Pride (UK, 2014)

All in it together

All in it together

I’m amazed the first I heard of this heart-warming collaboration between Welsh miners and lesbians and gays, during the mid-eighties strike, was in an Observer feature a few weeks ago. Did I just miss it or did the media duck this class conscious alliance? Whatever the reason it’s a great story and is superbly told in this film which, I hope, becomes a big hit. It opened at number three last weekend but I expect the middle aged audience will have been catching weekday screenings. It’s imdb rating is over 8 suggesting the film is hitting the right notes for many.

The strong script, by Stephen Beresford, is aided by an ensemble cast where the well-known, Bill Nighy, Paddy Considine, Imelda Staunton and Dominic West, are matched by the rest, including the up-and-coming George Mackay, Jessica Gunning and, particularly, the American Ben Schnetzer, who plays the charismatic Mark who organises support for the miners. Although Mark is closest the film has to a hero, it’s gratifying that the film is careful to represent the actions as collective rather than individualist. It is through collective action that change is wrought.

There’s plenty of humour gained from the apparent mismatch of macho miners and homosexuals at a time when Gay Liberation was only just finding its voice in UK mainstream media. The choice of music, and there’s lots, made it clear that many of the best songs of the era were part of gay culture. Although the miners lost the strike (how could they have succeeded alone against the repressive state apparatuses?) it’s clear, from the film’s epigraphs, that the events shown in the film had a direct influence on the Labour Party officially supporting Gay rights.

There are many threads to the narrative that are stitched together expertly in this never overlong two hour film and I reckon the only misstep was not to include how the miners were correct in their contention that the Thatcher government were not interested in efficiency in the industry, they simply wanted to destroy the miners as a force of working class politics.

Gloria (Chile-Spain, 2013)

A lust for life

A lust for life

When discussing ageing with pupils I suggest that everyone wants to grow old. After a moment of derision they usually realise that the statement is true. However, the ageing body is clearly a monstrous Other in western society where we, women in particular, are urged to avoid showing the outward signs of decrepitude. Gloria, played brilliantly by Paulina Garcia, is a woman who is ‘past her prime’ and a lone divorcee who we meet in a singles bar. She has a lust for life and that, another taboo in mainstream cinema, includes a lust for sex. Few films deal with sex in old age though Hollywood has dipped into this demographic with films like the funny It’s Complicated (2009) and the dreadful Hope Springs (2012) (where giving her husband a blow job solves the marital problems). However neither of this films show the sex, Gloria does in all its glory and ageing bodies.

Sebastián Lelio directs (he also co-wrote) in a detached fashion, often framing in a medium to long shot with a static camera, in a relatively long take, allowing us observe the ‘always-on-screen’ Gloria at a distance. Sometimes this means the action isn’t clearly framed, however the technique works well to offer a certain detachment to the melodrama allowing us to more readily admire Gloria rather than be too emotionally involved in her situation. Gloria doesn’t want our sympathy, she just wants to get on with her life. There are a couple of marvellous melodramatic emblems: a street puppeteer has a skeleton dancing leading Gloria to give her on-off lover one more chance, it repreesnts mortality writ large; she finally rids herself of the ‘lover’ by shooting him with his own splatter gun.

Gloria’s lust for life includes her children but they, whilst loving, are detached from her and have their own lives; they obviously feel their mother no longer has much of a purpose for them. Garcia is marvellous at portraying her disappointment at her offspring whilst never showing them that she is hurt. This dislocation from the past is also a key part of the film’s politics. A dinner table discussion about Chilean society leads Gloria to suggest that children have been hard done by in the post-Pinochet period. Understandably Chileans want to move on from the brutal dictator’s time but Leilo suggests that the bourgeoisie are only concerned with their own cosy existence.

The film isn’t simply about ageing it’s also about gender and men come across as particularly pathetic. Gloria’s paramour, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), whilst undoubtedly in lust, and maybe in love, with Gloria cannot break from his past – particularly his needy daughters. He’s shown to be emotionally stunted as if he believes his desire for  Gloria should be enough to sustain the relationship. He gets what he deserves when she shoots him. At the end we see Gloria, as she was at the beginning, dancing alone. At the start of this dance, however, she is surrounded by women. Leilo may be a bit too  harsh one men: we’re not all that bad!

Gloria is a cracking film that shows us oldies still have a lot of life in us.

Better Mus’ Come (Jamaica, 2010)

Couldn't be worse

Couldn’t be worse

Jamaican film made a rare and welcome appearance on the BBC earlier this year with this powerful film made by Storm Saulter and Paul Bucknor; well they directed, produced, edited, wrote and shot it between them. A prodigious effort that tells a story of the infamous extra-judicial killings of the Green Bay Massacre in 1978; the army set up and shot supporters of the opposition Labour Party. Although the narrative is sometimes sightly confused (well I was, it could be a cultural misunderstanding or that it was late) there’s no denying the power of the film. Storm, as he’s known on the credits, directs and films well using the bright colours of the Jamaica to contrast with the extreme poverty of the slums.

