Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Review - The Shining

"What's basically wrong with Kubrick's version of The Shining is that it's a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little; and that's why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should." – Stephen King

Stephen King has been very outspoken on his dissatisfaction with Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining, but over the past three decades, few cinephiles have shared his view on the flaws in Kubrick's approach. In 1997, King even attempted to rectify those perceived wrongs by writing a TV miniseries that stuck rigidly to the content of his novel, but while that effort was quickly forgotten, the 1980 film has endured. When people hear the name The Shining now, they immediately think of Jack Nicholson losing his mind, Shelley Duvall whimpering with fear, Danny Lloyd cycling endlessly around those long corridors, and the elevators opening to release a torrent of blood. Despite King's protestations, it's Stanley Kubrick's The Shining that refuses to let go.

In some respects, perhaps King was right in his assessment of Kubrick. The director didn't come close to making a horror film in the form that we have come to expect of such a picture. He didn't try to make the audience jump with cheap scare tactics. Instead, Kubrick's film is quieter, slower and more enigmatic, but this is how it slowly sucks us into its brilliantly constructed environment and gets under our skin in a deeper way than the average genre picture. It is a ghost story, but it's also a portrait of a man going mad and a family falling apart, and the film is so evidently the work of a master filmmaker, it hypnotises even if you struggle to grasp what exactly the film is about.

That vexing question of The Shining's meaning is one that has prompted debate ever since its initial release, and in the recent documentary Room 237, a group of theorists put forward their own ideas about Kubrick's intentions. As far-fetched as these suggestions may often be, however, The Shining is a film that can seemingly support any reading ; it is so richly ambiguous and teasingly symbolic. The basic narrative of the film is simple enough. Aspiring writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson) takes the role of winter caretaker in the Overlook Hotel, where hopes to find the peace and isolation required to complete his novel. His wife Wendy (Duvall) joins him with their son Danny (Lloyd), and Danny brings his imaginary friend Tony, whom he speaks to while his parents indulge this childish fantasy. But the kindly chef Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) sees something more in Danny; a kindred spirit, another who possess that extra-sensory perception that his grandmother called "the shining".

As Jack starts to go crazy – "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" – and his wife cowers in fear, Kubrick draws two extraordinary performances from Nicholson and Duvall. The making-of documentary filmed on set by the director's daughter shows how he worked with his two stars, indulging Nicholson while pushing Duvall ever closer to her emotional breaking point. When the film reaches its apex with an axe-wielding Jack chasing his wife around the hotel, both the husband's insanity and the wife's quivering fear feel entirely real. From Danny Lloyd too, Kubrick coaxes one of the great screen child performances, as the young actor displays a stillness that is so unsettling in one so young. Kubrick was often accused of being a cold formalist, disinterested in the human factor of his films, but amid the fastidiously controlled mise-en-scène, he churns up a tumultuous emotional undertow that keeps it from feeling like too much of a deliberate exercise in craft.

When The Shining was released in 1980 it received mixed reviews from American critics and many complaints centred on the film's length and pacing. In response, Kubrick re-edited the film for its European release, shaving off over twenty minutes and endorsing the shorter cut as his official version. The release of the longer American version of The Shining in the UK is something of a mixed blessing. Some scenes appear entirely superfluous – such as a couple ineffectually extending Halloran's journey to the snowbound hotel – while others feel weirdly out of place, notably a startlingly odd shot of skeletons that occurs late in the film. But there are more glimpses of the director's brilliance here too, the slower pace often feels more chillingly exact, and there are valuable new scenes with Wendy and Danny. Either way, an opportunity to see The Shining, in any form, on the big screen is one not to be passed up. It remains a milestone, not just of horror but of cinema; a film that completely envelops us in its world and defies any rational explanation. Seeing The Shining in a cinema allows us to scan the screen for clues, appreciate the insidious sound design, marvel at Kubrick's compositional acuity and – above all – to lose ourselves in this endlessly fascinating maze.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review - Tempest

When staging a production of a William Shakespeare play, the question often arises of its relevance to a modern audience. Many film and stage productions have provided modernised versions to the Bard's work to spark contemporary curiosity, with the innate power of these plays successfully enduring under the most unlikely presentations, as the success of The Globe's international Shakespeare season earlier this year will attest. But what about the players bringing this material to life? How do they relate to the Kings, Emperors and other characters who were created centuries ago? The new documentary Tempest attempts to tackle that problem by bringing Shakespeare to a group of people hungry for something far removed from their immediate surroundings.

Tempest opens with footage of last year's London riots, playing under soundbites from inner-city teens that reiterate their sense of the persecution and lack of opportunities that blight their lives. Directors Rob Curry and Anthony Fletcher clearly intend to alter our perception of such youngsters, and their film follows 17 amateur thespians as they take their first faltering steps into the world of Shakespeare, with a performance of The Tempest. This play formed part of Danny Boyle's Olympic Games opening ceremony (a night that felt like an act of healing for the capital, coming a year after the aforementioned riots) and it's a good choice for this group to tackle, offering broad comedy, romance and drama, and themes that they can understand within the context of their own experiences.

The manner in which these teenagers reconfigure Shakespeare's play to better understand it is one of the most interesting aspects of Tempest. Early rehearsals show them struggling with the archaic language, but they successfully break the play down into simple terms, playing scenes with their own words, and gradually get to grips with the emotional truths at the heart of the play. In interview sequences, they speak intelligently and thoughtfully about their characters and motivations, and one of the most striking ideas is their decision to have seven different actresses playing Ariel simultaneously, as they can't conceive of Prospero's imprisoned spirit as a single role. Through such choices, they make The Tempest their own.

