or really bad singing, because that's part of the wonderful mystery that is Dirk Diggler.

I guess this is giving it away, isn't it, which I've never done but I guess I'll do. Yeah, that's a big old fake dick there on Mark Wahlberg. But boy, we like it.

Final Thoughts

You know, there are people who say this movie is too long, and it might be, but the bottom line is that nobody has to watch this movie more than me. In editing it, mixing it, going to previews and screenings, that sort of stuff, and the second you realise that you just go, well fuck, I've got to entertain myself first, and maybe accidentally some other people will be entertained. I think that's the way to approach it. I mean, I've only made two of these fucking things, but I think that's the way to do it.

Review - About Elly (Darbareye Elly)

Seeing Asghar Farhadi's A Separation become the darling of last year's awards circuit was as rewarding as it was unexpected. Few could have imagined that this Iranian tale of domestic strife spinning out of control would strike such a chord with audiences around the world, but few films in recent years have been as deserving of such acclaim as Farhadi's masterpiece. But we might only be seeing the real benefit of that attention now, as the director's previous film About Elly – which I first saw in 2009 – has finally received a UK release on the back of A Separation's Oscar success. The good news is that this long overdue release is richly deserved, for About Elly is every bit as impressive, compelling and morally complex as its successor, and it proves beyond any doubt that A Separation was no fluke.

About Elly is another film about secrets and lies, another film about moral and ethical decisions in which our loyalty towards the characters is constantly being questioned, but it doesn't begin that way. Farhadi takes his time revealing his hand, and About Elly's first half is played loose and light. A group of upper-class friends are heading to the beach for the weekend, and from the way they interact we can tell that they are long-time companions, who are comfortable in each other's company. The exception to this is Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), who has been invited to join the party by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) in the hope that she can be fixed up with her single friend Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini). The well-meaning but misguided Sepideh has concocted this plan without the knowledge of anyone else in the group; the first instance in the film of information being withheld, but not the last.

Although it initially seems a little aimless, the effect of this opening section of the film is to let us spend time with these characters, get to know them and observe their group dynamics. It allows us to develop a sense of attachment with them, which is why the mid-film twist that ruptures the whole narrative has such a devastating impact. To say any more about what exactly this twist entails would be a crime, as experiencing the fallout from this unexpected narrative shift firsthand is one of the many pleasures About Elly offers. Farhadi handles the abrupt tonal switch with consummate skill and grace, and we remain riveted as the easygoing drama we've been watching suddenly takes on the urgency of a thriller.

In the second half of About Elly, half-truths and outright lies continue to pile up, as Sepideh and her anxious friends only exacerbate the terrible situation they find themselves in by attempting to cover up the truth. Farhadi's screenplay is a marvel of storytelling and moral complexity. His ability to pull us into a situation that poses such thorny questions and to consistently alter our perceptions of the situations and the characters is just as potent here as it was in A Separation. Farhadi's characters are never painted as being right or wrong – they are just ordinary people trying to cope with things as best they can, making decision with no knowledge of what consequences they will bring upon themselves.

At the centre of it all is Golshifteh Farahani, giving an extraordinary, emotionally draining performance as Sepideh, who remains steadfast in her belief that everything she is doing is for the best, even as the rest of the group stands against her. Farhadi is a fascinating figure among Iranian filmmakers; he makes films about modern, progressive, independent characters, but they still exist within a society bound by its particular codes and traditions. On one level, About Elly can be seen as a film criticising Ian's culture of deception, but such political readings are always kept as subtext in Farhadi's films, and they are above all else, gripping and affecting human dramas. Viewers looking at the releases coming out of Hollywood may despair at the lack of intelligent, compassionate, universally appealing dramas being produced, and may suspect that filmmakers have given up on discerning adult audiences. But these films do exist, you just have to look a little further afield in order to find them, and right now, not many directors are doing it better than Asghar Farhadi.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Competition - Win Silent House on DVD

Silent House – the American remake of Gustavo Hernández's 2010 film – is released on DVD and blu-ray on Monday September 17th, and Phil on Film has two DVDs to give away thanks to StudioCanal.

