Monthly Archives: November 2013

American Beauty – 1999

american beautyCommon knowledge designates the title of this film as a reference to an American species of rose. A rose which, even while looking as healthy as can be, could be rotten under the soil. While this metaphor certainly applies, it somewhat discounts the true depth and beauty of the title, and indeed the whole film.

A rose is the ultimate bait and switch in symbolic terms. While it is used widely as a symbol of love and devotion, the truth of a rose is that it has thorns. Even something that is so widely considered beautiful is not without its disadvantages. The rose petals signal the arrival of the twisted and threatening as they surround Angela Hayes. The name Hayes reinforces Mena Suvari’s resemblance to Sue Lyon, Kubricks’ Lolita. The name sounds identical to that of the nymphet in Nabokov’s novel. Lester’s (Kevin Spacey) desire for Angela is hampered, even in fantasy, by the intrusion of the rose petals. Foreshadowing his inability to literally ‘deflower’ the girl when given the opportunity.

Throughout the film we see the ultimate suburban ideal of white picket fences with bright red roses. The manicured lawns and bright blue sky are so like the opening shot of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet that it would be criminal not to reference the themes. The dark underbelly of suburbia is a hangover of ‘The American Dream’. The “own the home/car/wife/life of tomorrow” attitude of the 70’s had tarnished beyond recognition in the wake of the cultural scars of Vietnam. As a result the characters seem increasingly alienated in their pointless, manicured world. To make matters worse American Beauty is set at a time of great instability. The American economy was ready to topple off of the fairy wing it was built on due to Y2K. A phenomenon which, if it is anything, is a symbol of humanity’s inherent ability to destroy itself. The two families shown trying to raise children in this broken society display symptoms of this alienation. Both Lester’s family and the family next door, Ricky and his estranged parents, conduct their lives in almost complete silence. The communal spaces in both family homes are antiseptic and symmetrical. The scenes which make use of these spaces are choreographed, reminiscent of any good Wes Anderson sequence. The relationships between the family members are as superficial and artificial as the space between them.

There is a tension between the beautiful and the rotten in American Beauty. It seems like the two concepts are battling each other for survival. While the family unit is falling apart the individuals are becoming more and more free. Lester leaves his dead-end job which visually imprisons him in number matrices and a cubicle maze. After he leaves this prison his life improves drastically. This vivacity comes directly from his desire for the fetishized cheerleader, Angela. With nearly no interference from Angela herself, Lester becomes envigorated by his desire. He takes possession of her image as an inspiration. It’s exactly what Ricky (Wes Bentley) is doing with his video camera. His obsessive filming of the events around him and particularly of Jane (Thora Birch) demonstrate an intense desire to possess beauty. The home video style scenes which are shot through Ricky’s camera were often shot by Mendes himself. It seems to be an allegory for the whole film. As if American Beauty was made just by Mendes following around the suburban people of America and seeing what narrative came out of their little lives.

The title American Beauty makes us expect to see beauty. Instead we are presented with a cautionary tale against seeking and hoarding beauty. Ricky’s monologue about a simple plastic bag serves as a warning for the audience. His way of life is bizarre and alienating, an obsessive search for beauty. Yet there’s an element of misogyny here, while the men are allowed to be free and create their own rules the women thrive purely on the male gaze. This is the lifeblood of Angela who thrives on being observed by passers-by and ogled by men of all ages. Jane seems to discover her potential sexuality and let go of her hang-ups as a result of Ricky’s camcorder. Carolyn (Annette Bening), Lester’s unloved wife, becomes more joyful as a result of her affair, even regaining the gaze of her husband. As if that were all a woman can aspire to gain.

Lester, by the end of the film, is completely free to find beauty and love in everything he sees. As such he cannot live, white middle class America throws every possible obstacle at him to beat him back into submission. In the end he becomes a martyr for The American Dream. There are at least two characters who are ready to kill him for stepping outside of the accepted lines. Of course, the one who truly does kill him is the fallen hero of the American army (Chris Cooper). A patriot who has to save not only his own face, but the respectable face of America, despite knowing the flaws all too well. Ironically, Lester, the obsessive, near paedophilic anti-hero leaves us with a monologue about the wonder of life. The lines far more befit Ricky, who seems to finally break away from hoarding life in order to live it. Leaving Lester to speak to the viewer is distasteful, it glorifies his actions and his agenda, which have not been at all admirable. His name is an anagram of “Humbert Learns” but this man appears to have not learnt at all. The only reason he stops short with Angela is because he finds out that she is no longer a prize. Her virginity makes her less valuable to him, since in the narrative of American Beauty a woman’s worth is measured by male approval. Perhaps that is the American condition Mendes wishes to criticise. Unfortunately, if it is, it fails at the first hurdle of satire, it is indistinguishable from a film praising this system.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       3/5
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Gravity – 2013

­­GRAVITYAlfonso Cuarὸn’s new film is strange as a concept. It doesn’t seem like an hour and a half of watching only two actors in space would be engaging cinema. If you think this when reading the premise of Gravity you are in for one huge surprise.