There's a lot to enjoy in watching this unfold, particularly the infectious enthusiasm and growing confidence that the cast exhibits. They are young men and women who are embracing an opportunity to express themselves and taste something new, but the rarity of such opportunities is a problem the film only hints at. Tempest attempts comment on deficiencies in the education system and community programmes that are failing youngsters from disadvantaged areas, but in the film's slight and occasionally choppy structure it's only a fleeting aside, with the filmmakers failing to lend it any weight. Nevertheless, the blossoming of these young actors in Shakespeare's world is in itself a powerful argument for the continued relevance of his works, and the vital importance of a proper arts education for today's youth.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

LFF Review - Post Tenebras Lux

Carlos Reygadas' 2007 feature Silent Light was simultaneously the Mexican director's most accessible and most widely admired film yet, with many suggesting that he was showing signs of filmmaking maturity after starting his career with two portentous and provocative pictures. As if intentionally rebuking such claims, Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux is his most obtuse and challenging work yet; a film that defies interpretation and will surely infuriate many viewers who were drawn to the director's previous effort. This non-linear, surrealist exploration of loosely connected incidents in the life of a Mexican family has been described by the director as "an expressionist painting" and your appreciation of the film may depend in large part on how much you get from the images he conjures. More often than not, I got very little aesthetic joy from this perplexing picture, which is a terrible shame, as the opening sequence is simply astonishing.

Shooting in Academy ratio, Reygadas opens his film with his own daughter Rut, following her has she runs happily through a muddy field, shouting the names of the cows and dogs that wander around her, and occasionally calling for her mother. It's a striking image of innocence and freedom, one that recalled the gloriously unlocked childhood images of last year's The Tree of Life, but as the scene progresses, night falls, and the toddler ends the scene shrouded in darkness as lightning flashes on the horizon. Throughout this attention-grabbing sequence, Reygadas utilises an unusual camera effect, which causes the edges of the frame to blur around a sharp central iris. Is this effect supposed to indicate a dream? A memory? A point of view? I continued to try and work out what lay behind this visual choice throughout Post Tenebras Lux, but never got close to an answer.

Answers are unforthcoming on a number of levels here. The camerawork, the motivations of the characters and the order of scenes all confound, even as the director's evident mastery occasionally breaks through to beguiling effect. The confrontational urge that defined Reygadas' first two films is on display in a horrible scene of violence committed against a dog and a long sequence set in a French (?) sauna frequented by glum-looking swingers, but these solemn moments sit side-by-side with a number of unexpectedly goofy touches. What are we to make of the horned red devil who wanders into a house carrying a toolbox? Or the man who commits suicide in the most ridiculous way imaginable? Or the two inexplicable scenes set during an English school rugby match? I would say that they feel out of place, but the film is so impenetrable in its structure I can't confidently argue against any of it. In a picture like Post Tenebras Lux, I guess anything goes.

Such complaints about logic and cohesion aren't necessarily enough to kill a movie for me. I've seen and loved enough films that don't entirely make sense, movies that operate on a dream logic rather than being tethered to conventional narrative, but something else about Post Tenebras Lux did get in the way. That out-of-focus border employed in the film's outdoor photography – a trick utilised in an apparently arbitrary manner – spoiled my enjoyment of the director's undeniable visual sense. The images captured by Alexis Zabe boast extraordinary clarity and richness of colour, but they feel hemmed in by the boxy aspect ratio and the self-defeating affectation that the director has imposed upon them. Reygadas is a director with considerable talent, but Post Tenebras Lux is an opaque, frustrating drag. The title translates as "After Darkness, Light," but following the glories of Reygadas' Silent Light, this film feels like a step in the opposite direction.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Commentary Tracks - Dog Day Afternoon

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) with director Sidney Lumet

Comments on the Film

On the opening credits
These opening shots are simply to set an atmosphere of a dog day afternoon – a hot, miserable day when nothing is happening in New York – and that of course singing is the wonderful Elton John. When I shot this footage I stole all the shooting, none of it is staged, and the picture was edited by the magnificent Dede Allen, one of the great editors we've had in the movies. In order to bridge this footage for us, which was silent when I shot it, Dede put the Elton John record in just to give us a sound for it. I decided finally that there would not be a score for the movie, there is no music in it and I'll talk about the reason for that later, but when we took the music out we had become so used to it from hearing it in the cutting room I missed it! So we put it back in and decided to motivate it by simply making it part of what was coming through the radio of our leading characters, whom we're about to meet, seated in front of the bank.

On rehearsal
About the third day of rehearsal I said, "Look, no characterisations here, use yourselves. In fact, we're not even going to dress you, I want you to use your own clothes as costumes, and let's just use our own real names so we develop the habit of dealing with each other as we really are." At that point, one of the actors, I don't remember which one, said "What about language? Can we use our own language, our own words?" Now, Frank Pierson had written a magnificent script that I accepted, Al accepted, and we were all thrilled to be working on, and in general I don't like actors to improvise. They are not going to come up with something that's better than a really talented writer who has done months of work on something. So with Frank present at rehearsal, the solution I came up with was as follows: if they wanted to improvise a scene, to find out the truth of it, they'd be perfectly welcome to do that, but we started to record the rehearsals. At night, Frank and I would go through the transcripts – we'd have secretaries type them up for us quickly – and we would compose the script in large part out of these improvisations. Frank was a willing participant in this, he saw the reason for it, and it's to his everlasting credit, and it shows you his healthy ego, that he didn't believe every word of it had to be his. Structurally, we never deviated from what he wrote, we didn't mess around with his script, and all we did was allow the actors some freedom. Even if they began as improvisations, by the time we got to shooting a complete text existed and we were working off a fixed script based on many improvisations.

