Sunday, July 31, 2011

L'Avventura (1960) Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

At first L'Avventura was an intriguing poster in our Italian movie poster calender, then it was a 'forgotten masterpiece' that kept popping up in film magazines. It didn't take long to persuade me to feel I should see the movie, but it took some time to find it. We finally did find a copy of the film in London and yesterday we decided to treat ourselves to some intelligent, stylish Italian cinema from the 1960s.

What a disappointment. Nick kept staring into a distance in the periphery of the movie screen. He kept changing positions and he even fell asleep forcing us to take a break from the film. By the last 30 minutes he was openly making loud remarks on how boring and vacuous the movie was. Unfortunately, I cannot disagree with him, although I think I did try a bit harder with L'Avventura. I wanted to give it a chance even after half the film was gone and I still could never be sure if there was one or two leading males and if there was any credibility left for the meandering script.

The film moves from places and scenes wandering slowly. It is clear that not everything is imbued with meaning here, but by the end I feel cheated. It is as if even the things that usually signify something were utterly empty. Death and loss, love and desire all pour out and in. Visual details look like something with intention, but in the end, why should I read anything more into them? Monica Vitti looks divine, but she remains unattached as if suffering from sunstroke or the sheer lack of direction.
I still love the poster though.

I've been waiting to watch something substantial. Over the last week or so we've watched the truly dreadful (500) Days Of Summer and the unnecessarily violent and average Guy Richie handling of Sherlock Holmes. It's fair to say some of the pictures we've reviewed on the blog recently have been disappointing for me. I've never seen  L'Avventura. I'm a fan of Antonioni's later films, so a sense of excitement and above average expectation accompanied this viewing. Cinema still holds that thrill.  L'Avventura is heralded as one of the greatest films ever. Sight & Sound tells me it's the only serious rival to Citizen Kane that could be afforded such distinction.

Monica Vitti is an Italian actress I really adore. Stylish and unusual looking for the typical Italian actress of this period, she retains for me a certain personification of cool. L'Avventura made her an international star and was the first of three collaborations with Antonioni (the film also putting him on the map). She looks amazing here. Her presence is enough to carry this film. Visually there is much to stimulate the senses, and nothing more so than Vitti's blond main and face. L'Avventura is noted for inventing a new narrative for cinema, a visual narrative that at the time caused controversy as well as influencing a whole host of art-house film makers. L'Avventura also shows sex as something essentially casual amongst the characters, a depiction rarely seen in cinema up to this point. It's such a shame that after all these elements being in the right place, L'Avventura bored the death out of me. I have to confess here that my mind could not concentrate on the film. It kept wandering.

Any tension Antonioni tries to bring to proceedings, due to one of the main character's sudden disappearance, dissipates through a confused narrative and a series of unending shots of figures lost in rocky terrain. Unlike Blow Up or even the slow moving The Passenger, the mystery in  L'Avventura  soon gives way to an inconceivable romance which so much of the film hinges on (especially the ending). It's a jumbled, non-credible, slow moving mess. I know I could come back to this, at another time and in another year and with the right frame of mind and really love it.  I'll certainly give it another go, but in 2011 L'Avventura was a bore.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Crazy Heart (2009) Directed by Scott Cooper

Nick :
If you will permit me to go back to 2007 and the SXSW music festival. Amy Winehouse has just broken big in the USA. She is playing at least one show everyday of the festival and on some days  two or three. It was my last time in Austin, and I have to say, it was nigh on impossible to catch Amy during the festival. She was either late for her shows, canceling shows, or, as we heard from one doorman, throwing up mid-song on stage.  It was the first time I realized there was something seriously wrong with Winehouse after her meteoric rise to fame. Winehouse's death this weekend was predictable but no less tragic. Yes, fame can be a monster to deal with I'm sure, but am I alone in finding it so cliché to succumb to such a predictable death? That record definitely is broken, move on, nothing to see here.

