Saturday, April 27, 2013

Review - The Look of Love

Steve Coogan stares directly at the camera with one eyebrow raised and says, "My name is Paul Raymond. Welcome to my world of erotica." When The Look of Love opens in this way, it's hard not to recall Coogan's first collaboration with director Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People. In that film, Coogan played Tony Wilson and frequently broke the fourth wall to offer his commentary on events as we watched them unfold. But The Look of Love is not a film in a similar vein to that portrait of the Manchester music scene, and this early moment of self-awareness is not representative of the film's subsequent tone. In fact, it is more suggestive of a picture that doesn't seem sure what exactly it wants to be, or what story it wants to tell, from one scene to the next.

This lack of a coherent focus continues with the film's opening scenes, which are set in the early 1960s and are shot in black-and-white, although Winterbottom makes no attempt to impose similar distinctive aesthetics on any of the subsequent decades that his film covers. At this time, Paul Raymond was a touring coastal towns with his saucy variety act, and thirty years later his sex and property empire made him the richest man in Britain. This is undoubtedly a remarkable rise and compelling films have been built out of less interesting figures, but Winterbottom and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh aren't disciplined enough to focus on the key areas of the tale and to dig beneath the flashy surface.

The strongest thread is the relationship between Raymond and his daughter Debbie, played with an affecting fragility by Imogen Poots. Debbie was the child with whom Raymond had the deepest bond (his son left for America with his wife after the breakup of their marriage) and he had planned to hand the running of his various businesses on to her before she died from a drug overdose in 1992. Winterbottom occasionally cuts from the narrative to scenes of an ageing Raymond sitting alone, watching footage of his lost daughter, lost in his memories and his grief. It's a big stretch for Coogan to bring the necessary gravitas to this role (the ghosts of Tony Wilson, Alan Partridge and Tony Ferrino are never fully dispelled), but the moments in which he genuinely seems to connect with Poots are where the film briefly takes on another dimension. When Raymond has to face the fact that his daughter is not talented enough to lead the show he wrote for her, the scenes between them carry a real emotional weight. The fact that the film's title comes from a song that Debbie sings indicates that this is the heart of the story, but it's something that Winterbottom only flits in and out of, as he gets derailed by other, less rewarding, details.

The Look of Love is a maddeningly uneven picture. When it isn't squeezing in distracting comic cameos (Stephen Fry, Dara O'Briain, Matt Lucas and David Walliams) or unilluminating montages, it's indulging rote scenes of hedonistic excess that feel like little more than a watered-down Boogie Nights. Potentially intriguing aspects of Raymond's tale are left frustratingly unexplored, such as his discovery of a son from a previous relationship, which is raised and then forgotten about in a single scene. The film hops along in its energetic but episodic fashion, as if we should congratulate the filmmakers for touching upon so many aspects of the Paul Raymond story instead of questioning whether they have sufficiently explored any of it.

Michael Winterbottom is a director whose refusal to be pinned down and categorised has resulted in a body of work that is wonderfully eclectic in its style and content. But he can't quite find the right approach here, and the result is a fleetingly enjoyable but ultimately shallow and unfocused biopic. Winterbottom directed one of the all-time great London-based films with his 1999 drama Wonderland, and there was certainly potential for another landmark capital picture in this study of "The King of Soho," but the only real point of interest for Londoners lies in spotting the familiar locations that act as backdrop to the disappointingly mundane story. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Review - Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows was the third film Jean-Pierre Melville made about life in France under Nazi occupation, but it feels more of a piece with his later gangster films than it does with Le Silence de la mer or Léon Morin, Priest. The film was made in the middle of a series of crime films – preceded by Le Deuxième Souffle and Le Samouraï, and followed by Le Cercle rouge and Un flic – and the characters in Army of Shadows could have walked into any of those pictures. They are men who stalk the streets in a watchful and furtive manner, and whose alliances are built on practical needs and a shaky sense of trust. They are men united by an ever-present fatalism, knowing that this game they play will likely end in death. They are men who live in the shadows.

It's safe to say that Army of Shadows would have been a very different film if Melville had made it just after he first read Joseph Kessel's novel in 1943 rather than 25 years later. The director needed to hone his style before attempting this most personal of films, and in many ways he used the filming of Le Deuxième Souffle in 1966 as a dry run for scenes in this picture. Ultimately, the cool, detached directorial approach that Melville had developed by the late '60s was perfectly suited to a world in which careless talk cost lives. Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is certainly a man who remains tight-lipped unless speaking is absolutely necessary. He prefers to observe a situation before making a decisive act, and in this respect he is the perfect Melville hero.

