Archive for March, 2014

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” – L.P. Hartley

Following on from his widely successful breakthrough film A Separation (2011) Iranian director Asghar Farhadi relocates to Paris for his latest family drama, The Past.  Here, Farhadi compiles a strong cast of current French talent, Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) and Tahar Rahim (A Prophet), and places them in Parisian territory as outsiders (much like himself.) As a non-French speaker, Farhadi it would appear, has his work cut out for him directing and writing a French narrative. Through his lead actor, Iranian Ali Mosaffa, who speaks in a broken French, there is a vulnerable distance inevitably created; however through Farhadi’s masterful storytelling ability, he manages to utilise this and express some fairly unifying themes.

The Past follows Ahmad (Mosaffa) as he returns to Paris after a 4 year absence, to sign his divorce papers with his ex-wife Marie (Bejo). While there, Marie asks Ahmad to speak to his step-daughter Lucie, played by a young and particularly impressive Pauline Burlet (La Vie en Rose), who disapproves of her mothers’ upcoming union with Samir (Rahim). This establishing and overlapping of characters is a strong indication of the film’s tone. These four main characters are all connected and yet distant. Ahmad is not the father of Lucie, or her younger sister Léa (Jeanne Jestin), as much as Samir’s son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) has no relation to Marie, and yet here all these characters are brought together under one roof, for a short time at least.

The film largely feels like one of Ibsen’s dramatic family stage plays, or the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960’s in Britain. The mood can often be oppressive and claustrophobic, with Paris standing in largely as a suburban backdrop rather than a tourist locale, which gives the film a weight of authenticity and naturalism. It is important that Paris remains recognisable but largely absent, as initially at least, we view the narrative through “outsider” Ahmad. He tries to help around the house and crucially understand Lucie’s increasing isolation, he quickly takes on the role of investigator. As he and we learn more about what “the past” actually is here, Ahmad unwittingly becomes a sub-film noir hero, with his past left no clearer than simply being Iranian, Marie’s ex-husband and having previously suffered bouts of depression.

In the centre of all this is Samir’s wife, whose attempted suicide has left her in a comatose state, between life and death, much as the rest of the characters are between the past and the present with their interactions. This is what we, initially through Ahmad, piece together as the narrative moves forward. One of the film’s strengths is that The Past refuses to have a single focaliser and as a result, does not allow the viewer to form assumptions about any of the characters for too long. The film easily could have made Samir the straw-man, a guy who is partly responsible for his wife’s tragic act, yet actually appears to be moving on to a better life with Marie when he should really be wallowing in guilt. However Farhadi instead closes the narrative through his perspective, allowing a good deal of empathy to be shared with all of the main characters here.

As a result, there is an inherent and fascinating tension in The Past which is never truly resolved. Everyone here is somewhat culpable for their actions and simultaneously sympathetic, which makes for a highly believable narrative. It’s fairly modernist in this approach, especially as Farhadi refuses to allow ethnic or class backgrounds to define any of his characters; instead they express themselves largely off-screen (through unseen emails and phone-calls) and dwell largely on their actions in the past.

But while there is much to admire about Farhadi’s film, it’s a tough film to become truly engrossed in. For all his expertly placed motifs, of not allowing a single character to seem entirely blameable, it’s difficult to really forge relationships with these people who are piecing together their miscommunication. While there are some lighter moments earlier on in the film, most notably in Samir and Ahmad’s prolonged awkward silence, it’s suffocatingly serious tone for 2 hours and 10 minutes makes it hard to really ever enjoy. While it’s intriguing to learn about the past of this dysfunctional family, the plot turns exist to the point of distraction; this softens its intended climax somewhat.

Ultimately, for all it’s excellent performances, layered-narrative and stage-play atmosphere, the shared empathy across the board prevents us from making a meaningful connection. For all it’s achievements The Past suffers from its own accomplishments as an excellent modernist morality play. It is something to be seen, but not really felt.

