A Single Man (US, 2009)

Dreamy memories

Not having high expectations of a film can often lead to an exaggerated appreciation when the film is found to be good, or even very good. I’d been put off A Single Man by the vibe that the fashion was beautiful to look at and so I suspected that first time director, and fashion designer, Tom Ford would not be offering a cinematic film. Of course, there was the buzz about Colin Firth’s performance but I’d never been a fan. Then I was ‘blown away’ by the film.

It does look sensationally good but rarely slips into prettifying the image for its own sake. Even the scene above, which I found too stylised, could be said to be a manifestation of the protagonist’s memories as it’s a flashback. It was clear very early on that Ford does have a feel for cinema that went beyond the beautifully composed shots; Eduard Grau is the cinematographer. The editing, too, is terrific, particularly when George (Firth) goes to see Charley (Moore) on learning of his lover’s death; take a bow editor Joan Sobel. And the music score, particularly the writing for viola, is beautiful and entirely in tune with the melodrama.

A single man and a single woman

Then there’s the performances. Julianne Moore develops her ‘brittle housewife’ persona, here she’s pickled in booze and is never less than brilliant. Nicholas Hoult (familiar from the first season of Skins – Channel 4) manages a very tricky role extremely well. Colin Firth: I was bowled over by his brilliance. He manages the grandstanding scenes and the quiet repression of the character equally brilliantly. For the first part of the film he looks like a corpse (fantastic lighting and/or make up).

The era – it’s one day in 1962 – is captured with elan; and it’s not too heavy handed with The Bay of Pigs references which was a defining aspect of the time. As the film’s focusing on one man’s crisis it’s right that he should dominate – Firth is in every scene. I don’t normally warm to ‘gay-themed’ films (I don’t believe I’m homophobic, it’s simply that I’m not relating to the characters as I normally might) however this was different as George’s sexuality – while crucial to the plot given the homophobic times in which it is set – doesn’t define his character. He is a human being wracked by grief and engulfed by the ennui of a mid-life crisis; something everyone can suffer. I even found the shots of naked men swimming beautiful; their bodies fragmented in the way women’s usually are.

The film’s stuck with me the day after I’ve seen it so I suspect it will be one of my films of the year and I’m looking forward to teaching it.

The Rex, Elland

As an aside, this was the first time I’d visited the old fashioned cinema The Rex, in Elland. It’s not clear from the picture, but there is an organ in front of the screen.  The screen is placed high up and it is a very comfortable place to watch films. It was a slightly peculiar audience; one woman complained when a poor bloke was wracked by coughs or when someone had the audacity to laugh.  Screenings at The Rex are always stopped half way through for ice creams; for those who are old this brings back the past. It is, of course, sacrilegious as it risks breaking the spell of the film. However, it also offered an opportunity to discuss the film which is a positive All for £4 too; beats the anodyne impersonality of multiplexes easily.

I rough guess suggested that men were outnumbered by 10 to one, presumably Colin Firth still has a large fan club from his D’Arcy days in the 1990s; I don’t think they were disappointed.

The Ghost (France-Germany-UK, 2010)

The ghost of Hitchcock

It was fitting that there was a trailer for Double Take (2009) before I saw this throwback of a relatively slow paced thriller that Hitchcock would have enjoyed directing. Polanski brings real panache to the material, aided by cinematographer Pawel Edelman; I loved the climactic shot of a note being passed through a crowd.

It’s certainly not a pastiche and is entirely modern in its take on British politics in the Blair years. It wears its critique lightly and is anchored by entirely convincing performances by  Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams; Brosnan is good also as the ex-PM.

Antichrist (Den-Ger-Fr-It-Swe-Pol, 2009)

Witch?

I’m not sure what this says about me but I didn’t go and see this in the cinema as I was/am bored with being shaken out of my bourgeois complacency. A sense of duty led me to the DVD and it shook me out of my bourgeois complacency for a while – thanks Lars.

The super slow motion of the opening scene must rank amongst the most beautiful in cinema (curse myself for not going to the cinema) while, of course given it’s von Trier, also challenging to watch (no spoilers here). The film deals with parents’ grief but it’s clear that von Trier isn’t dealing in realism (the Dogme 95 manifesto has long been consigned to the mid-’90s though this is shot on location) but an Expressionist landscape that dramatises the mental state of the mother (the incredible Charlotte Gainsbourg). It’s a film concocted by David Lynch with Takeshi Miike and directed by von Trier; which is to say it is a film that should be seen. However, only if you’re ready to look away from either, or both, the sex and violence.

