Archive for February, 2014

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First released in 2012, The Attack is a story that addresses the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, yet has been banned in most Arab countries because it was partly filmed in Israel. This is a great shame because it is a splendid film. I caught up with it this week at the BFI in London.

The film tells the story of Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), an eminent Palestinian surgeon who works with Jewish colleagues at a hospital in Tel Aviv. Just prior to receiving a major award, Amin’s wife Siham (Reymond Amsalem), who is visiting family, rings his mobile phone, but he tells her he cannot speak at that moment and will have to call later. Upon receiving his award, Amin gives a speech that acknowledges the difficulties of being a Palestinian in Israel, but expresses optimism for the future.

The following day, whilst Amin is lunching with colleagues on the hospital terrace, the city is rocked by an explosion and shortly afterwards Amin is trying to save the lives of bloodied victims. We discover that a bomb exploded in a restaurant and most of the dead were children who had been enjoying a party. Later that night Amin is woken from sleep by a phone call and asked to come back to the hospital. Upon arrival he is asked to identify his wife’s body. She was killed in the explosion. The identification scene is truly distressing, because only the top half of Siham’s body is on the mortuary table.

Shortly afterwards Amin is arrested by the police. They tell him that his wife’s injuries are such that she must have been the bomber. Based on this they assume that he, too, must have been involved. Amin’s interrogation is brutal, involving sleep deprivation, being forced to listen to loud music in his cell, and bullying questioning from tough shaven-headed cops. However, there is no evidence to substantiate Amin’s involvement and he is released. He goes home, only to find his house has been ransacked and graffitied, but then he discovers the letter that his wife has left him and the truth is revealed. She was the bomber. He then resolves to discover the terrorist cell who had brainwashed her (he assumes). What he discovers is a world of fear and distrust among family, friends, and the religious radicals he believes to be behind acts of terror. Even his Jewish colleagues at the hospital, who he had considered friends, and who are trying to be sympathetic to his plight, are now viewed with suspicion.

Although The Attack was a story told from the perspective of a Palestinian, it seemed to me that Ziad Doueiri’s film was pretty even-handed. There was no moralising and no simple political messages. On the one hand, we can sympathise with Amin at the end of the picture when he is left wondering if he has abandoned his roots in order to pursue his personal career. The optimism he had expressed in his speech at the start now rings hollow. On the other hand, it is quite easy to sympathise with Amin’s Jewish colleagues when they watch in helpless bewilderment as the man they respect so much starts to distance himself from them. The film also leaves us with the question that features on the poster for the film: “Do you ever really know the one you love?”

Rating: 9/10

Updates: Spelling error corrected on 27.02.14

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ImageWes Anderson movies, certainly since The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, have tended to be Marmite affairs: people either love them or hate them. Having said that, I’m kind of just OK with Marmite. I don’t mind it but don’t love it. It’s pretty much the same with Wes Anderson: I haven’t seen all of his films, but those I have I find quite enjoyable. My appreciation stops there, though.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception. It has the usual deadpan humour combined with a distinct visual style. There are no end of linear perspective shots: views down corridors, down railway tracks, down roads. Within these landscapes vehicles come into view, go out of view, and faces are zoomed in on. There are also lateral tracking shots – in one instance the camera tracks left simply to move from one person to another at a dinner table. The three timelines depicted in the film are represented by three different aspect ratios – 2.35:1, 1.85:1 and 1.33:1 (thanks to the BFI programme notes for that technical info).

The story is based on the writings of Stefan Zweig. Ralph Fiennes displays a wonderful comic skill playing M. Gustave, the concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel, located in Eastern Europe. M. Gustave has a courtly charm that beguiles his guests, male and female, and he makes no bones about the fact that he frequently sleeps with them. One such guest, the elderly Madame D (Tilda Swinton), is so in love with M. Gustave that she has returned for 19 seasons. Following Madame D’s death M. Gustave discovers that she has bequeathed him a valuable painting, ‘Boy with Apple’. However, anticipating trouble from Madame D’s family, led by her vicious son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), M. Gustave removes and hides the painting, replacing it on the wall with a rather different sort of painting – ‘Two Lesbians Masturbating’. Shortly afterwards, it is announced that Madame D’s death was murder, and M. Gustave finds himself framed and arrested. From hereon in much of the film consists of a prison break and extended chase.