Gravity is a unique cinematic experience. The hypothetical camera switches between flying freely through the action and focusing directly on a character. This is used to striking effect when movement is involved. One second you can be looking at a stationary world with an astronaut spinning wildly until suddenly the camera zooms in on a face and the world moves behind them. It perfectly brings to life the disorientating nature of space and weightlessness for people who can never experience it. Moments in the film are purely beautiful, with some scenes looking like what Stanley Kubrick was dreaming of while making 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In a way it seems as if this film is nothing we’ve not seen before. We’ve had films in the beauty of space, we’ve even had Apollo 13, which is not only a space disaster film, but one based on a true story. It seems to almost cheapen the real drama and risk of space exploration to make up a story about the danger of space. But on the other hand, Apollo 13 was a long time ago. The Apollo program hasn’t been operational for forty years. It seems about time that we had a space film for our generation, complete with the ISS and the real risk of space debris. Not to say that the film is scientifically accurate, many people have dedicated time pointing out that it isn’t. However, it seems that those people have rather missed the point. What is important is that it’s scientifically believable enough to not break the suspension of disbelief.

If Sandra Bullock wanted another Oscar she couldn’t do better than Gravity. Bullock explores the nature of stress, trauma and fear incredibly skilfully. The brief moments of respite for her character are some of the most memorable parts of the film. The character’s journey from the womb of space to an earthly rebirth is powerfully shot and portrayed. It’s a true harmony of performance and direction, allowing for a much greater breadth of symbolism and communication. Every accolade needs to be thrown at her performance, all the more so given the difficulty of shooting scenes where she appears weightless, or even scenes where only her face is visible through a helmet and her voice alone carries the film. George Clooney somewhat fades behind Bullock’s performance but is sensitive and cheerful in his portrayal. His optimism is the perfect foil to Bullock’s misery and introversion and they play off each other to great effect regardless of the situation.

Cuaròn’s film is daring and beautiful, yet you have to wonder how enduring this beauty is. Shiny CGI of orbit is not enough, no matter how innovative the style and cinematography. I even wonder if this sense of scale and grandeur will make this film suffer in the future on DVD and television. Gravity seems like a plea to movie-goers to abandon the 5 inch smartphone screens and appreciate the wonder of being surrounded and overwhelmed by a movie.

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

Casse-tête Chinois – 2013

Casse-tête-chinoisThe ultimate conclusion of Cédric Klapisch’s story, nine years after Les Poupées Russes, life is once again complex and irritating for Xavier (Romain Duris). Xavier acts as narrator as he tells the plot of his life (and his book) to a publisher on Skype. He’s told in no unclear terms, that happiness is boring – you can’t have a story where everyone is fulfilled. In the Q&A following the film Klapisch said that his first attempts for the script of Casse-tête Chinois everything had been left as optimistic as it was at the end of Les Poupées Russes, and the script was dull as can be.

Once more the characters from the previous films are pared down to leave only four. These performances are now totally comfortable and confident. When Xavier (Romain Duris) flies to New York following Wendy (Kelly Reilly) it seems only natural that he would end up on the sofa of eternally free-spirited Isabelle (Cécile de France). With the cast happily relocated to a new city the film makes full use of the environment. Early on in the film Xavier’s property hunt is rendered as a hilarious sequence with prices popping up on buildings and Google maps tours of the area, as well as a clearly doomed encounter with a landlord who is much less open to the modern family.