The film lost me in the final half hour as I couldn’t work out whether it was offering a misogynist statement or if I was missing something. Catherine Wheatley’s Sight and Sound (August 2009) review suggests it’s useless to ask what the film means and describes the film as ‘bedding down like a parasite’ in the viewer’s psyche. That’s about right.

Pillow Talk (US, 1959)

Surprisingly funny

Why was this surprisingly funny, a ‘classic’ romcom from the 1950s? I assumed it would be anodyne given the mores of Hollywood at the time and that reactionary values would prevail. Having seem some, not this one I think, Day-Hudson vehicles as a child my memories of them were nothing special. However…

As a child I missed the double entendres (Tony Randall remarks he’s been looking forward to Rock Hudson getting his branch cut off) and so these were surprising.  Also Day’s character as an independent career woman was good to see – albeit in interior design (ie a ‘feminine’ occupation). However…

Reactionary values do prevail as the romance is consummated by Hudson’s character simply carrying her back to his; the caveman approach. En route she asks a copper to arrest him; the copper shrugs as if to say it’s entirely natural.

Genuinely funny through narrative contrivance and slapstick – Hudson getting into a minute sports car – and with stylish use of split screen across the cinemascope frame, this is worth seeing. On the verge of the ‘free love’ ’60s, this sex-free romcom was on the edge of extinction though – as Tamar Jeffers McDonald argues in her book on the genre – this traditional romcom is back where there is no doubt that the couple will be together for ever after and sex is definitely on the back burner.

Red Cliff (Chi bi, China, 2008)

‘This is really really important’

Since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan-Hong Kong-US-China, 2000) we’ve been, in the west, regaled with a number of spectacular films from China. John Woo, who’s gone ‘full circle’ from Hong Kong to Hollywood and back to China, directs this conflagration of a film.

It lacks nothing for spectacle but maybe I’m getting jaded at seeing yet another shedload of extras being mown down by heroic men. It was Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro who kept me watching; I doubt there’s a pair of more charismatic actors operating anywhere in the world. Lueng, in particular, is terrific whether he’s playing one of Wong Kar Wai’s alter egos or in the cut and thrust of wuxia. That said, I’m also getting bored of frowning men who have to go off to fight for justice; Russell Crowe’s wearing this frown on posters for the forthcoming Robin Hood.

Women aren’t neglected in Red Cliff but they are so secondary. A bleat of a complaint really, as I’m sure that’s historically accurate; I should be watching other genres.

Strange Days (US, 1995)

Almost the end of the world

Strange Days, a complete flop at the box office, is set in 1999. Its fin de siecle vision of 1995 – remember SF is always about the present – presents a dystopia that is mired in problems of law and order. The army is on the streets of L.A. backing up a heavy police presence. Early in the film Lenny Nero (who is fiddling while L.A. burns), the white central protagonist, drives through the city streets observing the near anarchy: a Santa Claus is chased and beaten up; burning cars send smoke billowing everywhere. Like Blade Runner, lights penetrate private spaces: in Lenny’s apartment red neon suffuses the scene and blue helicopter searchlights pry through venetian blinds. Also referencing the Blade Runner is the first shot that is an extreme close-up of an eye.

The central conceit of the film concerns a device – a SQUID – that allows experiences to be recording as real and played back later. This raises the issue of memory for if experience can be recorded first hand, rather than photographed or videoed, then memory can become almost redundant. The SQUID is an illegal apparatus and Nero deals on the black market, peddling pornography and ‘b and e’ (breaking and entering) recordings. The device is characterised as an addictive drug which, over-used, increases paranoia.

Strange Days is immensely ambitious: the narrative thrust of the film concerns the murder of Jeriko 1, (a black civil rights leader) by rogue LAPD elements that is recorded by a SQUID. The ‘clip’, which falls into Lenny’s hands, is potentially incendiary, as there is already a near riot on the streets, and it is New Year’s Eve 1999. Lenny is a rather pathetic character obsessed by a femme fatale ex-girlfriend, ironically named Faith. He is aided by Mace, a female, black security specialist who, unbeknownst to Lenny, is in love with him. However, Lenny’s only concern is to get Faith back and he cares little for the race war that seems about to erupt.

In Blade Runner memories are shown to be crucial to our identity as humans. Strange Days develops this idea: a symptom of Lenny’s obsession with Faith is that he constantly ‘plays back’ – using the SQUID – the happy times they had. Mace, who is an immensely charismatic and powerful character, eventually loses her temper with him: ‘Lenny, memories were meant to fade. They’re designed that way for a reason.’

‘Time heals’ is a cliché that expresses the process where painful memories fade. If they do not then our existence could be unbearably painful. By the end of the film, Lenny realises that Mace is right and the chief of police averts the cataclysmic riot. This deus ex machina happy ending is certainly at odds with what precedes it and is probably a result of Hollywood insisting on ‘happy ever after’ in preference to a chilling political statement about race relations in contemporary North America. However, the relationship between the central characters, a white man and black woman, may express the filmmaker’s hope for a future were racial strife is history.

Strange Days also deals with cinema. The opening scene gives us a visceral experience from the point-of-view of an armed robber who ends up falling off the top of a building. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, especially designed a camera for this sequence that seems to give us an uninterrupted flow from start to finish. This first person narration is what the SQUID ‘clips’ provide.

Later, in an extremely disturbing scene, a prostitute wearing a SQUID is raped and strangled by a man also wearing the device. Simultaneously he is playing back his experience to his victim thereby doubling her terror: she can see herself being murdered and feel the murderer’s pleasure. The whole scene is filmed from the point-of-view of the rapist using all of cinema’s voyeuristic power. It implicates the audience in the viewing by making us conscious that we are looking at something we do not want to see. Most cinematic scenes of sex and violence distance the audience from the material in such a way it can become pleasurable; we gain vicarious pleasure from what we know is a representation. However, Bigelow’s direction of this scene gives us no such pleasure. We, like the victim, are caught in a loop of seeing the forbidden. Blade Runner also alludes to cinema in the characters of the replicants; who, like actors, are programmed (by directors and themselves) for an ephemeral role.

Adapted from Blade Runner, Nick Lacey (York Notes: 2000)

Cemetery Junction (UK, 2010)

On the road to nowhere

There’s always a difficulty for funny people when they go serious. Gervais and Merchant are funny men but here they attempt a serious ‘coming of age’ story set in Reading, 1973. Their core audience are going to want what they usually do; they, presumably, want to try something different. Laudably the trailer emphasises the lads’ narrative and Gervais as a cameo (though why does it have to have the dreadful American voiceover for what is, in essence, a British film?). What we get is an at times strange mixture of tones with Gervais, playing the protagonist’s dad, doing his usual (very funny) routine but most of the rest of the film has a sober tone leavened by comic moments (including a great performance of Slade’s Come On Feel the Noize). Stephen Merchant also appears, in two roles, but his scenes as the cafe manager come across as unnecessarily crass.

The focus is on three friends whose ways are about to diverge. Freddie takes a job as an insurance salesmen leaving his mate Bruce in the factory; he sees this as a way of bettering himself by getting a bourgeois lifestyle. The film portrays both options as a dead end for the characters: in 1973 manufacturing industry was only a few years away from being decimated by the Thatcher Conservative government and we know now what financial services would do to the economy.

The British New Wave films of the late 1950s-early ’60s loom large, particularly Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960) for Bruce’s factory fodder character. In the earlier film Albert Finney’s Arthur Seaton says ‘I’m out for a good time – all the rest is propaganda!’ a credo that Bruce lives to. The mind numbing factory work is concisely presented by several scenes where we simply see Bruce turn the machine off at clocking-off time until , apparently decisively, Freddie switches it off for him toward the end. Overall the direction is very good, unlike The Invention of Lies (US, 2009) that Gervais also co-directed. There’s an effective use of the widescreen, particularly in one scene when Bruce talks to his dad; and the lighting’s expressively used too, particularly when Freddie makes a decision about his future.

The performances are great throughout, and although Emily Watson only has a small role – as the neglected wife – she brings pathos to it. Unfortunately for the character she’s married to one of Ralph Fiennes’ brilliant slimeballs. Also great is the music, not only redolent of the era but fitting very well into the drama. Both the casual racism and sexism of the time is shown to be crucial to the understanding of the era. I don’t know why Gervais and Merchant chose 1973; Gervais would have been 12 and Merchant in his mother’s stomach. The ‘coming of age’ film is often autobiographical but whilst Gervais no doubts remembers the time well, he’s far too young for the characters.

Not that that matters, this is a superbly realised, unusual mix of a film that has a satisfying emotional arc; it deserves to do well.