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L'Amour Fou

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* * *
Director: Andrew Dominik
Year: 2007

There is nothing cheap or gimmicky about this lengthy film, and it is one of the few modern American films which justifies its extensive length. Rather than being a simple action-laden retelling of the Jesse James legend, this seems far more an inquisition into the nature of morality and the breathlessness of the media.

Brad Pitt puts in an excellent performance, and brings a suitable filmic charisma to the part, as Jesse James, while Casey Affleck stutters his way through his role as a fairly distrustworthy and unlikeable Robert Ford. Some of the best work is done by the supporting players (like Sam Rockwell as Robert Ford's brother Charley), but the real star is the languorous cinematography and music, which really notches up the wistfulness of the setting and themes (certainly moreso than the narrator).
Cinema's Location:
Sony Center, Potsdamer Platz, Berlin
Rating (out of 5):
****
Cinema:
CineStar (Potsdamer Platz)
* * *
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Year: 2006

Catching up on some old film reviews here, apologies.

Sokurov is a hit-and-miss filmmaker. His films alternate between the sublime (The Son) and the disappointing (neither Taurus nor Moloch did much for me, and I was underwhelmed by Russian Ark). I feel that Alexandra fits more into the former category.

Finding a new perspective on depicting war was always going to be difficult, but by having the lead character be a 70-something grandmother visiting her grandson in Chechnya where he is serving in the Russian army (the location is never stated, but fairly clear that this is where the film is set), the film manages to inject in a welcome mood of world-weariness and understanding while still plainly showing the effects of war on the surrounding community.

For much of the film, Alexandra just wanders around the army camp observing their rituals and asking questions. She makes a foray at one point to the local village, where the bombed-out shells of buildings are still occupied by families and people retain an essential hopefulness. The nicest moments in the film come unscripted as the raw young recruits stare in wonder at this elegant older lady processing amongst them.
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Cinema's Location:
London WC2H 7LP
Cinema:
Odeon (West End)
* * *
Director: Catherine Breillat
Year: 2007

At a certain level, the costume drama is a middle-class stand-by which you wouldn't expect to find Catherine Breillat handling. However, under her direction, the lush sets and glorious cinematography are soon stripped away to reveal a very carnal love triangle, filled with any manner of emotional blackmail and masochistic self-destruction. The Last Mistress is above all a ripping yarn set in 19th century France, and features a particularly splendid performance from Asia Argento as the seductive Vellini.
Cinema's Location:
London WC2H 7LP
Rating (out of 5):
****
Cinema:
Odeon (West End)
* * *
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Year: 2007

Hou's elliptical cinema has a tendency to shy away from simple audience-pleasing pathos in favour of more subtle and enigmatic effects, which continue to play out in the viewer's mind beyond the end of the film. Certainly his films have a stillness to them which requires further consideration, and most of his films greatly reward repeat viewings.

Flight of the Red Balloon finds the director working now in France with established talents such as Juliette Binoche, but the heart of the film is with her son and his Chinese film-student nanny. The film itself is a homage to Albert Lamorrisse's 1955 short The Red Balloon and there are frequent interludes following the titular red ballon as its bounces across the Parisian landscape.

The joys are in the characterisations, and the observance of quotidian life, as the film moves by with all the levity and seeming formlessness its title suggests.
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Cinema's Location:
London WC2H 7LP
Rating (out of 5):
contemplative ****
Cinema:
Odeon (West End)
* * *
Director: Guy Maddin
Year: 2006

It's back to the cinema after a fairly long break, for my first film of the London Film Festival. Alas, I am not going to too many these year -- primarily because the BFI were slack about sending out my programme, so I didn't get it until long after booking had started. My picks are therefore heavy on familiar auteur films, since I didn't get a chance to have a good read of the descriptions as I usually do and pick some less orthodox choices.

However, Maddin is as ever far from orthodox in his filmmaking style. Brand finds him pursuing a pastiche silent film serial style that earlier work had hinted at (including the effortlessly wonderful The Heart of the World short film, which takes the Soviet silent film as its cue).

This work playfully toys with an autobiographical subtext by naming its central character Guy Maddin, who in heeding his mother's dying wish, comes back to the lighthouse orphanage where he was brought up, reminiscing about his childhood. Narrating the film is Isabella Rossellini, while intertitles cut in to breathlessly advance the narrative, with no shortage of exclamation marks in doing so.