Throughout much of this M. Gustave is accompanied by the hotel’s lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). The two of them are an inspired deadpanning comic double act and their interactions are one of the delights of the film. The cast is particularly star-studded, and many of the performers are regulars of previous Anderson films, notably Bill Murray, here playing M. Ivan, the leader of the concierges’ organisation, The Society of the Cross Keys.

The story is told in flashback by Zero as an older man (played by F. Murray Abraham), and these segments top and tail the film. The main action takes place against in 1932 against the backdrop of some sort of fascist uprising in the region. Whether this adds a more serious emotional element to Anderson’s mannered storytelling, or whether it is merely jarring, may be a matter of taste. On first viewing, at least, I felt perhaps it veered a little towards the latter.

Overall, I found The Grand Budapest Hotel to be an amusing diversion, but it didn’t give me the kind of laugh-out-loud experience that I recently had watching Philomena, a story involving real-life heartbreak that nonetheless succeeds in being hugely funny.

Rating: 7/10

ImageFrom the title alone you know that this film is going to be pretty grim viewing. However, for anyone concerned that 12 Years a Slave might be worthy, but not cinematically fulfilling, then I would urge them to think again. This is not a perfect movie, but it is a very fine and important one.

The story begins in New York, where we encounter the talented violinist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He meets two men who offer him a two-week job on an out-of-town tour. We next see Northup sharing a fine meal with the two men who are clearly plying him with drink. Sometime later Northup wakes up in chains in a darkened room, and his miserable ordeal has begun. He is taken to a slave market, where he is sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford turns out to be relatively enlightened, and when Northup devises a scheme for efficiently transporting logs down a waterway Ford presents him with a violin as a mark of gratitude.

However, Northup is harrassed by the racist carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who eventually rounds up his white friends to lynch Northup. Northup only survives this episode due to the intervention of Ford, but Ford explains that his own life will be endangered if he continues to protect him. Thus, Northup is sold on to another slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who puts his slaves to work picking cotton. Epps believes that the Bible gives him the right not just to own, but to abuse, slaves, and he forces his desire on the slave-girl Patsey (Lupita N’yongo). In this terrible environment Northup must hide his intelligence in order to survive, especially as Epps becomes ever more demented.

As most potential viewers of 12 years will undoubtedly agree that slavery is a bad thing, one might ask just why it is that this film is worth seeing. The answer to this is that it is one thing to intellectually know that slavery bad, but it is another thing to understand at a visceral level just how bad slavery is. With that understanding, perhaps, can come an even greater appreciation of the anger felt by the descendants of slaves in western societies who nonetheless remain victims of discrimination. Two moments in the film stand out as particularly brutal. In one, Patsy is whipped so severely that the weals on her back could only have looked worse if this had been shot in 3D. Arguably even more distressing than this, is a scene in which Northup is strung from a tree in such a way that the only way to avoid strangulation is to stand on tip-toes for hours. Whilst he does this we see people going about their business in the background as though nothing were untoward.

There are a number of performances in the film that have been rightly praised as outstanding. Chiwetel Ejiofor is utterly convincing as Solomon Northup, using his face more than words to convey the inner turmoil of a man who must suppress his intelligence and his rage. Lupita N’yongo as Patsey likewise shows us the utter desperation of a woman who would rather die than suffer further abuse and humiliation at the hands of Epps. And Fassbender himself, as Epps, gives us a portrait of a man for whom slavery appears to provide a vehicle for the deranged expression of his own inner demons.

If the film has shortcomings, then one of these must be the third-act appearance of Brad Pitt, whose superstar presence is a real distraction at that point. Secondly, in terms of dramatic tension, it is perhaps a little churlish to criticise a film for staying true to the real-life story (I have not read Northup’s own book, but I believe this is the case). However, most films present us with a series of emotional ups and downs that keep tension alive. In 12 Years, by contrast, things start bad, get worse, and then get really worse again. And because most people will know that 12 Years is based on the real-life Northup’s account of his ordeal, we also therefore know that the movie Northup must survive his ordeal. In this respect, I did feel that the film, while unflinchingly brutal, nonetheless lacked a certain degree of dramatic tension.

