Category Archives: Gold Screen

Les Amours Imaginaires (2010)

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Earlier this week I reviewed Xavier Dolan’s J’ai tué ma mère and was not entirely convinced that the director merited his cult status. Yet after Les amours imaginaires I could not be more pleasantly surprised by the improvement between the first and second film. Les Amours Imaginaires follows two best friends who both fall for Nicolas, the tall blond stranger that walks into their world. It’s been said before and will be said again, as far as plot goes, the set-up is a modern day Jules et Jim complete with an ironic predisposition for kitsch vintage of that precise time.

Stylistically Dolan again takes his lead from the Nouvelle Vague, interspersing his film with faux-documentary style interviews like in Godard’s Masculin Feminin. The camera frenetically zooms in and out of these mini-confessionals to preserve the style, but the device very quickly becomes overused and visually annoying. These interview cutaways give the film a context; despite the heightened reality of slo-mos and surrealist shots perfectly framed and accompanied by loud, Italian music, this story is not unusual. It’s just one of the many failed love affairs being experienced by all young people. Every one of these stories could have had a film, it just so happens that we ended up with this one.

The film does a fantastic job of building up the stakes while leaving the character of Nicolas as vapid and mysterious as possible. His motivations and emotions are entirely unknown, and he seems like a living embodiment of “ignorance is bliss”. Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Dolan) go through hell at his hands analysing where his affections may or may not lie while Nicolas simply continues in a totally separate universe unaware of any problems and accidentally making it worse. He shares a bed with the pair of them as friends, reaches out to put his arms round their shoulders and seems to act with just enough interest to turn two friends deep in unrequited love into enemies in an uncomfortable ménage-a-trois.

In the end that’s the great beauty and tragedy in this film: none of it actually happens. It’s a story of two people who project a fantasy onto the same guy, a dream which starts to encroach on reality, poisoning their day-to-day lives, ruining great moments and eventually turning the two best friends against each other. What’s even worse is that it’s normal. Everyone in the film is imagining their way to hell and as much as they seek comfort in interchangeable anonymous trysts filmed through filters, the life they imagine for themselves is quite literally more colourful than the love they can acquire.

Quite apart from all this, the film is a technical masterpiece. The cinematography is certainly still in the realm of art photography rather than blockbuster clichés but it loses the clumsy overworked feel of J’ai tué ma mere. The soundtrack lurches between classical music and vapid club beats via Dalida’s cover of Bang Bang but it marries together in a reflection of the three poles of the awkward love triangle that emerges. The references and winks towards a wider culture of art, mythology and cinema stars abound, rooting Les Amours Imaginaires as one of the many archetypical stories that everyone lives through, here rendered with mastery and style.

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

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

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

The Wind Rises – 2014

TheWindRises_UKTrailerThe Wind Rises was blown in from Japan with cries of the sad end of an era, this being Hayao Miyazaki’s last film. I myself was not a fan of the Studio Ghibli films and while this may seem both unlikely and shockingly close to heresy for someone who loves animation as a genre I stand by my opinion. In fact what interested me most about this film was the disappointment I heard from long-time Ghibli fans about the lack of whimsy and magic – precisely something that had always bothered me about Ghibli.

It’s true, The Wind Rises is an historical drama and not at all the cutesy fairytale fare the studio has been peddling recently. It’s as if Miyazaki finally had the freedom to make a true, serious film after a life confined to the kids’ table. Elements of this fantasy style remain in dream sequences but the pastel-coloured madness is confined and contrasted to a much bleaker story of Japan in crisis. There’s a subtlety in this film that has seemed absent from some of the more recent Ghibli films like Ponyo and Arrietty. Even the skill of the animation to portray shortsightedness onscreen is laudable.

Miyazaki does well to distance himself from the politics of the situation, after all this could be seen as a war film, with the majority of the action taking place around the design of the Japanese fighter planes. Furthermore he places his protagonists in the Great Kanto Earthquake and the tuberculosis epidemic. It’s hard to imagine how a film can remain neutral and universally acceptable with these reference points. However Miyazaki’s angle is far more from the aesthetic and technical perspective. Better yet he stays in an individual and human experience, a human who has a higher purpose than to involve himself in such issues too deeply. Through Jiro Miyazaki explores the difficulty of genius, the art of mathematics and the eternal obsession that ambition creates. After all, if, as the film proclaims, you only have ten years of creativity, what is the sense in spending it doing anything but creating? There are moments where the film gets bogged down in a little too much technical detail for those of us who are unfamiliar and indifferent to riveting techniques but these are few and far between. The rest of the film leaves no room for boredom with its swells of music and elegant animation.

The title is taken from a poem by Paul Valery, a call to arms to live, to create in the face of death. The film also delivers just that with great aplomb. It’s a love story, but in the end the love of earthly things, even his wife is not enough for Jiro, an aeronautical engineer. His calling is creation and the immortality that comes with creating beauty. He neglects his sister throughout his whole life and, despite being a kind and generous man, never ceases to spend more time with his aeroplanes than with his dying wife. For Jiro everything in life fades, the cities can be destroyed, peace and war circle on and those you love die. The only constant is the dream that he tries to live, since the only time when the dreams can fade away is when the dreamer is no longer around to dream them.

