The Impossible (Spain, 2012)

Wish I weren't here

Wish I weren’t here

In the first film post of the year I talked about international cinema and The Impossible is another good example. For many people the only clue that the film is Spanish would come if they stayed to watch the end credits where the, actors apart, names are indubitably from the Iberian peninsula. Why would anyone think it was Spanish? After all the film is in English, focuses upon an English family and has enough spectacle for a Hollywood film. The clue that it’s not Hollywood is in the dearth of American characters; the most prominent of which, though briefly seen, are portrayed as bossy and selfish. Despite the film’s brilliance, its struggling to make an impact in America, though it is still on a limited release there.

The film recounts the true story (if it weren’t true we wouldn’t believe it I expect) of a Spanish family caught by the tsunami in Thailand, in 2004. Aussie Watts and Scot McGregor are playing English characters though in recognition that this will give the film more commercial prospects. In other words, if they hadn’t had their nationalities transposed the 30m Euro budget wouldn’t have been available. Only 30m?! It looked a lot more, the tsunami is brilliantly shown as is the devastation afterwards. JA Bayona’s febrile direction captures the fraught circumstances of the survivors, both physically and psychologically, as their first thoughts are for their missing members of their families.

It is in this that the film really triumphs; its portrayal of the survivors’ desperation to find their loved ones is truly moving. I doubt I’ll see a more lachrymose movie this year. The cast is exemplary particularly Lucas, the elder son, (Tom Holland) who is the focus of much of the narrative.

The film has been criticised for, typically, turning a developing world tragedy into a drama focusing upon westerners. A well thought through piece on this can be accessed here. The argument does hold water though, as noted above, the economics of filmmaking are such that a story of a Thai family, or even Thailand, would not get made to this scale. The anonymous bloggers states:

‘When the tsunami subsides, the film’s dubious racial politics make an unwelcome reappearance. Maria is tended to by a villageful of kindly Thais, whose job seems to be rescuing white holidaymakers while not saying anything.’

This is a misrepresentation as one of the rescuers constants talks to Maria (Watts) albeit in the form of ‘jabbering’. But I don’t think this is a colonialist view of other languages but a representation from Maria’s perspective. I’ve no doubt that the man’s words (almost certainly encouraging) were perceived as ‘jabber’ in her painful and anxious state. In addition, the (silent it is true) locals who tend are shown to be wonderfully caring; but the film’s not their story. Later, at the hospital, the Thais are shown to be dealing with chaos both professionally and with care. That said, I would like to see a film that dealt with the appropriation of the fishermans’ devastated land to build tourist hotels in the aftermath – see Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’.

Mawkishness is often very near the lachrymose but this is a true story (more or less) and as a portrayal of human resilience and community (I was tearing up badly when Henry – McGregor – is offered mobile phone to complete a call home) I doubt this will be bettered this year.

Se7en (US, 1995)

This is not going to end well

This is not going to end well

Once upon a time a young idealistic cop, and his wife, moves to the big city because he thinks he can do some good. He’s teamed with a cynical partner who is about to retire. Together they seek a serial killer who’s using the seven deadly sins as his inspiration. The killer is captured and the young cop, and his wife, lives happily ever after. Imagine Se7en concluding in such a way, something studio executives desired. The film would have remained stylish, exciting and depressing. Fortunately we have Se7en as it is, Se7en a film of contradictions: downbeat ending but popular; entertaining and bleak; genre and art house; European and American.

Virtually all Hollywood narratives are structured as fairy tales and so offer a happy ending. Se7en managed to be both subversive in its ending – people do not live ‘happily ever after’ – and popular: it grossed over $100 million at the North American (USA and Canada) box office. The downbeat ending (to understate the case) is not entirely absent in Hollywood’s output, indeed during the ‘New Hollywood’ of the early 1970s it was not exceptional (The Godfather, 1971, for example). However after Jaws (1975), the High Concept (see Contexts: Hollywood) summer blockbuster’ became the studios’ preferred method of making money and films conceived as blockbusters generally do not have unhappy endings.

Most people watch Hollywood cinema in order to be entertained. The biggest box office films of the year are invariably ‘popcorn movies’ whose ambition is to do no more than make money by entertaining as many people as possible. In North America, the world’s biggest market, recent top grossing movies have included: Independence Day (1996); Titanic (1997); Armageddon (1998); Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999) and Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000). With the exception of Titanic, which dealt with social class and gender, these films have little, or no, pretensions about making significant statements about the human condition. Se7en, on the other hand, offers a vision that is bleak with virtually no possibility of redemption.