On Charles Durning
Here of course is the wonderful Charles Durning, a magnificent actor. It was the first time we had worked together but he was really quite amazing. I did something with Charlie on this that I never would ordinarily have done. Believe it or not, Charles was actually doing another picture in California at the same time that he was shooting this, and there is only one other director I would have trusted to be as efficient as I was in keeping to schedule. That other picture was being directed by Robert Wise. I spoke with Bob and we trusted each other, so when Bob told me "Charlie will be free on Wednesday so you can have him on Thursday" – and vice versa – we trusted each other and Charlie was commuting between Los Angeles and New York, playing one part for Bob and this part for me. We were both lucky.

On Attica
We're coming up on Attica. Here comes a scene which I'm thrilled to say has become sort of a classic in movies. Totally improvised, it's Al going bananas. He lost all sense of text and, as happened with the real character, got very excited by the crowd's reaction to him. That started to feed him and he started going crazy with it, and the crowd started joining in and they were feeding each other. It became totally hysterical. Attica, for those of you too young to remember, had been an infamous moment in New York correctional institute history. A prison riot broke out, and after many days of tense negotiation, Governor Rockefeller ordered National Guard troops in, and I think 19 prisoners were shot and killed, with no officers injured. One of the horrors was the fact that I think almost all of the prisoners who died had been shot in the back, and it became infamous, the Attica prison riots, a great black mark on the part of correctional officers. Al is just sailing now, and this shot I love more than anything, a camera in a helicopter shooting a helicopter over a scene.

On Al Pacino
One of the most interesting things, and one of the reasons I'll always admire and love Pacino, is the risk he was taking. He was now a big star. Godfather 1 and 2 had happened, and after those performances – the macho, controlled, ice-cold person in those movies – to suddenly play a homosexual in love with another man, and for whom this whole wild experience is something that's so alien to most of our lives, to take that risk was enormous. He was nervous at the beginning of it and a great many actors find some source of security in makeup, it's as if they can hide behind something. In the beginning, Al – being nervous and being aware of the risk he was taking – was quite worried, so he thought maybe he could use a moustache. On the first day of shooting he turned up with a moustache, and I understood what was bothering him. I wasn't crazy about it but if he got some comfort and solace from it, and if it released him emotionally, that was fine with me because there was a bigger purpose at work here. He looked at himself at rushes the next day, and he looked at me and said, "It's wrong, isn't it?" and I said, "It's wrong, Al," so he got rid of it and we re-shot the first day's work. But that's so much a part of his devotion to his work, he is a consummate artist.

On "Wyoming"
My favourite line in the movie. If you notice that stunned look on Al's face, it's because John was not supposed to respond to that at all. In the script, when he's asked if there's any place he wanted to go, he wasn't supposed to say anything but on the take John said "Wyoming." I almost ruined the take because I started to laugh so hard and I didn't want my laughter to get on the soundtrack. It was a brilliant, brilliant ad-lib.

On extras
The crowd was also a fascinating group. One of the reasons I liked to shoot in New York is that our extras are actors who belong to Screen Actors Guild. In California, they have something called the Screen Extras Guild, and there are people who are not actors, they spend their lives as extras and they have no ambitions to be more than just an extra. That in turn means they cannot respond to a situation realistically; in fact, in California the director is not allowed to address the extras directly. If he does they are called what is known as 'special bits' and their salary goes up for the day. In New York all of the extras are just normal actors, a lot of them working off-Broadway, so I could talk to them as actors and treat them as actors. We had 300 actors doing the parts of the extras, and they were magnificent. Burtt Harris was the assistant director, and Burtt or I would address them about what was happening in the scene and what their reactions should be. Of course, because we were shooting on a public street we had it zoned off for ourselves in terms of traffic, but I knew that after three o'clock, when school broke, the normal civilians who lived in the neighbourhood would be coming around and there was no way of keeping them out. Burtt and I talked to the actors about how to involve the local civilians. We didn't want to exploit them, we paid them, and our nucleus of 300 actors were absolutely marvellous. They involved them, they talked to them on the level of the reality of it, not "Hey folks, you're making a movie" but "Hey folks, what do you think is going on inside that bank?" and as a result we would sometimes have 500 or 700 people out in the street. I never lost a take because of a fake reaction on the part of the crowd, and that I owe completely to the 300 extras who were really fine New York actors and coached the crowd along.

On Dede Allen
One of the things that you hope for in a movie is a good relationship with an editor, and most of the time you do have it. However, there are certain editors who come onto a picture with the attitude of "Now that you're finished shooting we'll save this piece of crap." All these clichés say movies are made in the cutting room, but they're not made in the cutting room, movies are made when they're made. No editor ever put something up on the screen that wasn't there, that hadn't been shot. When you work with Dede Allen, you work with a consummate artist. I remember reading once, on a picture she had edited, a very fancy critic writing about how she could recognise the Dede Allen touch in the editing of the movie. The person who would have been absolutely horrified to read that would have been Dede, because the thing that she prided herself on was her service, as she called it, to the director. Her editing style was whatever the director had given her and whatever the director's intention was. The results that she had with me, the results that she had with George Roy Hill, who used her all the time, and the results that she had with Warren Beatty, who wouldn't do a picture without her, are completely different in the editing, because we are three very different kinds of directors. The idea that she would have a style over and above what the director wanted out of a movie would have made her laugh. She was much too good an artist for that kind of approach.

