Category Archives: Personal Screen

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.

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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

Good Morning, Vietnam – 1987

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Earlier this week, knocked somewhat sideways by the news of Robin Williams’ sudden death I discovered that a very good friend and fellow fan of Williams’ work had never seen Good Morning Vietnam. In our best attempt to honour a huge contributor to cinema we sat down to watch it. For my part it has been several years since I watched Good Morning, Vietnam and I’m always interested to find out whether my early cinematic leanings have any value to me when I rewatch them.
Good Morning Vietnam is one of those great films that can be described as “hard-hitting comedy” or “lighthearted war film”. What this basically means is that it succeeds in having a mature and sophisticated enough script to land its message without melodrama. For a film about the Vietnam War this is one hell of an achievement since I’m not sure anyone could give Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket points for subtlety despite both being very good films. It seems that even though, in real life, you will probably hear a joke about the most recent crisis or disaster, filmmakers shy away from humour in favour of sombre reverence. This is not to say that such events do not require respect, I wouldn’t trust this kind of film in the hands of, for example, the creators of MTV’s Jackass. Yet the tendency to romanticise and dramatize historical events can often alienate an audience rather than give them a window to empathy.
Good Morning, Vietnam completely undercuts this trope. Between an excellent script and an excellent performance from Robin Williams we are presented with Cronauer (Williams) the ultimate everyman. He’s technically a military man but really he just seems like a normal guy whose job got transferred to a warzone. It’s difficult to imagine another actor who could so perfectly carry off witty DJ repartee and carry the emotional thrust of the film. On the subject of good performances this film takes on a surreal tone when you realise that Forest Whitaker is is fact playing the klutzy Garlick.
Structurally, Good Morning, Vietnam pulls a fast one on the audience. You are lured into a sense of security with this charming parody of the army. A goofball everyman befriends some locals while classic rock and roll accompanies cheery young soldiers on duty. Everything slowly spirals from there as the viewer, concurrently with Cronauer discovers that they have in fact stumbled into something far bigger and far more dangerous and important than they could ever have imagined. The film champions the understated values of consistency and temperance. By the end there’s a sad feeling of helplessness. No one seems to have done anything wrong and yet people are dying. The war continues to only hurt the people who can do nothing to change whether the war exists at all.
I have met some people who disputed that this was a war film. I think to deny that would be a great injustice. The human imagination is a very powerful thing and, as the monster is always scarier before he is seen, so the death of the young soldiers is all the more awful for the fact that we don’t even see it. Good Morning, Vietnam shows us the soldiers as human, laughing and enjoying themselves. The script doesn’t bolster their characters with any heroic or noble acts of war, as if that would make their death more tragic. Truly, Good Morning, Vietnam says more about the human condition by being a fun film to watch than many films will ever achieve.

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

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Robin Williams 1951 – 2014

Boyhood – 2014

Boyhood_2Richard Linklater’s twelve year production was always going to be a very different viewing experience to the run of the mill coming of age story. Personally I experienced an additional level of strangeness while watching since I realised about halfway through that I am the exact same age as the protagonist. The music and culture is contemporaneous and roots Boyhood into a generation. The generation who stayed up for midnight Harry Potter releases and listened to Cobra Starship during a “rebellious” phase. I guess this made the story hit me even harder since it ends with Mason (Ellar Coltrane) going off to college, a milestone I’m just about to pass. But enough about me, onto the film.

The film really has four characters, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), their mother (Patricia Arquette) and their father (Ethan Hawke). With the parents divorced Ethan Hawke and two other men make regular appearances as lovers and/or father figures. The neatly avoided trap is not to delineate the years too clearly. Instead the years slip by as if they were part of your own memories, sometimes you’re not too sure if the characters have grown, other times you see a shocking leap in style, voice and maturity. It’s odd to see the marked contrasts in the children every year while the adults seem to remain completely constant. It’s only when you see pictures of the actors at the beginning and end that the aging process becomes apparent in the older half of the cast.