Se7en cover

Se7en, like most entertaining films, is a genre movie; or rather a mix of a number of genres including film noir, serial killer and horror, It is also, in many ways, an art movie where ideas predominate over visceral pleasure. In this it has a European sensibility rather an optimistic brashness that typifies North American product. Despite this all its main creative personnel, cinematographer aside, are American. Many deride Hollywood for producing formulaic and banal films. This it does, but Hollywood also produces masterpieces like Se7en.

Extracted from Film Note: Se7en (available on kindle here)

Even the Rain (También la lluvia, Spain-Mexico-France, 2010)

Watching the movie

Watching the movie

Sacrificing the workers

Sacrificing the workers

It’s no surprise that this is a political film with regular Ken Loach collaborator, Paul Laverty, as scriptwriter; indeed the director, Icíar Bollaín (and Laverty’s wife) appeared in Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995). Gael Garcia Bernal adds his star wattage (so far unseduced by Hollywood though he’s slated to appear in a 20th Century Fox production Zorro Reborn) which, along with terrific Bolivian locations, offers a gripping investigation into the colonialism of Colombus and multinational companies.

One of the locations is Cochabamba and it uses the local indigenous Quechua population’s protests, in 2000, against the privatisation of water as a backdrop to the making of a film, Bernal is the director, about Columbus. The title is taken from a phrase that ‘even the rain’ is being privatised. Increasingly the backdrop is foregrounded as the filmmaker’s get embroiled in the state’s attempt to suppress the rebellion with force. It is this narrative overlap that, quite brilliantly, allows the film to interrogate its own role in exploiting the locals as extras. A dialectic is set up between the Europeans making the film and the original rapacious Portuguese. In this it reminded me of Under Fire (US, 1983), a brilliant indie film about America’s involvement in Nicaragua.

The performances are great, particularly Luis Tosar as the film’s producer who has to confront his own morality. I don’t understand how such an engaging film failed to find much of an audience. The narrative is utterly gripping as the insurrection gets bloodier and includes a ‘race against time’ conclusion that’s as crowd pleasing as any Hollywood chase. Well I like to think so.

Black God, White Devil (Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol, Brazil, 1964)

Myth staging

Myth staging

I guess the English title has the benefit of pithiness that the original title (God and the Devil in the Land of Sun) but suggests that the film is about race when it isn’t. The film is about desperation of the dirt poor of the impoverished land the sertão, ‘backlands’ of north eastern Brazil. Cow herder Manuel kills his boss in rage in response to his appalling treatment and so, with his wife, go ‘on the run’. First they join a preacher, Saint Sebastian, who claims he’ll lead them to a ‘promised land’; then a bandit, a sort of low rent Robin Hood (though there’s not much evidence of giving to the poor), Corisco. They are pursued by Antonia das Mortes, employed by the church to kill anyone who threatens the status quo.

I’m afraid that summary makes the narrative seem more coherent than it is. Many of the events are portrayed indirectly, Eisentsteinean montage conveys massacres, but not the way of the Potemkin steps or his later dialectical style; the editing offer an impression of events rather than any political argument. Music, vital in Brazilian culture, structures much of the narrative; a mix of ballads, telling of the events of the film, and Villa-Lobos.

What’s most striking about the film are the compositions where people seem to be randomly standing about but, together, offer a vision of confusion, a land that’s lost its moral compass. The sparseness of the backlands of north eastern Brazil have their bleakness accentuated by the black and white cinematography in the ‘academy’ (4:3) ratio.

Glauber Rocha’s influences are many, not least the French nouvelle vague primarily through co-opting the Gallic attitude of ‘director as author’ rather than through stylistic devices. Like Antoine Doinel, the protagonist finds the sea at the film’s end;  the ocean has mythic significance as the ‘saint’ had preached that he would lead the dispossessed to utopia where the ‘land is sea, and sea is land’. As Lucia Nagib puts it:

‘Glauber’s mythic backland-sea formula expresses the harrowing feeling of this utopian country that could have turned out right but was fated not to from the day it was discovered. (Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema, Utopia, (IB Taurus), p9)

Whilst the French were, initially at least, in love with Hollywood, the Third World filmmakers of Latin America had no love for America as they suffered under US-supported military dictatorships. As Corisco says, directly to camera: ‘The dragon of evil swallows the people to fatten the Republic.’ This emphasis upon the political had its roots in Italian neo realism; and, as noted above, Eistenstein – who worked in Mexico during the 1930s. This link details more of Rocha’s influences and this takes you to his manifesto the aesthetics of hunger’.

The Master (US, 2012)

I liked this bit

I liked this bit

What is the point of The Master? Its narrative is suitably elliptical for a ‘arty’ house film; it lacks the clear drive that’s bespoke Hollywood. It features lauded performances of the sort that Oscar voters like. It’s beautifully  shot and superbly set designed with some striking  compositions – am thinking particularly of a shot early in the film Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) lying in the ship’s crow’s nest (above).  The music, both ‘found’ and scored (by Jonny Greenwood) is terrific …  I hated it (apart from the music).

