Phil on Film Index

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review - The Sessions

Few contemporary American films seem willing to explore such delicate subjects as sex, disability or faith, so perhaps the first thing we should do with The Sessions is applaud it for attempting to tackle all three simultaneously with a refreshing frankness. Ben Lewin's film tells the story of Mark O'Brien (played by John Hawkes), a poet and journalist crippled by a bout of childhood polio, whose tale has already been told on screen in Jessica Yu's Oscar-winning documentary Breathing Lessons. O'Brien's illness left him largely paralysed from the neck down, necessitating nights in an iron lung to aid his breathing and days spent in a gurney from which he could write or make calls using a stick held in his mouth. The Sessions looks at this man and asks a simple but provocative question – how can a person in this position have sex?

That question is one most of us rarely  if ever  consider, but the very fact that The Sessions portrays its disabled characters as regular people, possessing the same urges and desires as anyone else, is enough to distinguish it from most pictures. Lewin's narrative focuses on Mark's decision, at the age of 38, that it was high time he lost his virginity. "I'm approaching my best-if-used date" he explains to local priest Father Brendan (a relaxed, amusing turn from William H. Macy), who he approaches for spiritual guidance regarding the question of sex outside marriage; "I have a feeling that God is going to give you a free pass on this one," the clergyman suggests. This is one of two key relationships in The Sessions, the other being with Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex therapist hired to help Mark achieve his goal.

Lewin is a polio survivor himself, and his screenplay for The Sessions is marked by a straightforward honesty and a sly sense of humour. Material that could have been maudlin or preachy instead feels remarkably alive, and the sexual encounters between Mark and Cheryl that form the heart of the picture particularly benefit from this approach. Hunt's down-to-earth demeanour and comfortable nudity goes a long way to alleviating the awkwardness – both Mark's and ours – of the film's many sex scenes. She is better in this role than I've ever seen her be before, and there's something wonderfully warm and caring about the manner in which she sets Mark at ease, before patiently helping him explore his own body and hers. For a person who has only ever been touched in order to be cleaned, moved or changed, these first instances of sexual contact are a revelation. It has been a long time since I've seen a film that is so matter-of-fact about sex, and what it can mean to people.

While its content may be bracingly unusual, the storytelling of The Sessions is very conventional. There are no surprises in its narrative structure, or in Lewin's bland, TV-like direction of it, and whereas The Diving Bell and the Butterfly overcame its protagonist's disability through a creative use of the camera, The Sessions feels as locked-down as Mark's body. Fortunately, John Hawkes mitigates Lewin's unimaginative staging by being such an astonishing presence in every scene. Using the only communicative tools available to him, his eyes and his voice, Hawkes brilliantly makes Mark come alive for us; we see his intelligence and wit, but detect no hint of self-pity for his current state. There's something wholly endearing about his desire to simply give and receive love, and it's impossible to not be moved by the way O'Brien overcame his disadvantages to live the fullest life he could.

It would have been very easy for a film like The Sessions to fall into cheap manipulation and hackneyed triumph-over-adversity uplift, but the tremendous performances and Lewin's sharp-witted screenplay allows it to avoid such pitfalls. Ultimately, The Sessions feels like a very honest and sincere film, and that in itself is enough to make it worth seeing, although there is one uncharacteristic moment of coyness that stands out. In a pivotal scene, Cheryl holds up a full-length mirror so Mark can see his own naked body for the first time in many years. It is a breakthrough for Mark, but Lewin's camera hides discreetly behind Hunt's shoulder, blocking the lower part of Hawkes' body. It's very satisfying to see a film tackle sex in such a head-on manner, but it seems there are still some taboo aspects of human sexuality that are simply too much for us timid viewers to handle.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Review - Starbuck

Building your film upon a high-concept storyline that stretches credibility to breaking point is a risky strategy that results in failure in most cases. Surprisingly, Ken Scott's comedy Starbuck manages to ride out its unlikely narrative all the way to a satisfying finale, thanks to a screenplay full of neat surprises and a pair of lead performances that bring a grounded charm to this fantastical tale. Patrick Huard is David Wozniak, a 42 year-old slacker and habitual fuckup who spends much of his time dodging local heavies over an unpaid debt and swerving commitment questions from his girlfriend. The event that shakes up David's life is a blast from the past. During the 1980s, he made money be donating sperm under the pseudonym "Starbuck" and it turns out that he is now the unwitting father of 533 children, 140 of whom now want to know who he is.

This revelation forces David into hiding, and he hires his friend Avocat (Antoine Bertrand) to plead his case for anonymity in the courts, but curiosity draws him back to the bundle of profiles left with him by the lawyer hired by his offspring. That curiosity is stoked further when he discovers one of his sons is the star player on his local football team, and soon David is tracking down the rest of his offspring, stalking them and attempting to inconspicuously intervene in their lives like a shabby guardian angel. This aspect of Ken Scott and Martin Petit's screenplay is rather contrived and episodic, and the picture is littered with subplots and loose ends that don't quite gel, but Starbuck gets away with it, largely because it is consistently very funny.

The motor of the movie is a tremendous lead performance from Huard, whose innate amiability and sincerity encourages to stick with the character as he travels across his uneven arc. The scenes in which David bonds with his own kin – unbeknownst to them – are finely judged, with sentimentality just about held at bay. His meeting with his mentally handicapped son could have been too mawkish to bear, but Huard makes us believe in his characters conflicted emotions and Scott skilfully dictates the tone of these tricky scenes. The other standout performance in the film comes from Bertrand, as the small-time lawyer tackling the biggest case of his life in defence of his best friend. This exuberant and endearing actor is responsible for some of the film's biggest laughs; from his bewildered reactions to David's predicament to his heartfelt but clumsy courtroom performance towards the film's climax.

