Fury (US-China-UK, 2014)

Grim as it was

Grim as it was

After a Saving Private Ryan (US, 1998) inspired cycle, few of which were successful, war films have not been considered to be commercially viable. Although I doubt if Fury will ignite another cycle it superbly conveys the tension of being in a tank to the extent I was squirming in my seat. It, unlike the brilliant Lebanon, doesn’t restrict the viewpoint to inside the tank. In fact, it eschews the space inside, as it’s more concerned with the battles. When we see the interior it’s mostly through characters’ reaction shots, but the film nevertheless conveys the terrifying atmosphere of being under attack in a slow tin can.

Writer-director David Ayer brings the full weight of CGI to the film to emphasise the violence, which is not for the squeamish. He portrays the misery of war to great effect; Fury takes place in April 1945, the last days of the Reich. While classical Hollywood would show cheery soldiers carrying on regardless, Ayer portrays the bullying of the rookie who’s dragooned into being the tank’s second driver. Pitt’s commander is merciless and fatherly; his nickname is ‘wardaddy’. You do get a clear impression that the bullying is necessary to toughen up the youngster or they could all die. Pitt’s crew, from John Bernthal’s thug to a surprisingly good Shia LaBoeuf, are all well acted. As is the case in many war films, understandably in ‘combat movies’, women are relegated to the margins.

If the climax is slightly at odds with the convincing representation of war seen earlier, the necessities of commercial cinema demand, in a war film, a big battle. That aside, the film is a perfectly pitched thriller that is very effective in showing the brutalising effect of war.

Blue is the Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle, France-Belgium-Spain, 2013)

blue-6

Extraordinary performance

 

This Palme d’or winner from 2013 is certainly an extraordinary movie primarily because of the performances of its leads Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. They received the award alongside director Abdellatif Kechiche, an acknowledgement of their importance to the film. I’m not talking about their performance in the ‘notorious’ sex scenes although they are remarkable for their length and explicitness for a non-pornographic film. I’ll return to these later.

The story is of Adèle’s (Exarchopoulos) ‘coming of age’ as she experiments with her sexuality before committing to Seydoux’s Emma. It covers approximately six years of her life, from 17, and focuses on her relationships. Exarchopoulos’s performance is particularly brilliant and I’d place it amongst the best I’ve even seen in film; alongside, for example, Daniel Day Lewis in The Gangs of New York (US-Italy, 2002). Her ability to portray fleeting thoughts through facial expression is riveting, particularly the conflict she is feeling between her desires and her, initial, inhibition. Although Kechiche’s direction is competent, and I thought his Couscous was great, without Exarchopoulos, supported by Seydoux, the film would be an overlong (its’ three hours), voyeuristic curiosity.

Which returns us to the sex scenes. They are explicit but integral to the narrative as they convey the women’s passion for each another. However: Kechiche is obviously aware of how montage can be used to convey, with brevity, a great deal of activity that occurs over a long time, as he does use montage in the sex scenes. However, why does the first scene run for over five minutes? I’m not saying it makes particularly uncomfortable viewing but its excessiveness does draw attention to the viewer’s voyeurism. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if I felt that was Kechiche’s purpose which I’m sure it isn’t. I couldn’t see the dramatic purpose of such length and, apparently, both Exarchopoulos or Seydoux have said they won’t work with the director again suggesting they were feeling exploited. There’s also an explicit shot up Adèle’s naked body as she posed for the artist Emma which was gratuitous in its detail.

Queer feminists seem fairly united in their dislike of the film – see here for example. I’m sure Fox is right when she says the sex scenes were straight male fantasy (probably why I enjoyed them mostly) but I disagree with her statement that Emma is represented as predatory. I felt the relationship between the characters was one that many lovers, regardless of their sexuality, experience.

A great film that raises the bar for acting but hopefully not for what is expected of female actors in sex scenes.

The Falling (UK, 2014)

Less than the sum of its parts

Less than the sum of its parts

I recommend going to see this film even though I was ultimately disappointed by it and there’s plenty of spoilers following so beware.

A film about females is a rare event in our Oedipal-riddled world and so The Falling immediately has novelty going for it; it is written and directed by Carol Morley and brilliantly shot by Agnes Godard. It draws upon a true story of fainting girls in a school in the late 1960s; nothing was found to be wrong with them. I experienced similar ‘fits’ in my first year of teaching when up to three lasses would keel over in the middle of my English class. Being male I didn’t attribute this to my teaching.

Morley indirectly diagnoses their complaint to be patriarchy; of course it didn’t need the late ’60s setting for females to be suffering from that disease however things were worse then. It focuses on the friendship between Abbie (newcomer Florence Pugh, on the left above) and Lydia (Maisie Williams familiar from Game of Thrones); the former’s sexual experiences unsettle their relationship. They are at a girls’ school full of repression, exemplified by Greta Scacchi’s Miss Mantel; a great piece of casting as Scacchi was known for libidinous roles earlier in her career. The acting is fabulous throughout the film.

