Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘2015’

Well, with December almost half gone and the major releases of the year all but done and dusted, some might think it was time to start looking back and ruminating upon what kind of year 2015 has been, cinematically speaking. Time enough for that, though, when the festive interlude is upon us: for now, we have a look at a film which seems to spent most of the year being heavily trailed, presumably on the strength of its star. I speak of Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van.

ladyvan

This is one of those films which started off as a play, which started off as an idea of Bennett’s, which started off as some things which happened to the actor and playwright in real life. If you’re at all familiar with the writing of Alan Bennett you will probably be aware that the famously diffident gentleman in question spent fifteen years with a woman living on his front drive; the woman in question not being technically homeless, but only because she was ensconced in a series of delapidated vans on his property.

Alex Jennings plays Bennett himself, while Maggie Smith plays the title character. Events unfold over a period of nearly twenty years – things open in 1970, with Bennett moving into a fairly nice house in Camden and getting acquainted with his neighbours, one of whom – sort of – includes the enigmatic, and fairly foul-smelling, Miss Shepherd, whose van meanders up and down the street in accordance with divine guidance (if she is to be believed).

I say ‘events unfold’, but not a great deal actually happens in terms of, um, things actually happening. Miss Shepherd actually moves onto the drive. Vague clues as to her past emerge (not least as a result of repeated visits by a mysterious man played by Jim Broadbent). Bennett puts the odd play on. His neighbours are half-admiring, half-dismissive of what they see as his excessive generosity. His complex relationship with his mother continues.

It is an unashamedly theatrical piece, most obviously in the device where numerous scenes actually feature two Alan Bennetts – representing the one who writes about life, and the one who lives it respectively – both of whom are played by Jennings. There’s a touch of metatextuality going on as well – not only does the ‘real’ Alan Bennett show up to watch the film being made at one point, but there’s some amusing byplay where one Bennett carps at the other.

Bennett is such a distinctive individual that one would have forgiven Jennings for being a bit intimidated by the prospect of taking him on, but he does a sterling job – he produces a very recognisable Bennett without doing an obvious impersonation. This is a key strength of the movie, for – despite the title – the movie is really much more about Bennett than anything else. His distinctively wry and understated voice fills and flavours the entire movie, taking the details of everyday life and somehow making them profound and very amusing at the same time, while the story – such as it is – is about the nature of a writer’s engagement with the world, and Bennett’s own feelings towards his mother. Is he being so charitable towards Miss Shepherd simply out of a sense of guilt? Is she a sop to his conscience in the same way she permits his neighbours to expunge their upper-middle-class guilt by taking care of her, up to a point?

This isn’t really that sort of a film, but en passant it does make some sharp and occasionally witty points about charity in modern society and how privileged metropolitan types relate to the homeless. There’s a funny, if slightly predictable scene, in which two of Bennett’s wealthy neighbours, off to the opera, chortle with amusement as they speculate as to which house Miss Shepherd’s van will end up in front of next – only to respond with horror when she settles in front of their own home. Similarly, social services turn up once every three months to give Bennett a hard time over the way he cares for the woman he has to cope with every day.

All that said, Maggie Smith is terribly prominent in this movie, and it’s a part which really lets her have some fun – I’m by no means saying she in any way goes over the top, but it’s still a very big and very rich performance, though always shaded with pathos and a strange kind of dignity. I suppose, given Smith’s international stardom and general clout, it’s not really surprising that the film should be tweaked a little to favour her – because the final act of the piece undergoes a subtle but definite change in emphasis, moving the focus from Bennett to his ‘tenant’.

I’m not sure this necessarily helps the film, though whatever ground it loses it definitely recovers by the end, with a couple of cheeky touches including a somewhat Gilliam-esque piece of CGI animation. I turned up to this movie expecting something dour and slightly miserable and worthy, but the film is actually much more than that – witty, playful, and intelligent, though not without more serious moments. I suppose some of the pleasure of it would be reduced if you didn’t actually know who Alan Bennett was, and it’s not exactly got a supercharged plot, but I still think there is more than enough going on here to provide an enjoyable couple of hours for anyone interested in a film of ideas.

