Monday, 25 October 2010

London Film Festival: Black Swan

With all these screenings it’s my intention to blog about the films as quickly as possible, and give an emotional response without over-thinking the piece.

This feels particularly right with Black Swan which is, at its core, a film about control and release. Aranofksy’s fifth feature is built around the purest notions of cinema and tells a deceptively simple story through image, sound and atmospherics. The cinematography really takes on the level of a central character in this film, which is a sonic and visual feast: a true cineaste’s movie.

Natalie Portman (on riveting form here) plays Nina, an intense, committed prima ballerina and rising star within a highly prestigious New York dance company.

Nina is obsessed with landing the role of the swan queen in their new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassell, saturnine as ever) is not quite convinced. He knows Nina can handle the physical demands of the role and would make a perfect white queen, but has serious misgivings about this girl-woman’s ability to channel the darker, more sexualised elements of the black queen in his radical new vision.

And so, an intense psychodrama of duality and alternate persona begins – eating away at Nina’s already fragile psyche.

In scenes reminiscent of Polanski at his most tortured and paranoiac, Nina begins to see visions of herself reflected in the city. She feels stalked by demons, phantoms and predators. Her journey mirrors that of the queen herself, with various dual suitors torturing her as she continues to put herself through the psychological torment and physical demands of landing her dream role.

Thomas is both mentor and tormentor, his older muse Beth (Winona Ryder, terrible) a Swanson-like nemesis. Draining Nina further is her own mother (Barbara Hershey channelling Sirkian melodrama), a passive/aggressive matriarch and ex-dancer who treats her daughter like a child.

Pushing Nina further into the abyss is Lily, her alternate, played by Mila Kunis in a coolly confident role that recalls a younger, less self-conscious Angelina Jolie. A rival dancer and more febrile, relaxed and sensual performer, Lily represents, in Thomas’ eyes, the ideal black queen.

Let’s be clear, this is not a subtle piece of work, although there are nuances throughout which I’m sure will reveal themselves in further viewings. Although Aranofsky employs the same grainy aesthetic as his hugely enjoyable The Wrestler, and has returned again to terrain that explores extreme physicality, this is a very different work in tone.

Black Swan, like that earlier film, is about the pleasure and pain of life as performance. However, where The Wrestler explored the external world around Rourke's fading fighter, this film is very much an internalised psychodrama seen entirely through the fractured mindset of a young woman on the precipice of madness.

More seasoned reviewers than I have identified a whole range of fairly obvious influences so I won’t repeat those here. What I will say is that when I first heard about this film I anticipated some sort of demented Suspiria/Showgirls mash up – and I still would’ve been first in line had it been so.

But this is neither camp, gleeful trash nor cinefantastique. Outside the ballet setting and a frisson of the giallo atmosphere, I couldn’t detect any Dario Argento influence at all.

If you wanted to be really perverse (and tenuous) the only Argento work this has common ground with would be The Stendhal Syndrome. Both films share elements of power-play sexual dynamics and the hallucinatory effect of losing oneself in art. However, given that Argento’s film uses these themes as a way of distracting from what is otherwise a diabolical shitfest, I doubt Aranofsky has even heard of it, let alone been influenced by it.

I do wish Aranofsky had taken a leaf out of the Verhoeven book though. His film is a bit too restrained at times. I would love to have seen a little more craziness; for the director to heed Thomas’ advice to Nina: ‘let yourself go, transcend the material’.

That said there are some enjoyably arch moments and bits of dialogue, most of which are Casell's. ‘I want you to go home and touch yourself, live a little’, he says to Nina, while coming on to her in his opulent apartment (well, I laughed).

Portman’s masturbatory moments (in a bath and in the bedroom surrounded by pink soft toys and girlish ephemera) and a hot and heavy lesbian scene with Kunis are indications of what the film could’ve been in less careful hands, but they bolster the films inherent b-movie dynamics and prevent it from taking itself too seriously.

The closing third of the film is where Aranofsky really lets rip, and where Matthew Libatique‘s over-the-shoulder cinematography and Clint Mansell's relentless dread-fuelled score combine to outstanding effect – sustaining a mood of endless murk and uncertainty. These moments help to build the tension superbly, complementing the impending ballet while Nina’s internal and external demons continue to battle for her soul.