Unfolding in real time and a single take, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau's film stars Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman trapped in a remote lakeside home where she is subjected to all manner of spooky happenings. If you'd like to get your hands on a copy, you can enter through the following easy methods.

1) Send me an email with the words "Silent House" in the subject field.

2) If you're on Twitter, just retweet this tweet.

I'll pick one email winner and one Twitter winner on Friday September 14th at 12pm.

Good luck everyone!

**Silent House is released on Blu-ray and DVD from 17 September 2012, courtesy of StudioCanal**

This competition is open to UK residents only.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Review - The Turin Horse (A Torinói ló)

The Turin Horse is a 146-minute movie that documents a single week in the lives of its two characters, but such definite statements have little meaning in the world of Béla Tarr. He is a man who can make time stand still or make it feel as if the minutes are passing by at a fraction of their normal speed. Maybe Tarr himself feels the passage of time in a different way to the rest of us? He is only 56 years old, and yet he has stated in no uncertain terms that The Turin Horse will be his last film. It certainly feels like a valedictory work, the final statement of an artist who feels he has said enough about the human condition and is leaving us with a final masterpiece that deals unceremoniously with the end of things.

The film opens with an anecdote about a horse that was on the receiving end of a severe beating from its owner when Friedrich Nietzsche happened upon the scene. Nietzsche threw his arms around the horse's neck, sobbing, and then returned home, where he lay still and silent for two days. After finally speaking what proved to be his last words – "Mutter, ich bin dumm." – he died. This incident took place in 1889 – are we to infer from the film's opening shot that the horse in this film is the same one? Can we even be sure that this film is occurring in the same time and place? Tarr gives us no hints, and a sense of timelessness runs throughout The Turin Horse.

Certainly, the horse that we see in the opening image looks like he has taken some beatings in his time. The first shot of the film is a stunning cinematic coup that pinned me to my seat, as an aged farmer and his tired old nag make their way down a country road, the wind howling around them. The farmer's name is Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi) and he lives with his daughter (Erika Bók) in a small stone cottage, with no other inhabitants in view. Ohlsdorfer has a useless right arm and left eye, and he relies heavily on his daughter for dressing, undressing, cooking and manual labour. Once we are safely inside this cottage, with a storm continuing to rage outside, this is where we stay, as the film counts down a few days in the lives of these people; days in which nothing unremarkable happens, but beyond the walls we gradually sense that everything is happening.

The films of Béla Tarr are very much an acquired taste. His pictures are slow-moving, black-and-white dramas in which dialogue is at a premium, and they unfold in long, unbroken takes. The Turin Horse consists of around 30 individual shots in its 2½-hour running time, and many of these are simply images of the old man getting dressed in the morning, or the pair sitting down at the table to eat their daily potato. It sounds like a parody of misery-soaked Eastern European art cinema, but The Turin Horse is utterly engrossing as it immerses us in the mundane routine of this pair's day-to-day existence before disrupting that routine with incidents of increasingly grave portent. The woodworm that Ohlsdorfer has heard for 58 years suddenly fall silent, the horse refuses to budge from his barn, the well dries up, and all the while the wind outside continues to howl incessantly.

This doom-laden atmosphere, combined with the plaintive score and Tarr's rigorous control of every scene creates an astonishingly evocative atmosphere of ever encroaching dread. Nobody else makes films like Béla Tarr and The Turin Horse is another towering achievement, fit to stand alongside his Werckmeister Harmonies. With his departure, it feels as if we are losing more than simply a great director, as Tarr seems to stand for an entire way of looking at the world that is so out of step with the rest of contemporary cinema. He was a serious filmmaker who was serious about the things his films could say and do, but if The Turin Horse must be his last film then it is a fitting farewell. How many filmmakers can say they bowed out with a film that feels like the end of the world?