Posted on January 15, 2017 by nicklacey
Man for the people
Andrzej Wajda died last year having directed some of the greatest films ever produced; Walesa: Man of Hope was the last he completed. Appropriately for his oeuvre it is historically informed: a biopic eulogising the leading force of Solidarność (Solidarity), the union that led to the downfall of the Soviet-backed government in Poland in the 1980s. It was a strange at the time to see mainstream media celebrating a trade union instead of demonising them.
Wajda’s first four films, including the famous ‘war trilogy’ (see Ashes and Diamonds), focused on the Second World War but he didn’t always deal in history – his Innocent Sorcerers tells a charming tale of ‘first love’. In my Innocent Sorcerers post I complained about the lack of availability of Wajda’s films in the UK; I particularly would like to see Landscape After Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, Poland, 1971) again if only for its hallucinatory opening sequence. I’ll try not to bang on again about how the BBC is abnegating its Public Service responsibility by virtually ignoring film culture. Although I saw Walesa on BBC4, where’s the career retrospective and documentary on one of the great artists in cinema history!?
I really enjoyed Walesa partly because it reminded me of my introduction to Wajda’s films, Man of Marble (Czlowiek z marmuru, Poland, 1977) and its sequel – that dealt with the same events as this film – Man of Iron (Czlowiek z zelaza, Poland, 1981). It’s a sign of my age that these events, which were gripping viewing via television news at the time, are now history and no doubt part of Walesa‘s purpose is to educate young Poles about their recent past. Focusing solely on the figurehead Walesa necessarily limits the focus and it may be difficult to completely follow the story if you had no knowledge of the events of the time. However, the film brilliantly brings to life the historical moment through the fabulous performance of Robert Wieckiewicz as Walesa, an ordinary man of great strength and charisma. Wadja, however, does not neglect Walesa’s wife, Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska), who might have been simply a domestic adjunct to the hero. In fact, the last shot of the film is of her suggesting that Walesa would not have succeeded without her support.
Come on BBC, where’re the retrospectives of Wadja’s films? Although we have more films available to us, including the more obscure, than ever a curated free-to-air presentation of cinema history is required or many people will never come across the gems of the past.
Filed under: Eastern European Cinema | Tagged: biopic, political | 1 Comment »
Posted on October 19, 2015 by nicklacey
It was fortuitous that I caught up with American Gangster only a week after watching The French Connection as it covers some of the same time and territory. Indeed, the latter’s protagonists are name checked and the overhead railway of the car chase makes two appearances. Clearly scriptwriter Steve Zaillian is paying homage to the earlier classic and American Gangster doesn’t do too badly in comparison. Like much of the early ’70s ‘New Hollywood’ there’s a political angle, though safely ‘buried’ in the past, regarding the racism and corruption of NYPD. The mean streets of New York, where Denzil Washington’s Frank Lucas (the film’s based on a true story) imports heroin direct from Vietnam, look shabby despite Ridley Scott’s predilection for sumptuous images. If overlong, at two and a half hours, the climax is suitably satisfying, referencing another early ’70s classic, The Godfather (1972), by inter-cutting events with the protagonist in church; there’s also shades of another cracking film of the era, Serpico (1973), with Russell Crowe taking the incorruptible cop role that Al Pacino inhabited.
Certainly the film pays homage to the ’70s, and you have to work to keep up with the narrative exposition too, but stands on its own as an intelligent high budget, star driven Hollywood (through Scott Free Prods) vehicle. Despite a budget of $100m, the film probably just about scraped into profit with its $267m worldwide gross; a testament to Washington and Crowe’s star power.
Women are mostly absent but that’s gangster films for you and the cliche-ridden broken marriage of Crowe’s Richie Roberts probably didn’t need to be so prominent; then again, women would have been even more absent if it wasn’t. The narrative device (presumably true too) that leads Roberts to realise the black Lucas was Mr Big (his ethnicity, in the racism of the times, meant he escaped suspicion) is brilliant.
