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The Monk by Dominik Moll – A Review

by Garth Twa

Post image for The Monk by Dominik Moll Lightening rents the black sky.  A castle – maybe monastery – sits high and forbidding on a distant hill.  Eddies swirl in angry, bloated streams; foundlings are dangled.  Crows screech from turrets; gargoyles loom with hollow mouths.

The Monk, the new film by Dominik Moll (Lemming; Harry, He’s Here To Help) has all the tropes of a sturdy diabolic horror film: thrashings of Hammer gothic, buckets of Roger Corman Grand Guignol and also – as a bonus, because it’s French – nods to Bosch, Breugel, Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and Jodorowsky’s daylight surrealism.

Brother Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel), an orphan left on the steps of a monastery in Spain is a charismatic spewer of brimstone.  The faithful come from miles to hear him preach and young maidens swoon at his vigor.  He is a superstar for Jesus, with all the swagger that makes a celebrity irresistible, though for a man who’s taken the oath of the Capuchin order it’s perilously dangerous (and makes him guilty of at least two deadly sins and perhaps three commandments).

 But evil is lurking, as we’re told repeatedly.

When a mysterious acolyte appears in a mask that hides his fire-ravaged face, things, of course, are not what they seem.  So when a nun with quivering knees and a face out of a Van Eyck painting gets nothing from Brother Ambrosio but pompous and merciless penance, the trip wires of vengeance, temptation and hubris are laid.

Based on a book of ‘sulphurous reputation,’ as Moll puts it, The Monk was originally published in 1796, written in ten weeks by a 19-year-old named Matthew Gregory Lewis for – allegedly – the entertainment of his mother (a lewd novel about incest and matricide—Happy Mother’s Day!).  It was shocking at the time. So blasphemous and immoral that even Coleridge (a bit louche himself) remarked, ‘if a parent saw The Monk in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale.’  The Marquis de Sade was a fan and the surrealists embraced it: André Breton wrote, ‘It is infused throughout with the presence of the marvelous’.Antonin Artaud wanted to turn it into a film starring himself and Luis Bunuel actually did adapt it into a screenplay, filmed in 1972 by Ado Kyrou.

A fine pedigree of salaciousness then, but what could make a matron reach for the smelling salts in 1796 seems comparatively chaste to us now, a generation that has lived through The Exorcist, Deep Throat and Irreversible.

It is a beautifully toned piece of work and wonderfully unsubtle: Moll uses self-consciously old-fashioned effects, like iris transitions and double exposures (cue hellfire, cut to hellfire – actual hellfire) and almost parodic montage (after two young suitors meet, he cuts to a bee rabidly pollinating a lurid flower; I suppose seeing a train going into a tunnel would have been anachronistic).  It is also easily one of Cassel’s most complex and brilliantly constructed performances.  When Brother Ambrosio gets a whiff of female delights, Cassel is stupefied yet driven like a puppy in rut: holy, mad, confounded, all at the same time—‘very quickly he gave a name to the acting style I directed him to do,’ Moll says, ‘German-Japanese minimalism!’  That Cassel succeeds in making a recitation of the sixth psalm more erotic than the Penthouse Letters column is remarkable.

But the film is all foreplay.  Or it’s all the right foreplay but for the wrong movie.  Or the right movie but with the wrong foreplay.

What it isn’t is what it teases it will be.

It is not a gothic horror, or one of those sinister popery films with sly monks and naughty nuns, movies like Ken Russell’s nutloaf The Devils or Jerzy Kawalerowicz breathtaking 1961 film Mother Joan and the Angels, both of which The Monk echoes (because basically they’re the same film, with different degrees of artistry and sanity).  What it is is the kind of film that France does best, an intimate character study of complex emotions, duty, passion, sensuality (there’s a reason repressed countries make better horror movies).  Sure, there’s falling masonry, bells tolling whenever anyone says something ponderous and some crawling around inside graves by moonlight, but after a while we wonder, is the devil coming or what?  All it boils down to is lust really, and as such probably not a good idea for a monk.  Sure, it gets a little complicated (quite a bit more complicated), but it’s still just lust; the monster unleashed is only too human.

The devil is – as Mel Gibson, that sage of theological cinematism, knew – a woman.  That’s also how Von Trier provoked us in Antichrist – male fear and hysteria over the mystery of women’s sexuality, womanliness as chaos, something to be feared, something certainly anathema to the Holy Roman See.  But it is just one man’s downfall, not mankind’s. Hardly apocalyptic, and it hardly seems worth all the fuss.

Posted on Tuesday, May 1st 2012, by Fireythings

Tags Dominik Moll Film Garth Twa review The Monk

La Grande Illusion and its Journey To Safety

by Gareth Twa

Post image for La Grande Illusion and its journey to safety

This month Studiocanal, in association with La Cinémathèque de Toulouse, is rereleasing Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, easily—and for many reasons—one of the most important films in history.  After years of painstaking work the film has been re-mastered in time for its 75thanniversary, and will not only have theatrical distribution but—for the first time—will be available on Blu-ray.

‘Studiocanal has a vast catalogue of classic world cinema, including many French, and also many English titles,’ Candy Vincent-Smith of Studiocanal says, ‘In the last few years we have embarked on a programme of restoring titles from this catalogue. There are two main reasons for this, firstly to be able to give some love and attention to what are very old materials in some cases, and thus to present the films, as much as possible, looking and sounding as fresh as they did when they were first released. Also, by creating digital masters of the films at the end of the restoration, we are able to ensure that we are able to preserve them for generations to come.’ 

This work cannot be underestimated. These classic films are not hoary texts, dusty and irrelevant.  Movies give us our world, our past, make us who were are. They show us what is possible.  ‘Film is history,’ Martin Scorsese has said.  But, unlike any other medium, it is history alive.

A story of simple, elegant truth

La Grande Illusion is a war film without combat, without aggression, without villains; a war film without victory.  It takes place in War World I, during the battle of Verdun, one of the bloodiest in history (between 700,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed), a fight that actually changed the gene pool in certain parts of Europe. When two French officers, Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin), a mechanic, and Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocrat, are shot out of the sky they are taken to the quarters of the man who brought them down, Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), who invites them to lunch.   ‘Good to meet you,’ he says, ‘Too bad it’s here.’ War is still a gentleman’s game—they are not enemies, just opponents, just pawns in a game no one really wants to play.  Von Rauffenstein even leads a prayer, a paean to the valor of the men that he has just killed in combat.  Von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu are both from the same class, a stratum with deeper roots and greater allegiances than mere—fluctuating—geopolitical boundaries; class trumps platoon.

Life isn’t so bad in the POW camp, where the two men meet another countryman, Rosenthal, a wealthy Jewish banker (to complete Renoir’s cross-section of French society).  The prisoners tease the German guards, they have banquets with provisions from home sent to Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), and they put on shows.  We see kids playing like soldiers, and soldiers playing like kids. Battles are fought, lost, won, endless, fruitless, senseless.  This is not an action film, and there is little suspense, just the monotony of a futile war dragging on: Fort Douaument is taken by the Germans, retaken by the French, then taken yet again by the Germans, solving nothing, signifying nothing.

They also dig a tunnel to escape, because that’s just the rules of the game: a camp is meant for escaping, ‘like a tennis court is meant for tennis.’  Before their tunnel is completed, however, Marechal and de Boeldieu are moved to a different POW camp, Wintersborn, a medieval fortress where they are reunited with von Rauffenstein, who claims the prison is escape proof.  But again, just like in any sport, the French officers have to give it a try.