Bits and Pieces

The reason for no music is that, as you'll see from the story that develops here, this truly happened. It was so important to me that the audience believe it really happened because what happened was so outrageous, and I could not reconcile trying to convince an audience that this really happened – which I felt was the first obligation of the movie – with putting a music score in. How would it have felt if suddenly in the midst of a sequence you heard an orchestra?

One of the things I find so enchanting about Pacino, who is very possibly a great American actor, is his ability to combine drama with comedy. Always being totally honest, always playing the situation in complete truth, and some of it so hilariously funny it's a miracle, as you'll see in just a moment. That incident with the box and the gun not getting completely clear was absolutely in the moment. It was totally improvised, it happened and Al used it, and of course it's one of the first totally ridiculous things that happens.

You'll notice that a lot of the staging is very casual, people in the foreground, nothing rigid, nothing formal in the staging in relation to camera. Normally for instance you would ask the guy on the right, "Step back a little, you're blocking Jimmy a bit," but not in this picture. If you block him a little bit, just fine.

The way some of the detectives are dressed is part of the genius of Anna Hill Johnstone, who did the costumes. I don't know if you saw that quick shot of a detective with checked pants, a brown jacket and black shoes, but it is so typical of the way police dress. It started on this picture, and I don't know why I noticed, it, but a lot of cops wear white socks all the time and to this day I always wear white socks.

Penny Allen, who is playing the chief bank teller, and her husband Charlie practically raised Al when he left home at a very young age to become an actor. Penny and Charlie took him in, and Al lived with them until he was in his early 20s.

Burtt went up to photograph the helicopter stuff because I am a complete coward and hate heights.

One of the great pleasures of my life is doing the sweat myself. I never leave it to the makeup people to do it because they always do it either too much, too little or too fake. From Twelve Angry Men I learned how to do the sweat myself. It's a combination of glycerine and water, so it lasts a long time and you don't have to do it on every shot. It looks real, it doesn't run the way some of them do when they just use water, and I can keep the continuity correct.

Final Thoughts

I don't know if the movie would have the same impact today. First of all, gay life is now so much more familiar to us. At the time it really had a shock value, and because it was the first of its kind there was an extra level of discovery to it, which I don't know if it would hold true today. However, it is a profoundly human experience despite the strangeness of the people involved, including the Judith Malina character, all of them are very odd people. So perhaps it would work, I don't know.

Monday, October 22, 2012

"It's hard to be objective, but you want to be fair." - An Interview With Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney's Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God begins with the story of Father Lawrence Murphy, a well-liked and respected priest at St John's School for the Deaf in Wisconsin who committed sexual abuse against 200 deaf children in his care. This in itself would be explosive material for a documentary, but Gibney takes it further, methodically drawing links that show how the Vatican was complicit in these crimes, as it protected Murphy and other priests who were guilty of abuse around the world. Mea Maxima Culpa is a perceptive, well-researched and enraging film film that acts as a powerful companion piece to Gibney's Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, and confirms his status as the foremost documentary filmmaker working in cinema today. I met the director when he presented Mea Maxima Culpa at the London Film Festival.

As I watched Mea Maxima Culpa I was filled with rage, and I wanted to ask you how you cope with the emotional impact of things you see and hear while making a film like this. Can you detach yourself emotionally and be objective in your approach?

It's hard to be objective, but you want to be fair. My favourite line about this issue is from a physicist named Richard Feynman who said, "It's important to have an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out." In that regard, why shouldn't there be a sense of righteous anger about these crimes, particularly the crime of the cover-up? At the same time, that can't lead you to falsely create monsters when there are human beings there. So it was very important for me to explore the shades of grey in this story, whether it be through Archbishop Weakland, a flawed man who tried to do the right thing, or even Cardinal Ratzinger, a weak man and ultimately unwilling to challenge the bureaucracy of the Church, but who nevertheless was angry enough to try and do something. He failed, ultimately, he had a failure of nerve and courage, but it's interesting to me that he sent his prosecutor out. So by understanding that human dimension, that was my way of trying to reckon with the idea that these are human beings trying to protect the power of an institution – wrongly and immorally, but they're human beings.

There are obvious parallels to be made with Taxi to the Dark Side, and one of the most shocking aspects of both films is that there is no sense of empathy or compassion for the victim as these people try to protect themselves.

It is the most shocking thing. There was actually a scene from the film that we had to remove, it's one of those horrible things when you're trying to get a film down to time. We talked to a Franciscan monk, and there was a lovely scene of an Italian woman talking to him as they were walking through the streets of Assisi, and she was saying to him, "Aren't you concerned? Doesn't your heart go out to the victims?" He said, "Oh yes, my heart goes out to the victims, but it's the lawyers. They're just trying to get money from the Church." He moved past the victims so quickly to "it's just the lawyers trying to get money from the Church," and then that letter from Father Murphy to Ratzinger saying "I'm an old man, let me died in peace" and they're like, "Yeah, that's right." The concern is not for the victims, the concern is for the priests. It's appalling.

I grew up in Ireland as a Catholic so I'm well aware of the hold the Church has over that country, and the sight of people turning against it in Ireland is an extraordinary thing to see. It feels like a huge turning point.

Oh, it's huge. Honestly, it has been a sea change. I visited Ireland on and off, and in the last few years in the wake of these reports, that I think the government has done a great job with, the rage of these people has been so extreme. I was interested as I going through Ireland and talking to people, it came up over and over again, where they're talking with great affection for the local parish priest who they knew, but they always spoke with great derision and contempt for "Them." That was the phrase they always used, "Them," meaning the hierarchy, these people, these motherfuckers who ruthlessly protected the reputation of the Church by burying these crimes and allowing more children to be hurt. It's the most appalling crime and I think that moral indignation is so intense, and Kenny's speech, in which he talks about the rape and murder of children, is such a powerful moment. You can't imagine that happening ten years ago.