What’s the film’s point?  What was it about? It wasn’t about being a member of a cult, as its focus is on the relationship between Philip Seymour Hoffmann’s Master and Freddie, who never joins. It barely touches upon the psychology of the Master, he loses his temper a couple of times when challenged, he simply seems deranged. As is Freddie who is probably suffering from PTSD. OK it’s artyhouse, which means you don’t have to explain everything but when does that stray into laziness on the part of the filmmaker: PT Anderson? What about the social context? Why did post-war America encourage cults?

I thought Joaquin Phoenix entirely unconvincing and Philip Seymour Hoffmann appeared to be going through the motions. Most people don’t agree with me about this film.


Silver Linings Playbook (US, 2012)

Mental relationships

Mental relationships

I thoroughly enjoyed this film of two halves; the first sets up Pat’s bipolar disorder difficulties (for him and his family) while the second plays for the ‘silver lining’. I am already of fan of Jennifer Lawrence and now I can see the qualities of Bradley Cooper. He’s been groomed as a potential star, following the success of the Hangover movies, with mixed success. Hollywood doesn’t seem to be interested in stars any more; they became too expensive. The new ‘stars’ in Hollywood’s (accounting) book are franchises; of last year’s top ten grossing movies in North America only Ted wasn’t serial in nature.

Robert De Niro, who often seems simply to be going through the motions of wrinkling his face, is excellent as Pat’s (Cooper) father, who clearly has OCD issues of his own linked to his love of baseball.

Spoiler alert: the two halves I alluded to above consist of a serious portrayal of mental illness, leavened by some comedy (particularly courtesy of Chris Tucker), whereas the second is conventionally Hollywood in its rush to an obvious ‘happy ending’. We may have expected something different as this is, after all, an independently produced movie; albeit with Hollywood talent on the screen. However, it can be read that that writer-director David O. Russell (based on Matthew Quick’s novel) is overtly offering us the ‘silver lining’. In watching the film, so sympathetically played are the protagonists that I suspect most in the audience are desperate for them to hook up. To what extent, at the end, the audience are convinced that ‘love conquers all’ (even mental illness) I am not sure; but it felt good at the time. The degree to which Pat continues to take, or not take, his medication isn’t made clear; something of a cheat I think.

The protagonists’ relationship starts to develop when they are jogging; I absolutely love the way Tiffany (Lawrence) seems to appear from nowhere to join Pat; her movement is a slick as a snake’s.

The Reckless Moment (US, 1949)

Intense drama

Intense drama

Max Ophuls is probably a name that doesn’t resonate with many but his directorial style is amongst the most elegant, emphasising fluid tracking shots that transform the composition whilst maintaining aesthetic coherence. The Reckless Moment was his last American film and his second with the great James Mason. Three of his four Hollywood films were melodrama, the first of which, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), is a classic. The Reckless Moment is as much thriller, some critics dub it a film noir, as a melodrama and it deals with how a bourgeois mother deals with blackmailers in the absence of her husband; it was remade as The Deep End (US, 2001) which I will be looking at soon.

Central to the power of the film, in addition to Ophuls’ direction, are the stars: Joan Bennett, cast against type as a respectable mother taht, as Todd Haynes puts it in his introduction on the DVD, goes into ‘maternal overdrive’ to protect her daughter. Her implacable spirit seduces Mason’s blackmailer, Martin Donnelly; it’s unusual for noir‘s femme fatale to be a mother. However, as became more common in ’50s melodrama, the film also critiques the bourgeois family. Bennett’s Mrs Harper (harpy?) constantly nags her children, seemingly without noticing she’s doing it.

I’m a big fan of James Mason, an actor of charm and subtlety not to mention his lovely voice (honed in Huddersfield). When Bennett tells him that all mothers, including his, would do the same as she it’s clear that Donnelly never had a mother like that simply from the look in Mason’s eyes.

Blackmailer Donnelly dominates the home

Blackmailer Donnelly dominates the home

While Ophuls is renown for his camera movement he doesn’t neglect composition as this deep focus still shows. I’m a sucker for this use of image to tell the story, for me it is the essence of cinema.

I was delighted to enjoy the film as I’m increasingly finding revisiting ‘past gems’, such as Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (US, 1943), a disappointment. They have dated or I have become a jaded viewer; The Reckless Moment suggests the former.

The Source (La source des femmes, Belgium-Italy-France, 2011)

Power to the women

Power to the women

The lukewarm review, from the usually reliable Philip Kemp, in Sight & Sound, caused me to overlook this powerful melodrama. Kemp notes some faults in the film, a slightly tangled narrative, but they are far outweighed by the representation of strong Muslim women fighting against patriarchy.