The film is divided into twelve chapters, and features evil scientists, teenage detectives, domineering mothers, crazed plots, and gay subtexts (not particularly sub most of the time, actually). Maddin has no shortage of inventiveness to apply to the giddy scenario, and this beautifully grainy film is never less than entertaining.
Cinema's Location:
London SE1 8XT
Rating (out of 5):
ecstatic ****
Cinema:
BFI Southbank
* * *
* * *
Director: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Year: 1966

The late-60s after the Nouvelle Vague was a glorious time for self-reflexive films featuring cool young people shot in rich black-and-white, involved in glorious intrigues in European cities with a smattering of s&m themes. Which is what Robbe-Grillet's film does, though at a rather higher level than my glib summary.

It was banned in the UK at the time, but time reveals that Robbe-Grillet's film has aged well. The b0ndage themes are somewhat perplexing, and the s3xual politics in general are of the era, but the playfulness of the narrative construction -- Robbe-Grillet himself dictates the story from a train carriage, while Jean-Louis Trintignant's character wanders by -- remains fresh and the lucid cinematography is still lustrous.

I'm afraid I can't say much more, as I've contrived to allow a whole month slip by before writing it up...
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Cinema's Location:
London SW7 2DT
Rating (out of 5):
****
Cinema:
Ciné Lumière
* * *
Director: Taika Waititi
Year: 2007

A New Zealand movie, and it's been quite a while since I saw one of those. I think Whale Rider was the last one to make much of an impact, but the kind of thing which Eagle vs Shark is far more exemplary of the usual type of New Zealand domestic filmmaking. It is very much the quirky and offbeat comedy which dominates (strangely enough, there's relatively little of this on NZ TV) and compared to some of the films of this genre which have been made in NZ of the past 5-10 years, Eagle vs Shark is at least watchable and sporadically amusing.

Man of the moment (for the last few years), Jemaine Clement of the Flight of Conchords duo, plays the leading man, a somewhat repressed and entirely self-involved man who finds a connection with a similarly quirky woman in a small town in NZ. I can't really say much of what else happens, but it's a generally pleasant offbeat courtship ritual in which thankfully Brian Sergent (as the father) doesn't overplay his character as he is wont to do elsewhere.

A nice film, well-made, but a bit underwhelming on a story level, the film shows enough signs of promise to hope for better for the future from Waititi and his stars.
Cinema's Location:
London SW1Y 4DP
Rating (out of 5):
blank ***
Cinema:
Odeon (Panton St)
* * *
Director: Judd Apatow
Year: 2007

It's fairly an understatement to say this film has had mixed reviews, and watching it makes clear some of the kinds of ideological difficulties reviewers must have with this story (being based around all kinds of issues which sharply divide critics), though it seems movie audiences haven't had so much trouble given its great success.

So, from my perspective, what I saw was a very funny and at times very raw film about becoming an unexpected parent. I couldn't critique it on realistic grounds (and certainly the female lead, whatever pain she might have been going through as a character, never seemed to have a hair out of place), but the filmmakers don't flinch from showing some fairly ugly scenes (not the childbirth scenes so much -- which are fairly surprising in a mainstream American comedy -- but the bitterness of the interpersonal relationships).

Some of the character development, to be sure, has a perfunctory quality (the idea of Seth Rogen's character becoming so quickly responsible and mature), and at times the film seems to be loaded towards the idea of parenting as a wonderful fulfilling thing that everyone should be pursuing (certainly issues of whatever it's called these days -- planned pregnancy? pro choice? -- are carefully put into the mouths of the least likeable characters), but that's a minor quibble and probably more a matter of the individual viewer's feelings as the film's. Which is also likely to be the cause of the mixed reviews.

However, I liked this film. It was funny and it was, dare I say it, touching too.
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Cinema's Location:
London SE15 4ST
Rating (out of 5):
silly ****
Cinema:
Peckham Multiplex
* * *
Director: Peter Brook
Year: 1989

Originally a television mini-series of some length (as befits an adaptation of such an epic work as The Mahabharata), this film version has been slimmed by Brook to a mere 170 or so minutes. At times this telescoping shows, as the narrative becomes murky with divine incidents occurring seemingly unmotivated. But myths rarely make perfect narrative sense anyway, and what this film provides exceptionally well is an immersive sense of mythic setting, with the non-naturalistic sets and costumes a key factor in this.

Another part of that is the stylised acting, though for me this was a little too close to a theatrical declamatory style. And while casting actors from a wide range of races (not just Indians) was an intriguing idea, I didn't feel it really worked on screen, as it masked the specific cultural context of the tales and pushed things towards homogeneity (though I accept I may be missing the point here).
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Cinema's Location:
London EC2Y 8DS
Rating (out of 5):
confused ***
Cinema:
Barbican Cinema
* * *
Director: Gary Hustwit
Year: 2007

It's an entertaining documentary that can take a subject as ostensibly dry as type design and make it interesting, but that's what this one does. It uses the Helvetica font -- designed in Switzerland in the fifties to be a pure expression of modernist style -- as a kicking-off point for the film's exploration of modern graphic design, taking in critics and designers both very much in love with, and reacting against, this omnipresent typeface. It's in the committed enthusiasm of its lovers and the distemperate fulmination of its detractors that the film is most amusing, and suddenly it becomes clear just how important design is in the modern environment and what it means to so many people.
Cinema's Location:
London SW1Y 5AH
Rating (out of 5):
pleased ****
Cinema:
Institute of Contemporary Arts
* * *
* * *
Director: Andy Warhol
Year: 1966

The projection is the most visible aspect of Warhol's most famous work, as it is projected as two screens side-by-side, with the two reels overlapping each other for most of their 30-40 minute length. The sound comes from one or the other. These reels capture his Factory actors mostly improvising in rooms at the Chelsea Hotel, so we get groups of people sitting on the bed talking, shouting, haranguing, arguing with one another.

At times, it drags, at other times it enervates. Nico sits looking distraught in the penultimate reel, while another actor (Ondine) plays 'the Pope' and brutally mistreats Rona Page. Mostly it captures figures from this era of experimentation, and fascinates us with their personae as they had developed under Warhol's gaze. At times it even attains a luminous beauty.
Cinema's Location:
London SE1 8XT
Rating (out of 5):
thoughtful ****
Cinema:
BFI Southbank
* * *
Director: Pablo Trapero
Year: 2006

The programme notes which came along with this film promised a spoiler warning, and as I started to watch this film I wondered what it was. We are introduced to a happy relationship, a middle-class house, a man his wife and his young daughter. With the Tolstoy quote in mind about all happy families being alike (from a dramatic point-of-view), one could only assume that something would happen, After 20 minutes, it seemed clear that the spoiler was that the man loses his wife and child in a terrible car crash which he subsequently blames himself for.

However, Trapero's film is far more subtle and far-reaching than that assessment. It eventually becomes clear that the accident is not the 'spoiler' -- there are plenty of other things going on, evasions that the man has taken in his grief and which have been integrated into the subjective narrative. He tries to find a new life in Patagonia, in the deepest coldest south of the country, by working on a forlorn airstrip.

The drama is mainly internal and excellently acted. Trapero does not force his directing hand with any gimmicky effects or unwarranted flash. This just sticks with a very affecting storyline, avoiding the easy pitfalls of the cliched scenario it could easily become, and pulls something akin to hope out of it all.
Cinema's Location:
London SE1 8XT
Rating (out of 5):
pleased ****
Cinema:
BFI Southbank
* * *
Director: Paul Greengrass
Year: 2007

It's always difficult to review action films, since the extent to which a viewer responds positively towards them is very much to do with that viewer's tolerance for random acts of violence and slickly-edited sound and fury.

Therefore it may not be of much value, but it seems like this latest instalment of the Bourne series (of which I have seen none) is a superior example of the action thriller. It is as slickly-edited as the best, and crucially (as there are several extended fight and flight scenes), the spatial relationship is never lost, so it is easy to follow what's happening even when it's not quite clear (as, for most of the film, it isn't) just why anything's happening.

The support actors are a credible bunch of familiar faces for these kinds of films (Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, the wonderful David Strathairn), and Matt Damon is fairly credible as the blank central presence -- given that his acting talents tend towards the enigmatic.