There’s an interesting progression in the directing as the film continues as well. The earlier sections are less slick, a little more out of focus and less subtle than the later parts. It’s hard to tell whether the enjoyment increases due to the improvement in style and acting or due to how hugely emotionally invested you become in the characters by that point. Either way, you can feel the heartbreak deeply when Mason’s relationship, which can’t last more than twenty minutes on screen, breaks apart after two years. By the end of three hours these people seem more like old family friends rather than characters in a film. Bizarrely the exception to this is Lorelei Linklater who seems to give Samantha a more and more distant and cold air every time you see her. This characterisation works in context, since it keeps the spotlight firmly on Mason and his emotions, rather than an ensemble family drama.

Boyhood makes a bold statement about the nature of film, a respect to time and continuity that is gathering momentum and breeding a new generation of filmmakers. Linklater is a master at catching the natural, unguarded and deeply important moments of childhood.

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

Les Amants du Pont Neuf – 1991

amants-du-pont-neuf-1991-22-gSet on what can be argued to be the most distinctive bridge in Paris, Leos Carax’s film captures a fleeting moment in time for all of us to consume. In 1990 Pont Neuf was dilapidated and closed for repairs. Against this backdrop, although not actually filmed on the bridge itself, we meet two people, both equally dilapidated. Michèle (Juliette Binoche) is an artist losing her eyesight and running from her marriage. Alex (Denis Lavant) is an aggressive alcoholic. The only thing these two have in common is their misfortune and their home sleeping rough on Pont Neuf.

Carax’s camera refuses to be bound to a classic narrative style. At times we are seeing the world through Michèle’s eyes. Fireworks and lights appear in painful high contrast flashes. Over-stimulating her eyes and the viewer. Later it feels like a music video, the soundtrack ramps up into cynical electro-trance tracks as the characters seem to dance. It’s an almost painterly treatment of the subject matter. There are entire sequences with no dialogue that show us more about the relationship than some films ever achieve. The camera has been utterly freed here and it creates a shockingly anti-narrative result. While the plot does move forward it seems to be just a coincidence of time passing. Les Amants du Pont Neuf is a collection of moments in a love affair, the ones that are remembered for years to come.

The central theme is one of rebuilding. We enter a world that is harsh and gritty. The hospital is less welcoming than the street here. It’s a terrible snapshot of life for the homeless of Paris. As the film progresses it starts to get better. The bridge itself is still in ruins but Alex and Michèle seem to improve, they earn some money and even manage to reintegrate into society a little. When the bridge, and everything else, is finally whole it seems impossible that they are the same people who we saw before. The camera seems to capture two completely average people, and you wonder whether they have been neutralised, normalised by the passing of time. Is that all that humans really wish to do? To regulate the actions and emotions of everyone around us, fix them all up to be more pleasing to the eye? It certainly seems to be the case in Carax’s interpretation. Whatever is not beautiful is rejected in this world, and those that can see clearly will naturally never stoop to what is less than perfect.

Carax never allows his style to become self-important. There are echoes of the old greats of cinema at all the most poignant moments, even Singing in the Rain gets an allusion. All the beauty and all the rule-breaking is informed by a knowledge of how to communicate through the lens. It makes for a deeply moving film, even when you can’t yet understand its significance or meaning.

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

The Grand Budapest Hotel – 2014

WEK_GrandBudapestHotel_0307Wes Anderson’s newest film is full of pastel-pink dollhouse glamour, as always. At the beginning of the film we see a girl reading a book entitled “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. We then cut, and change aspect ratios to an author, who is being told they story that would later become the book the girl is reading. Cut again and we’re even smaller on the screen and starting the primary action: The Lobby Boy’s account of the story that happened to the Concierge at The Grand Budapest Hotel. The story which would later become the events he told the writer and were made into a book that a girl is reading. Confused yet? The film cuts between these two layers, the older man’s narration and the story he’s recounting, the whole way through. It’s interesting to see the use of aspect ratio, a largely ignored cinematic affectation until recently, but it cuts off the emotional thrust of the story since it feels like we are seeing it at least third hand. It’s hard to relate to a story told from such a great distance, even when it’s set in the same location only 30 years previously.