Starbuck finally lets sentimentality win during its saccharine closing moments, but the fact that Scott has kept the movie above water for so long is testament to his inventive storytelling and confident direction of actors. It's one of the funniest and most satisfying comedies released this year and it deserves to find an audience, but will it have the opportunity to be a breakout hit? An English-language US remake of Starbuck is already in production with Scott, strangely, taking the directorial reins on this second version of his story. Will that picture share this Canadian production's understated charm? Will Vince Vaughn be capable of following Huard's terrific lead turn? Perhaps the remake will prove to be a worthwhile endeavour, but right now this Starbuck is the one to see, while you have the chance.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review - Gambit

The chief selling point for Gambit is not the cast, or the director (unless you're one of the few people who really loved Michael Hoffman's The Last Station) but the screenplay, which bears the name of Joel and Ethan Coen. They have written a remake of the 1966 film, in which Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine played a pair of crooks, but the fact that the Coens have handed this script off to another filmmaker rather than opting to direct it themselves suggests it may not up to their usual standards. It doesn't take long for that suspicion to solidify into fact as this film lurches from one awkward comic set-piece to another, struggling to raise more than a handful of chuckles from a narrative that feels like a first draft in dire need of revision.

Many of those chucklesome moments come courtesy of Colin Firth, who is ideally cast as British art curator Harry Deane, a man not quite as smart and debonair as he imagines himself to be. Gambit opens with Deane in Texas, on the trailer of rodeo rider PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz), whom he intends to involve in a con that will trick Harry's obnoxious boss Shabandar (Alan Rickman) into buying a counterfeit Monet. He explains his plan to PJ, and over the next ten minutes we see that plan being executed with consummate ease and professionalism, but everything we see is unfolding inside Harry's head. Harry's scheme isn't as foolproof as he thinks, Shabandar isn't as gullible as he thinks, and PJ isn't quite the smooth operator that he expects.

This structural trick is a neat idea – one of the film's neatest – but as it's lifted wholesale from the original movie it leaves you wondering what this picture has to offer that's fresh. The answer is: not a great deal, with most of the gags and stereotypical characterisations feeling like relics from the 1960s carelessly reheated. The film's biggest set-piece involves Firth being caught trouserless in a series of compromising situations as he snoops around the Savoy and clambers precariously from one window to another. Firth's attempt to maintain a dignified air in farcical conditions ekes a few mild laughs out of this setup, while Julian Rhind-Tutt's perfectly judged reaction shots score a couple more, but the sequence has nowhere to go, and when a punchline is required all it can offer is a fart gag. It might be unfair to expect Coen-like precision from any directors taking on their material, but Hoffman's heavy hand is all wrong for this; what should feel tight and manic instead feels obvious, flabby and lifeless.

Gambit collapse completely in its dismayingly lame third act, but the actors deserve some credit for full applying themselves under trying circumstances. Rickman's dry delivery is perfect for Shabandar and Tom Courtney is good value with the little he's given to do, but a couple of the actors attack their roles with a little too much misplaced enthusiasm. Stanley Tucci's camp German art expert is not this usually reliable actor's finest hour, while Cameron Diaz's best moments in the film occur within its first twenty minutes, before she opens her mouth and starts to speak. It's all downhill from there.

Could the Coens, or any other filmmakers, have made Gambit work? I'm sure they could – the central plot is a solid enough basis for a good farce – but the effort and inspiration required to do so is completely lacking. This film required a rewrite and a change of personnel on both sides of the camera before being ready for production; instead it has limped into cinemas half-baked and looking very sorry for itself. The posters for Gambit feature the names of the Coen brothers prominently, while the director's credit is nowhere to be seen, but enticing viewers with the promise of their level of excellence may be the biggest con trick of all.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"It's true that we have a tumultuous relationship, a very explosive relationship, Xavier and I" - An interview with Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément

Laurence Anyways is Xavier Dolan's third film as a director, and by this point we shouldn't be surprised by the 23 year-old's confidence and stylistic verve. However, we might be surprised by the scale of his latest picture, which encompasses 10 years in its 168 minutes, and by the emotional resonance that he achieves in his storytelling. Much of the credit for that must go to his cast, particularly Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément in the lead roles. Poupaud plays Laurence, the schoolteacher who suddenly announces that he wants to live as a woman, and Clément is his lover Fred, who decides to stand by her man despite her own misgivings. They give two of the best performances you'll see in a film this year, and when they came to London for the Laurence Anyways' UK premiere I met them to talk about it.

Suzanne, you worked on Xavier's first film. Have you noticed how his style has changed or evolved when you worked with him again on this one?

Suzanne Clément Yeah, it was incredible. When I arrived for the first day of shooting I was amazed at the steps he had taken, which I now understand is normal for Xavier, he's always moving really, really fast. He was really bringing the crew together and the way he directed actors has changed a lot. First of all, in the first movie I did it was such a small part and he was playing with me, but still he is much more creative and really confident in the fact that he wants things to happen and is willing to try anything to get it. He is not shy with the actors, which even much older directors can be sometimes. During this movie he was actually talking to us during the takes, which was quite an experience. It was a lot of fun, sometimes disturbing, but it really brings you off-balance and makes you take the direction you wouldn't normally take as an actor, which I really liked. But it was really challenging and that was one specific thing that he didn't do in I Killed My Mother, which he couldn't do because he was in it. As he said himself, it was his way of playing a part in Laurence. You could always hear him in the dailies and I think he got tired of his own voice.

Melvil, you took on this role very late after Louis Garrel pulled out. How much time did you have to prepare for playing Laurence?