 

Read Full Post »

Some people mark the turn of the year by observing the flight of birds, the passage of the seasons, and the signs to be drawn from the sky. I, on the other hand, prefer to keep track of what’s on at the local cinema and take it from there. Currently we are receiving a range of seasonal movies, plus what I can only describe as quality blockbusters. Christmas may be here soon, but – I am certain – film industry types are more concerned by the fact that awards season isn’t that far behind it.

It occurs to me that the kind of film which aspires to win Oscars isn’t anything like as certain a commercial bet as the typical big dumb derivative summer blockbuster. It’s a measure of how important critical respect is to the major studios that every year they sink millions of dollars into films like Foxcatcher – a true-life crime story about Olympic wrestling, not traditionally a commercially popular subgenre – and various other worthy and high-minded projects, when they could be doing more superhero movies and remakes with a more guaranteed profit margin. These films do constitute a gamble – the ones that win major awards will receive a push at the box office as a result, but the ones that don’t may struggle.

Then again, sensible studios invest wisely: which brings us to one of the first quality blockbusters off the blocks this year, Bridge of Spies. You can’t always judge a film based on the names of the key personnel, but any film starring Tom Hanks, directed by Steven Spielberg, and co-written by the Coen brothers must have something going for it, surely?

BRIDGE-OF-SPIES

The story opens in late 50s America, with the Cold War at its height and espionage enthusiastically pursued by both parties. One such Soviet agent, Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance), is captured by the FBI in New York, and put on trial for his activities. It is politically important that Abel is seen to be given a fair trial, and given the awkward and unpopular job of defending him is Jim Donovan (Hanks), an insurance lawyer.

Donovan does his best but it quickly becomes clear that he has been retained simply for the purpose of keeping up appearances – and no matter how token a figure he is, it doesn’t stop his family from being on the receiving end of hostility from other American citizens who see him as a Communist sympathiser.

Going on in parallel with this is the story of the training of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a US air force pilot being prepared to take a U2 spy plane on a reconnaissance mission over the USSR. When the mission takes place and Powers is shot down, an awkward international situation threatens – but with the US and the USSR each holding one of the other’s agents prisoner, there is the chance of engineering an unofficial exchange. An unofficial exchange requires an unofficial negotiator to broker it, of course, and Donovan finds himself flying off to a newly-partitioned Berlin, responsible for bringing about Powers’ safe retrieval…

There’s a magical experience which happens too rarely at the cinema – that moment when you suddenly become totally assured that you are watching a film made by people who completely understand what they’re doing, and that as a result you can just relax and sit back, safe in the knowledge that you’re in for a piece of superb entertainment. I am happy to say that I had one of those moments very early on in Bridge of Spies.

This is possibly even more noteworthy given that this is – in theory at least – a thriller, but one where many of the scenes concern middle-aged men having complicated discussions with each other in various offices. There are virtually no action sequences worthy of the name, and to anyone with a reasonable grasp of modern history the conclusion of the movie should hold few surprises. And yet Spielberg has managed to make a film which is both gripping and genuinely entertaining.

Early on in his career, Tom Hanks was whisked off to have his photo taken with an elderly James Stewart, which if nothing else displayed remarkable prescience on the part of the publicist involved: Hanks is the closest thing modern American cinema has to Stewart, no-one else can project that kind of everyman quality while still remaining a star, no-one else can do quiet decency in quite the same understated way. Hanks is on top form here – he is basically playing the conscience of America for most of the film, but he does it without once seeming hokey.

What’s also very special is the relationship between Donovan and Abel and the bond that develops between them. Rylance takes an incredibly introverted and phlegmatic man and turns him into a memorable character, and the scenes between him and Hanks are captivating: it’s deeply thrilling to see the great American movie star and the brilliant British stage actor bringing their different styles to the film, and watching them combine so flawlessly.

Then again, there’s barely a single dud performance in the entire film – the minor characters Hanks encounters on his mission are all wonderful little miniatures of writing and performance, each one memorable in their own way. Turn of the 60s America and Germany are both painstakingly recreated, and Spielberg eschews flashy look-at-me directing in favour of simply telling the story.