Such quibbles aside, however, with so few Hollywood movies touching on the topic of slavery 12 Years really is an outstanding achievement.

Rating: 9/10

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Philomena is a marvellous film, one which tells an important story, and in doing so arouses laughter, anger, and sadness in roughly equal measure, but never leaving the viewers feeling that their emotions are being toyed with. In a series of flashbacks at the start of the film we learn that Philomena (Judi Dench), as a young Catholic girl in Ireland, conceived a child out of wedlock and was taken in by nuns at the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea. Along with other girls in a similar situation she has to pay for her stay by working in the laundry. We learn that these vulnerable young women are persuaded by the nuns to sign a contract whereby their children will be given to married couples who are able to give them a good home. In fact, the nuns are making a profit by selling the children to wealthy Americans. The day comes when Philomena’s son is taken, and she is absolutely distraught.

Several decades later, Philomena is still tormented by thoughts of what has become of her child. On several occasions she has been back to the abbey to find information about her son, but despite providing tea and sympathy the nuns always insist they have not been able to trace the child. Philomena’s daughter puts her in touch with Martin Sixmith (Steve Coogan), the journalist and former adviser to the Labour government, who had been forced to resign in controversial circumstances and who is at something of a loose end. Working together, they finally uncover the truth.

Philomena is, in fact, an odd couple road trip movie. Sixsmith is portrayed as slightly snobbish and cynical, and is initially reluctant to assist Philomena because of his disdain for human interest stories (they are for “weak-minded people”). Philomena, on the other hand, is depicted as working-class, rather naive, and with populist tastes (she loves bodice-ripper romances). Coogan, whose comedy career has largely specialised in depicting oddballs and uncomfortable situations, is at his element in his interactions with Dench. At one point, as they are driving along a country road, Philomena proffers a packet of throat lozenges and asks “Would you like a tune?”, to which Sixmith responds “If you hum it, I’ll play it”. She misses the joke entirely, and holds the lozenges closer, repeating her offer. Further along the journey Philomena responds with raucous laughter when Sixmith says something personal and serious. This clash of worlds occurs again later, in an American hotel breakfast bar. Philomena is thrilled at the range of free food on offer and keeps trying to tempt the well-travelled Sixmith, who is not hungry and for whom such culinary experiences are nothing new.

In real life, Coogan is not only an atheist from a Catholic background, but is a victim in the phone-hacking scandal, a witness at the Leveson inquiry, and a campaigner for press regulation. i wonder how much of this was on his mind when he decided to take on the role of a journalist investigating a Catholic scandal. Was he trying to work through his feelings about both Catholicism and journalism? However, Coogan’s own acting is restrained and generous, allowing Judi Dench to come to the fore brilliantly in depicting the tragedy and humour of her own character. Like all road trip movies, the way the two characters develop over the course of the story, and what they learn about themselves and each other, turns out to be as important as the achievement of their goal.

Rating: 10/10

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In Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a lonely guy who separated from his wife a few months earlier. He makes his living by writing touching letters for special occasions on behalf of inarticulate people. His life changes when he installs a new “intelligent” operating system on his computer, a system that learns from experience and adapts. Using a female voice, the OS takes the name of Samantha, and before long Theo finds himself discussing his personal life with Samantha. They fall in love and have virtual sex. Needless to say, the path of true love does not run smoothly and, before long, Theodore is having to deal with Samantha’s insecurities as well as his own.

The other main human presence in the film is Theo’s friend Amy (Amy Adams), who herself gets involved with an OS after her own relationship falls apart. It also turns out that other people are having relationships with OSs, and even people in happy human relationships seem to view the human-OS relationship as entirely normal.

The film delivers us a meditation on the nature of love and social isolation in the modern age. Unfortunately, I found that I was unable to suspend disbelief to take seriously the notion that an operating system could demonstrate sufficiently the human-like intelligence and feelings that Samantha demonstrates. If it ever happens that is still going to be a long long way in the future.