Melvil Poupaud I knew the script because I was supposed to play a small part in the movie, the part of a lady who turned into a man at one point. I was very happy to work with Xavier even though I had a small part, and I was kind of jealous of Louis because Laurence seemed to be a very appealing and interesting part to do. I also did the editing on a documentary that my mother made about cross-dressers, so I knew about those people who were dressing up as women on the side, secretly, since they were a child, and they have this kind of duality. Some of them go all the way to the operation and assume it in society, while others keep on doing it on the side, even though they have children. I discovered through this documentary that those people are hyper-heterosexual and not homosexual; it's like a crazy love for women that makes them feel they are more woman than man. So I could avoid all of these clichés about transvestites and drag queens, and they had already been avoided by Xavier in the script. I arrived two weeks before the start of the shoot and weirdly the costumes fit me, and I didn't feel uneasy with the high heels or those extravagant dresses. Xavier was in charge of the costumes so we had some fun playing with this, he was like a child dressing me up with earrings etc, and that was a way for us to connect. He had seen some of my films and I hadn't seen any of his, but he showed them to me when I arrived in Montreal for the shoot and I really loved them. I knew I would love them because I had heard of them and when I met Xavier I could see that he was talented, but I was happy to see how good he was.

SC He was very strong, to come into this project. On the first night he arrived he had to have his whole body shaved. That was some preparation.

MP Yes, it was hardcore. [laughs]

You have to be convincing as a couple who have had this long-term relationship. Is that something you have to work on together or did it just click between you?

SC We didn't have time for exercises! [laughs] When we saw each other for the first time we spoke for an hour, or an hour and a half, and we felt that we were both OK people, and even though I'm older than monsieur it's not so far that we can't understand each other. After that you just have to have confidence and trust in each other's intuition. He said afterwards that he was watching my relationship with Xavier, and it must have been hard for him because Xavier is very into his relationships with the women around him, so for another man to enter that must have been hard.

MP Yeah, I felt sometimes that it wasn't so easy. At the end we got along very well and we are closer now. We also had two shoots, three months in winter and then a break of five months. When we came back to the second part of the shoot, he had edited the first part so he knew what he was missing, so he could tell us where we had to go further in our relationship, or what we had to correct. He showed us the editing so we could all understand the movie and see where it was going, so it was very helpful having this break.

SC It's true that we have a tumultuous relationship, a very explosive relationship, Xavier and I. We're not fighting, we're just crazy together, and he has close relationships with a lot of women around him, especially Monia.

MP You know, I think the film came about because he wanted to work with Suzanne again and he wanted to make a love story, so I think for him it's maybe easier to make a love story between two women, even if it's heterosexual. Maybe he will change, but for the time being he is attracted to strong female characters, and maybe less attracted to heterosexual guys, so I think I was lucky to have this part and have the chance to work with him.

Both of these parts require you to play a wide range of extreme emotions. What was that like for you?

MP Weirdly, for me it's more difficult for me to look happy and light than it is to do those emotional things. Maybe that's my nature, but once you're involved in the project and you have a good director who you want to please, it's kind of easy to go there. Xavier is so demanding and so passionate about his work, you can't escape his will. You have to be good and you can never just be so-so, he's always pushing you further, and also the crew. Emotional scenes are more easy. Laughing scenes are very difficult.

SC It's demanding physically and emotionally. As an actor, your nerves are always on demand when you are performing, but throughout the years I have played many emotional parts, it's not just one part that does it to you. You get used to those extreme emotions.

MP That is the work of an actor, to have your emotions at the director's disposal.

Xavier is such a visual stylist. When you are shooting, do you have a sense of what the finished product will look like, or is it a surprise when you view the film?

SC They are very clearly written, so when you read the script you have this vision.

MP From the previous movies he has made you can see he is stylish and is approaching more and more to perfection. On set he plays a lot of music so you can participate in his viewing of the scene, and he shows you the editing and his very generous with his work. When you are making the scene, with the clothes, the slow-motion and the music, there is a sense of this mise-en-scène that is very playful and enthusiastic.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review - Anna Karenina

If you type "Anna Karenina" into the IMDb, you'll be presented with more than two dozen feature films, TV-movies, miniseries and shorts bearing that title, so perhaps a little fresh thinking is required to justify yet another screen adaptation. The latest screen version, directed by Joe Wright and scripted by Tom Stoppard, is certainly unusual and distinctive, with the filmmakers bringing a sense of theatrical artifice to Tolstoy's novel. But while we may be inclined to applaud such out-of-the-box thinking, it's hard to escape the notion that it is a complete misfire. There's nothing wrong with the intention – we've all seen enough conventional and lifeless literary adaptations to last a lifetime – and there's not much wrong with the slick execution either, but in practice it simply proves to be a completely wrongheaded approach to this material.

Anna Karenina largely unfolds inside a theatre, with the world of 19th century St. Petersburg being recreated onstage, backstage and in the surrounding balconies. Transitions involve characters simply wandering from one scene to the next – often as a backdrop is pulled away and extras change clothes behind them – and occasionally the players will all freeze as a spotlight draws our focus towards particular individuals, lost in their own private drama. Wright even uses a model train set instead of opting for expensive external or CGI-assisted shots; a charming touch that exemplifies the old-fashioned, creative, collaborative spirit infusing the whole production. Whether these decisions were driven by the director's particular vision or by the limited financial means at the filmmakers' disposal, they certainly give us an Anna Karenina that stands alone.

Whether it actually stands up under scrutiny is another matter entirely. There's nothing in Tolstoy's novel that suggests such an approach; after all, the book's realism in depicting Russian city and farming life, and in the richness of its character studies, is one of its defining features. Perhaps the idea being explored here is that St Petersburg is a stage with all of its inhabitants playing clearly defined roles, with their behaviour being constantly scrutinised by a whispering audience. This certainly appears to be the case in the way Wright handles the title character (Keira Knightly), who escapes her marriage to the dour Karenin (Jude Law) for an affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). It may also explain why the director opts for exterior shots when telling the story of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who toils the land and ponders his own romantic future with Kitty (Alicia Vikander) far from the chattering classes and social constraints of the city.