Gerbier is the leader of a small group of underground fighters trying to blow holes in the Nazi war machine and evade capture. The film opens with Gerbier being transported to a concentration camp, but Melville quickly establishes his protagonist's cunning nature, as he evaluates his campmates and keeps his eyes open for an opening that might lead to escape. The manner in which Melville shoots Gerbier's daring flight for freedom is indicative of the measured approach he takes throughout the film. The act of escape itself takes place in just a few moments and a handful of shots, but the build-up, in which Gerbier surveys the situation and settles on the best way to play his hand, and the aftermath are where the real action lies. As he runs from the Nazi headquarters, Gerbier ducks into a barbershop for sanctuary, and he has to spend an uncomfortable period wondering if the man holding a razor to his throat is a friend or a foe.

In this world, the risk of betrayal is ever-present, and Melville utilises that as a constant source of tension. When a traitor is discovered in their midst, Gerbier and his cohorts must deal with him in the way that traitors had to be dealt with, and Melville makes this scene into the film's agonising centrepiece. It is a masterpiece of staging and editing, as the men must first deal with the unexpected complication of a family living next to their safe house, meaning that a quick death by gunshot is off the cards. As his captors search for an alternative means of disposal, the young turncoat stands rigidly against a back wall, consumed with fear, awaiting his fate.

Melville's characters are defined by their actions rather than their psychological makeup. He presents them to us with little fanfare and gives the actors room to inhabit their roles, and to come to life for us as we watch them go perform their functions in the Resistance effort. The great Simone Signoret plays Mathilde, one of the many women who played a key part in the Resistance thanks to their ability to evade suspicion at checkpoints (we see Jean-Pierre Cassel avoiding a Nazi search a train station by picking up a woman with young children on the platform). The central characters in Army of Shadows are stoic, determined and honourable, and on more than one occasion they refuse to yield information under torture, but Melville doesn't overplay their heroism. Pierre Lhomme's cinematography is stark and dispassionate, with scenes seemingly drained of all colour except for a pallid grey that reinforces the sense of foreboding and futility that hangs over much of the action.

Army of Shadows was released in 1969 and instantly fell victim to disastrously poor timing. In post-1968 France the film was seen as a hopeless Gaullist throwback, with the now unpopular President being depicted in the film's strange (and, in truth, unnecessary) London-set interlude. It flopped at the box office and failed to find international distribution for many years. In fact, the film wasn't seen on American shores until 2006, when it was hailed as a masterpiece and collected the Best Foreign Language Film prize from the New York Critics' Circle. This validation came too late for Melville, who completed two more films before dying at the young age of 55 in 1973. He never saw his most personal film receiving the adulation it deserved, but one hopes he died knowing that he had made a great film, and one that honoured the courage of the men and women who fought for French freedom.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Roger Ebert: 1942 - 2013

Roger Ebert loved the movies. "I wanted to hug this movie," he said when reviewing Ghost World in 2001, and that sense of unbridled joy after witnessing something special onscreen is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of him. He began writing about films in 1967, and one of the most miraculous things about his career is that he never seemed to grow jaded throughout the many decades he spent watching them. Sure, he often despaired of the terrible pictures he was forced to endure on a regular basis, but he always searched for something good in even the worst of them, and he loved to highlight those moments that reconnected him with the magic of the medium. Lines like "Minority Report reminds us why we go to movies in the first place," "A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for," or "Films like Fargo are why I go to the movies" were a common refrain.

I've been reading those lines since I was a teenager. When I first tried to expand and deepen my film knowledge, Roger Ebert was the critic whose verdict I sought out after seeing a film, and he was the critic whose writing could compel me to seek out a picture I was unfamiliar with. When he wrote about a film, he didn't try to impress you with his vocabulary or ideas, he just wanted to reach you, to make you understand why a certain film made him feel this way, and hopefully prompt you into seeking out that experience for yourself. When news broke of his death on Thursday, the mass outpouring of grief and respect proved beyond all doubt how well he had succeeded in reaching us. He taught us how to approach movies, he taught us how to write about them, and ultimately he taught us how to live.

"We are put on this planet only once, and to limit ourselves to the familiar is a crime against our minds," Ebert wrote, and he was someone who was always looking to share new discoveries with his audience. How many young filmmakers benefitted from his support over the years? He promoted foreign-language films to a mainstream audience in a way that made than sound accessible and relatable; he gave tiny independent films a level of exposure their publicity budget could never buy; he was a great champion of black cinema; he treated documentaries as an art form equal to narrative features. He and Gene Siskel almost singlehandedly pushed Hoop Dreams – a three-hour documentary about two inner-city basketball players – into the national consciousness in 1994, to the point where the Academy's failure to nominate it for the Best Documentary Oscar caused a scandal.