Eventually a plan is hatched, and de Boeldieu does as an officer must and aristocrat surely ought to, he plays a decoy, sacrificing himself so that Marechal and Rosenthal can escape.  Von Rauffenstein shoots him, because he must, but not before pleading with him to return safely.  ’Damned nice of you, Rauffenstein, but impossible,’ de Boeldieu says then falls to the ground at von Rauffenstein’s feet.  Von Rauffenstein takes him back to his private suite. As de Boeldieu lays dying, von Rauffenstein is in anguish. ‘I bungled it. I aimed for the leg.’  De Boeldieu tries to comfort him, ‘But it was misty and I was running, so don’t feel bad.’  Both men know that it’s the death of far more than an individual; it is the end of a world.  They are artifacts, their class is an anachronism, and the time when they flourished is over, making way for a new country, a new world, for men like Marechal and Rosenthal.  But how this new world will look is what La Grande Illusion concerns itself with.

Marechal and Rosenthal find refuge in a farmhouse where a German widow (Dita Parlo) takes them in. She lost both her husband and her brothers in the Battle of Verdun; there is savagery on all sides.  She recognises something in the men, the humanity in the insanity and perhaps—as a species—there is hope for us all.

As the men run through a snowy hillside to safety, the German soldiers in pursuit stop firing when they think the men have crossed the border.  ‘Is that Switzerland?’ one asks.  ’It all looks alike,’ another answers.  The first sighs, ‘All the better for them.’  Unlike Hollywood, there are no faceless enemies and no side is worse than the other; Von Rauffenstein and the widow are in fact the most compassionate characters, next is the Jewish banker.  The protagonists start off as combatants but are reduced, or elevated, to mere men.  Polyglot, polyreligious, poly-class, La Grande Illusion is a call for compassion.  It is ‘a story about human relationships,’ Renoir said, ‘I am confident that such a question is so important today that if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say “goodbye” to our beautiful world.’

The Journey to safety 

Renoir’s most personal film, one of the very few that he himself conceived, La Grande Illusion has had a long and treacherous journey.  The film takes its title and philosophy from The Great Illusion, a 1910 book by Nobel prize-winning British journalist and politician Norman Angell who theorized that the cause of war is usually the pursuit of wealth, but that ultimately war is never of benefit economically and it’s therefore futile: ‘Are we to continue to struggle…spilling oceans of blood, wasting mountains of treasure…to achieve what is at bottom a logical absurdity, to accomplish something which, when accomplished, can avail us nothing?’  Renoir not only used his own experiences in the war—he had been severely wounded in WW I, shot down at Haut-Koeningsbourg castle, the location he uses in the film for Wintersborn, and Jean Gabin even wears Renoir’s old uniform—but he also interviewed members of League of Escaped War Prisoners.  After struggling to get the film made for two years, he cast Gabin, a massive star in France at the time, and—bringing Gabin with him to production meetings—was able to secure the backing of distributors to get it made.  It was a fait accompli when Erich von Stroheim stepped in to play von Rauffenstein, a character that didn’t even exist in the original script.  To accommodate such a huge presence, Renoir combined two existing characters, changing the balance of the film (to the dismay of Gabin).  Von Stroheim was a mythic beast—literally mythic, he made himself up—one of the masters of silent cinema and an uncompromising genius who, disgraced in Hollywood, was earning a living taking acting roles.  Renoir was in awe, and indulged all of his eccentricities—in Hollywood von Stroheim was infamous for his perversities and excesses; he notoriously had the walls of his offices at Paramount covered in black leather—including giving von Stroheim his choice of accommodations in the castle during filming (he chose the chapel) and letting him create his character through accoutrements: a surgical collar, guns, riding whips, white gloves, and especially the iron girdle (a detail from a genius filmmaker, it captured, without exposition, the stricture and rigidity of von Rauffenstein’s class).  The film took shape in shooting; Renoir claims he didn’t know how it was going to end until he’d almost finished all the exterior shots and had already started editing.

When the film opened, it was the only of Renoir’s films to be celebrated internationally on its release, honored at the Venice Film Festival and was the first foreign language film ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  Unfortunately, the celebration was short-lived.  Goebbels called it ‘Cinematographic Enemy Number One,’ and it was soon banned in Italy (its pacifism and appeasement were anathema to fascist ideals, although Mussolini kept the seized copy for himself and showed it to Italian filmmakers).  Not long after it was banned in France (after charges of both being ‘Jewish propaganda’ and fears that it might demoralize the troops).  When Paris was occupied in 1940, the Nazis seized the negative and shipped it to Berlin where it was held in the Reichfilmarchiv.  Several years later, when Berlin fell, the Red Army appropriated select spoils of war, including works of art and reels of film from the German archive.  These ‘Trophy Films,’ as the Soviets called them, included Renoir’s negative, which was taken to Moscow.

By this time, Renoir was exiled in the States (he’d been put on the Nazi extermination list—films certainly do have the power to change lives) and tried to reissue the film in 1946, but the Hollywood censors truncated the scenes with Dita Parlo (too risqué for an industry still in the grip of the Production Code), and any scenes that showed the Germans in a sympathetic light (the original charges of Jewish propaganda had been replaced by charges of German propaganda).  Renoir would spend the rest of his life searching in vain to restore the original film.  In the 1960s La Cinémathèque de Toulouse began collaboration withGosfilmfond, the Russian National Film Archives, and the film was returned to France, though it remained unidentified in storage until the 1990s. The Cinémathèque, in league with Studiocanal, chose it to be the first film in their series of re-mastered landmarks of world cinema.

Does it really matter?

I was once loitering in the HMV at Piccadilly Circus.  At the time I was teaching film studies at University.  I ran into a former student.  He was holding a DVD of La Grande Illusion (the inferior 1997 restoration), a film I had featured in the course.  He spoke of the film in awe and sense of discovery; for him, it was a sacred object.  Sometimes films can be our initiation in finding something greater in ourselves, like we’ve been admitted into a secret club.  We all have those films, those films that open us up.  La Grande Illusion is one of those films. It was for Orson Welles, and for Woody Allen.  That’s what is so important about what Studiocanal is doing. ‘With every foot of film lost, we lose a link to our culture, to the world around us, to each other, and to ourselves,’ Martin Scorsese says, ’movies touch our hearts, and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things. They take us to other places. They open doors and minds. Movies are the memories of our lifetime. We need to keep them alive.’  In addition to restoring and re-releasing La Grande Illusion, this year Studiocanal are also bringing out Marcel Carné’s Quai des Brumes, Luis Bunuel’s deliciously nasty The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and such Hammer classics as Dracula Prince of Darkness, Plague of the ZombiesThe Reptile (though so far only La Grande Illusion is scheduled for a cinema release).  They are also re-mastering Nicholas NicklebyThe Old Curiosity ShopWoman in a Dressing Gown, and Passport to Pimlico.  And that’s just the first year.  ‘If either the original director or cinematographer is still alive, we try to involve them in the technical process of the restoration,’ says Candy Vincent-Smith, ‘and then if we can, cast and other crew. We also often ask scholars to be involved in terms of giving context, history and a critical appreciation.’

Watching La Grande Illusion now is like watching a brand new film, and the brilliance of Renoir becomes dazzling.  Stephen Hill, who works on the technical side at Studiocanal, says, ‘the last time we restored this title was 1997. This was a photochemical restoration using the original nitrate negative. Unfortunately we were limited by the technology of the time so the transfer would have been SD meaning that we lost a lot of detail in that transition from film to video. The other limitation was the type of restoration tools at our disposal.’  Now the technology has advanced and they’ve restored the original nitrate negative in 4K (widely regarded as the true resolution of 35mm film).  Renoir’s virtuosic sound design (sound had only been around less than a decade) is also, for the first, able to be fully appreciated.