For about an hour, the sheer chutzpah of Wright's style commands the attention. At its best, Anna Karenina recalls Ophüls with its elegant camerawork and much-missed British mavericks like Powell & Pressburger or Ken Russell in its imaginative staging. But Wright is a shallow orchestrator of spectacle, and when the charm of his unconventional approach wears off, and when inspiration starts to run dry, the film has no dramatic weight to back it up. While most of the key incidents in the book are covered by Stoppard's screenplay, they are rendered in the glibbest terms. Anna's dissatisfaction with married life is given no context and her dalliance with Vronksy – which should feel like a passionate love worth throwing it all away for – feels rushed and forced. In its second half, Anna Karenina falls into a dull and repetitive rhythm with the theatrical setting only being fitfully utilised, and it rather plods towards a climax clumsily foreshadowed by repeated close-ups on the onrushing Train Wheels of Death.

Nobody wants to see another genteel period drama so trapped by the weight of prestige and propriety that it can barely breathe, but filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese (The Age of Innocence), Iain Softley (The Wings of the Dove) and Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre) have shown how such adaptations can be modernised and revitalised in subtle, potent ways. Wright's Anna Karenina has numerous obvious problems, from the casting of Knightly, overawed by a role that demands too much of her, to the ludicrously limp Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a romantic lead; but its biggest problem is that beneath its enterprising aesthetic approach, the film remains cold to the touch. Only the relationship that develops on the fringes of the central narrative, between the well-cast and appealingly performed Levin and Kitty, comes close to stirring some sense of feeling. This film reduces Tolstoy's great novel to a superficial and awkward puppet show, but I can't bring myself to damn it too harshly, not when its failings are the direct result of its ambition and desire to be different. Anna Karenina may be a failure, but at least this unhappy movie is unhappy in its own way.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Commentary Tracks - Irreversible

Irreversible (2002) with director/writer Gaspar Noé

Comments on the Film

On the opening credits
There are few films with interesting credits – There's Godard and Orson Welles' films – but credits are definitely an integral part of the movie, so from the first image you try to match everything with the look of the film. So here [studio names] 'Canal' has a backwards 'N' and 'Mars' has a backwards 'R,' and here are the end credits in reverse, and the subtitler's name would appear here. During festival screenings people thought the projectionist had made a mistake, that he'd loaded the film backwards, so people will often start clapping to alert the projectionist, but then they realise that no, it's not at all a mistake, it was done on purpose. In fact, there will be no credits at the end of the film. I don't like getting to the end of a movie and then having to read the credits, so it's better at the beginning before you're into it.

On Philippe Nahon
And there's my idol, Philippe Nahon, the star of my movies Carne and I Stand Alone, who I absolutely wanted in this film and who wanted to be in this film. We shot the film chronologically, although it plays in reverse chronological order, so we shot this scene at the end. He waited for weeks to know what role he would play, so in the end I told him, "You'll be in a room, speaking with my friend Stéphane Drouot," who is one of the directors, if not the director, I most admired as I was starting to make movies. He directed a film called Star Suburb, which won the César for Best Short Film, and after that he wrote a number of screenplays that were never made into films. So Philippe Nahon asked what his role was and I said, "You'll be talking to him as the butcher from Carne and I Stand Alone," which both surprised and pleased him. We didn't really know what they would talk about. The dialogue was improvised in the rest of the film as well, but I did tell him he had to say he'd slept with his daughter, because it was unclear at the end of I Stand Alone, and that he had to start with "Time destroys all things," which was for a long time the title of the film instead of Irreversible.

On editing
More invisible cuts. We switch to shots taken from a car or a truck. There are a lot of shots linked together and made possible through the film's digital postproduction. The film was shot in Super 16 so the cameras would be light. We used Aaton and Minima cameras. The film is composed of many short takes or sequence shots which, even though they were shot at different times like in the next sequence, were all linked together once we had chosen the right takes in HD video at MacGuff, the postproduction company for the film. This gives the impression of continuity, as if a fly was flying from one truck to the next. It was a lot of work finding the takes that would match at the right speeds and would match the direction of the rotation, but it was absolutely magical to be able to do postproduction digitally. Until now, most of my films were edited in 16mm or 35mm, and there was no way to correct technical errors or do morphing or other effects possible today with video, which widens the director's possibilities in terms of cinematic language. There's no way this movie could have been made in this way a decade ago.

On camerawork
The idea of making the camera fly around in every direction, I'm not sure where that came from but it's something that came naturally as we were shooting the movie. At the beginning of the shoot I wanted to use very stable shots for the scenes at the end of the movie and get progressively more chaotic. Here, the camera is totally floating and, as I said about the previous shot, almost like a flying spirit with no sense of direction, an unexplained disembodied vision. Now we've moved to a Technocrane shot we filmed another day, the invisible cut from inside to outside was made digitally in postproduction. And there you have it. Here we see again the possibilities of that marvellous crane, the Technocrane. There was no shot list for any of the handheld or crane camerawork. I said, "Let's try to have some fun with this." None of the shots were predetermined. Once we had the equipment, the idea was just to do the strangest things possible with the toys at our disposal.

On improvisation
The whole movie has improvised dialogue. I gave them instructions as to the intended outcome of the sequences, sometimes a couple of lines to use, but otherwise I think what comes out in the moment is so much more intense than what you can prepare in advance. I'd already tried this in different ways in my previous films, but I thought I would push it further. In any case, on the first day of shooting we had a four-page script with not more than 10 or 15 lines of description for each of the sequences, so on each day of filming we would rehearse and then do the sequence. It could last six or 16 minutes, but in the end the length was dictated by the reality of the shoot, not anything predetermined.