There is an interesting line in the film where one of the interviewees says, "Heaven knows what they would have done if this had been a spate of murders," and it's an interesting question because they are already covering up one of the most grievous crimes imaginable. How far would they go to protect themselves?

One of the reasons we included those notes of the therapist for Father Murphy, where he comes up with a rationalisation for his crimes, is as a way of saying that when they believe they are good, there is no end to the rationalisation people will come up with about why their crimes are acceptable. It would be interesting to see what kind of rationalisation they would come up with for murder. But as it's pointed out in the film, many people believe that abusing the sacred vows of confession is akin to a "soul murder." That is a kind of a murder, which the Church does in theory reserve its greatest punishment for, and there is no statute of limitations for the crime, but of course, all investigations into that crime have to be held in absolute secrecy. Even the victims are sworn to secrecy, which tells you something very gruesome.

There is this idea throughout the film that the Church is above the law of man, essentially.

Yes, and somehow superior to other human beings. Holy Orders is a sacrament that puts you on another spiritual plane to other human beings.

When you look at people protesting and displaying such unprecedented anger against the Church, do you think the cracks that have appeared in its reputation can be healed, or will they only grow from here?

Well, I think they can be healed...I guess it depends. People like Diarmuid Martin have impressed by their willingness to do the right thing, and many people still cling on to their parish priest. The question is, what of the larger institution that they represent? You're seeing some priests now breaking away, and without the permission of Rome they are just setting up a church someplace and inviting people to pray. They're doing everything but not sending the money back to Rome. Unless the Church reforms in Rome, why should people continue to pray at the local Catholic church? Unless they say, "We're seceding now, we're the Catholic Church of Ireland and we have nothing to do with Rome." It seems to me that's the only way forward unless Rome reforms, and Rome shows no sign of reforming.

Essentially, the Roman Catholic Church's biggest flaw is that it presents itself as flawless. You feel they could help themselves by simply presenting a more human and honest face.

That's what Weakland says in the film, a moment I so very much admire. He says, "Take the pedestal away from the Pope," and he says, "We're human beings. Christ wasn't afraid of humanity, and we shouldn't be either." The Church represents itself as a perfect society, which is just a horrible idea and as I think someone says in the film it's kind of a heresy.

It's inhuman.

It is inhuman. It's saying "We are God." They're not, they're men. They're celibate men with venal ideas about how things work.

We spoke about the thematic links to Taxi to the Dark Side and there is also a structural parallel, as you begin with a single case before slowly expanding to investigate the larger scandal.

That was very much our intent. Taxi to the Dark Side was a murder mystery, and I suppose this is a sex mystery. You're following the crime up through the ranks, and it's a little bit like Chinatown, you know, you start with a photographer shooting infidelity and the next thing you know you're dealing with water in the Owens Valley. It's actually the same editor as Taxi to the Dark Side and we thought a lot about those parallels. It was very hard in this one and in Taxi to get the balance right with the intimate story. In our first pass I think we had an 80-minute story about Milwaukee and a 10-minute story about the rest of the world, and we had to make a shift there, but structurally they are very similar.

Finally, I know you have a number of projects in the works and two of those are films about Wikileaks and Lance Armstrong, stories that are still developing. How has it affected your process to be working on subjects that are in a state of flux?

It's hard. I think we're pretty close to being done with the Wikileaks story. For the Lance Armstrong film we need to do more interviews and we have to restructure. But neither of them are that far away, and I would look for both of them next year.

Friday, October 19, 2012

LFF Review - Compliance

When the words "Inspired by true events" appear at the start of Compliance, they are written in a font size that takes up the whole screen. You can understand writer-director Craig Zobel's determination to make sure everyone in the audience has got the message, because without the anchor of real events holding it in place, so much of the film seems too incredible to be true. The entire narrative thrust of the picture is built upon characters making inexplicably stupid decisions and consistently proving themselves to be remarkably gullible and open to suggestion, and if Compliance were a fictional film I'd be undoubtedly chastising the screenwriter for such flaws. That "true story" disclaimer is essentially Zobel's "Get Out of Jail Free" card.

The thing is, there's a difference between believing what you seen because you know the story is true and believing what you see because of the convincing way it is presented, and I'm not sure that Zobel pulls off the second part of that equation. The plot concerns Becky (Dreama Walker) a perky and likable young woman working behind the counter at a nondescript fast-food restaurant in Ohio. She is taken to an office at the back of the shop  by her manager Sandra (Ann Dowd), who tells says that she has a police officer on the phone, and that Becky has been accused of theft by a customer.  Shocked and confused, Becky is willing to turn out her pockets and empty her purse to help clear her name, but the cop on the line remains unconvinced by her pleas of innocence, and he orders Sandra to strip-search her.

It's that this point that you have to remind yourself that an incident like this really did take place, because as you watch the drama unfold onscreen it seems impossible to swallow. Sandra, blossoming under the sense of authority bestowed on her by "Officer Daniels", asks Becky to strip while another female employee enters the room to act as witness. It's a very difficult scene to watch, with the discomfort of all three women being palpable as Becky removes her clothes and Sandra checks them, before the naked and scared girl is handed an apron to partially cover herself. Things escalate dramatically from here, with various male characters being introduced to watch over Becky and being asked to commit increasingly invasive and humiliating acts. At no point does anyone question or challenge the disembodied voice on the end of the phone.