Not everyone felt that Ebert's impact was for the best. Some argued that the "Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down" rating system devised by Siskel & Ebert on their enjoyably antagonistic TV show contributed to a "dumbing-down" of film discourse. This always struck me as an absurd suggestion, one that ignored the way he used his privileged position to broaden viewers' horizons and one that ignored the depth and range of both his writing and the writing that he loved to share. Ebert consistently railed against the dumbing-down of culture and he firmly believed that cinema was a medium that could unite us, open our minds and change the way we look at the world. "What I believe is that all clear-minded people should remain two things throughout their lifetimes: Curious and teachable," he said, and he was a living embodiment of that belief.

If that was Roger Ebert's only contribution to the world then it would already be a remarkable legacy, but his life changed with a diagnosis of thyroid cancer in 2002. When further operations resulted in the partial loss of his jaw, it seemed like the cruellest imaginable joke – to take the ability to speak away from a man who lived to communicate. In fact, this twist of fate only made him an even more prolific communicator. The words that could no longer pass his lips came spilling out from his fingertips at a phenomenal rate, and his writing became more personal and heartfelt than ever. An old-school journalist who adapted to new media without skipping a beat, Ebert began using Twitter and his blog to go beyond the walls of the screening room and share different aspects of his life with us. He told us about his health problems and his struggle with alcoholism, he shared his spiritual and political beliefs, he talked about his favourite books and artworks, and he took numerous trips down memory lane. Most frequently, he paid tribute to the inexhaustible love and support he received from his wife Chaz. When Roger Ebert died many of us who had never met him felt the loss as if he was a close personal friend. He poured so much of himself into his writing, we felt we did know him.

As I watched Roger deal with such an extraordinary succession of battles against the debilitating effects of cancer, I often wondered how I would cope under such circumstances. I don't think there's the slightest possibility that I would display a fraction of the courage and magnanimity that he showed right up until the very end. How many of us would choose to withdraw from public life in order to hide our difficulties and disfigurement from the world? Not Roger. He continued to appear on television unconcerned with the way his appearance had been ravaged by his illness – he was alive, that was all that mattered. He was still alive, still passionate, still curious and still stimulated by the exchange of ideas and feelings. It may seem strange to describe the death of a 70 year-old man who had spent a decade fighting cancer as a "surprise," but news of Roger Ebert's passing was indeed a terrible shock. Just two days earlier, as he announced the return of the disease, he had written of his plans for the website and his excitement at spending his remaining days writing about his favourite things. It seemed like he wasn't going anywhere just yet.

It's hard to imagine a world without Roger Ebert. He has always been a presence in our lives and his passing seems to mark the end of an era in journalism, but look at the treasure trove he has left behind. We still have his invaluable archive of reviews and blog posts, as well as his many books and the television clips that exist online, but above all else there is the piece of him that will reside inside every aspiring film writer who ever drew inspiration from his work. In 2001, Ebert wrote an obituary of fellow critic Pauline Kael and he observed that, "...her spirit and passion were still being echoed in the words of a generation of film critics she influenced. She changed the way we talk about movies." I don't think I can come up with a more apt description of Ebert's own influence on cinematic discourse than that. Of course Roger Ebert wrote his own best epitaph – are you at all surprised?

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The Birds Eye View Film Festival 2013

Before funding problems caused an unfortunate hiatus in 2012, The Birds Eye View Film Festival, an annual celebration of female filmmakers, had established itself as one of the key dates in the UK film calendar. On its welcome return this year, the festival has chosen to focus on the work being done by Arab filmmakers, with a number of new features, shorts, documentaries and new scores for silent films being presented in London from April 3rd to 10th. Here is my take on four of the new works being showcased.

One the Edge (Sur la planche)