On music
I love this music here by Thomas Bangalter, one of the two members of Daft Punk, who did the music for the whole film. At first the film was slated to have music from various sources, but since Thomas had given me the rights to the party music I showed him an early edit and said I loved his stuff and he could propose other ideas. So he did come forward with some music and I think one of the first pieces he proposed was the one in the taxi, which I think is great and worth listening to on the soundtrack CD. There are pieces sometimes that we only hear for maybe 15 seconds, and almost inaudibly because of the mixing, and they are dreadful when you hear them alone.

On the rape
Regarding this sequence, which was perhaps the most talked about when it was shown at Cannes and in the media, it comes from various sources, stories I've heard from real life and from my perception of similarly themed films like Deliverance or Straw Dogs. One thing that stood out for me was that for a film to feel violent it has to be believable. I don't like movies that deal with a certain subject, then all of a sudden they show a chimney while the couple is making love, or when someone is being killed the camera pans out and you hear a gunshot. Violence is real. It is and will always be part of life, part of all animal species. So here we were going to portray a rape and I think it needed to be shot in real time to convey the weight of this situation. I think the reason why people, and men especially, found the scene so difficult, is that all of a sudden we identify with Monica, with her character, and it's hard to identify with a victim. I don't think there's any way to identify with the rapist, at least to this day no one I've ever spoken to has. And as for identifying with the victim, I naturally chose the bias of portraying the perspective of Alex, Monica's character, by keeping the camera on the ground. Now we are stuck just like she is. We shot this scene six times over two days, three times each day, allowing Monica and Jo Prestia breaks of two hours or two hours and a half between each take. Because it was so emotionally charged both they and the crew needed breaks. So many people have commented on the length of this scene, but I felt it was necessary. A rape rarely takes place in less than nine minutes. I wanted the length of the sequence to be realistic, and as long as Jo and especially Monica were willing to keep the scene that long I felt the impact on the viewers would be much more intense. Also, as a director I had to accept what they wanted to shoot, so I would say that this sequence is more the result of Monica's directing than mine because she was holding the cards and could tell me, 'I want to stop. I won't do this or that.' I told her to tell me if there was a problem. I think Monica was extremely daring for having taken this scene so far, given her position in French and international cinema, and I think Jo Prestia was also daring for playing such a monstrous character. It took more courage on their part than it did for me to film it. I'm totally amazed by their performance.

On Marcus and Alex's love scene
I think this sequence in particular wouldn't have worked without Vincent and Monica because we feel that they love each other, that their movements are natural, that there's a level of familiarity with each other's body. I don't see how Vincent could have played this scene with another actress or Monica with another actor. There are certain things one can and cannot lie about when you are two or three feet away from the camera. I believe there are ways of kissing in movies that are true and other ways that are false. Almost all kisses that have no emotional impact on set are extremely obvious on the screen. I think they were happy. Once they stopped being nervous because they were naked and because it's rather intimate appearing in the nude with someone you actually sleep with, and once they were calmed by the results on video and they viewed the takes shot on Steadicam, they were reassured. As a result the energy level rose throughout the day, so at the end of the day we got this result. We re-shot the sequence the next day, but strangely enough it became a little more repetitive than the first day. Obviously, they both have such beautiful bodies a lot of viewers said, "I don't know whether to fall in love with Vincent or Monica." I think the viewer also has a sense of being rewarded in this scene. If we had to endure everything we did, at least we made it here because there's more to the universe than what we've seen until now. I think that if the film consisted only of the first half it wouldn't have been of any interest, and maybe showing this sequence by itself without the rest would have made it float in a sort of cloud of peace. Reality is a lot more animalistic than what we pretend it is, and the second half is a counterweight to the first.

Bits and Pieces

I think I stole the idea to change the title four times from Tarkovsky's The Mirror where, if I'm not mistaken, the title appeared normally and then in reverse.

This is probably the most experimental section of the film but also the least tedious. Often, the more complicated or visual something is the less tedious it is. Narrative parts quickly become boring, especially on second watching. It's usually the more incomprehensible movies that I watch the most often on DVD.

There I am, also dressed for the part. It's difficult to get an erection. I wanted very badly to have a hard-on during the take, but with the assistant cameraman and the whole crew there I realised how difficult it was, so I have a lot of respect for those who can get hard-ons on command.

Many people misunderstood and thought the rapist is killed at the beginning of the movie. That's not at all what happens; it's his friend who gets killed. I guess about one in five people mistakenly think they kill the rapist.

As for the lighting in the whole film, we didn't use any floodlights whatsoever, only high-voltage bulbs and natural lighting. I find that in movies with floodlighting you can detect it 99% of the time, which makes what you see less believable. Makeup, as well, makes the actors less believable, so we didn't use any makeup either throughout the whole movie.

Tenia means tapeworm and I almost used it as the title for my last film I Stand Alone because I felt it complemented the title Carne pretty well. But since I didn't use Tenia as the title of I Stand Alone, I brought it back as the name of the rapist.

The rest of the movie is happier. The nightmare is over. And in fact a lot of people leave the theatre before this sequence, so when I was able to introduce the film I would tell people to stay to the end because this movie is like being dirtied for 30 minutes and then getting a shower. You're better off staying for the shower because otherwise you'll leave feeling dirty.

What Vincent will be sniffing is not cocaine. It's not sugar but some substance that has no effect whatsoever, and the straw even had a little filter. What was strange was that because there were a lot of extras who were drunk, they would go into the bathroom between takes and when they saw the glucose or flour of whatever, they thought it was coke and they wanted to take some. They would take the straw with the filter and not understand why it wouldn't work.