There are potentially some fascinating insights to be gleaned from the way people willingly submit to authority figures in situations like this (the Stanford Prison Experiment comes to mind), but Compliance is not the film to do it. The picture is staged in a manner that simply shows and tells us what took place, with Zobel focusing his attentions on maintaining tension and putting us audience members in an unpleasantly voyeuristic position. He does this effectively, but I never felt the gut-wrenching emotional pull that he was clearly going for, even though all of the actors perform commendably well in their thinly sketched and ultimately passive roles. I think one of Zobel's key errors early on is to reveal the caller (Pat Healy), therefore removing any lingering sense of mystery around the officer's identity and simply turning the film into a repetitive series of scenes in which people are prompted to do things to Becky while she sits there and takes it.

It becomes a bit of a drag. Instead of wondering what we would do in such a situation – the goal of most button-pushing dramas like this – we just sit there marvelling at the witlessness of these people. Compliance is a solid piece of filmmaking that exerts a queasy fascination simply because of the nature of the story it tells, but it is a failure of storytelling; it is not simply enough to rehash the facts, you need to give us a reason to invest our time in this picture. If Compliance doesn't hit you on an emotional level then there's nothing else to take away from the film, and the final twenty minutes is particularly deflating, as whatever dramatic tension it may have possessed dissipates in a weak, unfocused finale that offers no conclusions on the incident. "When they told you that you had to take your clothes off, is there a reason you didn't just say no?" a real police officer asks towards the end as he interviews Becky. "I don't know" she replies, "I just knew it was going to happen." That's the only occasion in Compliance when somebody asks why, and it's not really enough.

LFF Review - Wadjda

Sometimes the simplest stories can be the most rewarding. Wadjda is a film about a young girl whose only desire is to own a bicycle so she can race her friend. It sounds like a minor picture, but consider the circumstances under which Wadjda was made; this is a film made in Saudi Arabia, a country with no cinemas, and it is a film about female independence made by a Saudi woman. The existence of this movie in itself is something to celebrate, but what's more worthy of applause is the skill with which Haifaa al-Mansour has told this story in her feature debut, and the way she has woven layers of political subtext and cultural insight so delicately into the narrative. It is a fine filmmaking achievement in every sense.

Through her short films and TV appearances, al-Mansour has been an outspoken advocate for women's rights in Saudi society, and Wadjda explores these themes by showing us the daily obstacles faced by a mother and daughter. The title character, played with feisty charm by Waad Mohammed, is a 10 year-old who lives with her mother (Reem Abdullah) in Riyadh. Her parents are still together, but her father is often absent and the mother is troubled by the nagging suspicion that he is looking for a second wife, one who will be able to bear him a son. In Saudi society, women's prospects are limited to the roles of mother and wife from a very young age – one of Wadjda's classmates has already been married off – and we wonder how an independent spirit like Wadjda will be forced to conform in years to come.

Right now, all she wants is a bike, and this motivation is the driving force behind the story. She pleads with her mother for the 800 Riyals needed to buy it, but she is told in no uncertain terms that riding a bicycle is not a pastime for girls, and that it can even damage her ability to have children. Undeterred, Wadjda begins looking for other ways to make money, but every attempt seems to contravene some aspect of the strict moral code imposed upon her. She makes armbands to sell at school; she demands cash to facilitate a meeting between an older girl and a teenage boy; she even enters a Qur'an recital competition that is offering a cash prize. These enterprising route almost inevitably land her in hot water with the school's headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd Kamel), who strictly lays down the law even as rumours circulate that she may not be so virtuous herself.

The manner in which al-Mansour drops brief but telling examples of the everyday patriarchy and oppression faced by Saudi women into the screenplay – from being told they cannot touch the Qur'an if they are on their period, to the way in which they must serve food to a roomful of a men without being seen – is an impressive feat, as is the fact that she has brought this tale to the screen in such an accomplished fashion. In a country where women can't drive, mix with men they are not related to, or been seen with their faces uncovered in public, the director often had to hide out of sight while directing exterior scenes for her film. But there is no hint of such obstacles in the finished product; no shaky camerawork or evidence of scenes being caught on the fly. Her direction is composed and fluid, simultaneously conscious of the tale she's telling and the environment in which it is taking place.

Throughout Wadjda, the female students at Ms. Hussa's school are told not to raise their voices outside in case men overhear them – "Your voice is your nakedness," they are warned – but al-Mansour's clear, perceptive voice is one of the most welcome sounds in this year of cinema. This witty, involving and moving drama develops beautifully towards its emotionally satisfying climax, and it is a tremendous breakthrough for both Saudi cinema and female filmmakers. All of that in a simple story about a girl who just wants to ride a bicycle.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

LFF Review - Laurence Anyways

"Is beauty important to you?" Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) is asked towards the end of Laurence Anyways. "Is air important to your lungs?" he replies, and at this point we might hear the director's words coming from his lips. Beauty is clearly of great importance to Xavier Dolan, the enormously talented Canadian director who has just made his third feature at the age of 23. His films are full of images that just pop out of the frame; he loves to shoot attractive actors and actresses; he uses colour to dazzling expressive effect; and he frequently reverts to slow-motion in order to linger on his stylistic flourishes. Dolan has a gift for capturing moments of remarkable, vivid beauty, and he isn't shy about flaunting that gift for his audience.