Why it’s just so damn good

Quite apart from the brilliance of the film’s story, and its performances, La Grande Illusion is revolutionary milestone of visual art.  Along with cinematographer Christian Matras (who also did films with Jean Cocteau and Max Ophuls) Renoir reworked the grammar of cinema.  He perfected the use of the long single-take, the sequence shot, where entire scenes were shot unedited from a single cameral set-up.  In one such shot, the camera starts from high outside, looking down onto the street. It pulls back, into a room, and we see Marechal.  The camera then moves into a two-shot. A whole scene, with varied framing, in a single take.  There is dramatic tension created by composing in depth, using various spatial planes for action and objects—requiring incredible deep-focus cinematography, and also a complex choreography of camera and action—effectively turning a 2-D screen into 3-D space.  It hadn’t been many years before that the Pathé company, the leaders in production in France in the first decades of the 20th century, proscribed shooting any character less that full figure (as one would see it, say, from the 10th row center in a theatre) for fear that the audience would become confused, or assume they were watching a movie about dismemberment.  To put it in perspective and understand Renoir’s achievement, 30 years ago we had Raiders of the Lost Ark, which still looks pretty modern. 30 years before La Grande Illusion, movies were 12 minutes long at best, silent, and had a chase scene. The close-up hadn’t even been invented yet, let alone the crane-dolly.  According to Andre Bazin (the Noah Webster of film lexicon) Renoir ‘uncovered the secret of film form that would permit everything to be said without chopping the world up into little fragments, that would reveal the hidden meanings in people and things without disturbing the unity natural to them.’  This was done five years before Citizen Kane, often hailed as the greatest film (technically) of all time.  But Renoir got there first.

La Grande Illusion is playing in selected cinemas now, and is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Posted on Tuesday, May 1st 2012, by Fireythings

Tags Film Jean Renoir Gareth Twa

This Must be the Place - A Review

by Garth Twa

Post image for Review: This Must be the PlaceThis Must Be the Place opens in a classic gambit from the strip club, a slow reveal, a burlesque tease: slowly, luxuriously, we see varnished nails, crimson lipstick, and an extreme close-up of eyeliner being applied on a powdered, furrowed face.  The eye is tired, blank, drained of vivacity or interest. 

Pop to medium close-up and we gasp: Sean Penn in a zombie bouffant. Cheyenne (think Siouxsie—Sorrentino did) is the aging husk of obsolete rock star—mostly Robert Smith of The Cure (if Robert Smith of The Cure had suffered a brain parasite), with a touch of the dotage and affectless wheeze of Ozzy Osbourne, and just a smidgeon of late-career Anna Magnani.

 Cheyenne is not at home in his body, in this time, in this world. He shuffles through his mansion without purpose, from kitchen to living room; restless, unable to sit, yet exhausted, he stands awkwardly staring at Jamie Oliver on TV.  He can barely muster the labor it takes to blow a lock of  matte hair out of his face.  He hasn’t performed in decades, quitting the business after a young fan killed himself and he realized the pointlessness of goth pop in the face of real tragedy.  Sunk in a life that he can’t bring into focus he lumbers through Dublin with shopping trolley like a walker so he won’t fall over.  He shops in a soulless grocery market (the music piped in is the same as that used in the mental ward in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) but lacks the will or attention span to see it through.  ‘I feel numb, burn with a weak heart,’ sings David Byrne in the 1983 Talking Heads’ song This Must Be the Place, ‘guess I must be having fun.’  He meets a teenage friend in a mall and is approached by a fan who puts a camera up into his face and flashes; Cheyenne barely reacts. ‘There’s something not quite right here,’ he says, an inkling that there might be more here, some embers still glowing in his heroin-toasted brain.

‘The way I go about making a film is to determine the character of the protagonist,’ director Paolo Sorrentino says, ‘once all the aspects of his character have been established a story comes out of them, but not before.  It’s rare for me to start from the story and invent the characters.’  This Must Be The Place is, even more than any of his previous films, a character study.  Sorrentino continues, ‘I find this is a healthy way to work.  Usually when you’re imprisoned by a plot you end up with characters that are slaves to that plot and often you find yourself with quite sketchy characters because they have to obey the laws and rules of the story.  I’m less interested in telling a story full of coups de theatre and more interested in showing a man’s nature.’

Sorrentino has forged a brilliant, singular niche chronicling spiritually dispossessed men aging gracelessly; a maestro of male menopause. 

His films detail the crises when dreams become ridiculous adolescent fantasies and when accomplishments are totaled and don’t really amount to much; or, as a character says in Consequences of Love (2004), ‘The show’s over. Get used to it.’  In that film Titta (Toni Servillo) is a taciturn man of little trust and no friends, living in a Swiss hotel, a life as antiseptic as Cheyenne’s Irish Elba, without humor or engagement.  Happy—or not unhappy; anhedonic, really—he periodically takes large shipments of Mafia cash to a bank. But his hermetic life is cracked open when he lets a barmaid into his affections.  All ends badly, of course, reinforcing the idea that love is only transformative in the sense that ruins everything.  Sorrentio’s first film,  One Man Up (2001), is a double helix of failure featuring two men named Antonio Pisapia: one is a star football player (Andrea Renzi) whose injury cripples his future, the other (Servillo) is a pop crooner and housewife heartthrob (and also a cokehead and asshole) who gets caught with an underage girl.  In The Family Friend (2006)—Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo) is an ugly man and penurious loan shark who lives in a shithole with his bedridden mother and wears a potato poultice wrapped around his head. He insinuates himself into a local family, and particularly onto the daughter who is about to be married.  Geremia is a toad wanting to be kissed by a princess, but he stays a toad, and she wipes off her hand.  And finally, in Il Divo (2008), Toni Servillo plays Giulio Andreotti, seven times prime minister of Italy, going through his ups and many downs—the operatic corruption, Mafia links, and the humiliation of a trial that leaves him a broken man, cleaved with regrets; an inglorious end to an infamous career.  But in all this despair the films are so much fun.  They might all center on characters in dwindling free-fall, but they’re energetically and witty filmed, captivating and inventive.

Penn’s performance here is performance art.  Few actors can push a character to such an extreme that, like a soap bubble, it could burst at any moment. One hesitation, one wink to the audience, and it would collapse.  Marlon Brando could do it.  Peter O’Toole can do it.  Al Pacino can do it.  It’s courageous and  breathtaking. 

Penn’s normal physical power is gone—Cheyenne has a fragile rigidity, like a chicken bone left in the desert in a high wind, his voice slow and tenuous, as though his body is lacking energy, or his soul lacking the will, to speak louder than a high-pitched asthmatic whine.  But he is magnetic, his presence as irresistible as the gravity of a black hole.  If he is floating and purposeless as a dead piece of space junk, his phlegmatic wife of 35 years, Jane (Frances McDormand) is earthbound and sure-footed: she grounds him, humors him, and without reservation loves him. ‘It’s a relationship in which the vague abstractedness of the man is compensated for by the unrelenting solidity of the woman who makes it possible for life to progress without traumas and useless dramas,’  Sorrentino says, ‘ I stole little bits from my relationship with my wife.’

This Must Be The Place is not a tragedy, even a fell-good tragedy like Sorrentino’s previous films. It’s  a fairy tale, or myth, with an untested—and reluctant—hero yanked from complacency and ennui.