Crazy Heart suffers from the same dealing in cliché. It's a very sensitively made film, well acted and well written. It looks good, its striving for authenticity is most welcome in a music-related film, even if at times the film has a made-for-TV vibe. There's just the sense that this is second hand goods.  If we want to get specific, way back in 1983, Duvall starred in the excellent Tender Mercies, the story of a middle-aged country singer, who enters a new relationship and tries to reconnect with his long lost daughter and put his troubled life back together.  Replace the daughter with a son and I've just described the main thrust of Crazy Heart for you. Duvall, like Jeff Bridges does in Crazy Heart, performs the songs on screen very well (Duvall also performed his own songs for TM). Also, like Bridges did, Duvall won a best actor Oscar for playing an alcoholic country singer.

Duvall was one of the producers on Crazy Heart and he must have seen some worth in resurrecting this tale. My problem with a film that really is fine, is its dealing in that old rock n roll cliché of past it singers and life on the road. If we look at Winehouse's case, I guess those clichés still define a troubled artist's life. Bridges is great and offered good support from Gyllenhaal, who has  pretty much defined this role in her other movies. But ultimately Crazy Heart is entertaining lite fluff.  It offers no real insight into the reason why musicians get so led astray. Nothing deep here, so don't go looking for meaning. That could also be the reason, despite its many faults, why Crazy Heart ultimately works.

On the day that we heard Amy Winehouse had died, we ended up watching Crazy Heart – a film about an alcoholic musician – strangely timely. Amy's life story is a much sadder and more hopeless one, than the destiny of Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) in the movie. Kind of unfashionably in these cynical times, in Crazy Heart a man is able to get help for his addiction, he turns his life around and there is hope in the end.

Musicians are very often portrayed as alcoholics in cinema, but I must admit from the many I know personally too many fit the description. I can too easily imagine the young ones 20 years down the line struggling just like Bad Blake. In the film the motivation for change comes from falling in love. I wonder why it is so often the case that it is easier to care for one self if it can be wrapped up as caring for another? Exceptionally, in Crazy Heart the love interest (Maggie Gyllenhaal) draws the line and leaves the man, when Blake loses her 4-year-old son in downtown Houston. It is still rare to find movies about addiction that do not end up promoting codependency as a byproduct.

Crazy Heart is a gentle movie about a serious subject. Jeff Bridges is great as a little but Dude-like Bad, who even at his worst still seems to enjoy the odd laugh in his life. The subject of his estranged son is thankfully left after the son says he does not want to see his father. This plot line and the general theme of the film resonated strongly with The Wrestler, but where that film was hopeless this one holds on to its optimism – people can change.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) Directed by David Fincher

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is really not curious at all. Predictable and condescending are words I would use to describe it. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was disappointed. When I saw the trailer for this film years ago, it reminded me of Forrest Gump. Seeing the whole film now confirmed to me that this was supposed to be a new version of the 1990s sentimental classic. Benjamin Button just failed to be a touching character, like Forrest once was (I can still sing the opening melody and see the feather fall from the sky).

It was surprising actually, how The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button could tackle so many touching human issues (death, birth, deformity, lost love, romance, war, hurricane Katrina), but remain distant and unfeeling. In its long run the film also employed many narrative devices, but here their multiplicity seemed glued-on rather than being an enriching factor in telling a story. I'm afraid there lies the weakness: the story is not very interesting and engaging. The bottom line is: being born a baby and then growing old and dying is pretty tragic, isn't it? Is it any different if you go from old to young and end up dead? I sometimes have script ideas for films and maybe I should write them out next time, because I think they are better than this one.

Brad Pitt is still not a great actor by any means. I did write a song inspired by him once, but it was from a nasty angle rather than an admiring one. Luckily he won't care what I think of his acting or anything because he has made a lot of money from his kind of acting and he is married to Angelina.
I like Cate Blanchett generally, but even she appears miscast here. Her ballerina scenes make me feel embarrassed and her old dying mother scenes are impossible to understand without putting on the hard-for-hearing subtitles. Of course the successful conventional romance takes place when Brad and Cate look like their movie star selves. I did not like The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button much, yet one evening we'll probably revisit it. It's that kind of bland stuff that is sometimes all we can take.