Such brash confidence won't endear him to all viewers, and many critics of Laurence Anyways will undoubtedly suggest that the director is a wayward talent that needs to be reined in, but the reckless ambition of the film is one of its virtues. Working on a bigger canvas than ever before, Dolan's latest film is a 160-minute melodrama about a relationship that's tested when Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) tells his girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clement) that he has been living a lie for too long, and now wants to live as a woman. As if that wasn't a complicated enough issue for an inexperienced filmmaker to tackle, Dolan elects to make it a period film, beginning in 1989 (the year he was born) and running to the year 2000, and shooting for the first time in the Academy ratio.

I'll admit, I was sceptical about Dolan's ability to make this work – after all, I thought his much shorter Heartbeats felt lopsided and baggy – but to my surprise he does make it work to an astonishing degree. In truth, I'm not sure of he always has a firm grasp on the complexity of his characters or their motivations, which is perhaps where his paucity of life experience rubs up uncomfortably against the scope of his ambition, but the characters remain vivid and fascinating enough to carry the picture. While we have to take Laurence's desire to transform into a woman on trust, Poupaud (a last-minute replacement for Louis Garrel, who it's hard to imagine working as well in the role) is fully invested in every moment; charming in his awkward femininity, and touchingly vulnerable. The opening shot of the film consists of people staring with curiosity, surprise or outright disdain as Laurence walks past them as a woman, and Dolan makes us feel the prejudice and threat of violence that stalks those who dare to be different.

Dolan, here staying behind the camera for the first time, draws hugely impressive performances from all of his actors, including Nathalie Baye (as Laurence's caring but cold mother) and Monia Chokri (delivering the deadpan goods in a small but important role). Suzanne Clement, who is exceptional throughout, delivers an incendiary display in one notable scene, when she angrily defends Laurence against prying questions. This moment is an example of the dramatic bombs that Dolan drops throughout Laurence Anyways; what's remarkable is that they cohere into something that feels recognisable, consistent and real, instead of blowing the picture apart. The film stands as the best rebuttal to critics who have found his previous features to be superficial. Here Dolan has found the substance to match his considerable style.

Style, and beauty, remains paramount in the director's thoughts, of course. The slick, vivid visuals are complemented by the period soundtrack and costumes (Dolan also acts as costume designer on his films), making Laurence Anyways an aesthetic pleasure for all of its 160 minutes. It feels like a major leap forward for a director whose talent and confidence was never in doubt, and while many will advise Dolan to pass editing duties over to someone with a firmer hand, I'm happy for him to keep making his movies his way. There are scenes and images in Laurence Anyways that arguably don't need to be there – a sky full of discarded clothes, a butterfly emerging from a person's mouth – but Dolan includes them simply because he can, and what's wrong with that? Storytelling discipline may come later for Xavier Dolan or it may not, but this feels like a film made by an exceptionally gifted 23 year-old, and right now it's just thrilling to watch him spread his wings.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

London Film Festival 2012 - Part 3


Accession is easily one of the toughest viewing experiences I've ever had. Michael J. Rix – who wrote, produced, directed, shot and edited the film – has made something that will be too much for most audiences to handle. The opening 15 minutes of Accession introduce us to John (Pethro Themba Mbole) by showing us his daily routine, which consists of trying to make money, walking around a lot, drinking beer and having unprotected sex with random women whenever he can. When John discovers that one of these women is HIV-positive, he doesn't take her advice and go to the clinic for a check-up (we seem him warily loiter outside a few times before turning away) and instead he listens to a drinking buddy who informs him that sex with a virgin is a certain way to cure the disease. At this point it's easy to see where Accession is going but that still doesn't prepare you for the shocking impact of John's actions, which the director has said were inspired by a series of rapes in South Africa by HIV-positive men who believed this deed would cure them. Rix's camera stays close to his lead actor and he employs some interesting aesthetic tricks, notably the use of colour, which gradually bleeds out of the film as John sinks into a personal hell and drags innocent victims down with him. Accession is a sledgehammer of a movie that contains a couple of scenes I simply couldn't watch; it crosses a line that makes it impossible to consider the film in any kind of reasoned, objective way. I suppose it must be classed as a success, in that Rix achieves exactly the effect he's going for, but it's hard to recommend such a stomach-churning and deeply upsetting picture.

Ernest & Celestine (Ernest et Célestine)

Bears and mice live in parallel worlds in Ernest & Celestine, the wonderful new film from the makers of A Town Called Panic. Bears live above ground, running shops and the like, while mice live below the surface, where young rodents are scared straight with stories of "The Big Bad Bear." One brave little mouse remains unafraid of what lies above, however, and the tenacious Celestine (Pauline Brunner) forms an unlikely friendship with the always hungry bear Ernest (Lambert Wilson) when they discover they can help each other achieve their goals. Although it has its fair share of chase sequences, Ernest & Celestine is a long way from the relentless anarchy of Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar's previous film. Here aided by co-director Benjamin Renner, they have brought Gabrielle Vincent's books to life with a lovely watercolour palette that respects the film's storybook origins while allowing ample room for sly visual gags (I loved the "camouflage" shot). Ernest & Celestine is beautifully produced, from the visuals to the score, and it benefits from perfectly pitched vocal performances from Wilson and Brunner, who breathe real life into their characters, but its real value lies in its storytelling skills. Through this tale of characters from different worlds forming a bond that makes them both outcasts, the film successfully manages to explore themes of prejudice, tolerance and friendship without being heavy-handed about it or condescending to its young audience. Such a neat balance of entertainment and depth is all too rare in contemporary family entertainments, and it's hard to imagine many such films matching Ernest & Celestine in 2012.