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

West – 2013

gallery_image (1)Often in life we find ourselves met with tangible goals, milestones that we try to pass in the belief that they will change or benefit our lives in some way. Classic Hollywood cinema was a sucker for these ‘happy endings’, the point where everything cannot help but inevitably get better. However in our post-modern world these stories ring false and we want to see beyond. This is where Christian Schowchow takes us in West, the story of Nelly, a single mother trying to start a new life with her son, Alexei in West Berlin.

Before the title card flashes up Schwochow has already treated us to three distinct and powerful vignettes. These show us the story up until the point where the story would classically end. The first, an idyllic snow scene: mother, son and father as the perfect family unit. Next, the breakdown of this unit, the loss of a father figure and the arduous crossing to West Berlin. Lastly, the pop music stirs up in the background and the bright lights shine. Alexei, a veritable child of Marx and Coca-Cola picks up an empty Coke can and treasures it. It’s a short segment but already we sense the imposing falseness, the bright lights and misplaced hope that will accompany this crossing.

The good/bad dichotomy between East and West Germany is totally deconstructed in this film. Schwochow treats the golden myth of social mobility and capitalism with the same cynical eye as the degenerate films of New York: Gatsby, Taxi Driver. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, full of close ups and hemmed in by the concrete walls of the Refugee Centre. Ongoing interrogations into Nelly’s past and motives bar the way to citizenship, leaving them to rot in the paranoid, hopeless ghetto they find themselves in.

Jördis Triebel won Best Actress at the German Film Awards for this role and it’s not hard to see why. The film is always either with Nelly or Alexei which gives her a huge amount of screen time. It would be so easy to slip into a portrayal of an erratic, on the edge woman with no real depth but Nelly’s anger, paranoia and hatred always seem justified. The extreme nature of her actions just serve to highlight the cruel and difficult circumstances she has to deal with. Tristan Göbel also gives a fantastic performance, however he stays a little more within the archetype of a kind child in a difficult situation. Nevertheless his deep distress is palpable as he tries to reach out and make his, and his mother’s life better without ever breathing a word of complaint.

There’s a near-documentary harshness in the cinematography. So much is handheld and Schowchow allows some things to fall out the edges of frames, as if by accident. There’s no sentimental symbolism here, just a cold hard examination of the facts. Many of the plotlines don’t finish, or at least finish unsatisfactorily, leaving us in the lurch. Yet in the end that’s the point of it all, to be able to leave behind the past and the paranoia, be it caused by East or West.

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

I have not been so blown away by a film in a long time.

Trainspotting – 1993

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For many years now I have noticed “The trainspotting cult”. Unfortunately this is not a cult of violent middle-aged men brandishing perfectly sharpened HB pencils but rather an unavoidable truth that most people who have seen Danny Boyle’s breakout film will extoll it’s virtues to high heaven.

I’m not at all sorry to say that I have joined this cult. Trainspotting is a film that stays with you in the best way that a film can, through its imagery. Danny Boyle is a master of the pure visual art. Anyone who remembers his slightly more sentimental Oscar-winner, Slumdog Millionaire, would be hard pushed not to associate the colour yellow with Latika. Trainspotting is a more radical, stylish attack on cinematic preconceptions. Renton’s (Ewan McGregor) drug withdrawal symptoms become a nightmare sequence incorporating purpose-built sets and Hitchcockian camera techniques.

While often, in cinema, a voiceover narration shows a weakness in the script or a refusal to trust the audience; for example, the painful shoehorning of a voiceover into Blade Runner, here the voiceover acts to tighten up the script. It doesn’t take on the role of exposition, moral judgement or nostalgia but remains within the mind of Renton to express his reactions to what we’re seeing. It’s a neat ploy, where the audience is seeing squalor and misery he is only seeing his friends and day to day life.

In the opening monologue Renton pours disdain on the people who choose to live a normal life, unlike the one he leads among the heroin addicts of Edinburgh. Yet throughout the film’s episodes we see Renton repeatedly try to choose the way out, back into the society he claims to hate. Despite the film’s comic, almost uplifting tone, this group of friends does suffer, terribly. It’s a chilling conclusion that Renton comes to. Choosing to conform will end suffering, but at the price of the greatest highs he’s ever known, heroin and the freedom to choose. In this respect the script packs all the right punches. This isn’t a tragic story of trapped addicts seeking redemption. This is a story of rebellion, anti-capitalist ideals and a cry for self-determination in a corporate world.

The soundtrack boils over with 90’s Eurodance music, a genre where even the name screams of a hope of unity and identity. A hope that is undermined by the class barriers Renton finds himself confronted by. When he moves to London a hopeful montage of diversity and prosperity greets him, only for him to end up in even more dire straits than he was before. In the end Renton does choose to conform. As he starts his new life it’s easy to wonder whether he’s really as happy with the new direction he’s taking as he seems or if he, like the people he used to hate, has finally learned to love Big Brother.

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