It seems to me that the film would be more successful if it just told the original story. The story of Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his inexplicably adopted protégée Zero (Tony Revolori). Both of these two give fantastic, tongue-in-cheek performances tinged with deep melancholy. Fiennes is dynamite, exuding effusive, camp wit through his very body language and Revolori matches him, grounding the characters and providing the audience with a lens. Through Zero’s eyes we see the obsessive, sycophantic M. Gustave entirely positively. Despite all his flaws we only see him as flamboyant and refined, a relic of a greater age, when elegance ruled the land.  The farcical nature of his whole world is revealed through the name of the fictional European land we find ourselves in, Dubrowka, which is, in fact, a brand of flavoured lime green vodka -A ridiculous indulgent frippery akin to the hotel at the centre of this film.

This candy-floss pink world is set against the unfortunate backdrop of war, both past and future. In a Europe still recovering from the loss of a generation it seems fitting that an old hotel finds that all its clients are dying and no new ones are appearing. In the midst of a Nazi invasion it’s natural that the luxury and decadence wouldn’t survive. None of the magic of the hotel survives, not M Gustave, not the sweet romance that Zero finds there, not even the whimsical building. War and politics strips the world of its beauty and intrigue and all that’s left is a book and an old man in a decrepit hotel. It’s very strange, Anderson went from Moonrise Kingdom, the moving-image fairytale to this, an assertion that time is fleeting and all the best things will disappear, only to be remembered in tiny 4×3 snapshots. The real world is much larger, and much more brutal, it surrounds us in widescreen making the dingy colours and indifference all the more upsetting.

Wes Anderson films have always been full of the kind of cinematography and visual wit that makes the world seem like a better place. The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception and it’s entirely possible to find yourself giggling along with many of the scenes based purely on their whimsical, witty and perfectly calculated design. Anderson is, in his own way making the cinema into a hotel where he can create the perfect world during our stay.

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

Waking Life – 2001

Waking.Life.2001.720p.BluRay.X264-AMIABLE-005Back in 2001 Richard Linklater, sometime between Before Sunrise and School of Rock (must say, I did not expect that on his filmography) made an animated essay about dreaming. There is really no succinct way to speak about this film.

The animation is entirely digital, overlaid onto the previously existing live action. At times it is so accurate as to be uncanny, at others it’s a blur shape and colour. Throughout the film sections of the screen move independently of each other despite logically being fixed spaces. The dreamscape is very powerful but after a while you accept it as real, it stops looking odd for things to be permanently moving. The film moves from person to person: characters, celebrities, characters in other films and even Linklater himself. In turn they share their philosophical perspectives. It’s easy to discount many of these speeches; an angry prisoner, a couple engaging in pillow talk or a group of angry teenagers seem irrelevant and stupid compared to professional philosophers and scientists. As the film wears on it becomes more apparent that every opinion is valid, the absence of jargon doesn’t make the child’s origami fortune teller or the angry rambling less significant. Every one of these people is discussing freedom, dreams and destiny in their own terms. They say very different things between them.

It seems as if every single viewer would get a different message from this film, like some kind of confirmation bias. The views you agree with stick around and further your thoughts. The questions raised vary widely: Is there life after death? Is life all a dream? Does society hold us back? Does time even exist? What is the purpose of cinema? Like all good works of art these questions don’t get answered, at least, not definitively. Most of the characters offer at least one answer or opinion but in the end it’s up to the viewer and the protagonist to think these thing on their own.

All together it feels like falling into someone’s collection of newspaper clips and meaningful quotes and trying pull the common strands of thought out of the pattern that emerges. There’s no traditional narrative, the narrative comes from you as you link the characters and their words with your thoughts and with other films and culture. The whole thing is packed full of references, many of them to other Linklater films but many more that just show glimpses of a moment that reminds you of something else. The experience will build with each new viewing and it feels as if this is a piece to be re-worked and responded to, not to be holed up and revered as a complete work.

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