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It’s almost easy to forget that Wes Anderson makes films. Such is the cult that has grown around him over the years, he feels more like a brand beloved of hipsters such as American Apparel or Apple Macs. Just by uttering his name a person has given an insight into their adopted subculture. Numerous parodies have been dimwittily prepared and his signature visual style has been gentrified by a zillion twee graphic designers. Which all distracts from the fact that Wes Anderson does actually make funny, literate and often moving films.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, his latest film, feels like a culmination of all Anderson has been working towards in his career. It marries the the quirkiness and pathos of his earlier work with his recent dabbling with animation, as seen in The Fantastic Mr Fox. If some viewers felt his previous films were overkill, then they would be advised to cross the road for this one. The layered narrative essentially follows the exploits of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel concierge, and his trusty protege Zero (Tony Revolori). Set between the world wars, Gustave oversees the running of the majestic ship while ‘seeing’ to the richer female clientele.

One such client, Madame D., (Tilda Swinton) is found brutally offed, and when Gustave is left with her invaluable ‘Boy with Apple’ painting, both her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and the police begin to suspect the hapless concierge of foul play. Gustave and his lobby boy Zero have to flee in order to clear his name, by which time the film descends into somewhat of a chase movie. All the typical Anderson staples are here; the intricate, gaudy mise en scene, the literary references, the witty wordplay and the slapstick flourishes. There is a greater sense of action here though, veering into the cartoonish.

Fiennes is a rather excellent comic creation, embodying both the eloquent workaholic in Gustave but also a childish goofiness. Newcomer Revolori is appropriately boyish and earnest, while William Defoe and Brody are deliciously devilish as the baddies in pursuit. Unfortunately a couple of actors are wasted in somewhat dull roles, like Ed Norton and Bill Murray. The script, loosely based on Stefan Zweig’s writings, is one of Anderson’s wittiest and funniest for a while. I can’t remember many laughs from Moonrise Kingdom, but this latest one definitely had the audience tittering into their craft beers.

The film gets off onto a very good, if slightly convoluted, start. The hotel itself has been so beautifully designed that you wonder if Anderson would have been better off making another of Roald Dahl’s books, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The hotel is part swank hotel, part toy shop, an intricate creation that Jacques Tati, surely one of Anderson’s greatest influences, would have been impressed with. The world is a joy to be in, so when Anderson takes us out of it and into the outside world does the film begin to flag. Particularly the 2nd half of the film begins to test the audience’s patience, as the jokes become less pronounced and the chase becomes bogged down in Anderson’s own elaborate tangents.

Still, this is one of Anderson’s best films in a while. Whereas some of his more recent films felt more subdued and perhaps even navel gazing, there is a sense of fun running through The Grand Budapest Hotel, even if it does turn sickly at points. If I were to nostalgically yearn for anything from Wes Anderson, it would be a sense of space. Looking back at his undeniably superior works Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, there was a looseness about them that let the inventive visuals and eccentric characters breathe. Perhaps for his next film, less is more.

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The battle between image and narrative has pestered cinema since its inception. The greatest films have seamlessly intertwined these two elements by telling a great story through stunning visuals, yet for the most part we see films that are driven by plot, the visuals a sad afterthought. Music video directors who segue into feature film makers often represent this clash well; what use are pretty, inventive visuals if the characters are emotionally uninvolving? But on the other hand, cinema is essentially a visual medium, why waste it through humdrum mise en scene?

Which leads us to Jonathan Glazer, who began his career as a lauded music video and ad director. With notable work with Radiohead and Massive Attack under his belt, Glazer went to make the feature films Sexy Beast and Birth. While those two films were fairly straightforward narrative pieces,  it is his latest film Under the Skin that truly belies his music video beginnings. Loosely based on Michael Faber’s novel, it follows Laura, a beguiling, glamorous young vixen who roams the desolate areas around Glasgow looking for young male prey.

One of the key elements of the film is its ambiguity and mystery. We don’t know where Laura is from, what her motivations are or why she has that peculiarly plummy English accent. Soon the audience begins to realise that Laura is not quite what she seems, yet Glazer and writer Walter Campbell keep their cards close to their chest. The film is a triumph of suggestion and innuendo, leaving the audience with more questions than answers. In many ways it is similar to some of Kubrick’s work, in that any chance of sentimentality is replaced with cold sterility.