The largely amateur cast, well I assume so as they have appeared in few, if any, other films, do well and Sheldon Shepard is a convincing protagonist as the gang leader who wants to ‘go straight’. There are also hints of a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ‘across the tracks’ love story and if the narrative is somewhat cliched this doesn’t detract because the setting is so unusual.

Lucy (France-Taiwan-Canada, 2014)

An American superhero made in France

An American superhero made in France

In the film ‘corner’ of cyberspace, amongst liberal circles at least, there’s much debate about when Disney/Marvel are going to produce a female superhero. This is when Russia is invading Ukraine; an apocalyptic cult is enforcing Middle Age justice on anyone they can; Ebola is devastating western Africa; citizens can’t feed and house themselves, not new I know but increasingly a problem in the UK. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is the only high profile female superhero in recent films and she only plays a supporting role in The Avengers and Iron Man 3. Yet here she is playing Lucy, a woman who acquires superhero powers blitzing the box office; she’s currently taken nearly three times as much as the ageing males of The Expendables 3 in North America.

Writer-director Luc Besson has a reputation for producing female protagonists, though I found La Femme Nikita (France-Italy, 1990) misogynist, and he’s scored with Lucy. It’s not strictly a superhero film, there’s no costume, but there are superpowers. In this sequel-driven industry it’ll be a surprise if she doesn’t come back and it would be a welcome return even though the film isn’t anything special.

Johansson, as usual, is excellent, particularly as the scatty student inveigled into giving a Korean gangster a suitcase. The gangster is played by the great Korean actor Choi Min-sik and his characterisation will have to down as another example of EuropaCorp’s (Besson’s company) xenophobia – see here; there are no positive East Asian characters. Once Lucy becomes ‘super’ she becomes less interesting but there’s plenty of cod philosophy, and physics, to keep audiences distracted. I liked Besson’s use of Eisensteinean montage in the early scenes when shots of wildlife hunters and prey and cut into the scene when Lucy is the prey of the Koreans.

As far as I remember, Johansson’s body is only objectified once; a shot at the airport that moves up her body from behind. There’s far more of her body on show in Under the Skin a film that probably won’t titillate much given its disturbing qualities. This is an important issue because patriarchy tries use women’s body as a way of controlling females – see the recent ‘hacking’ of nude, personal pictures of female ‘celebrities’. That is as absurd as Seth McFarlane’s ‘We saw your boobs’ song at last year’s Oscars and parades male stupidity to anyone with a maturity beyond adolescence. A Jennifer Lawrence, one of the victims of the release of the images, parody account tweeted today:

‘If a man stands in the middle of the forest speaking, and there is no woman around to hear him, is he still wrong?’

It’s a fair comment even if those of us who do not feel the need to prove they are men are categorised with the idiots who deal with their own inadequacies by trolling women that have the audacity to speak their mind and/or have a high profile.

Lucy is a film with a powerful female protagonist and I particularly like Amr Waked’s cop who can do nothing but get out of Lucy’s way in order to help her.

A Night at the Cinema in 1914

The first film star

The first film star

The British film institute’s compilation of the sort of films audiences would see in 1914 is of historical interest; by which I mean I struggled to stay awake in some parts but felt it was worthwhile seeing. The highlight was Daisy Doodad’s Dial featuring the first film star, Florence Lawrence (above).

Film producers at this time were not in the habit of promoting their actors as stars in the 1900s, arguably in order to keep the cost of the actors down, and also because of some actors’ reluctance to be associated with ‘disreputable cinema’. Audiences, however, had other ideas and fans wanted to know more about favourite actors. Producer Carl Leammle exploited this when planted the story that the Biograph Girl (as the fans knew Florence Lawrence), who he had poached from Biograph, had died in an accident. A week later he placed an advertisement in the St Louis Post-Dispatch suggesting that enemies of his production company had misled the people of St. Louis. ‘Coincidentally’ Lawrence appeared, the following month, in St. Louis to promote her film (sorry, to prove she was still alive). Such mendacious showmanship struck the template for much of the promotion of stars that followed.

The above is a still from the film, not a publicity photograph, as the ‘Dial’ of the title refers to ‘face’ and the narrative concerns a gurning contest. Lawrence’s Daisy Doodad comes across as a feisty woman and she does the comedy well.

The compilation concludes with another star, Chaplin’s early short A Film Johnnie and concerns the tramp, whose familiar persona is not quite fully formed at this point, confusing reality with the film world to predictably quite funny results.