The staging of the opera itself is magnificent, with perhaps the most intense and dynamic scenes of ballet ever committed to celluloid. And special mention must be made of rodarte and Yumiko's outlandish costumes, which, in the films climactic dance, take on an extra dimension of Cronenberg-like body horror.

This rather fevered appraisal of the film might come back to bite me when I view the film again. But I can deal with that later. For cinema, as much as it is about anything, should be about making bold declarations, not being afraid to look foolish.

Aranofsky has again proved himself to be a risk-taker. His latest might not be *about* very much, but everything about it screams purest cinema.

So here’s my bold declaration: Black Swan is the most exciting and exhilarating movie of the festival so far. My favourite of 2010.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

London Film Festival: Another Year

If I'm being totally honest, I haven't always got along with Mike Leigh’s films. I adored the primal howl of Naked as a young, angry man for its, well, young, angry man-ness and David Thewlis’ towering performance as the part-sociopath/part-seer Johnny – but a lot of Leigh's other films left me cold.

His intimate, ensemble pieces always seemed to rub me up the wrong way somehow. I would watch the screeching, caricatured misfits of Life is Sweet and High Hopes and where others saw incisive wit and insight I saw arch stereotypes and studied condescension. But I really think I think I need to go back to Leigh’s work, because Another Year is as close to a masterpiece as any film I’ve seen in 2010.

This is very much one of Leigh’s ensemble works. Its character driven, has almost no dramatic arc, doesn’t revolve around any big events or a grand reveal. There are no lessons learned, nobody changes much or goes on an emotional journey.

It simply documents four seasons in the lives of Gerri and Tom, a happy-in-themselves (albeit very slightly self-satisfied) older couple. Their simple life involves tending to their allotment, worrying about whether their son will ever get a girlfriend and entertaining the various friends and family members that pass in and out of their lives over the course of a year.

Another Year feels absolutely authentic, the apex of Leigh’s favoured working practice to have his performers’ engage in workshop sessions and improvise from a bare-bones script. There are almost no false notes in this film, though there are many recognisable elements of social embarrassment and unease.

I found one character, Ken, an old friend of Tom's, so tragic and difficult to watch I had to cover my eyes for most of his screen time. Its easy to forget in the era of ‘social embarrassment’ verite (The Office) that Leigh was doing all this stuff years ago – in mordantly observed character pieces like Abigail’s Party and Nuts in May.

But there is an absolute mastery of tone and here. There are still telltale moments of Leigh’s broader, more condescending approach but the strength of the acting wins the day.

Lesley Manville’s character Mary is not the most complex – on paper it could look like a cheap, vaguely misogynist pot-shot of a part – the boozy old past-it flirt, forever necking pinot grigio. But the richness and subtlety of her performance means she is fully-rounded, funny and tragic, absolutely recognisable. These are fantastically realised, frequently moving, immaculate character studies.

I don’t remember Leigh holding the image as much as he does here. It wouldn’t be facile to suggest that there is an Ozu-like quality to much of this film, if Ozu had been a bearded Jewish Mancunian with an eye and ear for English foibles. There is a single scene towards the end of the film where Tom (Jim Broadbent), comforting a taciturn family member in the aftermath of a death, takes him upstairs to pack a suitcase. Everything about the scenes is sublime, unforced. Broadbent does this ridiculous- looking methodical smoothing and folding of shirts. It’s quietly devastating in a way that’s hard to describe.

I’ve heard some grumbles that Another Year is a kind of marriage/coupling propaganda piece, Leigh somehow channelling David Cameron and making all the single characters miserable and desperate while holding up the central couple as the gold standard of what we should all strive for. But I think Leigh has as canny eye on his seemingly perfect older duo; their bliss seems more like a happy accident as much as anything and both actors do a good job of quietly nailing their occasional cruel indifference, their slight smugness. But no one is demonised here. These are rich, recognisable characters that’ve made choices - some good some bad, some disastrous.

Leigh has stepped up a gear here, and this is the work of a mature artist, which marries slow-burning European dramatic sensibilities to a very English sense of social comedy. I wonder how many of the really talented young UK filmmakers of today will be making films this resonant and important in their sixties.