There is, I suppose, a sort of God-bless-America-aren’t-we-wonderfulness to some of the scenes in this film, which some viewers may find a bit difficult to stomach – in a less-accomplished film, it might not sit easily in a story which to some extent is concerned with the way in which American realities do not live up to American idealism. And, given the nature of the story, this is primarily a fairly talky film about middle-aged men discussing the politics of five and a half decades ago. Nevertheless, as far as this sort of film goes, Bridge of Spies does it superbly – it’s hard to imagine how it could be any better, to be honest. It’s a film that deserves to do very well at the box office, regardless of how many rewards it picks up, and I hope it gets the success it deserves.

 

Read Full Post »

I know they say that youth is wasted on the young, but you know what? Sometimes, old age is wasted on the elderly. There was I with a free afternoon, so I decided to go and see a movie (just for a change). Not wanting to see SPECTRE or HG3B again, I took the plunge and went along to the Thursday afternoon Silver Screen promotion, hoping under-60s were allowed in unaccompanied. And what did I find? Only that the bloomin’ ticket was only £3, and included as many free biscuits as I cared to stuff in my mouth (having just had a traditional Chinese beefburger I partook only moderately).

£3 a ticket for a relatively new movie? Friends, I haven’t seen the like in twenty years. And yet, in the theatre itself, only four of us settled down to enjoy the movie itself – your correspondent, a slightly doddery old gent and two foreign students. See what I mean? Some of these old folk don’t know a good thing when they’re onto it.

Then again, maybe that week’s choice of movie had something to do with it – said picture was John Erick Dowdle’s No Escape (NB: title may not be literally true), a suspense-filled excursion into family jeopardy, bloody slaughter, and occasionally iffy acting. It opens with one of my least favourite narrative devices – a brief sequence of something shocking and arresting happening, followed by a caption saying ‘X Hours Earlier’. This seems to me to denote a film primarily aimed at a TV or in-flight audience.

no-escape

Well, anyway. The… prologue? Recap? Let’s call it a precap… the precap introduces us a to a country which strongly resembles but is definitely not Thailand, where the Prime Minister is entertaining an important foreigner and important doings are afoot. ‘Here’s to your new waterworks!’ cries the foreigner, thus indicating to the audience that either modern utilities are being put in, or the Prime Minister has just had some sort of surgical procedure. We do not learn which at this point, for on returning from seeing his visitor off, the PM’s aide finds his boss has been shot by sinister, heavily armed attackers. The aide takes no chances and has a good go at cutting his own head off in order to escape them.

From this charming scene we join the Dwyer family, nice Americans from Texas with nice kids and a nice plan to relocate to not-Thailand following some economic troubles. Dad Jack (Owen Wilson) is nice, mum Annie (Lake Bell) is nice, and I suppose the kids are nice too if you like that kind of thing. They are presented as so nice that you are instantly aware horrible things are going to happen to them.

The first of these is not meeting Pierce Brosnan, though he is on the same flight to not-Thailand as them. Brosnan is playing Hammond, a slightly suspect and boozy expat, but you know he will turn out to be more significant than he appears (mainly because he’s being played by Pierce Brosnan). To begin with, all he does is be amusing and boozy, and even gets a scene where he sings karaoke in a hotel bar. As any fule kno, Pierce Brosnan singing is not something to be missed, although on this occasion the great man restrains his vocal stylings so the movie doesn’t peak too soon.

Email and TV in the family hotel are not working, and so the next day Jack pops out into not-downtown Bangkok to buy a paper, only to encounter what’s basically a full-scale native uprising coming the other way (we are informed they don’t like the late Prime Minister’s new waterworks). With hordes of vicious rebels on the warpath, he beats a hasty retreat back to the hotel, only to find it offers little sanctuary from the heavily armed belligerents outside. Can he get his family to safety before their niceness quotient drops to an unacceptably low level?

The first thing I must say about No Escape is that, for what’s very much a low-budget movie by modern standards (only about $5m), it does a very good job of not looking like a low-budget movie. (No doubt filming much of it in Bangkok helped the money go a bit further.) The next is that, in many ways, this is an undeniably effective movie, if what you’re looking for is a fairly gruelling piece of survival-horror with a slightly dubious ‘realistic’ premise: the Dwyers’ initial disbelief and growing panic as the situation rapidly deteriorates are well put across, and to begin with at least, the film exerts a solid grip.