If L’auberge Espagnole and Les Poupées Russes were concerned with the emerging European identity, Casse-tête Chinois confronts globalisation. A French man follows an English woman to New York where his Belgian friend sets him up with a place in Chinatown. On a human level it’s the simplest thing imaginable, friends help one another regardless of international borders. Symbolically it represents the blurring of differences between nationalities and whether their identities will slowly disappear in the times to come. Thankfully Klapisch doesn’t dwell on these, he merely presents them as an oddity to be reckoned with and moves on to the comedy. Casse-tête Chinois is spectacularly funny. It makes the previous films look like that re-run of Friends that you laugh at out of habit. The comic culmination puts every single character into the smallest space imaginable. If circumstances had played out differently it could all have ended in heartbreak, but instead this awkward tension drives the laughter as Xavier and his friends continue to get away with their lies and muddles.

In the end it’s all fabulously uplifting. It seems that these characters won’t be seen on screen again, after all, they’re happy. As Xavier’s eternally glum publisher says, you can’t write about them when they’re happy. Regardless of whether you’ve seen the first two films, Casse-tête Chinois will leave a smile on your face.

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

Les Poupées Russes – 2005

poupees-russes-2005-09-gLike Richard Linklater with the Before series Klapisch’s return to his previous characters proves much more thoughtful and mature. Three years after the events of L’Auberge Espagnole we re-encounter Xavier who is now, in a sense, working as a writer.

Klapisch ditches the less interesting characters from L’Auberge Espagnole but still leaves enough variety for comic situations ranging from Xavier dressed in drag, to being abandoned in a nightclub with a glass of milk. The characters have grown up in the years we haven’t seen them and the performances are equally more accomplished. Kelly Reilly really shines through as her character gains a much bigger role in this film and a more rounded personality appears behind the cut-glass accent and tea drinking. Audrey Tautou and Cécile de France provide another two great performances as the irritatingly attractive and totally off-limits female friends that every young bachelor must have. The only character who doesn’t seem to have matured is Xavier himself. Duris shows him just as clueless, clumsy and naïve as he was before. The vast majority of the humour comes at Xavier’s expense, everyone around him is seeing the world through adult eyes and building careers while he is still floundering about hoping to sleep with supermodels. It’s a strange reshaping of the ensemble, but it works well.

Sticking with the multicultural theme Les Poupées Russes is set in France, England and Russia, with more travelling between and within the three than is feasible for a 20-something writing shoddy screenplays while clutching an unpublished novel. Yet these are minor considerations. While much of the plot does feel awfully convenient and contrived, these little coincidences are what drive the story forward.

The best turn in this film comes totally unexpectedly from Kevin Bishop. From being an insufferable student in L’Auberge Espagnole he becomes the epitome of a man changed by love, learning Russian in a year so that he could fly to St Petersburg to chase a ballerina. It’s a perfect love story for the two, the dainty Natasha (Evguenya Obraztsova) provides a foil to the bulky and brash William and it’s genuinely uplifting to watch the tender relationship shown on screen.

Klapisch’s style is a lot more comprehensible in Les Poupées Russes. Here, when the action is interrupted for a fantasy sequence or a voiceover sneaks in it is poignant, funny and memorable. The extraneous details have been left aside and distilled into a genuinely charming set of characters discovering what life holds for them personally in the new global community.

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

L’Auberge Espagnole – 2002

auberge-espagnole-2002-11-gWhen I saw Cédric Klapisch’s Casse-tête Chinois at the London Film Festival I was firstly, surprised that I had absent-mindedly got myself into the third part of a trilogy, and secondly, shocked that I hadn’t found these films before.

L’auberge Espagnole presents us with the highly modern and essentially western problems faced by European 20-somethings. It begins somewhat awkwardly, using a mix of voiceover and double-speed footage as a kind of prologue. Fortunately, this doesn’t last long and the films picks up once it leaves dull Paris-based exposition and moves to Barcelona.

Klapisch seems intent on throwing as many stereotypes our way as he can manage and puts these cultural pawns into play in a multi-national flat share. While some nations get away with having real, well thought out characters representing them, others are reduced to a few convenient stereotypes. The German student has his room organised to within an inch of its life and sticks to a rigid study program. The English girl is stand-offish and bossy. She is pathetically awful at every language she comes into contact with and her brother is a binge-drinking lad of the first order. Some of these stereotypes are admittedly true and the only reason Klapisch gets away with it is by making every interaction so blissfully funny that it doesn’t matter that the characters are a little two-dimensional. If this film is a metaphor for the European political situation, it’s simply laughable that such a varied group of people could ever agree in government.

The film is quite loose and unstructured. There are subplots that could easily have been cut and characters that are just annoying instead of amusing. Audrey Tautou is fantastically irritating as Xavier’s neurotic long-distance girlfriend but the side-plot of Xavier’s affair with a married woman (Judith Godrèche) doesn’t really go anywhere, isn’t funny and does nothing but make Xavier’s character seem superior and unpleasant.