By day, Badia (Soufia Issami) works a menial job in a shrimp factory, just one of many young women sat in a huge white space mechanically peeling the piles of shrimp dumped in front of them. At night, however, Badia has another life, as she stalks the streets of Tangier with a few companions in search of men that they can pick up and then steal from. As a shrimp factory employee, Badia is regarded as someone on the bottom rung of the social ladder, and one repeated motif shows her violently scrubbing her body with lemon in a desperate attempt to wash off the stench from her day job ("It seeps into your bones" she ruefully observes). She dreams of finding work in the city's Free Zone, and Leila Kilani's screenplay sometimes veers too closely to a familiar "One last big job" template, but her nervy direction and unexpected choices (her use of close-up late in the film is very potent) keep things feeling fresh. If only it was a little bit tighter; On the Edge starts to sag noticeably halfway through as the actions of Badia and her crew start to grow a little repetitive. The writer/director could have sharpened her film by boiling it down to the essentials, and by clarifying some aspects of the story that feel unnecessarily opaque. If the film remains consistently riveting, however, it's largely down to the powerhouse central performance from Soufia Issami. Kilani draws excellent performances from all of her actors, but Issami is such an intense and driven performer it sometimes feels as if the film is struggling to keep up with her. I was reminded of the protagonist from the Dardennes' Rosetta, another girl who lived by her wits and refused to buckle to circumstance, and while On the Edge can't quite hit the same level as that picture, it shares the same riveting pulse in its central performance.

Coming Forth by Day (Al-khoroug lel-nahar)

In her debut feature Coming Forth by Day, Hala Lotfy creates a stifling sense of claustrophobia that is almost overwhelming. The first two-thirds of her 96-minute film take place entirely within the confines of a small Egyptian apartment, where Soad (Donia Maher) tends to her invalid father, with her mother frequently too exhausted by her hospital night shift to be any assistance. Lotfy exposes us to the dull monotony of Soad's routine, as she moves and washes her father and does chores around the flat, and in Maher's touchingly subtle performance we witness a woman utterly defeated. She has sacrificed any semblance of a life of her own in order to perform these domestic duties, and the manner in which Lotfy utilises the space available to her – all narrows corridors and shuttered windows – makes her home seems like a prison. When she finally does leave the flat for some valuable time alone, it feels like an escape. For some viewers, Coming forth by Day will undoubtedly feel like a chore, with its slow pace and deliberate monotony hardly making it sound like the most appetising fare. But Lotfy's hugely impressive control of this material (and her brother's measured, evocative cinematography) establishes an engrossing atmosphere and rhythm that partially recalls Chantal Akerman's masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, and while it may require some effort from the audience to get on the film's wavelength, it is a very rewarding and distinctive work from this young filmmaker.

Habibi (Habibi Rasak Kharban)

Susan Youssef's Habibi is a story of forbidden love, but apart from the novelty of its Gaza setting, there's little to distinguish this slight effort from the many other films that have told such tales. The two central characters – Layla (Maisa Abdelhadi) and Qays (Kais Nashif) – are intelligent and sophisticated students whose meeting of minds at a West Bank college leads to romance. Their burgeoning love is thwarted by politics, when their student visas are revoked forcing the pair to return to Gaza, where they can no longer see each other, and their mutual pining for the romance and poetry that has suddenly disappeared from their lives begins. Habibi is a film full of striking moments that never quite cohere into an engrossing narrative; bursts of passion of violence that just hang in the air and sometimes overshadow the scenes surrounding them. The film also suffers from a crippling lack of focus, with the central story occasionally being disrupted by an awkward subplot in which Layla's brother is courted by Hamas (although this thread does provide one very funny line: "Rocky isn't Zionist, he's Italian" in response to an admonishment for watching American films). It all feels a little too flat and underdeveloped to carry any weight, which is a real shame because Youssef's – especially the disarmingly beautiful Abdelhadi – offer some fine work, and the film is at its best when it intimately details the interaction between two people who only desire one thing: to be together, and to be left alone.

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Les trois disparitions de Soad Hosni)

Soad Hosni is one of the biggest stars in the history of Middle Eastern cinema. Between 1959 and 1991 the Egyptian actress appeared in 83 films and became an iconic figure, but mystery surrounds her untimely death in London; an apparent suicide that may have been something more sinister. Her life might be ripe material for a biopic, but Lebanese artist Rania Stephan has taken a far more imaginative approach to bringing her life and work to the screen. The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni is a documentary compiled entirely from footage of the star's screen performances, and it emerges as an extraordinary portrait of a woman who grew up on screen. The film is divided into three acts, the first showing her as a winsome young starlet who blossomed in light romantic comedies; Act II shows the girl becoming a woman, with footage from the more daring and seductive roles that she later took on; and Act III presents us with a mature Hosni, now playing in a series of melodramas and tragedies. The images and sound are layered to potent effect; for example, the exchange "Who are you?" "I don't remember" is frequently repeated, almost giving the film the narrative shape of a woman trying to retrieve lost memories. Stephan's editing creates numerous compelling patterns and rhythms, such as the collection of chaste kisses in the first part of the film, which has an unsettling echo with the seemingly never-ending montage of rape sequences that occurs in the film's third portion. The film is visually stimulating too, thanks to the varying stages of deterioration that these films exist in, and the fact that so many of Hosni's pictures are fading or lost is another way in which she can be said to have disappeared. What is indisputable after watching The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni is the fact that the woman is celebrates was a true star – a rare beauty whose luminous presence shines through despite the degraded image – and that the film Rania Stephan has made is a worthy tribute. An ingenious idea accomplished with remarkable skill, The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni is endlessly fascinating, exhilarating and moving.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Review - Spring Breakers

