Friday, 26 February 2016

The Forbidden Room (2015)

The latest film from the so-called Sage of Winnipeg, Guy Maddin, sounded fascinating from the first reviews I read. We finally caught up with it at the six-row Studio in the National Film Theatre. "Well, that's two hours of my life I'll never get back" said Michael, and it is very definitely a movie that will divide viewers into two camps -- with the majority, I suspect, joining Michael who found it a pretentious and nearly unwatchable mishmash.

I, however, really liked it despite its bum-numbing length -- and there can be no argument that it is totally unlike any other film that gets a cinema release. Maddin's output has always verged on the decidedly quirky, often with the feel of silent cinema, normally focussing on complicated but unsuccessful romances, and with not very subtle motifs of sexual repression. I've not seen all of his output, but my reaction has wavered between those which left me bemused like "Archangel" (1990) and "Careful" (1992) and those which I found brilliant, like "Dracula, Pages from a Virgin's Diary" (2002) and "The Saddest Music in the World" (2003).

For the last decade, Maddin has been more involved in installations and art projects. Developed from a series of short scenes performed before the public in front of the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Phi Centre in Montreal, the fifteen or so 'stories' were edited together into overlapping and fragmented circles to create the final film. Inspired by 'lost' films and abandoned projects, the movie takes its title from the definitely lost 1914 short film from Canadian-born director Allan Dwan (who went on to have a distinguished Hollywood career). The overall feel of this movie is one of dream-like images stitched into a hallucinogenic wash of colour with absolutely no linear coherence, and featuring such weirdnesses as a Filipino vampire, a cult of lycanthropes, stolen squids, a mid-air Zeppelin collision, and a scantily clad amnesiac young heroine who wanders aimlessly through the proceedings. In addition, some footage is shot to resemble deteriorating nitrate stock, reminding one of the really unwatchable documentary "Decasia" (2002).

Add to this the 420 kitschy intertitles in this non-silent movie and one is inundated with something resembling sensory overload. The enormous cast, many of whom play multiple parts, and most of whom are credited with a title card when they first appear, seem to be having enormous fun; the list includes such well-known names as Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, and Elina Lowensohn, as well as a number of Maddin regulars like Louis Negin and Roy Dupuis. Parts of the movie were actually laugh-out-loud funny, like initiation rites of 'offal-piling' and characters regressing into amoeba-like monsters, and most of it was quiet-smile amusing.

However first and foremost the film which the director himself has described as a "basically ectoplasmic splooge" seems to be one long metaphor for the orgasm. From the gnarly seamen trapped in their tube-like submarine whom we continue to revisit as they plot their escape and the many quests through rosy pink caves, the movie ends with a series of explosive climaxes. The viewer too experiences a sense of release that this very odd viewing experience has actually come to an end.

I imagine it would take multiple viewings to absorb everything that Maddin has thrown into his wizard's brew and I don't know that I could stand doing this again on anything less than a large screen. Yet I can definitely recommend seeking out the film. You too might describe it as two hours that you can never retrieve, but they would be two hours of movie-making such as you have never before seen.   

Friday, 19 February 2016

The Baftas 2016

While I have written about the British version of the academy awards previously, I note that I have not done so for the last few years, since the forced bonhomie of 'national treasure' host Stephen Fry is increasingly hard to take. But due to popular demand (???) he was back for his llth time last Sunday, showing little improvement, other than managing to introduce his 'surprise' presenter Tom Cruise without last year's f***ing adjective.

However since the ceremony likes to bill itself as one of the leading signposts on the so-called 'road to the Oscars', it is possibly worth examining the differences between the two occasions. For a start, the Baftas make a point of trying to recognise British talent, not only presenting awards for the best British film, the best British debut, the best rising star, and the best continuing contribution to British cinema (amusingly won this year by the theatrical costumiers Morris Angel), but also load the nominations with Brits whom the Academy has ignored (and who stand little chance of winning anyhow).