 The force that bumps Cheyenne out of his inertia is a phone call from New York—his father is dying. So off he heads, contending with his fear his fear of flying, his fear of family, his fear of living, really.  He kisses Jane goodbye, patting her on the shoulder like an old dog or unfamiliar child.  Finally reaching America by boat, he is too late.  At his father’s death bed he notices, perhaps for the first time, the holocaust tattoo on his arm.  He is introduced to Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch)—who, besides being his father’s financial advisor, is also an rabid Nazi hunter (‘Those are our teeth!’)—and learns that his father had been obsessed with tracking down Aloise Lange, a Nazi who had been the camp guard when he was in Auschwitz. 

‘Something’s not right here,’ Cheyenne says. 

‘You even know about the holocaust?’ Mordecai snorts.

‘In a general sort of way.’

‘And your father.  Did you know your father?’ 

‘In a general sort of way.’

Cheyenne broaches that, perhaps, he might continue his father’s search. Mordecai dismisses him, saying that Nazi hunting is ‘not for trendy boys like you.’  Besides, he says, Lange is only ‘small fish.’  Mordecai wants to hunt sharks.  ‘Even Nazi hunters play by the rules of show business.’

It’s at this point I sat up, electrified, and thought: ‘What?’  This was not a movie about an aging musician being an aging musician, a Still Crazy, an Anvil!, a Spinal Tap (which would have been fine, especially with Penn).  A befuddled ex-rock star as Nazi hunter?  Delicious! 

‘As a viewer I find the best films are those which don’t give me any clues at the beginning about what I’m going to see,’ Sorrentino says, ‘Usually my approach is that each film is the last film I’m going to make.  And so when I adopt this approach I find it helpful not to waste the opportunity by sticking to one genre, but to dabble in all sorts of genres and stick to none of them.’  This is by far Sorrentino’s most clueless (in that way that makes the best films) movie, an exhilarating carnival funhouse.

This Must Be The Place is really a satire of the hero’s-journey film, less Odysseus than Candide.  Instead of leaving a mundane existence for the fabulous, Cheyenne leaves the rarefied life of a pop recluse for the quotidian, but, seeing with new eyes, the ordinary becomes fantastic. 

The film is as much from Sorrentino’s POV as it is Cheyenne’s: a cartoonish, even fetishistic, view of America that gives This Must Be The Place its hyperreal energy. 

 ’I wanted to take on, shamelessly and recklessly, all the iconographic movie locations that have made me love this work since I was a boy,’ Sorrentino says, ‘New York, the American desert, the gas stations, the bars with the long counters, the remote horizons. American places are a dream and, when you find yourself in them, they don’t become real but continue to be a dream. I have this very strange feeling of being in a constantly suspended reality in the United States.’ 

This Must Be the Place is a love letter from an affectionate misanthrope, delighting in the ebullient self-delusion of America, the innocent overblown self-satisfaction, the unexamined eccentricity.  Cheyenne’s trek through the heartland is not a dangerous one but instead a brilliant gallery of oddities and neutered archetypes, a shiny fairy tale of trailer park America (in actuality it’s a very dicey place for any freak—just look at the recent Republican debates).  Sorrentino’s fluid camera is always moving, from one stunning idiosyncratic frame to the next, echoing both Edward Hopper and the Coen brothers:  Cheyenne discusses tattoos with a well-inked homunculus in a bar (‘Do you like tattoos?’ the man asks.  ‘I was just asking myself that,’ Cheyenne says, ‘I haven’t made up my mind’), meets another man in a gun shop (‘What sort of weapon are you interested in?’  Cheyenne thinks a minute.  ‘One that hurts’ ‘I’ve got just the thing—you can kill not just with satisfaction, but with impunity.’), and even turns up at a David Byrne concert (who, incidentally, did all the music for the film with Will Oldham).  In one of Sorrentino’s most thrillingly choreographed single-takes Byrne performs ‘This Must Be The Place,’ starting with a gravity defying go-go girl and ending on Cheyenne sobbing in the rear of the club, sublime tears of joy and desperate yearning.   Cheyenne goes backstage.  In the face of Byrne’s true art, true talent, he feels like a like fraud.  ‘Why are we such good friends?’ he asks, ‘we have nothing in common.’ Byrne, Cheyennes realises, redefined the boundaries of art and music, while all he did was sing ‘depressed songs for depressed kids.’

The film is full of surprises.  Sorrentino takes time to use the camera to tell jokes, mise en scene jokes—a willing suspension of narrative necessity—with a glee only equalled by (again) the Coen brothers.  Sorrentino is a playful master in love with the techniques and possibilities of his medium.

Posted on Sunday, April 8th 2012, by Fireythings

Tags Film Penn this must be the place review Garth Twa

Carnage by Roman Polanski – A Review

by Garth Twa

Post image for Carnage by Roman Polanski In the opening single-take—the only exterior shot in the film—children are playing in the distance.  We can’t see their faces, but, like animals in a zoo, we recognize their species: we see their group movements, their clan allegiances solidifying, their stances becoming more territorial.  One boy, ‘armed’ with a stick (a matter of lexical contention later) hits another one, echoing the opening of 2001, A Space Odyssey—the blow has been struck, the true base nature of mankind has emerged, and there’s no turning back.  On the soundtrack Alexander Desplat’s brilliant score moves from the plucky strings of a New York society film into increasingly insistent kettle drums. Two tribes go to war.

The parents of the all but anonymous boys get together to discuss the incident reasonably, as upper middle-class parents do.  Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) is the mother of the ‘victim’ (if the term even makes sense in the animal world), a superficially fair-minded liberal who works as a writer (marginally), spouts platitudes that seem less from the heart than a handbook, and knows the pain of sub-Saharan Africans because she’s spent months reading about them.  Her husband is Michael (John C. Reilly), a door-to-door hardware salesman, specializing in flushing mechanisms, and is that particular kind of American lout where intellectual torpor is a badge of pride.  Nancy (Kate Winslett) and Alan (Christophe Waltz) Cowan are the parents of the stick-wielding attacker (or the ‘threat to homeland security,’ in Alan’s words).  She’s an investment broker, and—busy and harried—can barely suppress her disinterest in the homey affectations of Penelope.  Alan is a corporate lawyer working for Big Pharma, and with a potential class-action disaster looming—on top of the ferocious and pitiless low-grade sociopathy that in his nature, and that all corporate lawyers need—his endurance of Penelope’s It-Takes-A-Village posturing is dangerously thin.

Roman Polanski and Yasmina Reza (adapting from her own Tony Award-winning play) have relocated the action from Paris to Brooklyn, a judicious move as the self-delusional hypocrisy seem endemically American (‘The spirit of the play seemed to me more American than French and Brooklyn would be a likely place for this kind of liberal family to live,’ Polanski says).  Essentially a chamber piece, Carnage plays out in real time, a breathless 79 minutes, the characters seemingly trapped in the home of the Longstreets, just like the bourgeoisie in Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel.  Here they’re unable to leave not because the capricious dictates of surrealism but because of their own class flaws—their pugnaciousness, their self-righteousness, their conceit, and the treatment of  child-rearing as a competitive sport.  And as in Bunuel’s film the patina of civilization soon crumbles and man is revealed in his true barbarism, the gilt of culture becoming meaningless (in Bunuel’s film the guests smash musical instruments to build a fire to roast a sheep that has wandered in—it’s Bunuel, after all—in Carnage, the tropes are less overt: instead of wrecking the furnishings it’s etiquette and cordiality that are demolished).

Polanski is a master of hothouse angst and repressive horror, and from the stifling confinement comes disintegration of the psyche: things get brutal on a boat in Knife in the Water, things get weird in an isolated castle in Cul de Sac, and Catherine Deneuve gets psychotic in Repulsion.  That’s not even counting the stew-pot of unpleasantness in the Dakota Apartments inRosemary’s Baby, or Polanski’s own turn as a cross-dressing psychological abuse victim in The Tenant.  Things are lighter here, of course, as Carnage is a comedy (albeit a comedy of horrors).  It’s basically a fable, like Aesop’s, (or satire, as it’s called if it’s funny and mean) and in a way just as blatant.  To wit: what the sons were accused of, the parents trump: bullying, teasing, pouting, name-calling, hitting, and tantrums (not to mention unregulated projectile vomiting); it’s not the children who are being childish.  But Carnage, of course, is a whole lot more fun than Aesop.  Tense, wrought with delicious unease, you first see the tripwires in Penelope.  With her aggressive passivity she can’t let matters rest, a damaged tooth becomes, with the compulsive badgering of a nag, ‘disfigurement.’ Nancy is bored enough to ignore the goad, but her husband Alan—despite their lofty disquisitions on ‘honor’ and ‘duty of community’—is too alpha, and needs to swat Penelope down.  He can’t ignore a challenge.

Because the film is too clever to be just an object lesson on the vacuities of two middle-class couples, the cycle continues and allegiances shift—civility reasonably gained devolves into uneasy detente then into open warfare—exposing repressed class resentment, clan fealty, and the struggle for pack dominance.  The parts coalesce into a whole: war is, after all, war.  Carnageis nothing less than a sardonic examination of man’s true nature.

Are we, as a species, just an adaptive animal with instincts and hungers (the reptilian predation of Alan, the leonine self-satisfaction of Michael), or are we something more than that (the lofty cliches of Penelope)?  Is the brain stem—eat it, fight it, or fuck it—stronger than the cerebral cortex, the home of all goodness and fine manners? Is it ‘might makes right,’ as Machievelli noted, or ‘love conquers all,’ as Virgil would have it?  ‘Survival of the fittest,’ as in the musings of Herbert Spencer after reading Darwin, or ‘What the world needs now is love, sweet love,’ as in the 1960s idealism of Burt Bacharach?

The cast is excellent, in parts and in the whole: Winslett, her contempt thrillingly modulated; Foster, never the easiest comedian, at first brittle then gleefully unhinged; Reilly, proving—after a year that has also included Terri, Cedar Rapids,and We Need To Talk About Kevin—that’s he’s one of the most nuanced actors working today; and Waltz, a master of the comedy of words, interruptions, hesitations, and inflections, his mockery timed with cold surgical precision.

So who wins?  Considering the harridan that Penelope has devolved into by the end of the film, with her paltry, doubtful plea, ‘We have to believe there’s some possibility for correction?’ easily triumphed by Alan’s allegiance to ‘the God of Carnage’ who has ‘ruled, uninterruptedly, since the dawn of time,’ it’s no surprise.  As Jodie Foster says, ‘Our ideas about morality are constructs and in fact we’re all very primitive. We’re all monstrous in some ways and if we took responsibility for that we’d probably be better off.”

Chilly stuff indeed.  A hilarious and biting scale model masterpiece.

Posted on Friday, March 9th 2012, by Fireythings

Tags Carnage Film Polanski Garth Twa

A Dangerous Method – A Review

by Garth Twa

Post image for A Dangerous Method On the eve of the century, before all hell breaks loose, a new model of the mind is coalescing in Vienna. It is the early days of psychoanalysis, when the science was inchoate and a struggle is taking place—like in all nascent movements, from newly minted republics to artistic upheavals—to determine the face  of it, to decide the politics of a new force that will change the world.  ‘Do you think they know we’re on the way,’ Sigmund Freud says here, ‘bringing plagues?’

A Dangerous Method centers on an idealistic and impressionable Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and he is just getting a sense of himself.  He is easily influenced by the eminence of Freud and easily knocked off track by the irrepressible (which, psychoanalytically speaking, is not necessarily a good thing) psychotherapist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel).  Jung begins to buckle under the prescribed methodologies of the two men (disapproving superego and lascivious id, respectively) and has an inkling that there may be another way, a science that will help people find a way out of mental illness, not just label it.  He is also under the influence of  Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) a masochist and possibly nymphomaniac who arrives gnashing and gurning at his clinic in Switzerland, and who he treats, has unlawful carnal knowledge of, and sets on her way to becoming a leading psychoanalyst in her own right.  Freud’s words are, Jung says, ‘carved in my heart: Whatever you do, give up any idea of trying to cure them.’

The fissure and split between Jung and Freud—the former exasperated by the latter’s insistence that all neuroses stem from sex on the brain, the latter impatient with the former’s ‘parapsychology and superstition’ and ‘self-aggrandizing shamanism’—plays in tandem with Jung’s troubled relationship with Sabina, and his overriding bourgeois guilt (and financial dependence on his wife).  As Fassbender describes the characters, we’re seeing behind the iconic facades, seeing the ‘human beings with egos and the evident flaws under the archetypes.’  And he is excellent as Jung, stalwart and earnest. Keira Knightly is also very good, brave and uninhibited as she writhes her way through madness, and Viggo Mortensen is superb and contagiously having fun as Freud, mining the easy confidence and humor.

The screenplay by Christopher Hampton is elegant, and, as Cronenberg says of the production, ‘It was easy.  We just shot the script.’  And that may be the problem. 

It’s Cronenberg at his most un-Cronenberg.  Gone is the visceral ick of his earlier films—hardly any blood, and just the barest smattering of corsets and spanking—and any suspense.  The film is like well-wrought fin de siecle Habsburg cabinetry—sturdy, functional, slightly fusty—not a glorious mess like we know and love and expect.  Normally with Cronenberg we’re deep into psychosis, subjectively, down in the dirty of our subconscious and nightmares. Here we’re in therapy.

The mise en scene is flat for the most part, the lighting is perfunctory.  It felt like it could’ve been directed by anyone.  As Viggo Mortensen quotes from a New York Times article regarding Freud (and applying it to Cronenberg with equal aptness) he’s the century’s ‘most effective disturber of complacency.’  That’s not the case here.  Not, of course, that every Cronenberg movie needs a hot naked woman with a poison stinger in her armpit or gynaecological instruments for operating on mutant women or mugwump jizz or ‘insect politics.’  Or even the Dali dream of Spellbound, or the hypno-rings of Huston’s Freud; as Cronenberg explained, ‘I don’t come with an idea of putting a stamp on it in terms of visual style—the film tella you what ir wants.  Style comes from what the movie’s about.’  This film was obviously reticent.  It needed some of the Cronenberg personality in order to make it more than an efficiently shot script. 

When Cronenberg was speaking about the labyrinthine nature of film funding, he said, ‘Things are strange out there.’  Although it nothing to do with the aesthetics of this film or any of his films, this struck me as what was un-Cronenberg about A Dangerous Method.  The strangeness is out there; we’re looking in, from a distance. In the old days, with Cronenberg, things were strange in here.

Posted on Friday, March 9th 2012, by Fireythings

Tags Film Freud Jung a dangerous method review Garth Twa

Apollo 18 - DVD Review

by Megan Sullivan

Post image for Apollo 18  DVD review“There’s a reason why we never went back to the moon” – lack of government funds? A budget not quite big enough to handle a lunar landing? Environmental climate worries? Lack of resources even? All of the above are perfectly plausible and valid reasons; however none of the above have quite the right amount of action, or level of thrill needed to make a Hollywood blockbuster. Audiences crave a whole lot more than just your average, bland and acceptable reasons – they need explanations which defy rationalism and logic by tenfold and carry with them conspiracies and ideas which linger with them, provoking a less than settled night’s
sleep.  Welcome the latest lunar landing conspiracy film… Apollo 18.

Rather than me really starting this review with “the movie was diabolical and now I have no faith in the film industry” (which is a lie because if anything it was OK); I ought to start with something I liked about it, right? Right.

Well, the camera work and quality of it was superb, a really beautiful use of vintage looking film and clever editing, making the film look somewhat believable.

Fortunately for this “documentary”, I personally like vintage style film footage an awful lot, so for that I’m going to mark it up by about three points. But now those three points have been deducted. And another ten. For being such a poor film. Don’t get me wrong, it was alright for the first ten minutes until it suddenly became one massive drag and I just had it on in the background whilst I Facebooked and Tweeted… about how awful this film is.

I’ll give you a basic synopsis of what it’s all about – basically three men have been sent back to the moon and they’ve been filming it.  So they’re on the moon, and they find a rock which gets into one of their bloodstreams. The rock is of course infectious, and they have to pull it out using some large tweezers (ewwwwww). It’s dull, and doesn’t really make much sense (okay so my description of the film was hardly the makings of anything great, but come on, it’s an infectious rock we’re dealing with here!)

Credit where credit is due however, as the film company behind Apollo 18 instigated a very clever publicity and marketing stunt, where they tried to sell the film as leaked NASA footage of an ACTUAL moon landing. A brave move, and something which worked for a short time…until NASA found out.

The film takes a long time to really get started, and doesn’t hook the audience whatsoever, instead lingering in the room like a bad smell. After about fifty minutes I was seriously contemplating just switching it off as it wasn’t going anywhere, instead running around in constant circles.

I turned it off after about seventy minutes, which is seventy minutes more than I should’ve watched.

In a brief summary now, the whole thing was reminiscent of the Blair Witch Project, so much so that it could’ve been represented as the sci-fi version of it. Of course, Apollo 18 is nowhere near as good as Blair Witch Project, but it was cute of them for trying. By all means, if you enjoy tedious, mundane and wearisome films, then check it out; but if not I’d just leave it, maybe put a bit of Star Trek on even? However you wish to fulfil your science fiction needs, do not do it with this film.

Posted on Saturday, February 4th 2012, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags Film review Megan Sullivan Apollo 18 NASA

Vampires in fiction: A Brief History

by Jessica Howard

Post image for Vampires in fiction: A Brief HistoryVampire fiction has changed a great deal in the past 200 years; from the classics to the modern day phenomenon Twilight, the vampire has been transformed since the rise of Dracula. But how has it changed, and why?

It was Bram Stoker’s Dracula that really marked the beginning of popular vampire fiction and gave rise to the ‘modern’ vampire in 1897. In this classic novel, the vampire Dracula is depicted as a soulless and dark creature, an aristocrat who lives in an ancient castle, sleeps in a coffin, and can seduce a victim by merely looking into their eyes.

One commonly accepted supposition is that Dracula is a metaphor for cholera or tuberculosis. The symptoms and the way that the illness took hold of its victims until death are very similar to the effects of having your blood drained by Dracula; the patient, or victim, would grow weaker and weaker in both body and mind, until they were taken over completely by the disease and all that was left was a slow, lingering death. If Dracula wanted to change a mortal into a vampire, he would feed them a little of his blood, ‘infecting’ the victim with the ‘vampire’ disease.

This is the first notable instance of the vampire having a direct correlation with the society it inhabits. Throughout the past couple of hundred years, society has progressed, and the vampire itself has changed to reflect this.

The next prominent contribution to the genre came roughly 80 years later with Anne Rice’sVampire Chronicles, the first book in the series being Interview With The Vampire in 1976. Lestat de Lioncourt, is a French Nobleman with a very aristocratic manner similar to Dracula, and has more in common with Stoker’s vampire than the vampires of today. This was a period in history where society began to change rapidly; promiscuity and the free love movement began a rebellion against the Church and the commonly accepted Christian morals that governed society.  Contraceptives became more readily available, taking illegal drugs became a popular pastime and people were pushing the boundaries of what was socially acceptable. They say that change is good, but is it moral? The Vampire Lestat represented the selfish, indulgent side of human nature and the questions of morality surrounding this new way of life. Now vampires seemed to harbour human-like emotions and exhibited biological and psychological motivations for their actions.

Reflecting this new openness in society, Interview With The Vampire is more erotic than previous vampire novels, a trend which was to continue as the genre progressed.

The twenty first century has seen the Twilight phenomena explode onto the scene, and whilst its popularity cannot be denied, it also attracted much criticism. Whilst there are vampires in the series that do adhere to the traditional archetype – they seduce their victims and drink their blood-it was the main characters that caused controversy. These vampires redefined how the modern vampire was perceived. These vampires no longer retained the refined, aristocratic nature of vampires before them; instead they wore denim, put gel in their hair and went to the local state school like your average human. Unlike the traditional vampires, these could walk around in the sunlight; they just chose not to, because instead of bursting into fire and dying painfully, their skin simply sparkles like glitter. Possibly the biggest difference between these vampires and the vampires of previous stories is that these vampires have chosen not to drink human blood, only the blood of animals. Everything that previously made vampires threatening, and symbolized their soulless nature had been compromised. Whilst the vampires of previous novels seduced their victims for their blood, the Twilight vampires seduce purely out of love even though love between a human and a vampire is depicted as frowned upon by the rest of the vampire community.

It would appear that nothing is out of reach within our current society, not even the vampire. Twilight is as much, maybe more so, about a mortal seducing a vampire rather than the other way round. The vampire is no longer an aristocratic and mysterious stranger; he is the boy next door.

We now control the vampire, bending even his ‘natural’ and blood-thirsty impulses to our own desires, fitting it nicely around our own wants and needs.

So what does the future hold for the vampire? That all depends on the direction we as a society choose to take, but one thing is for sure; vampires have changed a great deal over the past two hundred years, and will continue to change in ways that are impossible to predict.

Posted on Friday, February 3rd 2012, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags culture film Jessica Howard Literature

Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - Review

by Lydia Hughes

Post image for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo  ReviewThere’s been much dismay over the Hollywood re-make of the Swedish, subtitled movie that was released only 2 years ago. Directed by David Fincher, it doesn’t over-scream Hollywood; it has much more of a European feel to it, for reasons other than it being set in Scandinavia. And whilst, for some, it may seem unnecessarily too soon to re-do, I can only recommend viewing it before you judge in haste. Just in considering it as a standalone movie, in its own right, it is superb.

If you’re unaware of author Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – the first book of his trilogy, Millennium – or you didn’t get a chance to see the 2009 movie, this film noir is about a man called Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), an investigative journalist, who has been hired by an old Swedish industrialist to uncover the mystery of his niece’s disappearance 40 years prior. As part of the investigation Blomkvist hires an atypical investigator – although one of the best in the field – Lisbeth Salander,to help in his hunt for a ‘killer of women.’

Androgynous Lisbeth Salander, played by Rooney Mara, is the girl with the dragon tattoo. Having experienced a rough life so far, and deemed psychologically unsound, hers is by far the most interesting of characters. Fragile, yet fiery, dependent, yet heroic, her character’s antithesis is one that draws intrigue. She is almost robotic in nature, but beneath the surface you can’t help but sympathise with this child-like woman, yearning to be loved.  Somewhat defiantly, maybe, it is possible to identify with Salander, seeing part of yourself in her, regardless of whether you are male or female. Despite various antitheses that cause you to question the character’s stability, Salander takes more of a leading role in the plot than Blomkvist; in terms of input, dedication and risk-taking for the sake of the cause. This may come as a surprise given that Mara is relatively unknown in the film industry compared to her Bond-famous co-star, Craig. But it works.

It is certainly possible to speak of Fincher’s re-make as lurid, for the shock and outrage it induces, sometimes forcing you to avert your eyes from the screen – particularly in its sexually violent explicitness. But, having said that, redemption is celebrated throughout (often with an eye for an eye-type comeuppance).  In the use of pure gumption, fighting for rights, and martyrdom for the sake of loyalty and purpose, we see a glimpse Hollywood after all.

Certainly one of the best films I have seen this season, and one that I highly recommend.

Posted on Thursday, January 5th 2012, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags Film review Lydia Hughes Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Stieg Larsson

A Serbian Film: Is It Art?

by Jessica Howard

Post image for A Serbian Film: Is It Art?The definition of art is one that has been debated for centuries, yet never truly defined. Most will agree that art should move us; it should stimulate us emotionally and intellectually; or at the very least it should be aesthetically pleasing. It is accepted that;

“…art refer[s] to intentional, conscious actions on the part of the artists or creator. These may be to bring about political change, to comment on an aspect of society, to convey a specific emotion or mood, to address personal psychology, to illustrate another discipline, to (with commercial arts) sell a product, or simply as a form of communication.”

With such a broad definition, it is possible that almost anything can be viewed as art. Maybe there can be no clear-cut definition, because if the basis of art is to affect oneself, then art becomes something personal; and what may be deemed as art by one person may seem meaningless to the next.

But can films be considered art? If a film has the power to touch us, to make us think and deeply consider a message or story, then surely films can be considered art as much as any other medium could be. But can A Serbian Film be considered art, or is it just gore for the sake of gore, thrown into the sub-genre of ‘torture porn’ along with films like Hostel or A Human Centipede?

Released in 2010, it didn’t start making waves throughout the film community until 2011 when it was met with both loathing and admiration by critics and banned twice in this country. A Serbian Film whipped up a storm of controversy for its twisted and detailed scenes of torture and sexual depravity, but Writer and Director Srdjan Spasojevic and co-writer Aleksandar Radivojevic who have spent their whole lives in Serbia, have made it clear that this film is a metaphor for the political situation within the country over the past twenty years. Under the regime of Communist President Milosevic who ruled from 1989 until 1997, violence became a part of everyday life and oppression was everywhere, with media being censored and free speech being all but wiped out. Milosevic was arrested in 1999 for war crimes and crimes against humanity and died in prison in 2006. Despite the fact that Serbia is now a democratic country, it is still struggling to completely break free from the influences of the Milosevic regime.

Whilst there are many instances within the film where parallels can be seen between the violence depicted and the message the writers want to convey, a lot of the brutality seems completely unnecessary and an unimaginative way of getting the message across. In an interview, Aleksandar Radivojevic said that:

“We think that some of our own emotions that were caused by our inspirations are very strong and must be shown in strong means and extreme metaphors. We feel extremely violated and we want to put that into pictures.”

The oppressive regime of the state is skilfully represented in the beginning of the film. When main character Milos arrives for his first day of shooting, he is immediately confronted with men dressed as police holding video cameras; everywhere he turns there is one of these nameless uniformed figures pointing a camera at him, and the viewer does get the unnerving sense of being constantly watched, judged and ultimately oppressed.

A serious mistrust of authoritarian figures is evident throughout the film.  At one point, one of the characters asks, “Who can you trust if not a child psychologist working for security?” As the film progresses we can’t help but relate to this character as a symbolic representation of the Serbian government, and we soon learn the answer to that question: no-one. As the film develops, we can’t help but empathize with Milos and feel the hopelessness of one who truly has no choice.

In contrast, the second half of the film lacked what the first half strongly represented. The thought-provoking and powerfully symbolic depictions of a dehumanized nation were gone, and whilst the brutality does indeed shake you to the core, by the end you feel desensitized to it. This was definitely a case of ‘less is more’ and by the end of the film I was unfortunately in agreement with previous critics; this is quite simply torture porn. If you have a strong stomach I recommend you watch this film; for if you want a film with a thought-provoking and cleverly conveyed message that plays strongly on one’s emotions and adheres to nearly all of the qualities that a piece of art should as outlined in the opening, I can’t think of many other films that will deliver as much as A Serbian Film. This film is indeed a work of art.

Well, the first half of the film at least.

Posted on Thursday, December 1st 2011, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags Film Jessica Howard A Serbian Film review

The Good, the Bad and the Bond: A Fan’s Eye View of Pierce Brosnan

by Marie Phillips

A few weeks ago, I stayed up until half past twelve on a weeknight to watch a movie called Volcano, tagline: “The Coast is Toast”.

I didn’t know anything about the film aside from that it contained (a) a volcano and (b) Pierce Brosnan, as a result of which I was very excited. Alas, when the opening credits rolled, I realised that I had confused this movie with the Brosnan volcano caper Dante’s Peak, tagline: “Whatever you do, don’t look back.”. The dashing lead dispatched to save the world from thiseruption was not Brosnan but Tommy Lee Jones. So I didn’t look back – I switched the TV off and went to bed.

Lying awake, I realised that I had a problem. Or maybe a condition. Or a gift? It was this: that I would (and frequently did) watch, and relish, literally anything as long as it had Pierce Brosnan in it. I searched my memory for a Pierce Brosnan movie, any Pierce Brosnan movie, that I hadn’t enjoyed.

The universally-reviled After the Sunset, featuring Brosnan as a retired jewel thief convinced to do – yes – one last heist? “A movie utterly devoid of wit, excitement or any reason for being,” said Rolling Stone. I loved it. Die Another Day, renowned as the weakest Bond film in years, replete with idiotic invisible car and unconvincing CGI surfing, which prompted the rebooting of the entire franchise in the more credible hands of Daniel Craig? I couldn’t get enough of it.

I knew I wasn’t alone.

Will Smith, the writer, comedian and star of The Thick of It, would frequently post pictures of Pierce Brosnan on Twitter, with captions such as the following, accompanying a shot of Brosnan painting in his garden with a hat slung behind his neck: You come home to find your new gardener painting your wife in the nude. Why, I asked him, is Pierce Brosnan so brilliant? “Because he’s like a walking Rolex ad,” he said. “Because of the seriousness with which he’ll put on a cuff-link or pick up a shot glass. But also because he knows exactly how cool and ludicrous he is at the same time.”

Yes. YES. Exactly. Pierce Brosnan is everything a movie star should be: handsome, debonair, with perfect teeth and a full head of hair (“Toupee?” I say – “No way,” says Smith), able to keep his head when all around him are losing theirs and blaming it on the script / director / co-star / catering, this is a man who even managed to retain his dignity, not to mention his sex appeal, while dressed as a lobster on The Muppet Show.

In The Ghost, the ecstatically-reviewed Roman Polanski movie that is, in fact, such a dog that I’m surprised it doesn’t bark, fetch and sniff other films’ butts, Olivia Williams sits in front of a television, watching her husband, the vapid former British prime minister played by – hurrah! – Pierce Brosnan, negotiate a virulent group of protestors camped outside their American beach house. “Don’t grin,” she pleads. “Don’t grin.” He grins. He is Pierce Brosnan. He is in the lamest film of 2010. He knows it. We know it. He grins. We are all in this together, he seems to say.

Of The Ghost, Smith comments: “I’d rather have watched him typing his memoirs himself for two hours. We could have had him staring into space, looking abstractedly out of a rain-lashed window with one hand leaning on the pane, and that little jutting grin when inspiration strikes.” If only. Instead, for every minute we got of Brosnan, we had five of Ewan MacGregor wrestling with an English accent and losing. Brosnan knows when the game is up. MacGregor, sadly, does not. (Imagine how wonderfulMoulin Rouge might have been with Brosnan in the lead. You think he couldn’t have pulled off the role of the naïve young writer at 50? Pah. You have no vision.)

Brosnan doesn’t by any means only make bad movies. Everyone seems in agreement that The Matador was a terrific comedy, featuring Brosnan as a washed up bisexual assassin whose failed pick-up of Greg Kinnear in a bar leads to a deeper, life-changing friendship for them both. And I had no idea that Brosnan was in the legendary The Long Good Friday, Smith’s favourite film of his. Brosnan brought zest and fun to the role of James Bond, self-deprecating charm to The Tailor of Panama and, OK, I can’t think of another one, but I haven’t seen them all.

Still, anyone can make a good movie. It takes real talent to take a bad movie and make it good.

So to Mamma Mia, a film which only escapes being unwatchable by knowing how awful it is and reveling in it, the cinematic equivalent of drunk karaoke. Brosnan’s singing in it has been described by critics as akin to a donkey, a water buffalo, and a wounded raccoon, and by Brosnan himself as dreadful. But this film would have been insufferable if they had made the mistake of hiring actors who could – please no – actually sing. In reality, the enthusiasm of the near tone-deaf cast makes it gleeful and glorious.

“I loved Brosnan’s performance in Mamma Mia,” says Smith, “because like all the cast, he just went for it. Utter conviction. There is something both moving and hilarious about watching him belt out SOS in a black polo shirt and white linen trousers.” My own favourite moment is his doleful delivery of When All Is Said And Done: “In our lives we have walked some strange and lonely treks / Slightly worn but dignified and not too old for sex.” Quite.

But my all-time top Brosnan movie is the genuinely brilliantThe Thomas Crown Affair. It’s the one I want to believe is Pierce Brosnan’s real life.

In it, Brosnan plays the titular role of Thomas Crown, an impeccably-dressed gentleman thief who, despite being a multi-millionaire, steals priceless art for fun. In the course of the film he falls in love with a dazzling, charismatic insurance investigator – it seems plausible at the time – portrayed by Rene Russo, who he proceeds to have elaborate sex with in all kinds of exotic places (the stairs, a Caribbean island, etc.) The final sting sequence is based on the famous bowler hat paintings by Magritte and features a team of Pierce Brosnan body doubles.

The Thomas Crown Affair is clever and funny and over-the-top and sexy and glamorous and ridiculous while never being stupid. As far as I’m concerned, this film is Pierce Brosnan.

Marie Phillips

  • Marie Phillips is an author.

Her first book is ‘Gods Behaving Badly’ – now optioned by Ben Stiller’s TV company Red Hour Productions, to be made into a TV series. Her most recent publication is a non-fiction piece entitled ‘Change’ in the Plan International/Vintage Books anthology ‘Because I Am A Girl’, describing her harrowing visit to witness the development charity’s work in Uganda.

More, so much more, Marie Phillips can be found at www.womanwhotalkedtoomuch.blogspot.com

You can follow her on Twitter @mpphillips

Posted on Saturday, June 26th 2010, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags Film Marie Phillips Bond Pierce Brosnan

The NFTS Graduate Short Films Review

by Becca Heaton

I went to an evening of six short films made by graduate students from The National Film and Television School. Three films were shown either side of an interval, and I can safely say that the best were left till last.

The first film, and the first of two animated shorts, was ‘The Incredible Story of my Great Grandmother Olive’. The audience appeared to find it enjoyable, and many of them found it quite amusing. I however, found it cringe inducing. The animation itself wasn’t particularly spectacular, although I myself couldn’t have done a better job there are few things worse than bad animation. That aside, the plot was straddling a line between originality and over sentimentality; “…an ageing alien and a love-struck grandma find romance, but just as they’re about to get groovy, army intervention spoils the fun…”

Another problem I had with it was the lack of dialogue. Yes, it was deliberate but they seemed to keep emphasizing this with annoying, unnecessary and off-putting noises made by the characters… if you need to remind the audience that you’re not using dialogue, then you’re doing it wrong.

The second film was ‘The Orchard’. I would like to write a few words on what the film was about but frankly…I have no idea. Nor did the several people with me. A chap called Barry has been given an orchard. We don’t know why, and we don’t know by whom. In return for this orchard, Barry has to go into London and kill someone. Again, we don’t know why and we don’t know whom. After doing so he brings the man he murdered back to what we believe to be the orchard to bury him. The guy from the beginning who gave him the orchard, who may or may not be his brother….we couldn’t quite figure that one out, comes back.

When Barry asks why the man was to be killed he is told; ‘because he killed someone’. Then it ends. Apart from the ridiculous plot and nonsensical ending, the film was actually shot beautifully – specifically the shots in the orchard.

The third film was ‘Park Close’ which on the whole was a cute little film with a cute little story of a girl so infatuated with her neighbour she, as an estate agent, begins to interfere with his plans to sell his flat. Park Close is essentially, a British imitation of Amelie, and not such a good one at that. Despite the storyline being altered slightly the parallels between the two are quite blatant.

I don’t want to write too much about the plot as I’d much rather encourage you all to go and watch Amelie which is a far superior take on the ‘shy single girl trying to attract the man she loves’ story!

After the interval the films started to get much better. The fourth one was ‘Kid’; a lorry driver drags his teenage son around with him whilst he takes part in illegal activities, despite his sons pleas to go straight. When the father becomes entangled with bringing illegal immigrants into the country, the son has no choice but to help his dad to make sure he doesn’t get into any trouble, but inevitably does. With ‘Kid’ the first word that came to my mind was ‘gritty’…that’s the word that’s always thrown around when dealing with any British drama; It’s not easy to watch, it’s not all that enjoyable either…but it’s good and well made.

The story touches you despite your aversion to what is on the screen. This was definitely one of those stories.

The second animation, and fifth film was ‘End of the Line’, a stop motion animation made with paper. Despite only being a few minutes long, it was definitely one that stood out. “…a young woman, lost in the sea of work, weather beaten from hours of commuting, abandoned, lonely and alone, is touched by the gift of a child.” The way London is encapsulated through paper alone is beyond remarkable; the mixture of beautiful twinkly lights and dirty streets, the feeling of loneliness whilst cramped into the tube surrounded by miserable commuters. Then a beacon of hope in all this misery is shown to you by a child – a stranger. Showing that one small act of kindness in the world we all struggle to live in today, can make the world of difference in one person’s life. A truly superb animation.

The last film, ‘Blackwater’ was my personal favourite from the evening.  The strength of one man’s character is tested through the adulterous ways of his wife. Knowing that his wife sleeps with other men, the main character only becomes aggravated when men show up at their house to threaten and assault him, telling him to leave his wife or let her go. Neither he, nor his wife are prepared to leave each other, so he takes matters into his own hands by exacting revenge upon his assailants.

To some of the audience it became too violent, but not gratuitously so in my opinion, and two people walked out.

Despite some of the audiences disapproval, I found Blackwater to be both well shot and well written, with an ambiguous ending leaving us unsure as to whether he was going to exact the same revenge upon his wife as he did with the others.

Posted on Saturday, March 27th 2010, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags Film Becca Heaton NFTS shorts