Morley’s first feature was the effective dramadoc Dreams of a Life (UK-Ireland, 2011) which recreated the life of a woman whose body was found years after it had expired in a London flat. The Falling is extremely ambitious and there is so much to like: its obtuse take on nature, the brooding tree and autumnal pond; the inclusion of rapidly edited ‘subliminal’ montages that might be flashbacks; the male voice of the therapist questioning the girls is mixed  to feel as though it’s emanating from your own head (emphasising the hegemony of patriarchy); Maxine Peake, who plays Lydia’s mother, barely has a line but conveys pent-up frustration with the quivering fag in her fingers. All this is brilliant but…

For me it didn’t hang together. It could be the film needs a second viewing but I think the incest was pointless and detracted from the representation of repressed females through sensationalism and pathologising the protagonist. I’ve tagged the film as horror though it’s certainly not conventionally horrific; it’s only toward the end the genre makes its presence felt. It might have been better if horror iconography had been introduced earlier. Incidentally, the credit sequence at the end is terrifically designed.

As I said, it is a film that needs seeing because it deals with female experience and too many of western narratives (and those of other cultures) assume the male experience is paramount. Hopefully Morley will get to make another film soon; too many of our great female directors (Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold for example) struggle to get their films made. Maybe in the next one Morley will be able to more successfully integrate form and content. If this sounds critical then I am being unfair as it is far from shameful to ‘fail’ (if that’s what she has done) when aiming so high. I’m very interested in what female viewers make of the film…

Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes, Argentina-Spain, 2014)

Expectedly unexpected

Expectedly unexpected

Wild Tales has one of those rare beasts: a good trailer. Although I enjoyed watching the film it hardly lived up to the rave reviews it’s received in some quarters or its excellent publicity. Possibly the problem is its short story nature, the film consists of six unrelated tales, as I’m not fond of the form. I find it dissatisfying that a story comes to an end just as I’m getting into it. This dissatisfaction can be overcome if the stories are thematically linked, such as in Dead Of Night (UK, 1945), however the only common factor in these tales is the fact they are ‘wild’.

I don’t mean to sound overly-negative, most of the tales have a logic where the protagonist is pushed beyond the boundaries of ‘decent’ behaviour. Particularly good is Ricardo Darín (also seen in The White Elephant) as the explosive expert who cracks when his car is towed away despite being legally parked; apparently this is common in Buenos Aires. The bride who discovers her husband’s infidelity during the wedding party also has a narrative that satisfyingly spirals out of control.

However the lack of a strong thread between the segments was disappointing. If they had all, for example, attacked bourgeois mores (which a few do) then it would have been more successful. It reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, adapted for British television in the 1970s; Wild Tales may have been better as a series of six programmes.

PS After writing the above it was pointed out to me, by someone who’d only seen the trailer(!), that revenge links the stories. Now you might ask how I missed that… I’m wondering too.

Blade Runner (US, 1982, 1991, 2007)

Getting better all the time?

Getting better all the time?

The rerelease of ‘the final cut’ of Blade Runner charted in the UK top ten last weekend; not many 33 year old films do that; although this cut is only eight years old. I’ve extracted the introduction to the Film Note I wrote before the final version was released:

Blade Runner, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick and directed by Ridley Scott, was originally released in 1982 to general critical derision and was a box office failure. However it became a cult movie (see Part Four: Contexts – Audience) and was eventually re-released as Blade Runner – the Director’s Cut in 1992. Critical reception was again mixed but the box office, on a restricted release, was relatively good. In 1982 most viewers were impressed by the astounding vision of the future presented by the film but many were confused by the narrative and assumed it to be incoherent.

Now the film is ‘canonised’ by York Film Notes and the British Film Institute’s ‘modern classics’ series, it is seen to be an endlessly fascinating movie and one of the few great science fiction films of the twentieth century.

In Britain at least, science fiction (SF) remains in the literary ghetto inhabited by pulp fiction. In bookshops the genre is corralled on its own – like Crime – and the glaring, lurid, Day-Glo colours of the books seem to ‘warn off’ non-anoraks. In North America, however, the genre thrives in academic journals and is recognised as one of the most vibrant areas of literature.

It is probably the ‘fantasy’ element of SF that puts many off the genre: the belief that it has nothing to say about contemporary life and that its narrative worlds are unbelievable. Certainly much of SF, like all genres, is essentially escapist and, as such, performs an important function. However we must distinguish between these SF texts which are ‘non-genre’, or ‘soft’, SF, and those which deal with issues concerning what it means to be human which are ‘genre’, or ‘hard’, SF. Far from escaping everyday life, these texts often lead us into the mire of contemporary existence. Genre SF is never about the future, it is about now.