The Hunt (Jagten)

The Hunt is essentially The Crucible in a contemporary setting, but when the "witchcraft" causing mass hysteria is a topic as sensitive as paedophilia, wouldn't a more sober and restrained approach be appropriate? Too much of The Hunt is driven by contrivance and inexplicable decisions by its characters, which makes much of this potentially gripping film feel rather unconvincing. It's hard to believe in the circumstances that surround an original complaint of sexual abuse against nursery school teacher Lucas (Mad Mikkelsen), and it's even harder to buy into the way things subsequently escalate. Almost everyone in this small town immediately assumes that the well-liked Lucas is guilty of the mumbled half-accusation dreamed up by 5 year-old Klara, and so he finds himself out of a job, at risk of losing access to his own son, and threatened with physical violence when he goes out to buy groceries. Director Thomas Vinterberg (who never comes close to matching the dynamite impact of his debut Festen) doesn't allow for any ambiguity over Mikkelsen's presumed guilt, so the whole film consists of watching this innocent man suffer at the hands of a misguided mob. There are no authority figures involved to bring a sense of due process to the matter, and Klara's later attempts to atone for her accusation ("I said something silly. He didn't do anything.") are unquestioningly taken as the remarks of a damaged child who has repressed her trauma. It's a shame Vinterberg has chosen to stack the deck in this way because he does a fine job directing the film, bringing a powerful intensity to a number of tense scenes, and Mikkelsen – who won the Best Actor award at Cannes – is outstanding in the lead role, but The Hunt is a film undermined by its own fraudulent foundations.

Mekong Hotel

"My spirit was trapped underwater. It was dark and cold." "I didn't know that you were a Pob ghost." This conversation, which occurs between a mother and daughter, should clue you in to the fact that Mekong Hotel is an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film. Actually, perhaps I shouldn't really describe it as such, because it feels more like a sketch, or a half-finished exercise, than a fully formed film. The hour-long picture was developed by Joe from a script that he couldn't get funding to finish, so we see some scenes from that being played out by a small cast of actors, with the gist of it being that a woman haunted by a Pob ghost likes to feast on human and animal entrails. But these scenes only make up half of the film, and the rest of the time we see the actors out of character, sitting around and discussing whatever happens to be on their mind at the time, while a lilting guitar melody plays and the director occasionally cuts away to a calming landscape shot. I'm not sure what Apichatpong got out of assembling Mekong Hotel and releasing it like this, or what viewers are likely to get from watching it. The film is a minor diversion, and hopefully the next time he comes back to the festival it will be with something a lot more substantial under his belt.

Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os)

Jacques Audiard's last two films were character studies focusing on one man mired in a life of crime, but his new picture harkens back to the earlier Read My Lips, as Audiard expands his focus to examine a relationship between two damaged people. Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is a killer whale trainer who loses her legs in a freak accident, while Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a brutish drifter with a young son in tow, who tries to make ends meet through security jobs and bare-knuckle boxing. They're an odd couple from the start and their relationship never feels entirely real, despite the impressively committed performances from two terrific actors. There are frustrating gaps in the characterisations and their motivations, and from the moment Stephanie makes a call to the nightclub bouncer she met on one drunken night out, Audiard's depiction of this burgeoning relationship feels on shaky ground. Perhaps the fact that the film has been adapted from a couple of short stories by Craig Davidson goes some way to explaining its lack of cohesiveness, but whatever flaws may be evident in Rust and Bone's storytelling, Audiard frequently manages to direct his way out of trouble. One late twist is absurdly telegraphed, but Audiard still manages to turn it into an exhilarating sequence, and the film is full of similar moments in which his command of visual filmmaking manages to conjure transcendent moments from unlikely material. He also uses music brilliantly, and while I could never have imagined a Katy Perry song moving me to tears, Audiard's inclusion of Firework at one poignant moment is a perfect example of what he can do at his best. You may not be entirely convinced by Rust and Bone, but you're certainly guaranteed to feel something.

The Wall (Die Wand)

Narration can be a great tool for filmmakers, but unless you're using it in a particularly clever or potent way, I always feel it should be a last resort. Surely filmmakers working in this visual medium should look for non-verbal ways to tell their story or express their protagonist's thoughts and feelings? All of which leads us to The Wall, a very promising film that's crippled by its appallingly misjudged use of the central character's interminable voiceover, which is a terrible pity as it hardly puts a foot wrong elsewhere. The film starts with an ingenious premise: an unidentified woman (Martina Gedeck) is spending a few days at a remote alpine cottage with friends, but when her companions fail to return from their trip into town her attempts to look for them are thwarted by an invisible wall that has somehow sprung up around this location, trapping her inside. She sees cars and people on the other side of this barrier but she is unable to reach out and communicate with them; she must learn to adapt and survive alone. Director Julian Pölsler confidently lets the film unfold slowly without the need to accelerate matters or generate any sense of false drama. We see this woman care for the few animals that remain trapped with her, toil away on the land, learn to hunt and do all she can to stave off the mental and emotional effects of complete isolation. The film is narrated in flashback, with the character musing on the events of previous months (she is unsure how much time has passed) as she writes in her journal, but in a huge misjudgement, Pölsler uses far too much of this text as voiceover. Gedeck's tough, emotionally dextrous performance is compelling enough on its own and perfectly capable of making us understand the state her character is in, but running lines like "I was overcome by despair" over a shot of her weeping uncontrollably only dilutes the effect. This storytelling choice is even more baffling because The Wall's incredible visuals are often its strongest asset, with gorgeously composed shots filmed across a variety of seasons capturing the surrounding landscape in all of its magnificence and danger. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that it looks so good, though – an incredible nine people are credited with the film's cinematography.