Long before the end, though, everything has gone a little bit cartoony, as it’s become clear that the family are simply going to stumble from one potentially-disastrous situation to another, with occasional lulls for slightly mawkish family-based interactions. And with this realisation I found myself wondering exactly what this film was about – is it making some genuine political point about the modern world? Or is it just a scaremongering piece of schlock about what happens to nice American families in horrid foreign countries? (It’s entirely understandable that this film has been banned in some parts of south-east Asia.)

I’m really not sure. It may in fact be both. Certainly the images of masked, club- and machete-wielding fighters swarming through offices and hotels intent on slaughtering any westerner they can find taps very effectively into all manner of contemporary fears, but I’m not sure depicting insurgents as the equivalent of the undead from World War Z makes a helpful contribution to the debate on modern world problems. Even here, the movie backs off from the obvious rationale, by not making its murderous antagonists radical Wahabists or whatever we’re calling them at the moment, but instead locals who are grumpy about the waterworks and the globalisation they represent. I’m not sure they’re fooling anyone with that.

This little nugget of plot gold comes courtesy of Pierce Brosnan’s character, who turns out to be an operative for (wait for it) ‘the British CIA’, according to Wilson’s character. Perhaps due to his noted past association with a different, rather better known spy character, Brosnan takes Hammond off in a very odd direction – this is one of those performances where it’s quite hard to tell what accent Brosnan is trying to so. Is he meant to be Cockney? Australian? It’s honestly a bit hard to tell. Hammond is much rougher around the edges than you-know-who, but Brosnan’s star power remains undiminished and the whole film honestly perks up a bit and becomes rather more fun whenever he’s on the screen – but again, you have to ask yourself, is unadulterated popcorn fun really appropriate for a film so uncomfortably near the knuckle in its depiction of terrorist violence?

Mind you, it’s not as though a lot of the rest of it isn’t in slightly dodgy territory too, for there’s a good deal of Hollywood nonsense before everything is resolved – a sequence in which Wilson and Bell earnestly hurl their children from rooftop to rooftop in slow-motion is particularly absurd. For all that the film is effective in summoning up a few primal fears, it never succeeds in incorporating these into a plausible or satisfying narrative.

I don’t think anyone will ever be in serious danger of mistaking No Escape for anything close to a great movie, although I should say that Lake Bell’s performance has very little wrong with it at all. That’s pretty much the only element of the film I can praise without qualification – as a suspense thriller, or an odd ‘realistic’ horror film, it works well enough, but it doesn’t really have the guts or intelligence to engage with the issues it raises on any but the most simplistic and sentimental level. It’s a decent piece of entertainment, but I doubt it adds anything at all to the sum total of human wisdom and insight.

 

Read Full Post »

Well, it’s a cold and rainy afternoon in November, and the threat of references to Battle Royale and The Year of the Sex Olympics hangs heavy in the air, so I suppose it must be time for this year’s Hunger Games movie. I must confess to having gone along to the latest instalment, Mockingjay Part Two (directed, like the last couple, by Francis Lawrence), more out of habit than any sense of genuine excitement or anticipation. This should be something of an anomaly, given I have usually been impressed by the previous offerings in the series.

HGmj2

I must also confess to a certain relief that this is the last movie in the series. Standard operation procedure for any series of book adaptations, these days – especially a genre or YA series – is to chop the final volume in half in order to maximise revenue. The result is often rather choppily paced films with arbitrary-feeling start and finish points. The fact that they’re largely aimed at a pre-existing, fanatically-dedicated audience also often means that the film-makers skip on things like recaps and other things to refresh one’s memory of the previous episode.

Mockingjay Part Two is a bit like that, opening with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) recovering from the attempt on her life by her long-term is-he-or-isn’t-he-love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has been conditioned to want to kill her by nasty President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In case you are wondering, we are in the midst of a full-blown civil war, but to be perfectly honest, if you haven’t seen the previous episodes, you probably shouldn’t bother with this one at all.