It stars Leïla Bekhti as a young outsider in a North African Arab village who decides to organise a love strike, inspired by Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, to get the men to do some work rather than sip tea all day. Their demand is that water be piped to the village. Aided by a formidable older woman, Leila (also the character’s name) finds all the forces of conservatism arraigned against her. However writer-director, the French based Romanian Radu Mihaileanu, is careful to draw shades of grey with some of the women opposing the strike and some men supporting; the local town council are also shown to be complicit in women’s oppression; ‘if women get water then they will want washing machines next’. ‘Radical Islam’ is also represented and it’s important the representations of ‘liberal Islam’ are circulated in the west as many people’s views of the religion are shaped by the right wing press.

The DVD I saw is 15 minutes shorter than the cinema release (according the imdb) but I’m not sure that I missed much; though I would prefer to make my own mind up. The narrative does sag a little but the vitality, and humour, of the film made it a fulfilling watch.

Life of Pi (US-Taiwan-Aus-UK-Can, 2012)

FInding God? Don't think so.

Finding God? Don’t think so.

I didn’t get on with Yann Martel’s novel so I shouldn’t be surprised that I didn’t ‘get’ Ang Lee’s take on it. Harry Cohn, mogul at Columbia during Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’, stated that if his ass started itching the movie was no good. My ass started itching 90 minutes into Pi which probably says more about my attention span than the movie.

CGI films tend to leave me cold, my concentration is is deflected by the glossy sheen of digital images and this film is ‘special effect’ heavy. However, they are at the service of the narrative, which apparently is intended to convince us of the existence of God. It was setting itself an impossible task. The CGI tiger (it is real only 14% of the time) is, however, utterly convincingly; visual-effects supervisor, Bill Westenhofer, has done a stunning job. The sea, however, as usual, is much less than real; though much of it was shot in a tank in Taiwan.

Some of the imagery was stunning, particularly the utterly still sea, and the lead, newcomer Suraj Sharma, is as good as the tiger. The film’s an interesting example of the internationalisation of cinema: Canadian source material; Taiwanese director; Gerard Depardieu cameos; American scriptwriter (David Magee); Chilean cinematographer (Claudio Miranda); in addition to the five countries cited above as producers. The $120m production budget requires a worldwide audience; currently it’s taken $214m in total.

The group I was with enjoyed the film; I was thinking of the curry we were eating afterwards.

Best of 2012

I moved house in August and have struggled to blog the films I’ve been watching; maybe next year will have more time in it. I have seen the two movies the critics have been raving about (Amour and The Master) but didn’t like either.

Film released last year


Best of friends

  1. The Hunt
  2. About Elly
  3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
  4. The Iron Lady
  5. Anna Karenina
  6. Ill Manors
  7. A Simple Life
  8. Looper
  9. Everyday
  10. Nostalgia for the Light

Films seen last year

What might have been

What might have been

  1. Vertigo
  2. Gattaca
  3. Ashes and Diamonds
  4. The Hunt
  5. About Elly
  6. Battle for Haditha
  7. In a Better World
  8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
  9. Import/Export
  10. Son of Babylon

Books of the Year


  1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
  2. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens
  3. Chavs, Owen Jones
  4. A Doll’s House, Ibsen
  5. The Information, James Gleick
  6. The Submission, Amy Waldman
  7. School Wars, Melissa Benn
  8. Arc 1.1: The Future Always Wins
  9. Granta 116: Ten Years Later
  10. Pictures from an Exhibition, Patrick Gale

Albums of the Year

  1. Kristina Train, Dark Black
  2. Thea Gilmore, John Wesley Harding
  3. Alt-J, Awesome
  4. Jessie Ware, Devotion
  5. Richard Hawley, Standing at the Sky’s Edge
  6. Vasks: Plainscapes Latvian Radio Choir
  7. Frank Turner, England Keep My Bones
  8. Django Django, Django Django
  9. Liszt: Harmonies du Soir, Nelson Freires
  10. 1982, Pintura

Live events of the year


  1. The Unthanks Singing Weekend, Seahouses
  2. Lucian Freud Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London
  3. Brahms: German Requiem, Chester Festival Chorus, RLPO – Petrenko, Chester Cathedral
  4. Richard Hawley, City Hall, Sheffield
  5. Infinite Kusama – Tate Modern
  6. Joy in People, Jeremy Deller, Hayward
  7. Civil Wars, Apollo, Manchester
  8. Bellowhead, St George’s Hall, Bradford
  9. Top Girls, Caryl Churchill, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
  10. Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin

I will have to consider including ‘best TV’ because of the  brilliant series: The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge, Homeland, and Mad Men.