Those considerations apart, this year's choices in the main categories were boringly predictable and likely to be echoed -- with one exception -- at the upcoming Oscars. "The Revenant" which I admit I have not yet seen and which frankly I am in no rush to view seems to be on an unstoppable roll, largely fuelled by the hype that poor old Leonardo DiCaprio has never won an Oscar. I don't doubt that it was a hard shoot and gong-givers seem to love actors who have suffered for their 'art'. So Leo walked away with his prize and the same honour was granted to the film itself, its director, and its cinematographer (all for the second year running). Yawn! Interestingly Leo thanked his British co-star Tom Hardy, who surprisingly is Oscar-nominated but was not among Bafta's own choices.

The other two predictable awards were to Brie Larson for best actress and to Kate Winslet for best supporting actress. Despite all the flag-waving for "Carol", I doubt that Cate Blanchett or Rooney Mara, will upstage them for the same awards later this month. Incidentally nominating Jennifer Jason Leigh for "The Hateful Eight" by both academies is something of a joke. The one predictable big difference between the two ceremonies is in the shape of best supporting actor. The British actor Mark Rylance won here for his soaring performance in "Bridge of Spies, but the sentimental favourite for this award must be Sylvester Stallone, who was not even nominated by Bafta.

One or two other interesting points: The selection for best foreign language film was completely different from the Academy's with only "Theeb" in common, and the winner was Argentina's "Wild Tales" -- a refreshingly deserving choice rather than selecting some 'worthy' or pretentious outing. Secondly this year's Fellowship Award which usually goes to some aging Brit was presented (by satellite link) to Sidney Poitier. Take that Academy -- we have honoured a black man! They also made certain that black Brit Idris Elba received a nomination.

Going back to the annoying Mr. Fry, he created a twitter-storm after awarding the best costume design plaque to Jenny Beavan for "Mad Max: Fury Road". She accepted the prize wearing a leather jacket and sensible boots and Fry quipped that it was strange for a designer to turn up dressed as a bag lady. How the shit hit the fan! He subsequently claimed that she is in fact a dear, dear friend, that it was all a big joke between dear, dear friends, and told the Twitter trolls to F-off in fairly explicit words. I suppose it is too much to hope that we will be spared his return in 2017.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Prisoners (2013)

How far should a parent be willing to go to save the life of a beloved child? That is the basic question behind this long (two and a half hours) but riveting movie.

Blue-collar neighbours Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard, together with their wives (Maria Bello and Viola Davis) and children are celebrating Thanksgiving together in a snowy Pennsylvania suburb. When the young daughters of each family go outside after lunch and subsequently disappear, a range of emotions, including panic and anger, surface. The girls had earlier played outside a parked camper van, with the driver obviously inside, and the now missing van is the first object of the police search. It is soon spotted at a nearby service area, and when the driver attempts to flee as the police approach, he is apprehended. However Alex Jones (beautifully played with a minimum of fuss by the versatile Paul Dano) has a mental age of ten years -- despite having a valid driving license -- and is soon released from police custody, since he is unable to furnish any coherent explanation for his behaviour. He returns to the home of his aunt, Melissa Leo, who has looked after him from an early age.

The police investigation is being headed by a fiercely determined Jake Gyllenhaal, who has a sterling record in solving local crimes, but a chance remark from Dano to Jackman, makes the latter 100% certain that the child-like Jones should never have been set free and that he does indeed know what has become of the missing girls. So while the police futilely search the nearby woods, Jackman goes into overdrive and abducts the simple and very frightened young man. In the attempt to force information from him, Jackman employs increasing deranged methods of torturing him, even after the police have identified another potential suspect. First Howard, and then Davis, are unwitting accomplices to Jackman's brutality, but there is no stopping the ferocious bereaved father. (Bello meanwhile has taken to sedatives and her bed in a complete withdrawal from the hopelessness of the quest). When bloodied garments belonging to the two girls are found in the second suspect's house (after he manages to blow his head off while under arrest!), Jackman still thinks Dano know where to find their dead bodies.