How preconditioned have we become? Last night as the day was ending, horrific attacks were being carried out in Norway. First, bombs in Oslo then shootings on the small Island of Utøya. At first we were told through various news agencies this was a terrorist attack, perpetrated by some Norwegian Muslim group. I wake up this morning to find out it was a lone Norwegian, a possible Neo-Nazi supporting individual who was responsible for both tragedies. Was the media pandering to our preconditioned expectations? One thing for sure it demonstrated a still fond need to blame the outsider before admitting it could be one of our own responsible for such atrocious actions. I've just returned from England where the media furor surrounding News International's phone hacking had reached fever pitch. The media reacts in indignation at underhand reporting amongst its own fraternity, sensationalist analysis about how Rupert Murdoch handled his questioning by British MP's. Ladies and gentlemen, a rare insight into the kind of idiots who trawl the wings of high power which effects so much of our lives. Oh, and isn't Murdoch's wife feisty and ever so young, guffaws the media!

So, amongst all this real drama, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems so gentile. This film patronizes us in the same way that Forrest Gump left some of us so astounded all those years ago. You expect more from Fincher, whose pictures usually display a slight hint of disdain for all that Hollywood bullshit. Here he dives right into that pile. Cate Blanchett seems destined to become the one great impersonator of modern Hollywood. Amongst the CGI, she's a passable dancer who wants to ultimately wait for the ugly duckling of Benjamin to grow younger and become the shag-fest prince that is, wait for it... Brad Pitt. Fincher is the one director to have used Pitt intelligently in the past, but here he indulges in the worst aspects of the Pitt mythology. Pitt oozes the class of a hick from a Marlboro Man clothing catalog. Perhaps the adage of 'run Benjamin run' doesn't quite have the same ring about it.

Amongst the CGI trickery of making actors who are glamorous look younger or older than they really are, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button manages to seriously bore me. The emotional depth this film aims for never hits home, the characters on screen seem so unreal in constantly unreal settings. This film supposedly heralded Pitt as a serious actor. I mean, seriously? Vacuous and preposterous, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button panders to the worst aspects of Hollywood excess. Just stick some good looking superstars playing themselves on the screen and some serious special effects and that should be enough to pacify the masses. It's unfair to the The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to be wrapped up in my most negative state of mind. On a day when I despair for human intelligence and compassion,  I just think we need more than this.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Wrestler (2008) Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Nick :
My body has been changing shape in a manner I've still not come to terms with.  It really happened when I turned 40. I've always been very slim and it used to be the case that whatever I eat doesn't effect my weight. Not any more. I was first diagnosed as lactose intolerant, which meant if I drank fully pasteurized milk, I would initially pass out, fart and then my stomach would bloat out to double the size. I gained weight on my stomach. It's the spot where all the fat gathers. I have something approaching a pot belly. I'm fighting it, but feel I'm losing. Should it matter? I don't feel so unhealthy. Is my vanity about my public perception effecting me and actually stopping me being relaxed about my looks? I would have thought Mickey Rourke gave up caring what people thought of the way he looked a long time ago. For me, his plastic surgery face, long lion's mane of hair and hulking body make him look better now. It's a face that's lived.

The Wrestler is a Rourke tour de force.  Apart from a very good supporting turn from Marisa Tomei, the only reason to watch this is for Rourke as fading wrestling legend Randy 'The Ram' Robinson.  I'm sure Aronofsky would claim it tries to expose the truth behind pro-wrestling (the drugs, the fakery etc), but it really does not go far enough if it's trying to be an expose. No, Rourke gives us  a masterclass in playing himself and it's fascinating. This could be one of the greatest performances I've seen. Unfortunately, Aronofsky, after an assured beginning, throws in cliché after cliché to the story, that even Rourke struggles to deal with these possible knock out blows (ahem!) The family sub plot, chasing the stripper dream and The Ram's redemptive final actions could all have come from a Rocky movie.  It might be time for Aronofsky to tackle that comic book adaptation franchise, and leave the apparently serious film making to someone else.