Final Thoughts

It's often the nicest people that make the scariest movies. People always wonder how I can make this type of film, being as soft-spoken and smiley as I am. If you meet someone like Cronenberg, you'll find he is very polite and civilised. Actually, I think that making movies or literary works that are extreme or radical is a sort of outlet for very civilised people. I'm sure Pierre Molinier, the photographer, must have been incredibly civilised, the same for Pasolini, the man who did Salò. Often it's the directors of mainstream comedies who are the scariest people in real life.

Blu-Ray Review - Cosmopolis

The Film

Some books don't lend themselves easily to film adaptation, and it seems that those books are the ones most likely to pique David Cronenberg's interest. In the past, the director has brought novels such as Naked Lunch and Crash to the screen and successfully made them his own, but Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis presents a set of particularly knotty filmmaking challenges. Set almost entirely within the confines of a stretch limousine, the film consists of a series of arch, epigrammatic conversations that mostly revolve around money and vaguely touch on a multitude of philosophical concerns, with its protagonist being a 28 year-old billionaire bored in his obscene wealth and cut off from the world. How do you make this story cinematic? Engaging? Relatable? If you're David Cronenberg, you do it by staying incredibly faithful to the source material.

The result is a film that has a tone and rhythm unlike any other, and it takes a while to get on the movie's wavelength. The actors deliver their often-cryptic dialogue in a strangely stilted, affectless manner, and in this respect the casting of Robert Pattinson was a masterstroke by Cronenberg. The actor who shot to fame by playing a vampire here plays Eric Packer as a man who seems just as bloodless. As he sits in the back of his limo and is informed of the money that his company is haemorrhaging, he displays no concern and barely any interest. What do you get the man who has everything? All Eric wants is a haircut, which is why this opulently designed vehicle is crawling across a Manhattan that has been locked down for the President's visit and the funeral of a rapper.

The last time Cronenberg made a film that involved automobiles so heavily it was Crash, in which the characters got their kicks from high-speed collisions. Here, the car proceeds at a crawl though the gridlocked traffic, which allows us ample time to observe the world through Eric's windows, and it's not a pretty sight. DeLillo wrote Cosmopolis after 9/11 but his view of a world falling apart has a different context to the one in Cronenberg's film. The anarchic protests that occur throughout the film, including dead rats being hurled (the idea of rats becoming a unit of currency is mentioned a number of times), speaks to our own troubled times, with the idea of a member of the rarefied 1% isolated from these scenes in his hermetically sealed, cork-lined limo working as a potent metaphor. The deeper Eric gets into this environment, the further removed he becomes from his ivory tower and space station-like car, the more human he starts to appear, and Pattinson is excellent in the way he modulates this gradual changes in his character.

Not everyone will want to go along with him for the ride, of course. Cosmopolis is so distant and clinical in its construction, so episodic in its narrative thrust, it will surely alienate many viewers, but there are ample pleasures here if you care to look for them. First of all, Cosmopolis is an impeccable work of direction, with Cronenberg and his excellent cinematographer Peter Suschitzky making the series of claustrophobic conversations inside the limousine absolutely mesmerising. The director's last two films have been two of the most verbose he has ever made, but Cosmopolis succeeds in all the ways A Dangerous Method failed; I found myself hanging on every word of the frequently impenetrable dialogue, riveted by the tension that the film creates between two people. It helps, of course, that he is a magnificent director of actors, and the performances that he draws from this large and imaginatively chosen cast couldn't be better. Sarah Gadon is a notable standout as Packer's wife (in an as yet unconsummated marriage), while Paul Giamatti brings a vital sense of ramshackle energy to the film's climactic scenes as a disgruntled member of Packer's workforce.

When Eric Packer asks a member of his security detail to stun him with a taser, or when he considers firing a gun through the palm of his own hand, it's an impulse borne from his desperate desire to feel something, anything; but what will viewers of Cosmopolis feel? The film may be a tough one to connect with on an emotional level, but its swirl of ideas and gleaming imagery make it one of the most intellectually and cinematically stimulating pictures of the year. It may even come to be regarded as a vital comment on the world we're living in, a world where "money talks to itself" and where the haves face increasing anger from the have-nots, who have taken to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the state of things. Cosmopolis is full of people having bewildering conversations and failing to connect in any recognisably human way, but from this 'unfilmable' novel, David Cronenberg has fashioned an extraordinary film that overcomes its artificiality to become all too real.

The Extras

I was disappointed to find no commentary from David Cronenberg on the disc because he's one of the best movie talkers in the business. Instead, we have half an hour of interview soundbites, but you can skip them and go straight to Citizens of Cosmopolis, a behind-the-scenes documentary that is just as long as the film itself. Exploring every aspect of the production, this feature offers some fascinating insights into how the film was made and allows us to watch this master filmmaker at work on set. Even if the film wasn't excellent, I'd recommend checking out the Cosmopolis DVD and blu-ray just for this documentary, which is one of the best extra features I've seen on a disc in years.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review - Skyfall

In movie terms, James Bond is celebrating his 50th birthday this year, and in many respects Skyfall feels like it could act as a fitting swansong for the character. Of course, that won't happen – the Bond business is a very lucrative one to be in – but the manner in which this film keeps one foot in the past while telling a contemporary story lends the picture an unusually elegiac tone. Skyfall is one of the few Bond films that tries to explore the character's own personal history, and it finds new depths in the relationship between OO7 and his boss M (Judi Dench), which has been the most consistently satisfying aspect of Daniel Craig's tenure. The film also brings Bond home to fight terrorism on British soil after decades spent traversing the globe, and it all leaves you wondering where Bond can go from here.