It's a very intense turn from Jackman, and some reckon it's his best performance ever, but I still have trouble accepting his not quite believable and overly dramatic acting chops; he's much more at home in musicals and light comedy (if one ignores his supposedly iconic turn as Wolverine). Gyllenhaal in contrast gives a barn-storming performance, seething in his anger when he believes he had let the families down, and Dano -- as mentioned above -- is, as always, creepily effective.

The fraught action and seething emotions on display are reinforced by the increasingly stormy rainy and snowy weather, beautifully captured by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins. This movie is the first English-language film from the French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve whose "Incendies" was Oscar-nominated in 2010, and he has since moved on to Hollywood blockbusters. It's not meant to be a 'feel-good' movie, even if there is an ultimately satisfying denouement, but the gritty handling of difficult subject matter and the relentless pacing keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat throughout.

I confess that the film's 'big reveal' did come as a surprise to me, but the twisty action -- some of which seemed confusing at the time -- all turned out to be logically related: a dead man in the parish priest's basement, a local history of missing children, hordes of creepy snakes and an obsession with mazes, all finally made perfect sense. And, for once, I liked the fact that everything was not tidily wrapped up in the last minutes, leaving the viewer to decide what might happen next. Would the now missing Jackman be found in time to save his life? And if so, would Gyllenhaal arrest him for Dano's torture? There were several many sets of prisoners to be reckoned with in this very absorbing flick.


Friday, 5 February 2016

Savage Messiah (1972)

The above movie from maverick director Ken Russell is unlikely to be confused with the Canadian one of the same title from 2002 about a weird cult, even if the earlier one has faded into some obscurity. Russell himself considered it one of his best and the one for which he wished to be remembered. However his other 70s biopics of Tchaikowky, Lizst, and Mahler remain more available than this stylish and probably fanciful record of the short life of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

Played with fire and passion by Scott Anthony (the 'who-he' question is dealt with below), it deals with his obsession for and romance with the Polish would-be writer Sophie Brzeska. She was 20 years his senior and his inspirational spark, even if their relationship was apparently unconsummated. They lived as man and wife, but never did marry, only agreeing early on to exchange surnames as a symbol of their love. Played with impish charm by Dorothy Tutin, who had a long career from her debut role as the ingĂ©nue in 1950's classic "The Importance of Being Earnest" through her death in 2001, the impetuous Sophie is the sounding block for Henri's outlandish theories on life and art and the muse behind his rough-hewn sculptures.

Foremost in the supporting cast is a young Helen Mirren, not in a debut role as often claimed, playing a suffragette and/or supporter of any fashionable cause, and unashamedly flaunting her ripe, full-frontal nudity, as Henri's occasional model and lover. Also notable in the cast is Lindsay Kemp, the choreographer, as Gaudier's agent and John Justin again (see Schalcken below) as an effete gallery owner. With set design by Derek Jarman and a very literate script from Christopher Logue, the movie is less bizarre than some of Russell's other cinematic flights of fancy, but is blessed with a rich evocation of Paris and London immediately before World War I and an insight into the tortured mind of a struggling but gifted artist. 

Vowing to continue with his dreams of success, Gaudier resisted joining up until Paris was occupied and then cheerfully went off to war. One of the final scenes depicts Kemp reading a letter from the front to a group of effete officers who are sitting out the war in comfort. When some of Henri's unconventional opinions are aired, one of them says 'People like that should be shot'. Kemp rejoins 'He was....last Thursday'! Gaudier died in 1915 at the age of 23. The film ends with a silent but impressive display of some of his best works at the exhibition he never lived to see.

I am not alone in wondering whatever became of Anthony who gives such a memorable performance here. It is the first of only three screen credits; this film was followed by a 1973  BBC television series "Cheri" and the lead in Tony Richardson's 1974 flick "Dead Cert" based on a Dick Francis racing novel. None of these outings were particularly successful at the time nor caught the public's fancy, and Anthony left the limelight for charitable projects connected with the arts. He is still a member of Equity and can be found on Facebook. His most recent projects are photo-travelogues and short 'poem films', but even Russell shortly before his death claimed to have no idea what had become of his charismatic leading man.