 As for Rourke, when has he even come close to this? He was cute in Diner, more presence than anything else in Rumble Fish, OK in Angle Heart and do we even consider 9 ½ Weeks? Yes, it was his looks, not his acting that attracted us to start with, it's why we were bothered. When his looks changed, the public lost interest (as did Hollywood it seems).  That's the key to The Wrestler, Aronofsky delays showing us Rourke's face at the beginning, he's banking on our shock at his appearance as an audience. It's not enough to carry the film, but Rourke is magical here.

I'm beginning to dislike Darren Aronofsky's melodramatic directorial perspective. I fear I would not enjoy his latest film about the tormenting horror of the ballet world. Don't worry, I haven't made it there yet, as it's taken us three years to get to The Wrestler. It is not such as dramatic and over-stated film as it could be in the circumstances, yet it portrays Aronofsky's bleak outlook on life: people end up lonely, addicted and hopeless in life – change is a momentary illusion.

The Wrestler is a stage for Mickey Rourke. There are hardly any other characters with a story here. It would have been an interesting experience to watch Rourke play the washed-up wrestler Randy with even less contact with other meaningful characters. They could have chucked out the angry daughter and the girlfriend-to-be stripper without losing anything of the core drama.

Randy admires and aspires to a body aesthetic, which is very artificial and to my eyes very 1980s. It requires a lot of work. His body and image is what he finds most important in life. He is willing to risk his health with steroids and the sun bed, and of course extensive bodybuilding exercises and the wrestling fights. In fact, the film suggests that it is this obsession that has driven him to his loneliness.

In The Wrestler there is a sense that the relationship body builders and wrestlers have to their material bodies would be considered too feminine in other male contexts. Randy is at an intersection of macho masculinity and femininity. That's the interesting part of a film that's otherwise pretty forgettable.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) Directed by Robert Benton

Kramer vs. Kramer is full of questions about family, which became political in the atmosphere of the 1970s second wave feminism. The film takes sides, judges and argues for the father, while showing that the mother is not always the best and most natural parent just because she is the biological mother.
A lot of the content, or the way it is presented, looks pretty black&white from today's perspective, while at the same time I feel that at times of dispute we have not moved very far from the 1970s way of thinking.

The mother, played by Meryl Streep, leaves her son and husband after what she describes as years of not being heard or seen. She leaves her son behind because at that point she feels she is unfit to be a parent. She then remains away for 15 months, after which time she returns to claim sole custody of her son. What disturbs me, is that Meryl Streep tells on her making-of-interview that she considered her character to be mentally ill. Apparently that was the only explanation for her behavior she could think of, which would allow her to feel empathy for the absent mother...

Most of the film concentrates on the remaining father and son (Dustin Hoffman and the child actor Justin Henry). They go from a bad insensitive relationship to a very loving and trusting one. The father has to sacrifice his career, but he is glad to do it because of the bond he has established with his own child. The film is kind of saying to the 1970s and 1980s workaholic dads that they could find rewards if they took the time with their children. Still, Kramer vs. Kramer paints a very heroic and noble picture of the sacrificing father thus depicting him as an exception (created by an unfit mother).
These days we are closer to a time when a part-taking stay-at-home dad is becoming a true option and a necessity. You will not get special points from the society for much longer, but more and more men want to be there anyway. And the women? They still attract all the criticism of the world.

Kramer vs. Kramer deals with the practicalities of parenthood when one parent, the most present  (mother) leaves the roost to find herself, whilst leaving the breadwinner parent (father) compromised. The offshoot, in a trite Hollywood movie that just scratches the real issues involved, is that father, who's never been home to watch his son grow up because of work commitments, realizes his 7-year- old son is the greatest thing ever. When mother, after an 18 month absence comes barging back into the father/son bliss claiming custody of the son, a tense court case ensues.

Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep play the parents, the very cute Justin Henry plays the son. Hoffman and Streep can walk through these roles, they are so good in front of camera. Reality, which the film strives for, is immediately dispelled of with such a perfect looking family. Benton, who directed the excellent Bad Company as well as writing Bonnie & Clyde and a host of other New Hollywood pictures could be a safe pair of hands as director and writer. Although sentimentality on the whole is avoided (despite the seriously cute kid), smugness is constant. This film was made with the Oscar academy in mind. The real issue the film tries to grapple with is a father's rites. Even though Streep abandons her child at the beginning of the movie to find herself in LA, and Hoffman was more than a neglectful father pre-split, you never feel any real venom or judgement aimed towards either parent.  To preserve the moral code, the mother makes up for her abandonment at the films end, the father seemingly still in love with his former wife to forgive her anything. One wonders what the kid thinks of all this back and forth.

