July Variety Pack (2)

Have I mentioned before that Criterion is planning to ruin me financially? As a matter of fact, I have my suspicions that the company was created entirely for that purpose. This guy’s version of a honeytrap? A life-long subscription to Criterion. I just haven’t figured out yet what the incriminating pictures would look like – although now that I’ve brought it up, I sort of wish I hadn’t…

The thing about Criterion (often in combination with the A.V. Club or with DVD Verdict) is this: it gets me to watch stuff I wouldn’t even have heard of otherwise, like A Night To Remember (discussed here). Or…

Make Way For Tomorrow

… a film that, if I’d read a plot synopsis beforehand, I would probably have avoided, because it sounds like sheer melodrama (even more so in black and white): an elderly couple losing their house and ending up separated, each staying with another one of their less than understanding children, and their final day together before they’re split up permanently. Yet it’s turned out one of the most poignant and sad films I’ve seen in a while, and the sadness of its last half hour doesn’t bear a trace of melodrama. Don’t let the text panel at the beginning fool you into expecting a moralising story about how children should honour their parents – the film is astute about the difficult relationship between parents, especially of the elderly kind, and their grown children, and it doesn’t ignore that its two protagonists aren’t the easiest of people to be with. What elevates the film from a good, though probably not special film to something great is the final act, which doesn’t make any concessions to an audience expecting a happy ending – or at least a clear denunciation of the children and an easily understood lesson in morality along the lines of “Thou shalt…” and “Thou shalt not…”. Instead what we get is an emotional honesty that hurts by being entirely unvarnished.

Jane Eyre

“Cary Fukunaga… Didn’t he do that film about gang brutality in Mexico, Sin Nombre or something? Sounds like just the right guy for that Jane Eyre flick we’re doing!” I don’t know what the producers were thinking when they hired Fukunaga for their adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic – but they were absolutely right to do so, as the result proves. Jane Eyre is difficult to do right, as there’s a major temptation to streamline it into a generic historical romance, Jane Austen with less humour and more madwoman in the attic. The casting of two misfits who supposedly aren’t conventionally attractive with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wachowski would have suggested an audience-pleasing approach, but Fukunaga, his cast and his crew, while cutting their source down to the essentials (you can’t afford not to, unless you’re doing a BBC-style miniseries) get to the heart of Brontë’s novel. The casting and acting work wonderfully, the script is respectful of the original novel without being beholden to it, and the cinematography is breathtakingly gorgeous at times. I’ve sometimes described films as the moving equivalents of paintings – you’d want to frame them and put them on the wall, but you don’t necessarily want to pay attention and listen to them. Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is the sort of film you want your eyes to feast on but there’s plenty to listen and pay attention to as well. And for all its beauty, it’s not your conventional pretty costume drama, thank god.

Benny’s Video

I know that at least one occasional reader of this blog hated this film with a vengeance when she saw it years and years ago. Myself, I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of Haneke’s, but I’ve found all of his films intriguing. It’s easy to get pissed off at what the films often do at a first glance: there’s something both didactic and smug about their themes and tendencies, as if Haneke judges you for watching, say, Funny Games and dares you to switch it off, while at the same time wanting you to continue watching to validate its thesis. At the same time, there’s usually more going on underneath the surface, and Benny’s Video is a good example of this. Going in, I expected a film about a young man desensitised to violence by the videos he watches, and there is some of that – but at the same time the videos are partly a red herring, as especially his parents prove at least as compromised as him, and they don’t have the convenient excuse of “Slasher flicks made me do it!” The film has some rough edges and some of the director’s decisions are questionable – at times the characters and their actions are sketched too cursorily, turning ambiguity into muddledness – but even at this early point in his career Haneke is masterful at staging scenes clinical yet uncomfortable without pushing any gratuitous viscera in your face. Even when I end up angry at Haneke’s manipulations, he makes me think more than most directors do… so perhaps he’s not doing such a bad job at being didactic after all.

March Variety Pack

Another month, another variety pack. I’m planning to write longer posts on Hugo and Breaking Bad – and possibly Being Human, depending on my mood – but in the meantime here are some shorter takes on a few of the films I’ve seen recently. Everything from teenage killing machines to Bostonian remakes of Heat and tragicomic Irish policemen – oh, the humanity!

Hanna

Joe Wright’s film about a teenage assassin and her odyssey is an odd ‘un. It’s definitely strikingly different from what you might expect reading the blurb on the back of the DVD, and it’s got a lot going for it – but in the end I don’t think it works all that well. Hanna, starring the unpronounceable Saoirse Ronan, is basically three different films: a gender-swapped Bourne Identity, a modernised L’Enfant Sauvage and a stylised, symbolist-bordering-on-the-surreal fairytale. It pulls off the first two, but it is both most interesting and least successful in the latter: there are elements reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood, with the weirdest variation of the Big Bad Wolf ever (played by Tom Hollander as an artsy, flamingly camp psychopath, which should give you an idea), but these more stylised elements stand out like sore thumbs compared to the almost-realism of the more Bourne-inspired parts. It’s a shame – there’s a lot to admire about the film, from Ronan’s acting to the cinematography, but there are bits that feel half-baked or even outright ridiculous. And if Cate Blanchett’s accent even comes close to resembling the way any real human being talks, I’ll buy a 40-gallon hat and eat it.

The Guard

I am a big fan of Brendan Gleeson. I like black humour. Don Cheadle is one of the most criminally underused actors in Hollywood. And In Bruges was one of my favourite films the year it came out, making me laugh and cry in equal measure.

The Guard feels like like it’s trying to go for an In Bruges feeling in some ways, and Gleeson’s character has the same sort of laconic, melancholy humour going – but it doesn’t even come close to the earlier film’s… integrity, for want of a better word. The Guard is funny, undoubtedly, but its tentative attempts to be more than a pleasantly diverting, dark comedy don’t lead anywhere. Worse perhaps, The Guard is lazy in how it seems to think that it’s enough to have Gleeson play his usual part (or even a reduced version thereof) and have some jokes, and the rest will take care of itself. It isn’t, and especially if you’ve got Don Cheadle in the film it’s a massive waste to give him the most underwritten part in the film. If The Guard, whose author is the brother of In Bruges’ writer director Martin McDonagh, had come first, it might have been less of a disappointment – as it is, it’s difficult not to think that the time it takes to watch the film would be better spent on the earlier, better movie.

One thing, though: it’s great fun to watch the scenes shared by Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong. If there were ever a prequel spinoff focusing on their two characters, I’d watch it at the drop of a hat.

The Town

Talk about films that would play better if you hadn’t seen earlier film X… I’ve never been a big fan of Ben Affleck as an actor – I don’t dislike him, but I find him fairly bland, perhaps 0.47 McConaugheys – but I very much enjoyed his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone (starring his kid brother Casey). The Town shows the former wasn’t a fluke – Affleck definitely has a talent for directing, and I was surprised to enjoy his acting in the film more than in most other things I’ve seen him in, even though I’m usually suspicious of actor-directors who put themselves in the main part. The film is also well written, acted and filmed – but it is practically impossible to watch it without thinking Heat… and more specifically, that Heat does everything better than Affleck’s film. There are too many echoes in The Town to Mann’s masterpiece, so that halfway into the movie it was difficult to focus fully on what was happening and not sit there thinking, “Yeah, this is just like that scene with Ashley Judd, and that’s very much like that bit with Tom Sizemore…” I liked The Town quite a bit – and am definitely planning to keep my eyes open for Rebecca Hall – but it brings too little to the table compared to Heat not to suffer from the comparison. In a world without Mann’s movie it might be different, but as it is I have to wonder: was there ever a moment when someone on the crew, the Director of Photography or one of the producers, said, “Listen guys, great work’n’all… but I’ve seen this film before, it was called Heat, and why exactly are we doing a Boston-based reskin of that movie?”

January Variety Pack (1)

I know, it’s been a while. My apologies; my excuse is that I was lazy. Not a very good one, is it? In any case, I thought that rather than write one long update on a film I’d recently watched, I’d do some shorter ones. So without much further ado, here’s the first of my variety packs – the second is to follow very soon…

Four Lions

I have to say, when I heard about the film I was both intrigued and worried. It’s not that I think there are topics that can’t be treated by satire – but I also find the equal-opportunity-offender satire of, say, Trey Parker and Matt Stone neither particularly funny nor all that perceptive; in aiming at all targets, it rarely achieves more to my mind than a general, “Well, all positions can be a bit silly, can’t they?” Also, being offensive for its own sake is such a lazy way of satirising a subject. Which, let me hasten to say, Four Lions doesn’t do. In fact, for satire it is far from offensive in one important sense: as it opens its subjects to ridicule, it also evokes sympathy for them. It humanises its protagonists, the Muslim suicide bombers, as it shows them to be deeply flawed and silly in their motivations and reasoning. And it’s exactly this element that makes the film so funny and chilling in its strongest moments – rather than saying, “Those guys are our enemies and need to be destroyed” it asks us to see them as fellow human beings, albeit misguided ones… which may be much more subversive: love thy enemy.

But, apart from that, Four Lions is one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a while, asking the very important question: “Is a wookiee a bear, Control?”

P.S.: In terms of its darky humorous yet sympathetic tone, Four Lions reminded me of the Danish black comedy Adam’s Apples. Also highly recommended!

Never Let Me Go

Since I liked Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel a lot, I was curious about the film version by Mark Romanek of One Hour Photo semi-fame. I was also worried; would the novel’s delicate, moody tone survive the transition to the big screen, and more importantly, would it survive La Knightley? I’m not her biggest fan – I do think she’s talented, but more often than not film makers make the assumption on the part of the audience that we fancy her like mad, and they then become lazy when it comes to letting her act. Instead she ends up doing her portruding-chin shtik that signifies, “My character is feisty, passionate and won’t take crap from anyone!” All too often she doesn’t portray characters on screen so much as do a slight variation of what she’s done in other successful films. Since I don’t find her particularly sexy (I was definitely Team Parminder in Bend It Like Beckham) Keira being Keira just isn’t enough.

I wasn’t particularly fair in this fear, at least when it comes to Never Let Me Go. The adaptation isn’t perfect: it would need some more time for the implications of what’s going on to sink in and be as quietly devastating as in Ishiguro’s novel, and the writing (the script is by Alex Garland, whose work I tend to find compelling and frustrating in equal measure) is a little too on-the-nose at times, assuming that the audience is too thick to get it. But the casting, including Keira Knightley, works perfectly. Yes, both Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan aren’t miles from the parts they usually play, and it’s not as if Knightley is miles away from other parts she’s done, but the actors fit their parts to a T, with Garfield especially delivering a performance as poignant as that he gave in Boy A. I could imagine that my first criticism is less of an issue for those who haven’t read the novel – the film isn’t rushed by any means, it just doesn’t give its audience quite as much breathing space, which is what I missed a bit.