Anyway, the conflict seems to be tipping the rebels’ way, and as the assault on the Capitol gets underway, Katniss embarks on a personal mission to assassinate the author of all her woes (I’m talking about Snow, by the way, not Suzanne Collins), along with – but of course! – a squad of equally photogenic cohorts, along with a few adults who are mainly there to frown a lot. Some people are looking ahead to whatever will follow the conclusion of the war, and realising that the inspirational qualities that have made Katniss such a useful media asset during the conflict could make her an equally dangerous enemy once it is over – so perhaps putting her in harm’s way isn’t such a bad idea…

‘Harm’s way’ is a bit of an understatement, for the path to Snow, as well as being blocked by vast legions of Stig lookalikes, has also been extravagantly booby-trapped by the twisted minds of the Capitol’s light entertainment division. Will anyone survive the mission to take out the President? And even if they survive the war, surviving the peace is another question…

Regular viewers may recall that I was generally impressed by the first film, somewhat disappointed by the second one, and rather surprised by the sheer sophistication and astuteness of number three – not to mention a little concerned that this concluding exploit was going to cop out in some manner. Well, I am pleased and not a little startled to say, it does not; it absolutely does not.

I suppose I am so impressed by the Hunger Games films simply because on paper they resemble a bunch of other movies based on popular YA series (Twilight, Maze Runner, Divergent, that sort of thing) and I automatically manage my expectations sharply downwards as a result. That said, if all YA film adaptations are anywhere close to these ones in quality, then this subgenre comprises the best-kept secret in modern cinema, for the Hunger Games films are genuinely impressive on so many levels.

It’s not just in their technical proficiency, which is of course commendable, but in the way they manage to be so consistently sharp and cynical. This one is no exception: it doesn’t romanticise or glamourise combat in any way, and while it’s theoretically an SF movie, it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of war (or politics) in the slightest. Glib heroics and easy solutions are utterly rejected at every turn. I think I said once that this is the most thoroughly horrible dystopian vision ever to make it into a blockbuster, and I stand by that: the film is relentless in the way it deconstructs the mechanisms of power and politics, and finds the people at the top of both sides to be virtually indistinguishable.

This is one of the things that makes the Hunger Games films distinctive: for all that they are set in a futuristic otherworld, and occasionally feature genetic mutations and the like, they are always firmly grounded in reality, almost painfully so (for all the absurdly OTT death traps involved, there are also some shockingly bleak moments in this film). For all their huge SFX budgets, they also shy away from the big action set-pieces you expect from this kind of movie – they are almost always character-driven, when it comes down to it. Perhaps this is at the root of my inability to completely engage with them, despite their quality: they may look and get advertised like huge action blockbusters, but they’re not. (That said, half-way through this film is a stunningly effective Aliens and Blade 2-influenced action sequence which seems to have wandered in from a different film entirely – and like a lot of the movie, it stretches the limits of the 12A certificate to breaking point and beyond. This is not a film for anyone yet to reach their teens.)

And this is why the films have been so lucky to get an actress like Jennifer Lawrence to lead them – such a character-driven series needs a performer of her quality, even if she perhaps isn’t required to use all of her range. She receives customarily good support from all the usual suspects this time, with Sutherland on especially good form. (Julianne Moore looks rather like Theresa May this time around.) I feel compelled to mention that this is the last film to feature Philip Seymour Hoffman, although his contribution this time is sadly limited.

It’s really a small miracle that Mockingjay Part Two sticks to its guns and stays so downbeat and dourly realistic almost to the end, although I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised that a degree of idyllic rustification pops up before all is said and done – the underlying politics of these films has always been fairly traditional, perhaps even reactionary, when you really think about it. Nevertheless, this is a worthy and impressive conclusion to a series which maintained a startlingly high level of consistency throughout. In years to come I suspect these four films will come to be regarded as classics, of a sort – and there’ll be no injustice to that.

Read Full Post »

The era of non-stop counter-programming seems to be coming to an end, as the stream of low-budget biographical movies is finally replaced by… oh, a big-budget biographical movie. And, a movie which may itself arguably be considered counter-programming, given that it has apparently tanked massively in the States, and presumably no-one at Universal has very great hopes for it doing any better over here. The film in question is Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, which concerns… oh, you guessed it.

steve-jobs-movie-poster-800px-800x1259

Yes, you might think there was something slightly ironic about the fact that a movie about the famously successful entrepreneur is struggling to make its money back at the box office, but one of the things the film highlights is the fact that Jobs was not quite the Midas figure popular legend has him being. Not entirely unpredictably, Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin eschew anything resembling a traditional bio-pic and opt for a hugely theatrical structure, where the film finds Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at his most intense, in the moments leading up to three key product launches: the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Cube (no, me neither) in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. (Prior to all this, the scene is set with some archive footage of another visionary, as Arthur C Clarke – speaking, it would appear, in the late 60s or early 70s – predicts how the PC revolution was going to change many lives.)