It’s a sweet and funny film which ends far better than it began. Some of the scenes of student life are tear-jerkingly accurate and absurd. Yet, had I not seen Casse-tête Chinois first, I am not sure I would have continued to watch Les poupées Russes after L’Auberge Espagnole.

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

The Invisible Woman – 2013

invisible womanRalph Fiennes’ second turn as director is just as unapologetically English as the first. It seems that his goal truly is to secure himself as a national treasure taking on Shakespeare first and now Dickens. Another film destined to join the supply cupboards for English teachers with no lesson plan, The Invisible Woman is strikingly dull from start to finish.

The film’s topic is the hidden love affair between Charles Dickens and Nelly Turner, a young actress. In the plain light of day there is very little drama or intrigue to this story. There are rumours and the fear of discovery, but really nothing much more interesting than the usual “man in loveless marriage seeks attractive young woman”. By attempting to inject high level drama into this situation, mainly through a clumsy manipulation of flashbacks which serve to distract rather than enlighten, Fiennes’ film begins to feel like a two hour Downton Abbey special rather than a piece of cinema. Neither the direction nor the script has an ounce of subtlety or nuance and, as the music swells and we cut to Felicity Jones walking tearfully across a windswept beach, you have to wonder ‘oh what now’.

This is not helped by the entire lack of onscreen chemistry between Fiennes as Dickens and Jones as his lover. Fiennes is more predatory than romantic and Jones’ performance consists almost entirely of looking confused. An awful lot of the main characters seem to confuse stoicism for blankness and give stiff, uninteresting performances from behind their period trappings.

What cannot be faulted is the production design, every book, hair and speck of dust is painstakingly recreated to throw us into the Victorian age. Unfortunately, Fiennes doesn’t take advantage of the beautiful sets thrown up around him, instead relying on the production design to distract from the uninspired cinematography. In the end the film just feels weighed down by accuracy, as if the whole budget was spent on props and left no coin for a script supervisor.

The film will undoubtedly put bums on seats and sell a lot of DVDs. There will never be a shortage of people who watch quintessentially English films about quintessentially English things. Yet it truly saddens me that somewhere there is someone whose only understanding of what British culture and cinema is about comes from films like this one.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5

12 Years A Slave – 2013

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVESteve McQueen’s newest film is nowhere near as cutting edge as his earlier works. It feels a little bit like an easy way into the mainstream eye, helped along by timing a film about slavery to coincide with an anniversary of its abolition. This doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable though.

McQueen sticks with his tried and tested formula of really delving into the mind of one character. It takes about half an hour of McQueen’s script and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance combined to make the audience completely engaged with Solomon’s character. By focusing so closely on one man his plight becomes the most important, his suffering the most bitter. His actions border on the egotistical, but it is understood as survival instinct and so Solomon never loses the audience’s sympathy.

This is not to say that there are not other great performances or characters. Lupita Nyong’o gives a harrowing performance as Patsey, the unfortunate favourite of the plantation owner. Paul Dano, while his role is barely more than a cameo, is electrifying for every second that he is on screen. His interpretation of a slave-driver is deliciously evil and amoral. It is a testament to McQueen that, although these characters are clearly the villains, there is never any demonization in his presentation. It’s all very matter of fact. I remember watching Spielberg’s Amistad and being irritated by the many details which existed only to firmly delineate right from wrong. It felt like a filmmaker uncertain about his material, resorting to a sledgehammer to crack a nut. McQueen doesn’t fall into this trap, right and wrong are self-evident in 12 Years A Slave and so it can be presented dispassionately.

The film could have been excessively harrowing if it were not so beautiful to watch. McQueen teams up again with Sean Bobbitt (Shame, The Place Beyond the Pines) to deliver breathtaking visuals throughout. The most unpleasant and brutal situations are portrayed without gore or ugliness yet they lose none of their impact. The audience reaction is intellectual and emotional, rather than visceral. It prompts the viewer to really think, rather than react with simple anger or disgust.

It’s a beautiful film, and it certainly leaves an impression on the viewer. If nothing else, it may at least stop schoolchildren from having to watch Amistad. It may even get Steve McQueen that elusive Oscar nomination. It just isn’t what I expected or hoped for from a Steve McQueen film, not after the daring and captivating back-catalogue.

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