Filed under: Hollywood | Tagged: biopic, gangster | Leave a comment »
Posted on November 27, 2014 by nicklacey
Alan Turing wasn’t diagnosed as ‘Asperger’s’ but Benedict Cumberbatch plays him, entirely reasonably, as if he had the syndrome. It is a quite extraordinary performance, not far from his Sherlock but more nuanced. The story of the Enigma code breakers is a great one and the script, which has been criticised in some quarters, marshals the history well to give a gripping account of how World War II was, at the least, shortened. I found the brief representations of wartime Britain, such as the evacuation of children, particularly effective in showing a nation under siege and on the brink. Into the breech steps the ill-fitting ‘nerds’ who, while struggling to decode social niceties, are happy solving puzzles, whether word or number based.
The wartime narrative is framed by Turing’s arrest in the early ’50s and so emphasises the shameful treatment of male homosexuals by the British state before decriminalisation in late 1960s. The final scene where his one time fiancee, well played by Keira Knightley, tries to help him is extremely moving.
Code cracking isn’t cinematic gold but the film remains gripping throughout; a Guardian reviewer suggested the film struggled to engage because we know the outcome. I think this is just daft; how often don’t we know the outcome of a mainstream film? Better from the Guardian is Ben Walter‘s suggestion that it is the queerest film to hit the multiplexes in years. The queerness he refers to isn’t simply Turing’s sexuality, his difference from the norm in terms of his social behaviour is also queer and celebrated rather than simply used to signify some kind of perversion. At the least most viewers of the film will find themselves sympathising with an outcast and maybe recognise that difference is actually good.
My one criticism is, Knightley’s Joan Clarke apart, women’s role in the code breaking seems underplayed; it’s not even entirely clear what Clarke’s contribution was. A minor blemish on a major triumph. Cumberbatch could win an Oscar for this as the Academy like portrayals of mental illness; but, of course, as the film shows, neither Asperger’s nor homosexuality is an illness.
Filed under: British Cinema | Tagged: biopic | Leave a comment »
Posted on February 12, 2014 by nicklacey
A living hell
It’s interesting to consider the different box office performance of this film in North America to the UK. At the time of writing it’s grossed $47 there and £15m in the UK. As a rule of thumb the UK equivalence of $47m would be £4.7m, which shows (even before we consider that the film was released much earlier in the US) that 12 Years a Slave is massively outperforming the US in the UK. One reason may be the fact the film’s holding up an uncomfortable mirror to Americans. We can watch 12 Years feeling superior due to the British national myth that focuses on our role in abolition rather than being slavers, neatly forgetting how we were as exploitative as any initially.
A second possibility is that British audiences, this year, seem particularly receptive to ‘awards films’ with Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle (which I thought was dreadful) also posting excellent box office. Last weekend Dallas Buyers Club debuted with, what Charles Gant calls, a ‘sensational’ £1.9m.
Thirdly there’s the high profile British talent in the film. Actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbinder (Irish-German) and Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s TV series Sherlock has cemented him as a star in UK eyes at least, and director Steve McQueen. I doubt, though, that McQueen had much of an impact outside the ‘art house’ crowd. Whatever the reason it was heartening to see, in a multiplex, an early evening (Saturday) viewing nearly full with an audience aged 15-70 for a film that is anything but a Hollywood sugar rush.
Most (all?) of you will be aware of the critical acclaim the film as received and I’ll simply endorse that. The performances are fabulous; I’ll highlight Fassbinder, he’s shaping up to be a ‘great’. McQueen’s reigned in his use of the long take, compared to his previous films, although I loved the lingering on the protagonist, Solomon’s, burnt letter. The shot remained until the last glow of red had disappeared (along with his hopes). Some thought might, however, be given to CGI-ing the immaculate ‘whiter-than-white’ teeth most actors seem to sport. I’m sure the dental hygiene of slaves was not quite how it was portrayed in the film.
This is highly likely to be on my ‘best film’ lists but I must remember not to go to the Vue, in Halifax, as the moment the words, explaining what happened to Solomon subsequent to the film, faded the lights came up breaking the spell. The person in front of me grabbed their phone, obviously requiring a fix, and a Despicable Me minion looked at me from the screen. Back to reality.