As coincidence and the script would have it, Jobs ends up talking with the same handful of people on all three occasions – Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), company CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his initially-unacknowledged daughter (various actresses), and so on. Overseeing it all is marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who often seems to be the closest thing Jobs has to an actual friend. The same themes recur: Jobs as an obsessive control-freak on a monumental scale, as a prophet of a digitally-enhanced world, as a colossal ego, and as a man highly unlikely to win the Parent of the Year award.

It does boil down to the same few actors talking to each other about roughly the same things on a handful of different sets (there are cutaway sequences to Jobs and Wozniak in the garage where Apple was founded, and to the board meeting which saw Jobs ejected from the company in 1985), but Sorkin’s flair for dialogue and Boyle’s deftness with a camera mean that the film is anything but flat and dull. There are thrilling, electrifying moments of drama scattered through the movie, delivered by a group of actors making the most of an extremely good script.

Even though I am not the world’s biggest Apple fan (I believe I still have an iPod somewhere, but I haven’t listened to it in at least five years), I have of course heard of Steve Jobs and knew a little (a very little, if we’re honest) about him – the man has, after all, become something of a present-day icon. (This is the second Jobs bio-pic in three years.) Steve Jobs the movie does a first-rate job of turning Steve Jobs the icon into Steve Jobs a man – the objection that many who knew Jobs have been making, of course, is that the man on the screen is a grotesque caricature of the person who they knew, and that Boyle and Sorkin have other fish to fry than doing Jobs justice. Certainly the character played by Fassbender is breathtakingly callous and brutally manipulative for much of the movie – but, to be fair, the film makes no attempt to hide what an influential thinker he was, or how many of his ideas now underpin the fabric of everyday life (and by the end of the film it’s fairly plain that, underneath it all, he does at least aspire to be a decent father).

Whatever else, Michael Fassbender is certainly very impressive in the central role. Some quite excitable things have been said about Fassbender of late, declaring him the new Brando and so on, but he is one of those actors who does seem capable of anything, and is furthermore quite untroubled (it would appear) by ego. He even seems quite capable of that most difficult balancing act, where he spends some of his time in unashamedly populist entertainment (one more X-Men film is still to appear) and some of it in less mainstream fare (Macbeth, for instance) while remaining in demand for both.

Quite which category Steve Jobs falls into is the question of the moment, as the movie apparently cost a total of $60m to produce and market and has so far recouped less than half that. The obvious comparison, for all sorts of reasons, is with The Social Network, which ended up making about $225m – not exactly Marvel or Bond money, but still pretty impressive. But why did that film connect with audiences in a way this one apparently hasn’t? Well, friends, I frankly have no idea: I doubt very much that it’s just because Facebook was at its height of coolness back in 2010, while right now we’re all sick to death of hearing about Apple/Jobs, nor do I think the ostentatious theatricality of Steve Jobs is what’s been frightening the horses. Is there something to the claim that Fassbender just isn’t a big enough star to open a movie on this scale? Hmm, maybe, but are people claiming that Jesse Eisenberg is?

It may simply be the case that this is an anomaly, a fluke of release dates and zeitgeist conspiring to make a genuinely good movie tank. For Steve Jobs is a very impressive piece of film-making, as you might expect of the talents involved. Is it a fair portrait of its subject? I doubt anyone is qualified to say for sure, but script, performances and direction are all first class, and you do emerge from the theatre excited and moved and with some thoughts newly-provoked. In the end, I suspect history will prove to be as kind to Steve Jobs as it almost certainly will to Steve Jobs.