There's even an extended sequence set in London, and a character (played by the underutilised Paddy Considine) of a Guardian journalist, which is fitfully amusing.
Cinema's Location:
London SE15 4ST
Rating (out of 5):
cheerful ****
Cinema:
Peckham Multiplex
* * *
Director: David Lean
Year: 1945

A rerelease of a British classic, at least one that embodies a certain type of heritage British filmmaking, which means it's the first time I've seen this on the big screen. In the event, it's a digital screening taking place across the country on the same day. Any worries about the quality are assuaged when it actually starts -- this is no poxy DVD projection, so the image is pristine and clear. (Though the Rich Mix cinema in E1 does like its air-conditioning set to high.)

The film itself is a classic of British psychodrama, an intense melodramatic exploration of the attraction of two people, with a hefty dose of characteristic English reserve (i.e. it's not a film destined to end happily, and that much is clear from the oppressive milieu of the railway station). Much of the drama seems somewhat laughably over-egged at times, but yet it retains plenty of genuine interest and emotional heft, with some amusing minor characters as well.
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Cinema's Location:
London E1 6LA
Rating (out of 5):
satisfied ****
Cinema:
Rich Mix (Shoreditch)
* * *
Director: Alain Resnais
Year: 2006

Resnais in his mid-80s still makes films which are so much better than anything else out there on general release. It's his skill with a (mostly familiar) stock company of actors, his ability to frame and move the camera with ease around sets which still have a characteristic theatricality to them, and his use of colour and mise-en-scene. This film is very much set in a modern world of glass partitions and computer terminals, which at the same time alienates the characters. There's also the matter of the frosty wintry setting of Paris, in one of the more recently regenerated neighbourhoods around the Bibliothèque Nationale.

It's a multi-character criss-crossing narrative, which is nothing new, but is handled with subtlety by Resnais and his actors. Nothing really 'happens', but relationships are formed and break down, and there's an air of resignation to it all.

It's still a lovely film, though, and well worth seeking out.
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Cinema's Location:
London WC1N 1AW
Rating (out of 5):
cheerful ****
Cinema:
Renoir
* * *
* * *
Director: David Silverman
Year: 2007

I wasn't at all familiar with Beavis and Butt-Head when I saw their feature-length adaptation when it came to cinemas ten years ago, but I found it to be surprisingly coherent and amusing. I was only passingly familiar with South Park, though had liked everything I'd seen of it, five years ago for their film, but that was a sustainedly brilliant and excoriatingly funny piece of celluloid (I thought).

I hope it's not because I've long admired and watched The Simpsons on TV, that I found this movie to be somewhat disappointing. Perhaps it is a function of recognising many of themes, the characters, the situations from old episodes. It's possible it would have been funnier if I wasn't already familiar with many of the gags. But perhaps not; perhaps the filmmakers just didn't really reach their optimum level for this film adaptation and coasted somewhat.

As a film, it expands the TV show my moulding itself to an Armageddon-style disaster epic, a canvas at once broader than the TV show is capable of, but at the same time familiar, given the TV show's many adoptions of generic formats. There are slower, more intensely emotional scenes than one might expect, but the plot is on the whole quite hackneyed.

Of course, it's funny, and there are plenty of great gags, but I found the experience an anti-climax. Taking a cue from Homer himself at the beginning of this film, perhaps it would be better to wait until you can see it for free on TV...
Cinema's Location:
London SW2 1JG
Rating (out of 5):
blah ***
Cinema:
Ritzy (Brixton)
* * *
Director: Julien Temple
Year: 2007

It's a long time to wait before reviewing a film, so perhaps this documentary about Joe Strummer, and about his influence, didn't grab me as much as the film itself wants to pretend it should. Strummer had an interesting life, but his special knack was in reflecting the obsessions of different eras. He turned his back on a hippie upbringing by embracing punk, and then eventually found his way back to a pan-global new age-ism without surrending to the worst aspects of that trend. The music he has made or facilitated is at times great, but on the whole I didn't see this film as a fan of Strummer or his music, and the fact that I still found it to be an interesting film was a result of its cogent reflections on changes in British culture from the 60s through to the present. Joe Strummer in a way represented much of that, and his loss is genuinely upsetting.

Bono, however, did not need to be one of the talking heads in this film.
Cinema's Location:
London SW1Y 4DP
Rating (out of 5):
***
Cinema:
Odeon (Panton St)
* * *
Director: Tony Conrad
Year: 1966

Conrad's seminal film is just a series of black frames cut amongst white frames, as he says an attempt to completely counter-act the importance of the image to cinema. It's fascinating, and overwhelming, with a suitably intense soundtrack also provided by Conrad.