Other shorts include The Rollicking Rajah an early ‘talkie’, or ‘singie'; the original was accompanied by a phonograph recording, now lost but recreated for this release. Fred Evans, apparently Britain’s most popular comedian of the time, is featured in the (on one level) dreadful Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine. As accompanying intertitle suggests, Evans made a virtue of low budget productions and it is interesting to see the almost ‘home made’ ethos of film-making in the early years. The higher production values of Hollywood soon blasted home grown fare off the screen and we’ve ‘suffered’ under Hollywood’s hegemony ever since.

An episode of The Perils of Pauline was slightly disappointing because I was expecting Pearl White (Pauline) to be more of a dynamic hero; though she does shimmy down a rope from a balloon that is at a good height. You can’t judge a series on one film, of course, but she required men to rescue her; another template for today.

A number of non fiction shorts were also included, such as German Occupation of Historic Louvain and Dogs for the Antarctic which does what it says on the title and seems to be an early example of product placement for Spratts’ dog cakes.

Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje, Poland, 1960)

The death of cynicism

The death of cynicism

Andrzej Wajda is one of my favourite directors and thanks to Second Run Innocent Sorcerers is available in a typically (from them) great print. Wadja had completed his great ‘war trilogy’ with Ashes and Diamonds two years earlier and, at first, you wonder why he bothered with such relatively ‘slight’ material of two rather ‘cool’ youngsters finding love. Wadja’s four films were typical of the Polish School as they had been about Poland in World War II. Of course the direction in Immaculate Sorcerors is immaculate and there’s some great location shooting in Warsaw but, like my previous post, Heartbeats, I wondered whether I was too old to be interested in young love. I was wrong.

The central section of the film takes place in Bazyli’s bedsit and consists of a long flirty, conversation between the protagonists. As part of their ‘cool’ playfulness they make up names for themselves; she says she’s Pelagia. The scene is strikingly similar to one in Godard’s seminal Breathless (France) of the same year but without the jump cuts and is far more engaging. Innocent Sorcerer, though, is modernist in a number of low-key ways: the opening credits run over a poster for the film; a song associated with the film is heard on the radio; the film’s composer, the great Krzysztof Komeda, plays himself as a member of Bazyli’s jazz group. Roman Polanski, incidentally, plays the band’s bassist; there’s a lot of talent in this film.

Bazyli (Tadeusz Lomnicki) is a doctor and jazz drummer who enjoys toying with women’s affections until he crashes into Krystyna Stypulkowska’s Pelagia; it was Stypulkowska’s first role and she only appeared in two other films. The brilliance of the film is that the development in their relationship is evident not by what they say to each other but through their behaviour and non verbal communication; and of course the actors’ performance.

Wadja, at the ‘old’ age of 33, was afraid he might be out of touch with young people and the 23 year old Jerzy Skolimowski, who has a small role as a boxer, was hired for rewrites. It’s a fascinating glimpse of Warsaw at the time, we see fashionable young people spending their time in jazz clubs; much like they were in the west then. The political situation is barely mentioned; the protagonists, at one point, joke about themselves as ‘model workers’. The Daily Telegraph‘s critic suggested:

‘Bazyli and Pelagia move with languid ease and listen to American jazz throughout Innocent Sorcerers, but, when push comes to shove, they’re not as free as they think they are. Pinned down by Poland’s bloody past and hemmed in by oppressive Soviet rule, both erect a stylised cool to cover for the emotional sterility that lies beneath.’

However, I wonder to what extent this is an example of western critics’ penchant for reading ‘Iron Curtain’ films, that they admire, as criticising the Soviet domination of the Eastern bloc. As Michał Oleszczyk notes ‘Pelagia says mid-way through the film: “Our generation has no illusions.”‘ I doubt the concerns of Polish youth in the early ’60s were much different from those of youngsters in western Europe: earning enough money to have a good time and sex. Come to think of it, it’s the same now. As to the rather awkward title, a Polish friend suggests a better translation would be Innocent Charmers; that certainly summarises the characters better.

Wadja’s still making films and it’s extremely irritating that most of his oeuvre is not available in the UK.

Heartbeats (Canada, 2010)

Full of themselves

Full of themselves

25 year old Quebecois, Xavier Dolan (above right), is obviously a talent as he’s already directed five features; imdb also has five producer and editor credits as well as four for costume design and six writing! If Heartbeats is full of rather self-absorbed young people then that’s because that’s what the film’s about. I’m probably too old to appreciate such a subject and I am I wasn’t like that when I was a twenty something (I’m lying). Stand outs, include the costumes (something I don’t usually appreciate) and Monica Chokri’s Marie, she is superb at the small changes of facial expression that indicate dissatisfaction.

Despite Dolan’s talent his direction annoyed me. Faux reality TV hand held re-framings, including push zooms, irritate rather than suggest realism. The film also includes young people, who are not characters in the film, talking heads speaking about relationships similar to the Big Brother post-eviction interviews. Again it may be a generational thing, but I don’t think Reality TV, as an aesthetic, has much to offer film.

I do fear for the youngsters of Montreal as most of them seem to smoke like chimneys.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 397 other followers