Despite the number of pleasing elements that feel fresh, Skyfall remains a very old-fashioned James Bond movie at heart, adhering to the formulaic structure that has sustained the series so remarkably for 50 years. As per tradition, it opens in medias res with Bond finishing his previous mission in Turkey, although the mission almost finishes him. In pursuit of a hard drive containing the names of undercover MI6 agents, Bond and Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) chase their target through streets, across rooftops and onto a moving train. The scene ends with Bond being shot and falling to his death, although we feel safe in assuming that he survived both the bullet and the fall as we haven't even had the ornate, Adele-accompanied credits sequence yet.

It's a very promising and accomplished opening salvo, in which director Sam Mendes and the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins prove themselves to be more than capable with the kind of outrageous blockbuster action that pushes them both into new territory. In fact, Deakins is very much the star of Skyfall, relishing the opportunities the film offers for rich and varied lighting. Mendes, Deakins and the film itself reach a dazzling peak in Shanghai, where Bond must chase an assassin to the top of a skyscraper before fighting him next to a perilous fall. This sequence is framed by vivid neon lights projected across walls of glass, and when the two men come to blows they are framed as silhouettes, occasionally illuminated by muzzle flare. It's rare to see an action sequence in a contemporary blockbuster shot with such imagination and visual flair, and it's a peak that the rest of the movie struggles to live up to.

All of this occurs within the film's opening hour, and while the rest of Skyfall is generally entertaining, too much of it feels like opportunities missed or simply mishandled. The idea of a James Bond action sequence set on the London underground sounds far more thrilling than it ultimately turns out to be, and while Javier Bardem certainly makes an impact as the villainous Silva, the lack of a proper climactic confrontation between him and Bond (why waste that ice set-piece on some random henchman?) seems like a misstep. The film also disappoints in its handling of Bond's two female companions. Moneypenny's first appearance as a gutsy and likeable field agent is a surprise, but she instantly becomes a less interesting character when she inexplicably turns up in Craig's hotel room to shave him flirtatiously, before deciding to settle for a place behind a desk. Still, at least she fares better than Bérénice Marlohe's Sévérine; even by the retrograde standards of this series, few women have been tossed away by the plot as egregiously as she is.

Despite these and other flaws – the plot does feel clumsily cobbled together – Skyfall holds the attention effectively enough to stand as one of the better Bond films (from a collection that's often a lot worse than our collective nostalgia allows us to believe), and it certainly possesses one of the better Bonds. Craig still can't deliver a quip and looks far more comfortable as a killer than a lover, but he has brought an emotional texture and vulnerability to the role that makes his Bond feel slightly more real than those that have gone before. The series itself, however, feels more awkwardly poised than ever between fantasy and reality, and Bond himself cuts an increasingly incongruous figure in today's world. So many of the crimes committed in Skyfall take place through computers and digital networks, and while Q (Ben Whishaw) observes that sometimes "a trigger has to be pulled," the filmmakers seem acutely aware of Bond's dinosaur status. Nevertheless, Skyfall ends not with Bond hanging up his double-Os but returning to duty "with pleasure," and the closing credits promise his swift return. It appears there's life in the old dog yet, but you do wonder just how much.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Review - Argo

The true story that inspired Ben Affleck's new film Argo is a cracker. In 1979, angry Iranian protestors, demanding the return of the Shah from America, stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took fifty of its staff hostage. Six escaped and took refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador, while the CIA back in Washington failed to come up with a single workable plan to get them home. The best idea they had was to send bicycles for the group along with maps to the Turkish border, but exfiltration expert Tony Mendez suggested creating a fake science-fiction movie called Argo, which would allow him to enter Iran on a location scout and remove the fugitives by having them pose as a Canadian film crew. Remarkably, all of this really did happen and – even more remarkably – it worked.

It's a hard tale to screw up in the telling, and Ben Affleck doesn't. This is Affleck's third feature as a director and it again proves that he's a serious filmmaker whose desire to make smarter-than-average mainstream entertainment is very commendable. Before Argo begins, the 1970s Warner Brothers logo appears onscreen, and it's clear that Affleck is as determined to evoke to the cinema of that era as much as he is to evoke the era itself. The ghosts of filmmakers like Sidney Lumet and Alan J. Pakula haunt Argo, which is no bad thing, as directors in that league are at a premium in today's cinema. If Affleck fails to reach the level of the artists he aspires to, it's perhaps because he plays it a little too straight; compared to the electric atmosphere of Dog Day Afternoon or the weird eccentricities of The Parallax View, Argo feels a little colourless.

The film does have many virtues, however. Affleck is strong on atmosphere, convincingly recreating the sense of fear that gripped the US embassy as angry crowds stormed the gates; government workers frantically attempt to destroy important papers before gun-toting Iranians gain access to the building. In terms of scale, this is the biggest story Affleck has attempted to tell in his young directing career, and in many ways it's his most technically accomplished. The period detail feels authentic, both in its depiction of 70s Iran and the bland CIA offices at home, while Rodrigo Prieto's gritty and atmospheric cinematography is perfectly judged. Chris Terrio's screenplay also requires a blending of disparate tones, with the rising tension of the situation in Iran being juxtaposed against a lighter section set in Hollywood, in which Affleck's Mendez attempts to set his plan in motion. The director just about pulls off this delicate balancing act, although he occasionally risks having a bit too much comic fun with the foibles of the film industry.

Mendez's jaunt to Tinseltown introduces two of the film's most memorable players. John Goodman plays John Chambers, the Oscar-winning makeup artist (for Planet of the Apes) who had a clandestine second job assisting the CIA, and he helps Mendez enlist the services of producer Lester Siegel (a composite creation, played by Alan Arkin) to begin setting up their fake movie. This segment of Argo is played very much for laughs, with Goodman ("So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot, without actually doing anything? You'll fit right in.") and Arkin ("You're worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA.") forming a very amusing double-act. Affleck is a very fine director of actors, with Bryan Cranston also adding plenty of character to his role as Mendez's superior at Langley. Unfortunately, when Mendez flies off to Iran to execute his mission, all of these interesting performers are left at home.