Even more importantly I could not empathise with Theodore Twombly. I don’t know if this was inherent to the screenplay, whether it was because of the way Phoenix played him, or if Phoenix was just the wrong person for the part. If Jim Carrey were a bit younger I could have seen him in this role (think: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). But the script didn’t do Phoenix any favours either. An early scene shows Theo seeking someone for phone sex and getting it. The woman on the other end turns out to be really weird, and Theo is somewhat horrified, but rather than ring off he politely sees it through. Presumably this was meant to elicit some sympathy for Theo, but it merely made him seem marginally less creepy than he otherwise did. Throughout the movie I couldn’t shake the feeling that Theo was, well, just a bit too weird for my liking, and found myself in agreement with a blind date who tells him that he is a “really creepy dude”. This impression was also magnified by Theo’s appearance: a huge moustache and trousers that seemed to come up to his chest did not exactly make him the epitome of cool.

This is a shame, because there was a good idea underlying all this. Indeed, I liked the conceit of Theo being a letter writer on other people’s behalf, meaning that he himself was a kind of operating system for others. But sadly, the execution just wasn’t good enough.

Rating: 5/10

ImageBilled as a thriller, I found Stranger by the Lake to be more frustrating than thrilling, though I will admit the film did succeed in conveying an air of mystery. The story begins with the arrival of Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) at an idyllic beach by a lake, populated entirely by gay men. These men sunbathe naked, stroll, cast glances at each other, and occasionally wander off into the neighbouring woods to seek sexual encounters (or to watch them). Franck’s attention is captured by Michel (Christophe Paou), a handsome Tom Selleck lookalike, but he is unable to act on his attraction because Michel already has a partner, Pascal (François-Renaud Labarthe). Therefore, Franck swims a way along the coast where he meets Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), an overweight middle-aged man, with whom he strikes up a non-sexual friendship. Henri is somewhat depressed in the wake of a break-up with his wife and, whilst he does not consider himself gay, reveals that he had previously had an enjoyable relationship with a man.

In the evening, when most people have left the beach, Franck waits behind in the woods where he watches Michel and Pascal out in the lake. There is a lot of splashing and indistinguishable shouting, and eventually Franck sees Michel push Pascal below the water and hold him there. Pascal does not resurface and Michel swims back to the beach, where he gathers up his things and leaves.

The next day Franck joins Michel on the beach. Michel tells him that he and Pascal were never a serious relationship, and that they are no longer together. The two of them go into the woods and make love.

As time passes, Franck continues to talk to Henri each day until the point when Michel arrives. But the day comes when Pascal’s body is washed up further along the shore. Many of the regulars stop coming to the beach, but Franck and Michel continue to meet there despite being questioned at intervals by a police inspector (Jérȏme Chappatte). Initially, Franck does not tell the inspector what he saw but what will happen when his relationship with Michel starts to cool?

Stranger by the Lake is one of those films that seems to be operating at the level of metaphor as much as surface story. The metaphor we are presented with is the nature of risk. We learn that Franck prefers not to use condoms during his sexual encounters and, most obviously, he approaches Michel for a relationship even though he knows him to have killed his previous boyfriend. The two of them continue to use the beach even though this necessarily brings them under suspicion from the police inspector.

However, I felt the film needed both stronger characterisation and a stronger plot to actually make the metaphor work. Franck is the central character, yet we are never given any reason to sympathise or identify with him. This is especially the case when he witnesses Michel murder Pascal. Surely any reasonable person would have reported this to the police, rather than seek a relationship with the killer? Indeed, the one character that I found any sympathy for was Henri, because he is the one person that we actually learn anything about. It is hard to comment on the plot without giving the ending away, but for me the story didn’t go anywhere. Perhaps director Alain Guiraudie aimed to create atmosphere more than story. Perhaps the things I have identified as weaknesses were meant to be some sort of commentary on the practice of cruising for uncomplicated gay sex (a world I know nothing about, but which you presume the director does). For me, though, it was all rather unsatisfactory.

The film is certainly not for the easily shocked, as there is not just a lot of male nudity but also a fair bit of gay sex. Most of this simply involves entwined bodies, but there are a couple of highly explicit moments. Many commentators have praised the film for depicting something that is normally shied away from, and maybe this is part of the reason the film has mostly been favourably reviewed. However, with such a slender plot I did wonder if the director was simply seeking an excuse to present gay sexual activity to a mainstream audience.

Rating: 5/10