So, Kramer vs. Kramer ends in some kind of happy, why-did-we-bother flux. Having been divorced twice, I can tell you it's never this easy. The incessant gossip from strangers and half-acquaintances, the morality that people amazingly find and throw in your face, the heartbreak, the financial hardship, the compromise and so forth. Yes, happy endings occur, I know, I've experienced it. In a film trying to deal with realities in the portrayal of family breakdown, the self-satisfied yuppies in Kramer vs. Kramer don't know the half of it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The King's Speech (2010) Directed by Tom Hooper

Nick :
What hold does the Royal Family have over the Oscar Academy? It's worth asking as any picture which seems to be based on any Royal family members, current or past, seems to clean up big time at the Oscars – regardless of weather the film in question is any good. Royal movies are Oscar gold dust and even the most calculating amongst us have cottoned on. It must be the same hold that the Royals have on their huge number of fans the world over. The recent Royal wedding spread a far-reaching fever, even in Helsinki people were huddled over their computers in offices watching the latest act from one of the most dysfunctional families. So, now the latest Royal cinematic masterpiece, which, excuse the pun, everyone was talking about at this years Oscars.

As entertainment or even good cinema I struggled with large parts of The King's Speech. It gave me that Merchant/Ivory sickly feeling, you know the kind: show us how the other decadent half live, whilst trying to portray sympathetically how said decadent bourgeois inbred tries to mingle with the common man. The usual role call of British luvvy inhabit The King's Speech (hello Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Anthony Andrews & Timothy Spall). Mixed in with some Australian talent (the both excellent Guy Pearce and Geoffrey Rush) and of course the very hot Colin Firth as the stuttering future King. Yes, it's well acted, tasteful, full of reverence to the former King, and maybe even shows how the head of the British Empire used to mean something more then mere tourist trade and scandal sheet. But The King's Speech takes an earth to unravel and leaves me ultimately asking why should I give a shit?  The privilege afforded King George VI his whole life should have given him the confidence to perform his duties.

I miss the urgency and edge that Hooper bought to The Damned United. This feels rather stately and stagy and made with complete approval from The House of Windsor. A bunch of real-life toffs faffing around. The King's Speech, maybe intentionally reveals a man out of touch with "his people" who was vain and was tormented about how he came across. The PR industry has been in full swing forever and probably started with the Royals. Politically, I find this kind of film objectionable for many reasons. We can argue another day as to the worth of the Royal family, then and now. As cinema, The King's Speech is of the distinctly average variety.


I know The King's Speech won a lot of Oscars this year and it was very popular, as well as being a relatively cheaply made film. I just couldn't get interested in the film when it came out. This week Nick came home with the film one day because he had found it cheap somewhere. I was actually curious to see it, because I had just watched a documentary on Wallis Simpson. I had also watched Kate and William get married earlier this summer, and just today I fastforwarded (it was so boring) through Prince Albert's and Charlene's wedding in Monaco (she seemed awfully sad)... So I was kind of ripe for another film about the Royal family.

The King's Speech looks very gray and feels slow. At first I was downright bored by the film. The stuttering king-to-be, David (Colin Firth), failed to make me care for his troubles. He was so cold and so privileged. Little by little and with a lot of help from the speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), the film got more emotionally involving. It turned into a film about empowerment and friendship. It's kind of too bad that the setting had to be the Royal Family, because the stiffness and grayness remained.

The past and present of the English Royal family seems to be an endless source of fascination, and not so only in the UK. Why do we want to see kings and queens as ordinary flawed people, when at the same time, their higher value is stated and restated by our admiration/hatred? David/George VI as played by Firth, asks what's the point of being king when he doesn't even have any real political decision making power. That's a good question. And was it really that important to the English masses during WWII that the king managed to deliver his speeches without stuttering in the end?