Read Full Post »

The notable lack of a critical consensus continues to grow, everyone is still talking about that scene with the cat, and the jury is out as to whether that ending works or not. In short, we still find ourselves in fertile territory for counter-programming, which this week takes the form of Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala.

he-named-me-malala

I have to be honest and say that at any other time of year this isn’t be a film I would be itching to check out, preferring as I do a half-decent (or even one-sixteenth-decent) Jason Statham vehicle to a high-minded documentary about a teenage Nobel peace prize winner – not least because, in this particular case, it’s virtually impossible to do any gags. But there you go, this week it was a choice of this film or something about Bradley Cooper making a mess of running a kitchen. So off I went to see He Named Me Malala, inappropriate comment detector and self-censoring software set to maximum.

So who is this ‘He’ guy and who is he naming Malala? And why is it significant? Hmmm, this could get confusing. ‘He’ is Malala’s dad, Ziauddin Yousafzai, a Pakistani educator and diplomat but best known as, um, Malala’s dad. Malala herself is – as you are probably aware – a teenage advocate for education, noted for almost dying after an attempt on her life by the Taliban, and for being the youngest person ever to win a Nobel prize.

It turns out that the name Malala is of some significance in the Yousafzai’s home culture, as it was the name of another inspirational young woman who did her best to inspire the Afghan people to acts of courage and conviction back (one presumes) in the 19th century. (The awkwardly ironic fact that the historical Malala was encouraging Afghans to engage in armed resistance against an occupying British army is skipped over tactfully.) This is explained at the top of the movie, thus quietly asking the question which seems to hang in the air throughout, and which we shall return to.

Guggenheim’s film isn’t afraid to pursue a number of different threads and proceeds in a fairly non-linear manner throughout. Malala’s work as a global advocate for education is covered, with various trips off to Africa, the Middle East, and so on, but there is also a lot of fairly intimate material depicting everyday life in the Yousafzai household (unable to return to Pakistan, they seem fairly well-settled in Birmingham). A fair bit of family history is also touched upon, as well as the story of how the Taliban came to ascendancy in the Swat valley where they originally lived.

The net result of all this is that Malala comes across as much more of a rounded human being than the iconic figure who’s somewhat familiar from book covers and TV news bulletins. Scenes of her arm-wrestling her brother or doing card tricks are undeniably charming, but in the interviews which dot the film she is astonishingly self-possessed and undeniably comes across as a very tough and very smart cookie – as one might expect, given what I suppose we could call the authorised version of her story.

However, and rather surprisingly, this movie isn’t just a hagiographical advert for Malala and the various enterprises with which she is connected: at one point vox pops from Pakistan feature, in which various people decry the family for leaving the country, claim she is irrelevant, and even suggest that the Malala who has risen to such prominence is essentially a fictional character, that she is basically just playing a role created for her by her father.

It’s an accusation the film repeatedly touches upon in a number of ways – the closeness of Malala to her father is one of themes most emphasised, and he always seems to be around when she’s making a public appearance. It was he who was responsible for her first becoming a BBC news blogger, for instance. Clearly a formidable orator himself, is it really credible to suggest that Malala made her own life choices completely independently of him? A repeated moment has Ziauddin Yousafzai reflecting on the time after he was shot, and considering his own responsibility and perhaps culpability.

To be fair, Malala herself completely denies any suggestion she’s just some sort of a puppet, and she comes across in such a way that this is entirely credible. Listening to her answer the question of whether she harbours any anger towards the men and ideology that tried to kill her, and indeed left her with permanent health problems, I couldn’t help but be completely convinced by her sincerity: it is one of many profoundly moving moments in the film.

The film’s impact is probably helped a lot by the fact it has clearly been directed by someone who understands what it means to make something genuinely cinematic: I think there is an element to this film that would be lost were one to watch it on the small screen, no matter how much like a TV documentary it looks. Certainly much of it is shot and edited like a ‘proper’ movie (this may explain why JJ Abrams gets a credit at the end: no doubt he was the movie’s lens flare consultant, or something), and the decision to include some rather charming animation to accompany the sequences for which actual film is not available only adds to this.

I doubt whether the makers of He Named Me Malala were primarily motivated by the belief that they were going to make a ton of money, even more than I doubt that they will. Nevertheless, this is a powerful and engaging film about someone who, however you cut it, represents an important issue in the world today. Worth checking out.

