Lolita (1962)

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One thing that it is impossible to deny about Kubrick, and that is that he certainly has his own style. I read both A Clockwork Orange and Lolita in 2012 and it has been my terrible reaction to Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange that has held me back from watching Lolita until my affection and memory for the book faded a little. I did well to wait.

Kubrick’s Lolita is just that, Kubrick’s. It seems almost unfair to give it the same name as the book of which it guards very little of the sentiment or atmosphere and even changes the structure, destroying the central mystery. Now I’m not normally one to complain about inaccuracies to a source text, one of my favourite films is a modern-day adaptation of Great Expectations. Yet when Kubrick does it the film seems to no longer bear any resemblance to the source. It seems as if he’s taken all the character names and a few situations from the book and transposed them into an entirely different film and universe.

This is not to say that the film isn’t enjoyable – it’s in places very funny. Shelley Winters gives a fantastic performance as Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother. She’s a perfect parody of suburban middle America, mindlessly dull while believing herself the height of sophistication. Sue Lyon’s performance as Lolita does well to waver between childish and adult desires. Yet peppered throughout the film are long monologues from Peter Sellers doing impressions as if this were his audition tape for Dr Strangelove. Particularly given that we’ve been shown the climax at the beginning and know that Sellers’ Quilty is the villain his appearances are somewhat redundant. The glib manner that he employs takes away from any tension that could have been built up. When the darkest threat in your film is a man doing silly voices on the end of a phone line something has been lost.

For Kubrick, Lolita is not a young girl, certainly not a pre-pubescent nymphet, she’s a teenager equipped with her own non-ambiguous libido and desires. If anything she pushes the relationship with the older Humbert rather than forcing the viewer or the character to truly confront Humbert’s perverse desires. Which, of course are less perverse given Lolita’s age here. It’s no worse than American Beauty in a way. In fact Humbert seems almost entirely passive in this adaptation, going along with the whims of the women that surround him and allowing first the mother, then the daughter to boss him around. Quite far from the tortured and scheming Humbert of the book this man seems to lack self-awareness and control right up to the last moment.

The problem with this film seems to be an overall confusion of subject and point. Is it a parody of the American way of life? An exploration of youth and sexuality? Or even a torrid love affair that happens to have an age difference? With such questions, interspersed with awkward comedic turns Lolita leaves the viewer ultimately unsatisfied and with questions about the film, rather than about the film’s message.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:             2/5
  • Intellectual:      2/5

J’ai tué ma mère (2009)

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Continuing the rough course through cinema of “watching whatever is recommended to me” I recently came across Xavier Dolan, whose films I will now proceed to watch (and review) in order of their release. That means starting off with with J’ai tué ma mere.

The film certainly bears the hallmarks of a first film, or maybe just a young film. There’s a flamboyant and ostentatious rebellion that oozes through the length of the film and needs reigning in in places. Certainly there’s a concern for style over substance that can become annoying. For example, the cinematographic trick of alienating the characters from each other in off-centre close ups is certainly intelligent and works very well, except when the off-centre framing is literally cutting off a character’s nose and forcing them to box their performance into a tiny and unnatural space.

Yet the film can be forgiven stylistic foibles through the force of emotion and honesty that propels it. It is definitely not the structure of the screenplay that guides us as viewers. The events lurch between people and locations that seem disparate and haphazard. Plotlines seem to be forgotten then woven back in at ironically unexpected moments. In this way it’s a lot more like real life than any constructed narrative. All the characters genuinely have other lives and motives that don’t just serve Dolan’s story.

At the heart of it all is the universally difficult moment when a child breaks out from under their mother’s wing. Peppering the film are moments of a monologue, shown to be shot on a DV camera but then shown to us in HD black and white – directorial conceit ran wild there. In this monologue Hubert (Dolan) outlines his true feelings for his mother, a kind of confused and forced love that inescapable and inherent. It’s not so much his mother that is controlling him or that he is trying to break away from, it’s much more his love for her that he resents. He searches for a female guide, idolising his boyfriend’s mother and even his teacher before coming round to accepting what he already has and loves, even if he doesn’t like her. Both Dolan’s performance and Anne Dorval’s as the mother hold up to scrutiny, and it’s a testament to a screenwriting talent to be able to render both mother and son with sensitivity and depth. It would have been very easy for Dolan, who is essentially acting his own teenage crisis on screen to just paint the mother as the demon he attacks in the choppy arguments littered through the film. Yet the mother is very much her own person, and not even a bad person. She loves her son; she’s just not compatible with him and it’s hurting them both just as badly.

In the end the whole film feels a little like a confessional – that fittingly ends at the “Our Lady of Sorrows” boarding school. It’s as if Dolan found himself at the crossroads of adulthood with all the questions that raises about life, sexuality, identity, art and even religion. While in the film Hubert comes to some peace through a mixture of quiet realisations and drug-filled confessions before accepting and inviting his mother into his life and his kingdom, in real life Xavier Dolan made this film. Part diatribe, part apology but full of cinematic and personal freedom.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:             5/5
  • Intellectual:      4/5

Les Belles de Nuit – 1952

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One of the wonderful things about cinema is that despite the relative youth of the medium it came into being at a time that was so democratic and individualist that it seems one can never run out of it. The sheer number of filmmakers existent across the globe at any point in time means that variety really is the spice of life, in terms of style and content, when tracking back through the archives.

Thus is the optimism that René Clair’s 1952 film has left me with. Made just after the second world war, a time when French society was desperately trying to justify itself after the upheaval of it’s war regime les belles de nuit traces French history elegantly backwards. It seems as if Clair is trying to assert his contemporary France by calling up the national memory of bygone eras. We see France in the not-at-all-nostalgically-named Belle Époque, the revolutionary wars, the old monarchy and the time of the musketeers.

But les belles de nuit is not a political film, despite the potential for socio-historical analysis. The heart of the film rests on the performance of a certain foppish and endearing Gérard Philippe, down and out pianist dreaming of love. And this he does, literally. He shuts himself off from his real life in order to chase the fantasy women he sees in his dreams of the past. It’s not that his normal life is unsatisfactory, far from it – his friends worry for him, he has a beautiful girl in love with him and he’s a talented musician. The film explores what happens when someone can’t see the joy in their own life and feels the need to escape. It’s a little like a cross between Midnight in Paris and It’s a Wonderful Life.

The interest from a cinematic point of view comes from a humourous lightness of touch that removes the potential for melodrama but fails to fall into parody or silliness. Yes, the film is funny, the dream sequences complete with moving pantomime theatre sets are indulgent and kitsch – but they’re dreams and the shifting narrative sands and archetypes of dreaming are rendered so well that the humour itself becomes poetic, rather than the film hovering and to-ing and fro-ing between gags and serious moments. Every potential joke that can be made, within the limits of the natural absurdity of life, is made. Even when it’s patently ridiculous and ironic to the extreme the running gags never seem impossible, just unlucky.

Most importantly Les Belles de Nuit is enjoyable. Certainly, it opens doors to speak about artistic inspiration, the significance of dreams, the dangers of naïve nostalgia and the necessity to appreciate what you have while you have it, but when all is said and done you will still be able to put on this film, sit down and pass a good hour and a half laughing and smiling with the characters on screen.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:            4/5
  • Intellectual:     3/5

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Ce que je trouve magnifique dans le cinéma c’est que, malgré sa naissance relativement récente, il nous est venu à un moment de l’histoire si démocratique et individualiste qu’il me semble impossible de l’épuiser. C’est-à-dire que la quantité de cinéastes qui auront existé dans tous les coins du monde à n’importe quel moment donné produit une variété de styles et de thématiques vraiment époustouflante, surtout quand on le regarde avec du recul.

C’est à cela que m’a fait penser ce film de René Clair. Réalisé en 1952 juste après la deuxième guerre mondiale, époque troublée de la France après l’Occupation, Les Belles de nuit retraverse l’histoire de la France avec élégance et grâce. Il semble exprimer ce qu’est la France en 1952 à travers une mise en valeur de ce qu’elle était auparavant. Il nous montre la France de la Belle Époque, les guerres en Algérie, l’Ancien Régime et le règne de Louis XIII.

Mais Les Belles de nuit n’est pas à proprement dire un film politique, malgré la forte possibilité d’une analyse socio-historique. Au coeur de ce film se trouve le fin jeu de comédien d’un certain Gérard Philippe, tout charmant en tant que pianiste fauché qui rêve d’amour. Ceci est ce qu’il fait, littéralement. Il rejette sa propre vie pour retrouver les femmes imaginaires dont il rêve chaque nuit dans ses rêves des mondes passés. Ce n’est pas que sa vraie vie est invivable, bien au contraire – ses amis s’occupent de lui, une belle jeune fille est amoureuse de lui et il est lui-même un musicien doué. Ce film examine donc les conséquences quand on n’arrive pas à apprécier sa propre vie et qu’on sent un besoin d’y échapper. C’est un peu à mi-chemin entre It’s a Wonderful Life ­and Midnight in Paris.

D’un point de vue cinématographique l’intérêt vient du style léger et humoristique qui allège le potentiel de mélodrame en même temps qu’il évite de (se) dégénérer en parodie, voire en niaiserie. Oui, certes, le film est drôle, surtout les séquences de rêve où le décor bouge et semble tiré d’une mauvaise pantomime – mais ce sont des rêves et c’est exactement ça qui rend si bien la sensation de flou narratif qu’on sent tous dans les rêves. L’humeur elle-même devient poétique, plutôt qu’un basculement fatiguant entre le sérieux et le drôle tout au long du film. Chaque blague qui peut se faire, en tenant compte de l’absurdité indéniable de la vie, se fait. Même quand la situation devient ridicule et ironique à l’extrême, les blagues ne semblent jamais venir du royaume de l’impossible, juste de la mauvaise chance.

Mais ce qui est le plus important chez Les Belles de Nuit, c’est qu’on s’amuse en le regardant. Oui, on peut y tirer des discours sur l’inspiration poétique, la signification des rêves, les dangers d’une nostalgie naïve et surtout la nécessité d’apprécier la vie pendant qu’on la vit, mais en fin de compte ce sera encore possible de s’asseoir devant ce film et de passer un bon moment avec les personnages qu’il nous présente.

*Note from the blogger – the French translation is not a permanent feature on this blog, however more will be appearing especially for French Cinema on an ongoing basis of when I feel I can adequately express everything said in the English in French* 

 

Whiplash – 2014

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Damien Chavelle’s film boils down to one primary question: what does it take to achieve greatness? Doubtless there’s a price, as even the title suggests. Anyone moving too fast risks injury. We’ve seen a good number of these masochistic high achiever narratives in recent years but unlike Black Swan and The Social Network, for example, Whiplash steers away from the question of whether greatness is worth the price. This is more taken as evident by the two main characters and so imbues the film with a very different energy.

Whiplash is a character study of 19 year old drummer Andrew Reiman (Miles Teller). In his time at the (fictional) Schaffer Conservatory he becomes the protégé of the despotic conductor Fletcher played by J.K. Simmons. Much has been made of Simmons’ performance, which is by all counts extraordinary, his ability to switch between nurturing and terrifying while remaining a coherent and relatable human is astounding. Yet I don’t want to repeat what has been already thoroughly and more aptly lauded. Sadly much of the praise for Simmons seems to downplay Teller’s performance as Reiman, accusing him of being flat, or worse, a “blank slate”. Quite on the contrary, Teller’s performance is subtle and reels in the viewer. In the same way as the opening shot shows us Reiman from afar and the closing shot zooms in on his face we totally enter this character’s universe through the film. It’s reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s performance in The Graduate, making someone shy, difficult and clearly flawed into the hero we all stand behind.

In many ways Whiplash is a purification of the determined genius theme. The small side-plot where Reiman throws away a chance at a relationship is just that, a side-plot: whereas this served as Zuckerberg’s sole character motivation in Fincher’s Social Network. The only obstacle Reiman faces is his own limits and resolve. His power resides in being as self-sacrificing as possible, even seeking comfort in the arms of his father is seen as a lack of motivation and hence a weakness. His bleeding fingers from too much practice are treated as necessary battle scars and a kind of symbolic ascension to the mythical higher plane of “greatness”. Perhaps it’s a sign of residual unacceptance that these same actions, the frantic pursuit of perfection in art through self-destruction, are seen as a tragedy and framed as a slow descent into madness in Black Swan when it’s performed by a woman. Either way Fletcher’s role in the narrative falls in harmony with his role as conductor, in the long run both invisible and instrumental in teasing the potential out of this drummer. Fletcher becomes the despotic father figure finally pulling Reiman out of the nest to fly.

The script is what really shines here; it could almost be a play. It would probably be a very good play. This is not to say that it lacks cinematic elements, more that it goes a little overboard on occasion. Sitting in a cinema with eighty percent of the screen blurred in a soft-focus close up is never a rewarding experience and many scenes are filled with this kind of close-up, quick-cutting that starts to feel like time-filler after a while. The jazz scenes vary between genius and irritating. A choppy cut on every new instrument is not a new or edgy way to film music and it gets to seem a little like a cheap music video from time to time. However the film is so engaging and well structured that you can forgive. The final scene is triumphant, finishing on a drum solo it seems to perfect sum up the film, its main character and its proposed philosophy all at once. It’s not perfect, it may even be self-indulgent, but it’s daring and engaging and demands your attention and forgiveness for its faults because it may just be the closest thing to genius you get to see.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:             4/5
  • Intellectual:       5/5

The Lego Movie – 2014

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It’s hard not to feel encroached upon by the endless parade of branding and merchandise surrounding animated films. With Shrek turning out to be the multi-sequelled hydra it set out to mock and the announcement of a Frozen 2 and a Toy Story 4, a film whose name itself is a product would seem to be another manifestation of the problem. But this, thankfully, is not yet the fate of The Lego Movie even nearly a year after its release. But then again this is coming from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who brought us Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and its sequel of equal quality so there was little to fear.

There’s something about Lego that has been begging to be made into a film for years. I personally have never come across someone with even the vaguest passing interest in cinema that never made a Lego stop motion. Not all of them matched up to the masterful creations that blow up youtube, but then most of them were made with cameraphones. The Lego Movie didn’t opt for stop motion, although technically speaking it could have been done, if you had more Lego than is possibly imaginable and several lifetimes to go with it. Instead this Lego is CGI, but still for the most part obeying the laws of movement within the Lego universe – ie: the bricks don’t change size. Ever. Everything is built entirely to scale in the computers out of Lego pieces that genuinely exist in the physical world. This makes the whole film seem more tactile, in places the Lego even has fingerprints and scuff-marks as if you’d brought your own plastic bricks to life. When the film does slip in a few moments of stop motion and even live action sequences they are so well matched to the CGI Lego world that it doesn’t even feel like a break. What’s even better is that the real world is slowly woven into the story and the fabric of the animation throughout the film so that when Emmett (our adorable everyman voiced by Chris Pratt) finally makes it into Live-Action-Land it doesn’t feel like a gimmick tacked onto the end of the movie just to show some cool Lego structures that actually got built.

Yet while you’re watching this film you don’t really take notice of the painstaking attention to detail and the incredible technological feat and scale of imagination that went into this film. You are most likely too busy laughing. The jokes come thick and fast and are so dead-pan that many of them can be missed on the first viewing. It’s an ebullient, joyful humour that’s never laughing too much at anyone in particular. There’s a genuine heart to the film that doesn’t fall into cynicism, not even towards Lego Batman, the most reproachable minifigure you’ll ever see. The characters fall somewhere between stereotype and archetype as well as mixing in some well-known faces from popular culture so the experience is more like hanging out with an old group of friends than watching a brand new set of characters. It’s comforting and relaxing without being predictable.

What’s more is that this film belongs to the perpetually diminishing number of films that can genuinely be called “family films” in that every member of a family can enjoy them. It’s a kids’ film, yes. But some of those jokes will be flying over their heads and I doubt they’ll be appreciating the ironic deconstruction of mass-produced uniformity that lingers over the film as an ever-present fate worse than death. At its core it wants to say something about being creative and allowing your imagination to run free. This is, as the film aptly shows, most often something adults need to be told more than kids. The child, every child is the hero here and it appeals to nostalgia and hope for the future at the same time. It’s hard not to be uplifted by this film, even if in a few places the plot almost meanders off and the message feels a little as if it’s being delivered with a hammer it’s well-meaning, it’s fun and it captures some childish joy that everyone wants to hold on to.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:            3/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5

Birdman – 2014

2015-01-11-birdman_movie_stillAfter my total loss of faith in the Academy before during and after the 86th Academy Awards I decided to re-engage with the Oscars for this year’s 87th awards. While I didn’t manage to see all the nominated films and didn’t grace anyone with my terribly inaccurate predictions I was much happier this year to see some of the films I had genuinely loved (Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel) being nominated and was excited for the ceremony. While obviously I didn’t agree with every decision announced on Oscar night it was refreshing and the awards seemed globally well-deserved. Unfortunately due to a blip in my timetable I hadn’t seen Birdman before the ceremony but was quickly determined to rectify that.

Birdman certainly doesn’t disappoint. It’s a two hour non-stop rollercoaster film. Thankfully the vogue of 3.5 hour long Oscar-nominated pictures seems to have died down. The visual onslaught of Birdman being any longer would totally ruin the film. As it is the cinematic choreography makes the ride all the more exciting, althought you can’t help but wonder why Iñárritu’s preferred central point for following a character is about a foot and a half below their head at all times. Birdman does occasionally feel like a day in the life of someone shockingly short who never looks up.

Thanks to this one-take effect the film has a frenetic, relentless pace that almost feels as if it’s all happening in real-time as it scans through the dark corridors of the theatre. It’s not just Michael Keaton playing a parody of himself. Every character in the film is either an actor or acting all the same. Particular credit needs to be given to the performances of Emma Stone and Edward Norton, both of whom light up the screen when they appear. The boundaries between life and performance have never been more blurred as Norton’s Mike Shiner talks about the importance of truth while manipulating his way into a love affair with lines straight out of some cheesy script. At times characters look coyly back into the camera as we follow them through the theatre, leading us through the hall of mirrors as if we’d stepped into Baz Lurman’s Moulin Rouge. Emma Stone’s ex-rehab daughter character serves as an emblem for a generation who learnt to have online personas before they even had their own personalities, perhaps a bigger con than any that the thespians are trying to pull.

Birdman brings no judgement on its characters, despite them all being broken and borderline insane. Yet Birdman is life put up to be judged by us. It’s like an expression of how these mildly self-obsessed actors would describe their lives if they had the chance, complete with every odd circumstance and exaggeration. The irony of their lives is so beautifully rendered by Iñárritu that in watching you almost feel like you could step back and watch your own life like this. See the beauty and irony in your lowest moments like the joyous fairy lights illuminating the depressed Riggan (Keaton) as he brown-bags some spirit and listens to a drunk recite Macbeth. Clearly this absurdity in life is not a new theme, Shakespeare’s words render it admirably, Raymond Carver’s words heard through the adaptation Riggan writes tell us of it, but Iñárritu brings it into our milieu and shows us a whole range of people just trying to make some sense out of it. It’s telling that the camera only stops at the point when Riggan ultimately sees through these illusions and glamours of the stage and screen in perhaps the only action that has no mise en scene, no pretence behind it. In the end Riggan puts an end to the endless series of images that follow on and on ad nauseam and we’re only left with his daughter’s reaction, one of comprehension and admiration that the curtain can one day fall.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:             4/5
  • Intellectual:      5/5

Ben-Hur – 1959

To celebrate two years of reviewing as many films as I possibly can and sharing them with you, the internet, I will today be reviewing a film worthy of such an honour and many more: Ben-Hur.

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The most expensive film ever made at the time of release, (as the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur was at its time), William Wyler’s 1959 Ben-Hur is a timeless biblical epic. Yet I would postulate that the great success of Ben-Hur lies rather in its secularity, despite being one of the few films blessed by the Vatican. The story of Ben-Hur is not taken from the Bible and so cannot cross into misinterpretation or blasphemy. Jesus himself, despite having a palpable presence and importance in terms of plot is barely seen. He is, as he is for a modern audience, a silent symbol of peace and hope supported by word-of-mouth.

The comparison between the life of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston giving a virtuoso performance) and that of Jesus Christ is implicit in the narrative despite the sparse presence of Jesus. The audience is meant to draw the links themselves. Judah’s passionate desire for the liberation of the Jewish people certainly places him in the same league as Moses and Jesus in terms of motivation. His persecution at the hands of Romans who believe themselves to be superior to the Jewish inhabitants certainly strikes a few more ancient and modern notes. The difference between the story of Judah and that of Jesus is that Judah is not divine. He, naturally, is drawn to revenge and hatred after his ordeals, even losing his faith in God. He is human, like us and no one, not even Jesus and those following Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness blame him. Errare humanum est. Biblically speaking, Judah is a sinner who has turned away from love in his quest for revenge, even if the revenge was fuelled by love, and he is waiting to be saved by Jesus, who suffers without turning to hatred. As such the protagonist is not a Christian figure, nor is he a role model. He is an everyman, dealing with his own issues and seeking repose in faith as the audience might.

The production of this film is so legendary that it’s almost surprising while you watch the film how intimate it feels. The conflicts are not the conflicts of nations, rather they are the arguments between old friends, slaves and masters and even lovers played out by chance on a grand scale. What elevates this film is that every action set piece has higher, non-related motivations. A James Bond car chase has the motivation of escape or capture and maybe life and death, but these are the inherent motivations of a chase, the objectives could not be reached in any other way. Whereas the Ben-Hur chariot race would still be a beautiful set piece and an exciting spectacle, regardless of the character’s motivations, yet the script is woven in such a way that this race is the dramatic climax of Judah Ben-Hur’s life. Yet given that he is playing not for the title but for dignity and revenge it could be just as easily envisaged as a fencing match or a game of chess. His motivations are those of classical tragic conflict. He’s an Odysseus-figure returning to his family and lost love. Jesus is just the deus ex machina leading to his happy ending in the face of despair.

  •  Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              5/5
  • Intellectual:       4/5