Blade Runner is ‘genre’ SF and deals with questions of humanity through a comparison between the replicants – particularly Roy Batty – and their hunter, Deckard. Although the replicants are machines the film suggests that, in the characters of Batty and Rachel, they have much to teach us about acting like a human being. Although Deckard appears to be the central character, he verges on being an anti-hero in his attitude and actions.

Fans of ‘genre’ SF are used to considering such issues, just as they are used to creating – through their reading – alien worlds. The critics who complained that they could not make sense of the world of L.A. 2019 were simply not working hard enough. For example, it is quite easy to infer the answers to the following questions:

  • Question: Why is it always dark? Answer: There has been an ecological disaster that has polluted the atmosphere, virtually obliterating the sun.
  • Why is the city full of ‘foreigners’? A. Everyone who can has gone Off-world and the races left behind are those who have been economically discriminated against.
  • Why is the language spoken on the street unlike our own? A. Language is constantly changing and the cityspeak of LA 2019 is a melange of Japanese, German and Spanish. This evokes the future by combining languages to make the familiar different.
  • Why are some parts of the city overcrowded and others deserted? A. The over-crowding is seen in the market sector; Sebastian’s apartment is deserted but who would want to live there?

And so on.

The film’s fascination does not simply reside in its philosophy; the extraordinary nature of its visual conception provides virtually endless visual pleasure and presents a well rounded, convincing view of our future.

Because the film became a cult, obsessive fans have analysed the film frame by frame and shared their conclusions on the internet. In addition, the ‘false’ ending in the original version provided fuel for much debate during the 1980s which the release of the ‘director’s cut’ in 1991 only partially dampened. Discussion of Blade Runner is encouraged because it is an open text that allows a wide range of interpretation to be justified from a close reading.

To enjoy Blade Runner you do not have to be a fan of SF you simply have to be interested in what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.

If that whetted your appetite you can buy the kindle edition: Film Notes: Blade Runner

Blind (Norway, 2014)

What we cannot see

What we cannot see

Film is possibly not the most obvious medium to investigate blindness, however Eskil Vogt’s debut feature brilliantly portrays the psychological trauma that can accompany the loss of sight. Central to this is Ellen Dorrit Petersen’s excellent performance as Ingrid who, unsurprisingly, has issues of trust after her world has darkened. How this is shown would spoil the narrative somewhat so I won’t say.

As you might imagine sound is particularly important and Gisle Tveito’s design is exemplary and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis’, of Dogtooth (Greece, 2009), offers some superbly disconcerting moments. Eskil Vogt looks like his a talent to watch.

Klute (US, 1971)

Typically misogynist noir

Typically misogynist noir

Klute is one of the feted films from New, or Renaissance, Hollywood; the fews years at the start of the ’70s when the studios backed films ‘with something to say’ as well as making entertainment. I recently watched the same director’s, Alan J. Pakula, The Parallax View (US, 1974), and found it had dated badly though its paranoia about large corporations is extremely sane now. Klute stands up far better with brilliant cinematography from Gordon Willis and Jane Fonda’s exceptional performance in the lead. Fonda plays Bree Daniels, a would-be actor and part-time prostitute, who is investigated by Donald Sutherland’s (exceptionally wooden) John Klute who’s looking for a missing friend. To be fair Klute is meant to be ‘a straight’, hippy for ‘boring’, but Sutherland’s usual charisma is severely lacking. Fonda’s high powered performance, however, is sufficient to make the film to be worth watching. Klute was an important film for feminists at the time, Diane Giddis, for example, in ‘The Divided Woman: Bree Daniels in Klute’, argued that it that it foregrounded women in a way that was new to Hollywood. Others, such as Christine Gledhill in ‘Klute 2: Feminism and Klute‘, pointed out that the film wasn’t quite as progressive as feminists hoped. Gledhill is right. For a start the film isn’t called Daniels, making Klute the supposed centre of the narrative suggests the primacy of the male experience and he does get to play the usual Hollywood knight rescuing the damsel. However, I think it is better to think of Daniels as the true protagonist, in a way that Giddis meant even if she misread the film, because it makes the film far more interesting. It is a psychological portrait of a ‘liberated’ woman of the time who is anything but liberated as she has to sell her body to get control over her life and requires a ‘good’ man to save her. Although the film seems to think it is being progressive it is mired in the misogyny of the time and does not free itself of patriarchy. There’s an excellent Senses of Cinema article here. Pakula offers us striking widescreen compositions and the dark heart of 1970s  America  is caustically exposed.

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