REVIEW – Holy Motors (2012)

HolyMotorsVideovista have my review of Leos Carax’s beautifully weird Holy Motors.

Holy Motors is a film that took me almost completely by surprise. Going into it, I had seen the widely-circulated ‘Trois! Douze! Merde!’ video in which an intense bald man wanders round a church with an orchestra of accordion players but beyond that I had heard nothing other than the fact that this was a festival of pretty but ultimately insubstantial whimsy. I could not have been more wrong. Holy Motors is a film about the contemporary self and our tendency to not only play different roles at different points in our lives but also our willingness to effectively ‘pull up the ladder’ behind these roles and reinvent ourselves periodically whenever we hit upon a persona we find particularly useful or enjoyable:

20th century counter-culture was obsessed with the idea that, instead of allowing people to ‘be themselves’, society bullied people into conforming to a narrow set of social expectations. However, after 50 years of relentless subversion and deconstruction, the mainstream of our culture is now almost impossible to pin down. Cultures are first and foremost collections of signs and symbols that bind and inform the people who partake of them, identities have meaning and status because people partaking of a particular culture recognise and respond to a particular set of signs, but our culture has replaced a single set of cultural signifiers with a collage of more-or-less overlapping cultures that many people struggle to navigate. What is the backlash against political correctness and multiculturalism if not a demand that old cultural privileges be reinstated? As our cultural spaces become more diffuse and intractable, we begin to yearn for that which horrified the 20th century existentialists.

For Jean-Paul Sartre, to be defined by others was to be confined to hell. His 1944 play No Exit was a howl of protest and repugnance at the idea that our identities might somehow rely upon the judgement of others. However, fast-forward 70 years and we demand the attention and judgement of others! We photograph our lunches and live-tweet our social interactions because we know that our identities exist only as long as they are recognised by the people who matter to us. Holy Motors is not about the tyranny of others but the fear of their absence… if nobody is observing Oscar then why does he play the dying uncle, the punk rock accordion player or the husband to a chimpanzee? Why do anything if nobody is paying attention? And if nobody is out there defining us then how do we even begin to define ourselves?

What makes Holy Motors a brilliant film is that Carax not only engages with these ideas, he does so using a cinematic language that is entirely new and entirely of the moment. This is cinema built with Youtube in mind. Cinema that uses spectacle not as a blunt instrument but as a scalpel that cuts away the conventions of traditional storytelling till nothing but the raw pulsating nerve of The Moment is left. Quite possibly the best and most under-appreciated film of 2012.

REVIEW – 360 (2011)

360posterVideovista have my review of Fernando Meirelles’ composite film 360.

Much like Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 21 Grams (2003), 360 follows a group of extravagantly cast strangers whose lives crisscross in a way which, though seemingly random, reveals something about the alienated connectedness of human lives. In the case of Contagion, the ‘point’ was that illness and fear move from person to person while 21 Grams exlored the extent to which people in different classes and countries are bound together by their involvement in the international drug trade. 360 uses a similar non-linear approach to narrative as a way of showing the extent to which sex ruins the lives of otherwise happy middle-class people:

The film’s paralysing fear of human sexuality is evident in the way that it refuses to distinguish between consensual sex, and sexual activity resulting from physical or psychological coercion. This equivalence is evident in the way that the film opens with a woman being pressured into having sex with a pornographic photographer only to then move on to a woman deciding to continue her affair with a fashion photographer. Clearly, there is something very wrong indeed if Morgan and Meirelles cannot see the difference between a terrified sex-worker who is bullied into sleeping with a website operator, and a middle-class woman deciding to continue an existing affair with a handsome visual artist.

Technically, 360 is a supremely competent iteration of a mature cinematic formula. Well acted, well shot and well made, it is let down only by its over-familiarity and the fact that it considers human sexuality to be a grotesque global conspiracy :-(

REVIEW – Miss Bala (2011)

Videovista have my review of Gerardo Naranjo’s Mexican crime movie Miss Bala.

The film tells of a young woman who attempts to sign up for a beauty pageant but winds up getting involved with a gang of Mexican drug traffickers. In the hands of a less ambitious director, this set-up might have resulted in one of those horrific fish-out-of-water films like Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob (1988) or Donald Petrie’s Miss Congeniality (2000). However, rather than play-up the comic elements of the culture clash, Naranjo uses them as the basis for a coming-of-age movie that skewers the values of contemporary Mexican society:

The idea that Mexico is nothing more than an oceanic darkness lurking beneath a thin strip of human pretence is present throughout the film’s cinematography. Miss Bala is an intensely dark and moody film and the only time that Naranjo allows us to escape the darkness is in the few sun-kissed moments when Laura is attempting to pass herself off as an innocent civilian. Compared to the shadows of Laura’s day-to-day existence, the floodlit wonderland of the beauty pageants, shopping trips and garden parties seems both grotesquely fake and beautifully alluring.

