Welcome to This Week We’ve Been Watching… (now our regular Monday feature). Here the MultiMediaMouth film staff will come together and give you capsule reviews of some of the films they’ve been watching over the past week. We’ll cover old films and new, from all genres and all over the world, so hopefully each week you’ll be able to find a couple of titles from this post to hunt down and check out yourselves.
Note: This post contains several uses of strong language. If that’s likely to offend you, please read another post. Thanks.
Mike’s been watching…
DIR: Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh’s latest masterpiece is also his most cinematic to date – a changing-of-seasons tale that documents falling old, falling in love and falling into loneliness, recalling the works of Eric Rohmer and Yasujirô Ozu in its relationship dynamics. Each season has a distinct visual aesthetic that reflects the mood of the characters – in Winter they are dulled and depressed (well, more than usual anyway) and in Summer they don shorts and sandals for a heartwarming BBQ. Leigh’s rehearsal method has been long documented and here the full effect is felt as the performances are universally terrific. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen (as the comically monikered Tom and Gerri) provide the heart of the film and their magnificently real performances are the unit of stability and salvation that their circle of downtrodden friends whirlwind around, including Mary (an astonishing Lesley Manville), who has come to depend on the couple for whatever happiness she can salvage from a life that could have been so much more. It’s beautiful to look at but often hard to sit through as some of the conversations are cringe-inducingly awkward; not in a bad way, but in a way which reflects real life. It matters very little whether the film is optimistic or pessimistic (a topic which has been much argued) – we don’t analyze life in such a way, we just try to live as best we can from moment to moment and be there for the ones we love. The characters in Another Year try, fail and try again to fulfill such a purpose and it’s their depth of feeling that will reward a dozen re-watches from this outstanding drama.
DIR: Rafi Pitts
Filmed during the 2009 electoral campaign, The Hunter is a chase drama with its eye on political allegory, but also cinema history. Much like 2010’s The American (Anton Corbijn) this is a slow, lucid thriller which pays homage to 1960s/70s crime cinema – the latter on Antonioni and this Iranian effort on Jean-Pierre Melville (the character of Ali has the same controlled presence, if not the dress sense, of Alain Delon in Le Samouraï, 1967). The political context is never shoved down the audiences throat (we are mostly engaged through radio broadcasts) but it rather serves as a backdrop for character psyche and a debate on justice. Ali (Pitts) is an ex-convict whose wife and child are killed in a shoot-out between police and demonstrators and eventually his rage boils over into an assassination of a policeman on a highway. After the most artistic car chase ever filmed (calmly observational in obscuring mist) Ali is captured by two cops who get lost in the woods, and a moral debate begins, culminating in a final twist with ideas far beyond the surface presentation. It’s by no means a perfect film – Pitts’ self-indulgently casts himself and delivers an expressionless performance – but as a minimalist revenge piece and homage to 70s cinema it’s a rather efficient diversion. And we really do need to support Iranian cinema.
DIR: Greg McLean
Famously the Ozploitation psycho-slasher that opened on Christmas Day in the US to zero stars by Roger Ebert, Wolf Creek is a disturbingly effective low-budget horror which called to mind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Road Games (1981) – but has more visceral grit and bloody torture than those films put together. The film is stunningly shot by DoP Will Gibson, who passed away in 2007 – a real shame, as he showed great promise. The Australian outback is shot here in wide, deserted expanses and a mixture of grimy, grindhouse style blacks and greys, and slick, sun-drenched yellows make up the colour scheme. Shots of the sky and rolling hills are most impressive; white clouds moving over a sea of purple, mist rising over a green moon, stars lighting the way to freedom on a night of unrelenting fear – the landscape is a barren one, and Mclean’s worldview is positively apocalyptic. It’s a terrifyingly beautiful film and the camera is always in motion, luring us into several grisly sucker punches. John Jarratt is astonishing as the stereotype-warping psychopath, who at one point perfectly parodies Crocodile Dundee, ensuring that the family caper can never be watched without a hint of menace ever again. It’s not perfect, but this is a film of visual wit, arresting photography and adrenaline-pumping horror. In-your-face and deeply unpleasant, but take that as a recommendation.
Oren’s been watching…
A COCK AND BULL STORY
DIR: Michael Winterbottom
One of the funniest movies of the past decade that operates on so many levels of comedy it’s almost mind-bending. On the one hand, some scenes are straight adaptations of the already hilarious scenes from the original 18th century novel the film is semi-based on: “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” On the other hand, it is a hilarious display of classic British banter and wit and the brilliant dynamics between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing versions of themselves in the film as well as characters from Tristram Shandy. But in addition, it also operates as a multi-layered satire of and commentary on the filmmaking and acting process, and a mind-numbing case of metafiction rivaling Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, which also works as a commentary on similar themes but approaches it in a different way.
WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN”
DIR: Davis Guggenheim
Something is wrong with the education system in America, and something must be done to change this. This seems to be a recurring format for documentaries in recent years – a large, sweeping expose on something that is terribly wrong in America and a plea to us, the audience, to do something to bring about change. However, like the more successful examples of these films, including Guggenheim’s earlier Oscar-winning doc An Inconvenient Truth, these pleas and preachings are anchored by compelling, grounded characters who help guide us through all the bureaucracy, hypocrisy, adversity and malice. By rooting its story in the kids going through the system, coupled with portraits of certain individuals in the education field actually trying and in many cases succeeding to instigate change, Waiting for ‘Superman’ paints a bleak portrait of the state of the U.S. education system but also offers a beacon of hope that something can and will be done to fix it.
Sam’s been watching…
GROWN UP MOVIE STAR
DIR: Adriana Maggs
Maggs’ first feature, which is showing in the 2011 Birds Eye View Film Festival, really should be right up my street. I’m fond of coming of age stories, and of films that provide showcases for – particularly young – actors. Grown Up Movie Star is about Ruby (played by newcomer Tatiana Maslany). Her mother has left and is living in LA, leaving Ruby and her sister living with their father in Canada, which they can’t leave thanks to his long ago drug conviction. At 15 Ruby is feeling the first stirrings of her sexuality, longing to escape her mundane life to be an actress or a model and has just discovered that her Dad is secretly gay.
All this should make for a compelling small scale drama, and with a decent central performance by Maslany, it’s hard to exactly put your finger on why it doesn’t. The best way that I can describe it is to say that everything in this film just seems off; half a beat from being real, and it’s distracting. It’s distracting because of the slightly flat (sometimes very flat) acting, it’s distracting because these characters don’t quite behave like real people, it’s more distracting, in fact, than it would be if the film were more outlandish and overblown.
It doesn’t help that Maggs gives us nobody to root for; not one of these characters, except perhaps for Ruby’s 11 year old sister, is remotely sympathetic, all are slightly differing degrees of self-obsessed and objectionable, which makes it difficult to care how things work themselves out. A disappointing effort, especially because it’s easy to see the interesting film that might have been.
FUCKING AMAL [a.k.a: Show Me Love]
DIR: Lukas Moodysson
Fucking Amal is one of that rare breed; a film that gets better every time I watch it. Lukas Moodysson’s first film is about 16 year old Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg) and 14 year old Elin (Alexandra Dahlstrom); two schoolgirls growing up in the boring Swedish town of Amal (the film is named for Elin’s description of it). Agnes has long been in love with Elin from afar and when, as a cruel dare, Elin kisses Agnes, a lot of complex emotions are thrown up.
I’ve always liked Fucking Amal (which is the only title that suits this film, Show Me Love is such a cop out) because it feels searingly honest about the experience I think that most people had of being a teenager (whether they admitted it or not); a painful, confusing time in which even the most trivial things seemed earth shatteringly important and nothing was fair. Moodysson captures these things with great clarity and specificity with his screenplay, which gives completely credible voice to all its characters, be they teens or parents and with his sensitive, minimalist, direction.
There is so much to admire here, from the refreshingly lacking in cliché portrayal of the adults in the film (it’s small masterpiece is Agnes’ Father (Ralph Carlsson); a man who loves his daughter to distraction, but can’t quite find the way to best relate to her) to individual moments like Agnes and Elin’s second kiss, memorably and amusingly scored to Foreigner’s I Want to Know What Love Is, and the wonderfully funny and unexpected final scene. However, what makes it play, what makes Fucking Amal the great film it unquestionably is, are the performances of Liljeberg and Dahlstrom.
It is tragic that neither went on to do much more acting – Liljeberg is now a doctor and Dahlstrom works behind the camera, often for Moodysson – because their performances are pitch perfect. I recognise both of these girls, I knew them both at school, at times I probably was them both to some degree (except, obviously, a bloke), and that’s why this film is so totally involving and so totally moving for me. The performances are so specific, so believable, so real, and Moodysson’s camerawork is so immediate and observed, that you could believe that this is really happening. Nothing feels acted, nothing staged.
For me, this is perhaps the great underseen film of the 1990’s, I could write several more pages on why it’s brilliant. See it yesterday.
It should have been great fun – stupid, but great fun – but Ironclad is hobbled by one of cinema’s most fashionable (and most irritating) techniques; shakycam. For the most part Jonathan English’s camera and editing are relatively sedate, but come the violent scenes (you know, the bits you want to be able to see and get involved in) everything goes mental. English cuts in uncomfortably close, edits the film to within an inch of it’s life so almost all sense of geography goes out of the scene, and shakes the camera like an epileptic on speed. WHY do filmmakers insist on doing this? It’s incredibly annoying, it makes action scenes more difficult to follow and reduces action choreography to a total mess.
Outside of these scenes, Ironclad is a mixed bag. It has an amusingly overblown turn from Paul Giamatti as King John of England, a solid, if uninspired, heroic performance from James Purrefoy and a surprisingly decent performance, and accent, from Kate Mara as the film’s token girl. Joining Giamatti at the ham counter, to much lesser effect, is Derek Jacobi, who continues his run of career sullying with a performance that suggests he knows exactly how beneath him this all is.
At the end of the day, I’d rather watch Paul Verhoeven’s grimy and underrated Flesh and Blood at least he knows what a tripod is.