Scarlett Johansson plays the enigmatic lead, which she is utterly perfect for. I don’t believe Johansson has great range as an actress, but playing an otherworldly, seductive chanteuse is her bread and butter. The contrast between the sallow, desperate young men she picks up (who amazingly were non-actors oblivious to the set up) and her porcelain doll is delicious. Cruising around in her white van looking for her next victim, Laura becomes a genuinely strange new cinematic icon. The audience revels in these surreal images of a Hollywood starlet asking where the nearest Asda is in obscure Scottish locales.

The trailer for the film was genuinely exciting; we were privy to what seemed like new images to stimulate the senses, and hints of the esoteric score by Mica Levi. The film IS visually striking. There is a mysterious opening sequence reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s infamous psychedelic section; we seem to be watching this strange entity being birthed straight from the cosmos. Elsewhere there are some startling images inside Laura’s lair, where her victims are submerged into an oily abyss. Combined with Mica Levi’s ominous, primal orchestration, these moments are truly unnerving.

Yet there is something unsatisfying about the film as a whole. Although the documentary style footage of Laura stalking the bleak streets of Glasgow is creepy and surreal, it often deadens the drive of the film with its repetition. It’s beguiling, no doubt, but the meandering, barely there plot feels intriguing rather than profound. Again we go back to this division between visuals versus plot, and in this case I feel that the film is lacking that narrative drive to really make it a transcendent piece of cinema. As a mood piece it is really rather wonderful, but you get the feeling that this will come to be known as a cult film in the vein of Nicholas Roeg rather than a bonafide classic.

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Salvo‘s gripping first 30 minutes – a dense dance of diegetic devices – is both the film’s greatest asset and its disadvantage. Powerfully using the cinematic form to all of its advantages, directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza have you at the edge of your seat for an extensive period of time. The issue is that once that tension subsides, you are still pumped full of adrenaline, disinclined towards the comedown. The comedown is, of course, the main crux of the film – the aftermath of that first half hour.

In a nutshell, the synopsis follows Saleh Bakri’s eponymous hitman. Opening with a charged sequence in which Salvo tracks down the man behind an unsuccessful hit on his boss – a Renato Pizzuto – and murders him. During this point, he discovers Renato’s blind sister, Rita (Sara Serraiocco), who he is unable to kill. Rita has an effect on the otherwise unemotional hitman, whilst one touch from Salvo inexplicably earns Rita her sight back; a bond is made and Salvo starts to alter his ways.

Were it not for the miraculous, sight-giving motif included in Salvo, the story would seem a tad conventional and/or unexceptional. However, the messianic elements and the way Salvo uses the subject of senses transforms the film into a far more complex gangster film. Italian cinema has long been interested in the romantic and ethereal aspects of life (Vittorio de Sica’s Miracle in Milan and the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Federico Fellini, for example) – a cinematic appraisal that Salvo wonderfully adjoins. The pacing that alters itself from the heart-pounding opening, to the steady study of life and death is what will divide audiences, ultimately. To those hearing the buzz words “gangster”, “thriller” and “mafia” surrounding Salvo, as well as sitting through the action-laden opening, there’ll be a sigh of disappointment at the meditative main part.

For cinephiles and admirers of the arts, Salvo will be a fitting find. The craft is absolute, with colour and sets neatly defining a moment or a character. Lenses and lighting change for Salvo and Rita, respectively. As well as that there is definition on shape and structure – walls with circular or straight patterns, confined space or open rooms that all deftly underline the smooth or suffocated nature of a scene. Capturing all this is Daniele Ciprì’s stunning cinematography and Desideria’s Rayner’s refined editing – a feast for the eyes. And to top off, audio work and a discriminating regard to diegetic sound (striking due to the lack of dialogue) that are masterfully employed.

It’s easy to review Salvo as a technical achievement, perhaps less so when speaking about its story. Few will feel devoted to the main character, what with an enigmatic agenda and near-silent expression. Rita, too, is a quietly curious character, only managing to shine in the last few scenes. There is little to connect with on a personal note, with the film feeling like a far more sensory experience; yet altogether perfect for the darkened space of the cinema.

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