Miss Bala is an intensely clever and absolutely beautifully shot film that must class as one of the best crime movies to appear in the last couple of years.

REVIEW – The Woman in the Fifth (2011)

VideoVista have my review of Pawel Pawlikovski’s The Woman in the Fifth. Based on a novel by Douglas Kennedy, the film is a meditation on the costs and benefits of artistic creativity. Grounded firmly in the old trope of a sensitive and broken man who is only saved by the love of a good woman, the film presents its central character with a choice between a woman who makes him creative but also insane and a woman who makes him happy but only at the expense of his capacity to write.

I have two main problems with this film. The first is that the vision of creativity the film proposes is based entirely upon an almost ludicrously self-indulgent and melodramatic vision of the creative process. Many gifted artists produce great work without lapsing into either madness, violence or depression. Frankly, seeing these psychological problems as an inevitable by-product of the creative process is nothing more than palliative bullshit put about by people who really need to start taking responsibility for their own mental health. Being an artist does not make it okay for you to be a complete prick.  The second problem is that while Pawlikovski’s direction is entirely watchable, it is also desperately boring. Seriously… what is going on in art house filmmaking? when did it all become so fucking boring?

We are currently undergoing the greatest economic and social crisis since the Great Depression and the political decisions made today will shape the future of entire continents for generations to come. Given that the world is now continuously shifting beneath our feet and that our democratic institutions are positively crying out for an intelligent electorate that can understand and engage with the issues confronting them, do we really need another film about a novelist who is struggling with writer’s block? Do we really need another French film in which a bunch of listless Parisians tumble in and out of bed with one another? Do we really need another film in which a terminally passive and unattractive male protagonist somehow finds himself at the centre of a vortex of redemptive totty? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding ‘No!’

As I said in my piece about this year’s Cannes film festival, European art house cinema is rapidly becoming stale. A decaying boy’s club dominated by a shrinking clade of middle-aged white guys, both its ideas and its language are in desperate need of renewal and The Woman in the Fifth is yet further proof of the scene’s increasing creative sterility. Did we need another film about a novelist with writer’s block? FUCK NO! Nor do we need another polite little film directed by a middle-aged European white guy. Pawel Pawlikovski is not a bad director by any stretch of the imagination but he is a director who is part of the problem. Pawlikovski’s early works including Dostoevsky’s Travels and Tripping with Zhirinovsky were deeply personal reflections of a youth lived under Communist rule. However, as Pawlikovski freely admits in the Blu-ray’s extras, he has decided to set aside the things that made him unique as a director in order to churn out the same old derivative francophilic shit as every other art house director. Clearly… this shit needs to stop.

REVIEW – Shame (2011)

Back in 2008, I struggled with the religious imagery of Steve McQueen’s debut feature Hunger (2008). I struggled with it because it seemed too obvious and because the troubles had been cast in that particular light altogether too many times.  I have since rewatched Hunger and I now realise that I was wrong. I was wrong to read the film as being Catholic in sentiment and I was wrong to argue that it was simply retreading old ground. When I said that Hunger “cannot get out from under the weight of cinematic history”, I might as well have been writing about my own review. Given that my fondness for Hunger has grown over the years, I was somewhat reluctant to go and see his second feature Shame at the cinema. Aware of my history of not ‘getting’ McQueen’s films and concerned that the film’s subject matter struck me as over-exposed and boring, I waited for the DVD release… and then waited some more. In truth, I was happy to let this film slip away from me until I was offered a review copy. Just When I Thought I Was Out… As a result, Videovista have my review of Steve McQueen’s Shame and it is full of ambivalence.

Set in an economically prosperous but emotionally barren New York City, Shame tells of a successful man who devotes his life to the pursuit of orgasms. Orgasms by hand, orgasms by mouth, orgasms by any means necessary and to the exclusion of all other avenues of pleasure and fulfillment. Moving from one nameless sexual partner to the next, the character leads an admirably simple life and appears to experience none of the downsides traditionally associated with a hedonistic lifestyle. However, this simple existence is thrown out of balance when the character’s emotionally incontinent sister comes to stay. Suddenly plagued by feelings of shame, the character attempts to re-invent himself as a normal person only to fall at pretty much the first hurdle. While much has been made of the film’s interest in the question of sex addiction, my view is that the film is attempting to do what it says on the tin, namely examine the role of shame in making us do the things we do:

 What distinguishes Shame from the likes of Lost In Translation and Up In The Air is that it pointedly refuses to use the same psychological model as most films and TV dramas. Most film and TV writers create their characters using a somewhat simplified version of Freudian psychodynamics. In particular, they tend to be very fond of the Freudian concept of displacement whereby an irrational over-reaction to one thing is actually the product of a rational but socially unacceptable reaction to something else. For example, in Up In The Air, George Clooney’s character comes across as excessively hostile to a co-worker who is attempting to force him off the road and into an office job. Initially, this reaction seems perfectly understandable but as the movie progresses and Clooney’s character becomes more and more unreasonable; we learn that the true source of his unease is the fact that he has no social bonds and hates the hugely successful career that he has built for himself. Some critics have sought to interpret Brendon’s sexual escapades in light of an unmentioned childhood trauma, but McQueen pointedly makes no reference at all either to Brendon’s inner life or to the emotional life of his childhood. The reason for this is that McQueen wants us to focus only upon that which we can see and what we see is a man who is forced out of his comfort zone because he feels ashamed.

While I think that McQueen’s attempt to break new psychological ground is nothing short of heroic, I am not convinced that the film ever gains any traction on the concept of shame. Add to this the lack of visual firepower and what you’re left with is a quite traditional arty drama held together by two decent performances. Which is a recipe for Oscar-bait, not thought-provoking cinematic art.

REVIEW – Angels of Evil (2009)

Videovista have changed their format.  Rather than spewing a torrent of reviews at you once a month, the site has moved towards a more selective approach to publishing in which they devote attention solely to a few note-worthy films.  My first shot at the DVD of the month is a piece about Michele Placido’s Angels of Evil (a.k.a. Valanzasca – Gli Angeli del Male), the follow-up to Placido’s 2005 crime bio-pic Romanzo Criminale. While I ultimately found the film a good deal less engaging than the politically thoughtful Romanzo Criminale, Angels of Evil remains a beautifully shot and stylishly produced crime thriller that sheds an intriguing light on the challenges facing the crime bio-pic genre. My review is HERE.

Though undeniably well made, Angels Of Evil suffers terribly from an overabundance of familiar elements: it is a film entirely composed of stock characters. Vallanzasca’s first wife Consuelo (Valeria Solerino) is a beautiful woman who doesn’t take any shit from anyone right up until the moment she meets Vallanzasca and promptly transforms into a long-suffering doormat with a sensible haircut. Similarly, the members of Vallanzasca’s gang are differentiated solely through their facial hair and their professional characteristics including the capacity to ride a motorcycle at 125 mph, and make good use of a sub-machinegun. Even Turatello is something of a cliché as his charismatic public persona masks a psychopathic fondness for violence and a rather predictable obsession with his hair that has him visiting women’s salons and sleeping in a hair-net. Anyone who has seen Goodfellas will recognise these sorts of characters and Goodfellas’ influence means that they have spent the last 20 years appearing and re-appearing in every crime thriller you care to mention. Aside from being faintly depressing, Placido’s refusal to depart from traditional genre stereotypes also serves to weaken his treatment of Vallanzasca himself.

Having damned the film for its generic nature, I then ponder whether the generic nature of the film’s characters might not be the result of deeper sociological forces. Indeed, if you watch The Sopranos, it is obvious that the characters have all partly modelled themselves on figures from the Godfather. This begs the following question: does the film’s depiction of Vallanzasca and his gang seem generic because of lazy script-writing or does the script capture the basic truths about a group of characters who modelled themselves on figures out of crime fiction and film?

REVIEW – Spread (2009)

Videovista have my review of David Mackenzie’s Spread (a.k.a. Toy Boy).

Trapped somewhere between romantic comedy and a warts-and-all indictment of life on the Hollywood fringe, Mackenzie’s film garnered a good deal of festival buzz thanks to the presence of Ashton Kutcher and the insider-y nature of the subject matter.  Kutcher — whose career received a sizeable boost as a result of his relationship with the older Demi Moore — plays a pretty young man who lives off of older women.  On paper, this film promised a lot and initial reviews were strong but once the collective hysteria of festival season faded, so too did the film’s buzz and reality soon reasserted itself.  A reality of muddled tone, indifferent scripting and lack of sociological bite:

I suspect that these variations on the traditional romantic comedy theme are intentional and that, by breaking with generic tradition, the film is trying to make some wider point about the way in which we think our lives are going to follow these grand romantic arcs but, while Spread hints at this sort of deconstructive agenda, it ultimately fails to explore any of these themes meaning that the film comes across as broken rather than deconstructed.

All in all: Not nearly clever enough.