Preceded by Finnish experimental short films...

Title: Hermafrodiitit
Director: Swissair (Jari Härkönen, Pietari Koskinen, Mikko Kuussaari, Anton Mikkilä, Juha Soivio, Mika Taanila)
Year: 1979-1984

Two projections side-by-side, this is fairly odd and interesting stuff.

Title: (dis)integrator
Director: Juhavan Ingen
Year: 1992

A looped sample, which disintegrates into TV static, this is fairly annoying until it becomes all white noise.

Title: She Puts Out the Fire
Director: Sami Sampakila
Year: n/d

Some trees passing, some music, dull.

Title: 'Optical Sound
Director: Mika Taanila
Year: 2005

I don't even remember this one, to be honest.

Followed by...

Title: Straight and Narrow
Director: Tony Conrad
Year: 1970

More of the same kind of thing, but this time incorporating lines which cut across the image and the soundtrack (i.e. the visuals create the sound).

Title: The Eye of Count Flickerstein
Director: Tony Conrad
Year: 1967 (revised 1975)

Television static this time...

Title: Articulation of Boolean Algebra for Film Opticals [excerpt]
Director: Tony Conrad
Year: 1975

I can't honestly remember how this goes, but there are no visuals as per usual.

Title: 4-X Attack
Director: Tony Conrad
Year: 1973

Conrad uses footage of bombs being dropped, cut it up and re-spliced it together.

Title: Cycles of 3's and 7's [excerpt]
Director: Tony Conrad
Year: 1977

A very dry and very funny piece, showing a calculator and a finger pressing the buttons, as Conrad's voice excitedly explains sequences of numbers which all come back to 1 (more or less).

Title: In Line
Director: Tony Conrad
Year: 1985

Comes across as a bit student video, but interesting. Can't remember the content exactly...

Title: Grading Tips for Teachers
Director: Tony Conrad
Year: 2003

A funny piece where Conrad humorously deflates his own role as a teacher by imagining some absurd grading methods, none of which are related to the content of his students' essays.

Title: Conversation II
Director: Tony Conrad
Year: 2005

Conrad plays both interlocutors (a man and a woman) by merely turning his head, one side of which has long-hair, lipstick and blush. A bit annoying, but the conversation loops so that every line of dialogue is spoken by both Conrads.

Cinema's Location:
London WC2 8AH
Rating (out of 5):
confused ***
Cinema:
Curzon Soho
* * *
Director: Ryan Fleck
Year: 2006

The premise of this film is right away off-putting -- inner-city school teacher who is a drug addict outside hours -- as it comes across as fairly issue-of-the-week made-for-TV movie. There are so many ways in which this kind of thing could go badly (schmaltzy sentimentally) wrong.

However, Fleck and his capable actors steer the film ably away from triteness, and find just the right balance, with an open ending that doesn't attempt to neatly tie up all the ways in which the central character's life has gone awry.
Cinema's Location:
London E1 6LA
Rating (out of 5):
cheerful ****
Cinema:
Rich Mix (Shoreditch)
* * *
Director: Andrew Bujalski
Year: 2006

The laidback charm of Bujalski's second feature -- low budget black-and-white and all the better for it -- doesn't mask the subtly shifting emotional connections between the three leads. Neither does it give it the kind of sentimental window-dressing of, say, Nicole Holofcener's films.

The structure is not just open-ended but starts in medias res, opening and closing in the middle of throw-away conversations which beautifully capture a group of characters looking to make their lives in New York City work for them (all have moved from elsewhere in the not-too-distant past). Therefore the amount of pleasure to be gained from the film lies in the extent to which you can enjoy the casual conversation and low-key love triangle which develops somewhere along the way.

At least it's not hard to imagine the actors as their characters, with the lead's floppy hair and diffident attitude perfectly suiting him to the role of aspiring indie pop minstrel trying to get gigs while doing the minimum amount of work to keep him living in the city (probably Brooklyn, actually, I imagine). The director himself plays the nerdy and intense college lecturer, and does it well.

It may not aim at profundity, but it captures a lot of familiar emotional terrain and does it very acutely. And, also, amusingly.
Cinema's Location:
London SW2 1JG
Rating (out of 5):
****
Cinema:
Ritzy (Brixton)
* * *
* * *

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