Read Full Post »

One of the consequences of Commander Bond taking up one of his extended residences in cinemas up and down the land is that it leaves the field wide open for any sort of counter-programming you care to mention. (This may be why a number of films about the everyday lives of older people appear to be incoming.) Still, as far as this sort of thing goes, you can’t beat a good documentary, and currently making the most of a fairly limited release is Stevan Riley’s Listen To Me Marlon.

listen marlon

Marlon! Do we even need to mention a surname? (Or, alternatively: Brando! Is the first name remotely in doubt?) It’s this kind of instant recognition which tells us what a massive, iconic figure Marlon Brando was and remains (or, possibly, what a distinctively unusual pair of monickers he ended up lumbered with). Still, Brando’s reclusiveness in the second half of his life means that while he is still well-known, he is little-understood. Riley’s documentary sets out to rectify this, a bit.

The most immediately striking thing about this film is that it is the work of a lone voice – with the exception of a limited amount of archival soundtrack, the narration is almost wholly provided by Brando himself, drawn from the extensive audio tapes he recorded throughout his life. Most of the time this plays over film clips or publicity material, with a little specially-recorded footage, but occasionally a very primitive-looking CGI version of Brando’s head manifests to lip-synch to whatever he’s saying. This is a slightly creepy and unsettling choice, but not entirely inappropriate for what is by no means the happiest of stories.

Riley sets the scene with some references to the tragedies that blighted Brando’s final years, before skipping back to see how the great man arrived in such sorry straits. His early life is skipped over to some extent, with the story beginning in earnest with his arrival in New York in the mid-1940s, his becoming an actor almost by accident, his studies under Stella Adler, and then his rise to acclaim and popular success, at first on stage and later in the cinema.

Hearing Brando himself talk about the power and value of great movie acting, over a montage of some of his greatest scenes, is terrific, but of course the film has a lot more material concerning his gradual disillusionment with the film industry and reputation for being impossible to work with. (Brando’s fondness for having his lines given to him either by cue cards or via an earpiece is mentioned, though some of the more ludicrous anecdotes are not recycled.)

With most of the film being told in Brando’s own words, the director can’t directly come out and suggest what he thinks made Brando such a troubled individual – but he still does a pretty good job of putting Brando’s difficult childhood in the frame, drawing attention to both his alcoholic mother and emotionally distant father. The end result of this seems to have been a deep-rooted sense of self-loathing in Brando himself – perhaps not just self-loathing, but also a deep disquiet with his own origins. The film spends some time exploring Brando’s love of Tahiti and its people, and his espousal of Native American rights (footage of the Oscars ceremony to which he dispatched a Native American representative to confuse Roger Moore and refuse his award appears), and personally I couldn’t help thinking that he was idealising these cultures, as they offered him a chance to completely remove himself from his own background.

While the film is not entirely without moments of levity – scenes of a publicity tour from the 50s, with Brando cheerfully hitting on every female journalist he encounters, have a definite if unreconstructed charm – this is ultimately really quite a bleak film. The film does not dwell overly on some of the professional indignities and embarrassments from the final years of Brando’s career, when he showed so little respect for his own talent, nor are the family tragedies he had to endure explored in too much detail – but one is left in little doubt as to the general tenor of his final years. (The film concludes with a clip from Brando’s death scene from The Godfather, which struck me as a slightly less subtle choice than was perhaps ideal.)

Then again, one has to wonder, given the film-makers are setting out to tell a particular story, and are necessarily limited by their choice to rely almost exclusively on Brando’s own testimony for their narration – this isn’t by any means an objective account of his life. But, on the other hand, that same choice gives the film an undeniably intimate and personal quality – also, to be perfectly honest, a slightly dreamlike and oppressive quality, almost as if you’re spending 95 minutes inside Brando’s own psyche.

This movie is partly being marketed on the strength of its connections with Searching for Sugar Man, with which it shares a producer, but I have to say I found it rather less engaging and enjoyable. Nevertheless, it gives a considerable insight into a figure who still casts a long shadow, despite his later career arguably being a huge waste of potential. Probably worth seeing as a curio if you are interested in Brando and acting generally; the film-making talent on display is also pretty impressive, too.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »