Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Week in Review - 11/4/10

I can't believe I saw ten films this week. I'm not working at present and had four days where I saw 2 films each day. This was also partly due to Easter and partly because of the Festival of German Films preview screenings (I'm posting separately about these).

The stand-out of the week is Animal Kingdom, which will definitely make my top 10 of the year. This film is going to sweep the AFI awards this year and is as good a film as Samson and Delilah. The only other new release so far this year that is every bit as good is Jacques Audiard's A Prophet/Un prophète. It seems that Madman are trying some new strategies in their marketing and invited a small number of reviewers - mostly bloggers and those with a web presence - to a screening ahead of the media preview. The film has lingered and consumed me more than any film has for a long time. I'll post my review on it separately in a day or two.

La Mirada ended, and I attended the final screening, not realising it was the closing night film. It cost me $24, and I didn't stay for the after-party - ouch! But The Swindlers (part of Almodóvar Presents) is a lot of fun and it was great to see this film, screened for the first time in Australia.

  • Atraco a las tres (Robbery at 3 O'Clock, José María Forqué, Spain, 1962)
  • Welcome (Philippe Lioret, France, 2009)
  • The Eclipse (Conor McPherson, Ireland, 2009)
  • Figuring Landscapes: Enactment (Patricia Piccinini, Ben Rivers, Margaret Tait, George Barber, Tammy Honey, UK/Australia, 2008)
  • Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, Australia, 2010)
  • Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, USA/UK, 2010)
  • Whisky mit Wodka (Whisky with Vodka, Andreas Dresen, Germany, 2009)
  • Die Wölfe: Nichts kann uns trennen (The Wolves of Berlin: Part One - Nothing Can Part Us, Friedemann Fromm, Germany, 2009)
  • Los tramposos (The Swindlers, Pedro Lazaga, Spain, 1959)
  • Schwerkraft (Gravity, Maximilian Erlenwein, Germany, 2009)

Robbery at 3 O'Clock
The Spanish academic who introduced this film mentioned it is widely regarded as the best Spanish comedy ever. Well, claims like that are always debatable, aren't they? It's largely a matter of taste. I don't know if I'd put it on such a high pedestal, but I can understand why historically it might be considered with high regard. After all, a film needs to be considered in the context of when it was made, something that described in the introduction.

Spain in 1962 was a pretty dark place. It was more than twenty years into a dictatorship that capped off a long and devastating civil war. This film gave the Spanish some ray of light, some joy and it is a lot of fun to follow a rag-tag bunch of bank employees plot to rob the branch they work in. The film's opening sequence makes clear what its influences are with a dialogue-free sequence that is pure Charlie Chaplin farce.

I imagine the film would be more enjoyable for a Spanish speaker, who would better understand the nuances of the language - apparently some of the dialogue was absorbed into popular Spanish culture at the time. The film makes a slight swipe at the government at the start of the film but is otherwise largely apolitical. We were told that this was the film's Australian premiere and was part of Almodóvar Presents at La Mirada.

There's something distinctly unsatisfying about this film, and it nagged me most of the way throughout its length. It's one of the films from the French Film Festival 2010 that I decided (fortunately) to wait for its theatrical release. I've heard mixed things about it, and I'm definitely in the camp of the disappointed.

I was similarly disappointed with Lioret's previous Je vais bien, ne t'en fais pas/Don't Worry, I'm Fine which at least had the benefit of a quietly simmering performance by the wonderful Mélanie Laurent. Both films tend towards earnestness, overly so. They both have an arthouse aesthetic, both with human issues, but the issues are too overt - especially in Welcome.

Welcome, I'm sure you're aware, is about a young Iraqi who has found his way to France and is wanting to get to England to join his girlfriend. Failing to cross by truck, he meets up with a swim coach, learns to swim and plans to swim the English Channel. On the one hand, the film draws attention to the far-right neo-fascist policies of Nicolas Sarkozy, that would have been adored by John Howard, that criminalise any citizens that assist refugees in any way. I agree with the left-leaning (ie, social/humanist) policies the film is endorsing, but I don't need it thrust down my throat so overtly. Michael Winterbottom did it much more successfully (and seriously) with his In This World (2002), a much more timely film.

Lioret's film is much safer, clearly designed to appeal to a more mainstream audience - not that there's anything wrong that per se. It's just that with an added element of a domestic story, it all feels more than a little contrived, melodramatic and overtly appealing to our heart strings (especially with the use of music). It's the sort of film that probably did well at the French Film Festival or, post-festival, with the prime Palace demographic.

Another problem for me is Vincent Lindon in the main role of swim coach. Maybe it's my prejudice, but I don't like his looks for a role like this. He often plays a Mr. Everyman, which is what's asked for here. The trouble is, he doesn't come across as a Mr. Everyman. His acting is quite wooden, his face is largely expressionless and he has too narrow a range to effectively portray his character in this film. About the only roles I find him effective in are as a criminal. Otherwise, I normally see the actor and not the character.

For me, a film that exemplifies a much more satisfying depiction of an 'issue' is Michael Haneke's Caché/Hidden in which an Algerian massacre in France takes backseat to a contemporary story filled with ambiguity. Haneke assumes his audience will 'get it' without being preached to like Lioret's film does.

The Eclipse
This is quite a decent and thought-provoking film from the Republic of Ireland, set and filmed in Cobh, Cork County. Michael (Ciarán Hinds) is a single father grieving for his deceased wife. Hinds' is perfect for the role and his performance is spot on. He has a melancholy presence that conveys a repressed emotional burden. All is not perfect in his world, and a ghostly presence seems to be lingering. Is it his wife? Has Michael not let go of her? Or is it his elderly father-in-law, still alive, but on the precipice?

The film is not conventional horror - which is largely puerile, aiming at a teenage demographic. It's not really an adult ghost story, either. It crosses genres and really stands up predominantly as drama. The supernatural elements take up a small proportion of the film's screen time, but add an ever-present ambiance that looms in the background. The naturalistic lighting, tending towards darkish, accentuates the sombreness.

Michael is a regular volunteer at the local writers festival, during which he finds himself driving around the celebrated English author of The Eclipse, a book about ghostly experiences by the attractive author Lena Morelle (Iben Hjelje). Michael has the perfect opportunity to talk about the disturbing phenomena in his house, but is reluctant to completely open up. This scenario is perfect for a slow burn drama as various intertwining relationships unfold, involving another celebrated writer, Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn).

The performances of the lead characters are all strong all and the story is multi-layered, covering various themes, including grief, lettting to, celebrity and human relationships in general. If anything, it could be accused of being slightly over-ambitious to its detriment, but this is a minor complaint.

Michael's role as driver gives the film the opportunity to display the Irish countryside and townships, and these visuals of the architecture and scenery are just superb, without being postcard cliches. It's one of the things I love about world cinema, experiencing other places in some small way.

The supernatural element is used with restraint for the most part - The Others comes to mind, but that film was much more ghost-orientated. So horror film buffs might be disappointed. The Eclipse really aims at a more conventional arthouse audience with its solid dramatic themes, with the supernatural more an interesting variance on the genre.

As an aside, for me ghosts are a given, something I've experienced for as far back as my memory allows (at least since age two). I've never seen ghosts depicted in cinema quite as I've experienced them, but that's because I've never seen them physically but rather sensed them, or 'seen' them by my 'third eye'.

It's hard to convey, but there was a ghost that regularly visited me in my dreams all throughout my childhood. In my sleep, he assumed a form like a wolf and would breathe up close onto my dream body's face - a sort of dream within a dream. His breath stank like fish and hearing him would scare me. If, within my dream, I realised that my dream body was not real and it was just a dream, eventually he would go away. Mostly though, he would fool me and if my dream self woke up, them my real self would also wake up and I would have wet the bed. This continued until around age ten.

I was living interstate at age 23 when this same entity visited me again, when I was travelling away from home. I instantly recognised him when he appeared in my dream and, without waking up, I threatened him and he quickly disappeared. I later learned that there is no need for threats because ghosts are very insecure and will leave if asked to. Since that time, on the rare occasions when I've senses another entity, I've done just and they have always left without incident.

Actually, when I was nineteen years old, I was attacked by a ghost when I was sleeping under the stars along the Nullabor Plain. I was just drifting into sleep when I saw shooting stars which, according to Indian belief, are a bad omen. Fear gripped me at a vulnerable time and the next thing I knew, an entity was choking me. I warded it off mentally and it disappeared, leaving me a little traumatised.

I still sometimes sense entities around at night when I'm going to bed and often do a mental visualisation to protect myself. This involves asking all uninvited guests to please leave and any well-wishers may remain. Call them guardian angels if you like, but I have seen them while wide awake. I understand those without similar experiences may find this kooky or superstitious; for me it's just a innate part of my understanding and contributes to my perspective of life and death, something I alluded to in my post 'A Change of Plans'.

For the best part of thirty years, I've been left pretty much alone by ghosts or entities. I don't really call them ghosts, which implies they're a different type of being to us. The term 'entity' seems more appropriate - I see them as being people like you or I, but unembodied for whatever reason). I attribute my being left alone to my coming into my own power, understanding them and understanding myself relative to them.

Figuring Landscapes: Enactment
What can I say - experimental/conceptual art cinema usually does nothing for me. I thought I'd give this a go, but it was the same. So far, I haven't been able to penetrate that space.

A lot has been written about this very entertaining film. Some of the superlatives have been over the top, but it definitely is one of the best in its class. It's certainly not what the marketing of the film would have you believe it is. While the writing is very good, I think the film's success is the amazing performance and sneering charisma of the then eleven year old Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl. She steals the show and it wouldn't be the same without her. And even Nicholas Cage gives a decent performance (something he hasn't done since Adaptation and Bringing Out the Dead).

The Swindlers
This is a nice little vintage gem from the vaults of Spanish cinema, beautifully rendered in colour. Pedro Almodóvar selected this film for La Mirada and I can see how its "sardonic humour" (as festival director Rocio Garcia described it) would be right up his alley. It's right up mine, too. Three friends collude to con people out of money by any means they can but go straight to win the affections of a girl. The script is sharp, the performances good and the ending is just great.


dmk said...

I caught Kick-Ass a couple weeks ago at some screening, and I'm kinda 50/50 on it - I was very fond of the scenes with Nic Cage and/or the little girl, another brilliant tour de force performance by Cage, nearly as memorable, although a lot smaller, to last year's masterpiece - Bad Lieutenant, which you will never see. However, everything aside from those two was just simply bad, meaning most of the film. Bad as in brainless. Bad as in badly written. It is fun though, but since most of the film can’t at all compete with the Cage/Hit Girl scenes, those scenes being so good, the film falls flat more often than it sings.

Paul Martin said...

I understand the comment about being 50/50. Tom Ryan calls Kick-Ass nasty and sadistic, giving it one star I think. I understand that also. I decided to just go with it and had a good time.

While Nicholas Cage is OK in the film, his major achievement is doing something other than sad puppy melancholy or voice-over, things I'll scream if I see or hear again. He's still a long way from his best.

Why do you think I'll never see Bad Lieutenant?

dmk said...

Unless, of course, you decide to visit your local video store, or blind buy the DVD/Blu. ;) Bad Lieutenant is going straight to DVD in Australia, next week in fact. So, no theatrical screening here.

I think you'll love it though, so...

Paul Martin said...

It's funny, because I just ordered it on Amazon last week. It wasn't on any distribution lists and I had no idea a local DVD release was imminent (I take little notice of those).

David O'Connell said...

I know what you're saying about Welcome Paul, I think it sort of works and doesn't work for similar reasons. It doesn't sensationalise the story or its political dimensions which is nearly always a positive thing. But at the same time its very low-key approach kind of undermines the film because it makes the narrative seem somewhat drab and underwhelming. Maybe it's a worthy film that tries too hard but it does have its heart in the right spot - and yes, a lot depends on a person's feelings about Lindon!

Will try to get to The Eclipse this weekend, I like the sound of it.

Paul Martin said...

David, to me Welcome seems to be aimed at a comfortable middle-class audience who need winning over. I think Lindon is used because of his popularity in France. I don't care much for celebrity, and I just don't think he is well-cast. But you know how it works - it's not always the best person, but getting a 'name' on board to attract the crowds.