I don't think it's any coincidence that Affleck's most accomplished film as director is Gone Baby Gone, the one in which he didn't also star. Dividing his workload across both sides of the camera doesn't do him any favours, and as a leading man Affleck lacks the charisma to make an underwritten character like Mendez come to life. The six fugitives he has come to rescue have been given few character traits to work with as well, so the Iranian section of the film just becomes a nuts-and-bolts exercise in tension. It works, because Affleck is a pretty good nuts-and-bolts filmmaker, but it's telling that the director feels the need to lay on twists and drama so heavily at the end of the film. The climactic flight from Iran is plagued by last-minute hitches and against-the-clock revelations, and it feels like every possible tension-building trick has been utilised simultaneously, creating a finale that's breathlessly gripping in the moment but curiously unsatisfying after the fact. Argo tells a story that's almost too good to be true, but the film Affleck has made is only just good enough.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Review - The Master

The Master is a spectacular display of filmmaking technique, and in the often arid landscape of contemporary American cinema, that in itself is reason enough to recommend the film unreservedly. But I do have my reservations about Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth feature, even as I recognise that it reconfirms his status as one of the most ambitious and innately gifted directors working today. I appreciated The Master on almost every level – composition, editing, performance – and it contains a number of scenes that look and feel like nothing else. I was fascinated and hugely impressed by the picture, but I can't yet say if it really works as a story or a character study; is The Master really a great film, or is it simply the flawed work of a great director?

Such a question hardly seems worth asking in the film's hypnotic opening hour, which is where Anderson's artistry is most evident. The Master begins with a gorgeous shot of wide-open ocean waves, and it introduces us to a character who is all at sea. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is serving his last days in the US Navy and preparing to go home, but the deep-rooted psychological scars left by his WWII experiences have not yet healed. This is Phoenix's first acting role since he notoriously attempted to torpedo his own career with I'm Still Here, but if anything his performance here is even more unexpected and strange. Within minutes of the film's start, we see him simulating sex with a woman built out of sand, and when he returns to the US and attempts to rejoin civilised society, we watch each agonising scene just waiting for the time bomb to go off.

Phoenix is all stiff angles and jutting elbows, mumbling lines out of the side of his tightly grimacing mouth. There's something raw and animalistic about him, something he tries to contain but cannot prevent exploding out of him in violent, often moonshine-fuelled outbursts. He seems doomed to drift across America from town to town, job to job, leaving regret and recrimination in his wake, but his decision to hop on board a yacht one night gives him a shot at salvation. The boat belongs to Lancaster Dodd, a man who is developing an idea known as "The Cause" that bears more than a passing similarity to L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology religion, but a critique of that movement is not what Anderson is after here. The Master explores the fractured psychology of post-war America and examines the nature and limits of control, but the real heart of the story is this relationship between Dodd and Quell. Operating on the father-son dynamic that has driven so many of PT Anderson's films, The Master becomes a kind of love story between two very different men who feed something in each other, but whose relationship is ultimately doomed.

The pas de deux that Quell and Dodd engage is spellbinding to behold, with the clashing acting styles of Phoenix and Hoffman creating a riveting tension and chemistry. A "processing" scene that consists entirely of tight close-ups (Mihai Malaimare Jr's 65mm cinematography is most potently used in such shots) is a bravura piece of acting from both men, but as the film progressed I yearned for a shift in focus. Freddie is a static character in many ways, incapable of moving forward or cutting free of the ties that bind him, and watching him can be an incredibly frustrating and exhausting experience. In contrast, I found myself increasingly drawn to Dodd, just as Freddie and the other Cause followers are. Hoffman's performance as this self-appointed visionary oozes charisma and garrulous charm – he's part preacher, part snake-oil salesman – but some of the most telling and intriguing moments in the film come when this mask slips. "He's making it all up as he goes along," Dodd's sceptical son tells Quell, and on the two occasions when Dodd's ideas are challenged or even lightly questioned, he snaps with a blistering fury. I wanted to dig deeper into Dodd, particularly his relationship with his wife (played by Amy Adams in a deceptively bright-eyed performance that's as brilliant and unsettling as anything else in the picture), but Anderson doesn't let us get too close.

Instead, The Master slips away, with the second half of the picture being marked by a series of inscrutable scenes punctuated by ellipses. My love of Paul Thomas Anderson's pictures to this point has largely been down to the unashamed emotional directness of them, especially his stunning late-90s double-bill of Boogie Nights and Magnolia (which, for me, remains his best film). Even the more austere There Will Be Blood managed to hit me on a gut level, but for long stretches of The Master I just felt nothing. The film gets more enigmatic, evasive and wayward with every step, and the momentum of it stalls as Anderson allows it to drift. The level of craft on show never drops, but at some point in the picture Anderson's determination to avoid any easy resolutions or clear answers sees him painting himself into a corner, and leaves the film feeling disjointed and distant.

And yet, as unsatisfying as my initial viewing was, I'm already desperate to see The Master again. There are nagging questions I need to find the answer to (How much of the film is viewed from Freddie's addled perspective? What's the story with that dream he has before leaving for England?) and frustrating gaps that I want to fill. Right now, The Master feels like a confused misstep from a brilliant filmmaker, but when I think of my initial adverse reaction to Punch-Drunk Love – a film I now adore – I can't write off a PT Anderson film just yet. The Master is a film that invites multiple viewings; its greatness will be defined by how fully it rewards them. I want to embrace this film as a vital and distinctive work of modern American cinema, but for the moment The Master keeps slipping through my fingers, like so much sand.