The very idea of Harmony Korine making a film with the young female stars of Pretty Little Liars, Wizards of Waverly Place and High School Musical is where the cognitive dissonance of Spring Breakers begins. Are we about to witness Korine taking a plunge into the mainstream, or is this film his subversion of it? In fact, the whole of Spring Breakers is something of a head-scratcher. I'm not entirely sure what Korine is trying to do with this picture or what we're supposed to be getting from the experience. The film offers a number of sublime, vivid moments as it follows its teen stars on a spring break jaunt gone bad, but as the colourful end credits rolled I felt nothing but relief.

Perhaps my dissatisfaction (sliding rapidly towards dislike) with Spring Breakers has something to do with how tiresome I tend to find long scenes of teenagers partying and having an "awesome" time. Korine opens his film with slow-motion shots of bikini-clad women gyrating in front the camera while young men stand around them, agog at the sight. Much beer is swilled and the music, by Skrillex, is a cacophony. Although this doesn't look like my idea of a good time, four teens in particular are desperate to make it out to Florida to experience spring break for themselves. The one stumbling block is a lack of funds, and so three of the girls decide to rob the patrons of a diner and then pick up their devout friend (the aptly named Faith) before driving off in search of good times.

Faith is played by Selena Gomez. I would give you the names of her three companions too, but I can't for the life of me remember them. By virtue of her religious background and her nagging doubts over the route they're taking, Faith emerges as the one member of the group who has something resembling a character (she also has the least screen time, which is a shame). The parts played by Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine are entirely interchangeable, and the film gives us no reason to invest anything in their journeys. Their monotone, tentative performances don't imbue the parts with any sense of life either; they're just four girls in bikinis, no more interesting than the many anonymous girls milling around in the background.

For a while, at least, the filmmaking proves enthralling enough to make up for the deficiencies of Spring Breakers. The diner heist is one of Korine's major directorial coups, as he stays inside the getaway car while we get glimpses of the girls' gun-toting antics through the windows, the whole sequence being filmed in a single unbroken shot. Spring Breakers has been shot by the hugely talented French cinematographer Benoît Debie, and his lurid, abstract, neon-hued work is as striking here as it was in Gaspar Noé's Irreversible and Enter the Void. This is undeniably a film that looks and sounds like nothing else, and the dreamlike tone Korine aims for is sometimes intoxicating, but it isn't long before the manner in which he has assembled this footage becomes grating. The repetition of sound and image begins to pall before the film is halfway done, and the film begins to feel a lot longer than it is. "Spring break...spring break forever" is a frequent, drowsy refrain, and it occasionally did feel that this film was never going to end.

Ultimately, how one reacts to Spring Breakers may depend largely on how one reacts to James Franco's contribution to it. He is the film's star turn, throwing himself fully into the part of Alien, a ridiculous caricature of a white rapper who has adopted every possible gangsta rap trope. After he bails the girls out of jail, they become seduced by the money, guns and material wealth possessed by Alien, who proclaims "Look at all my shit" as he gives them a guided tour of his opulent crib. Many people will doubtlessly find Franco's portrayal of Alien to be hilarious and endlessly quotable, but I found him tiresome and problematic in the way his over-the-top performance quickly dominates the picture, while the girls seems even more uncertain in his presence. While does fashion one particularly memorable sequence around Alien and the girls – an oddly sincere and affecting rendition of Britney Spears' Everytime – too often his indulgence of this character is incredibly monotonous.

That monotony is finally what killed Spring Breakers for me. The lack of narrative thrust isn't necessarily an insurmountable obstacle, nor is Korine's failure to clearly elucidate the film's themes, but the crippling boredom that I felt throughout long stretches of the film is fatal. Of course, Korine has never been in the crowd-pleasing game, and his previous films have often tested both the boundaries of narrative cohesion and the patience of his viewers, but the hollow nihilism of his latest picture makes it a grim slog to sit through. Is Spring Breakers celebrating, spoofing or indicting youth culture? Is he empowering his characters or exploiting them? I don't know what Korine had in mine with this film, but all I can see is another empty provocation, even if it is a very pretty one.