Filed under: Independent cinema | Tagged: biopic | 1 Comment »
Posted on November 5, 2013 by nicklacey
A force for good
This film was a bit of a ‘blast from the past’ not simply because it focused on the 1950s-70s of Stuart Hall’s life, but the form of John Akomfrah’s film reminded me of the experimental 1980s. Older folk may remember Hall’s appearances on television; from the film it seemed he was used as the ‘voice of the left’ by the BBC at least in the ’60s. I say ‘seemed’ because it’s not a straightforward expository documentary; the voice over consists of Hall’s voice from different contexts. I don’t remember seeing Hall on telly at the time and was intrigued as to how Hall’s Afro-Carribean ethnicity might have affected the perception of his views. However, Roy Stafford – who introduced the film and led a post-screening discussion – said that the wasn’t seen as ‘black’ at the time so his skin colour was irrelevant.
For those who weren’t watching the news in the ’60s, Hall is known for his brilliant work in Media Studies, particularly on representation and audience readings, as well as his Open University programmes. Of course, many won’t have heard of him at all.
Akomfrah’s film took a bit of ‘tuning in’ to but once I was into the rhythms, almost literally with its fantastic Miles Davis soundtrack, the film was an affecting concoction of ideas and history. I’ve just noticed that Riddles of the Sphinx is my next video rental – more nostalgia for me then!
Filed under: British Cinema, documentary | Tagged: biopic | 3 Comments »
Posted on March 21, 2012 by nicklacey
It is Michelle Williams
Michelle Williams is superb as Marilyn Monroe, as she was when shooting The Prince and the Showgirl (UK-US, 1957); Kenneth Branagh is no slouch as the director-star Laurence Olivier either. The only thing that Williams lacks, as Monroe, is the voluptuous curves; other than that, it is an entirely convincing portrayal.
She’s particularly good at Monroe’s insecurities in front of camera. Marilyn was a notoriously unreliable actor, in her final years, and this film does give an insight into how her vulnerability affected her behaviour. Despite all this, I disliked the film. Why?
It’s based on Colin Clark’s memoir who got a job with Olivier’s film company because of the silver spoon in his mouth (dad was Kenneth of Civilisation fame). Sure, that’s the way it was but it still nauseates me. Come to think of it, it’s still like that. Getting a foot on the film industry ladder often requires working for nothing so you need mummy and daddy to support you. Class is the great British divide.
Oh, and let’s reinforce it shall we by reducing the income tax for those who earn over £150k in today’s budget. And let’s attack the deficit by reducing corporation tax; brilliant! That will mean welfare payments will have to be reduced, but hey! who cares about the poor? They get what they deserve!
Excuse me while I puke.
Filed under: British Cinema, Independent cinema | Tagged: biopic | 1 Comment »
Posted on March 16, 2012 by nicklacey
Talk to me
It would be churlish to complain that a film about the parents of psychoanalysis was too talky, so I won’t. The film’s built around the possible, as I understand it, sexual relationship between Carl Jung and one of his patients, Sabine Spielrein, superbly played by Keira Knightley. Jung’s infidelity was prompted by Otto Gross, a brilliantly demented Vincent Cassel, and Jung’s rather prim wife (no excuse of course). However, the film actually seems to be about the schism between Freud and Jung and I’m not clear what the supposed sexual liaison had to do with this. Jung’s immorality may have confirmed to Freud that he wasn’t ‘fit’ to be his heir apparent, but it was Jung’s dabbling in mysticism that actually ‘did’ for him.
So I’m not sure what the film is doing, but it does it extremely well. Immaculately shot, by Cronenburg’s regular cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, excellent performance (Mortenson’s Freud is exceptional), beautiful locations; overall an amenable film. But I expect more from Cronenburg.
I am grateful to the film for suggesting that Spielrein was an important influence on the development of psychoanalysis; women are usually rubbed out of history, men’s fragile ego’s can’t seem to share the glory. It’s interesting that the hysteria in women, that the psychoanalysts treated, no longer exists. Presumably this is due to the advances in feminism so women are more likely to be treated as human’s rather than children to be put on a pedestal and to be screwed occasionally.
In an interview in Sight & Sound Cronenburg says that recently advances in MRI scans suggests that there’s a lot of brain activity that cannot be explained and so Freud, and his subsconscious, may be about to be proved correct.
A friend regularly complains about Knightley’s constant pouting; after this, Knightley’s gurning will have to be added to the list. It’s quite exceptional that a star should expose herself in this way. It’s quite a startling opening to the film; the most Cronenburgian moment.
Filed under: European cinema | Tagged: biopic | 2 Comments »