Looking wider, it’s interesting to compare Leigh’s current position with his sometime US counterpart Woody Allen. As Allen diminishes in stature so Leigh’s stock rises. This year I could barely make it past thirty minutes with the protagonists of Allen’s awful Whatever Works. I could’ve happily spent Another Year with Leigh’s.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Bernie n' Hitch

On Sunday, I had the pleasure of watching the fantastic 50th anniversary re-master of Hitchcock’s Psycho at the Empire cinema in Leicester Square.

There's no point recounting in detail the greatness of this film, which has been written about and dissected to near-exhaustion, except to say that:

• it looked and sounded astonishing, re-enforcing my opinion of Hitchcock as a relentlessly forward-thinking director with its envelope-pushing (though tame by today’s standards) overtones of sexual violence

• Martin Balsam’s death is still more shocking for me (as it was when I first saw the film on television as a boy) than the shower scene

• the extremely wordy, explanatory coda is still utter, utter rubbish (though perhaps it's all part of the master’s sardonic ‘humour’).

Also, the nuances of Perkins' vulnerable, delicate performance never fail to amaze me – particularly weighed against the gruesomely unsubtle, telegraphed nuttiness essayed by gurning sweatbox Vince Vaughn in the otherwise interesting Gus Van Sant remake.

Of course the film’s score is as vital to its success as Jaws’ screeching strings and Suspiria's wailing prog rock – and hearing it through the Empire’s booming 5.1 sound system was indeed a special treat.

Norma Herrmann, who was married to the film's legendary composer Bernard Herrmann from 1967 until his death, introduced the screening - talking wittily and insightfully about the making of the film and sharing some delightful insights and stories. It was particularly sweet to hear her talk of ‘Bernie n’ Hitch’ and how much they would’ve enjoyed the special screening, noting that sartorial elegance was not their forte. ‘The pair of them could make a Saville Row suit look like it came from Primark’, she said.

That’s as may be, but as the Psycho screening – and the preceding selection of masterful tracks from their other works together – proved, there was nothing shabby about their cinematic collaborations; tailored to perfection, pin-sharp, and timelessly iconic.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Review: The Social Network

David Fincher’s ultimate ‘facebook update’ arrives on the back of near-unanimous praise in the States and seems set to garner similar plaudits here. It will be interesting to see how the cultural milieu and Harvard minutiae play out with a UK audience. Better than some have predicted I imagine, given the appetite British audiences seem to have for dramas about privileged Americans.

Just as Michael Mann did with The Insider, Fincher succeeds in crafting a remarkably gripping film from bone dry materials. Given that The Social Network is essentially a series of dramatic and comedic vignettes involving self-absorbed computer geeks arguing over money and hunched over laptops for two hours that’s no mean feat. You could argue that Fincher has even less to work with dramatically than Mann had with Jeffrey Wigand’s tobacco crusade. There might be nothing at stake in this film, but it’s still fascinating and absorbing.

Fincher charts the period 2003-04, beginning with a drunken, post-dumped Mark Zuckerberg retreating to his Harvard dorm to post an online embittered rant about his ex – alongside an invitation to the campus to ‘rate’ the attractiveness of female undergrads. The near-sociopath Zuckerberg finds his services courted by the Brooks Brothers-esque duo of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (one man, much digital trickery).

When they engage him to create a Harvard exclusive friend site, his status – in the words of Facebook parlance – becomes ‘complicated’. Zuckerberg essentially plagiarises the basic concept and runs with it, inviting wealthy law graduate Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) along as a partner.

The ensuing fallout results in two separate lawsuits, which drive the films quicksilver narrative. Oscillating between the financial and emotional support of Savarin and the slippery, faustian-lite charms of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake in an irresistible performance full of white-hot energy and charm) Zuckerburg sees his site mutate into a global phenomenon at the expense of the one friendship he actually had.

Jesse Eisenberg is very, very effective in the lead role. He’s played nerdy assholes before but not with this level of awareness and nuance. The stellar cast are all ably served by a script from Aaron Sorkin that lends the film an emotional gravitas its actual events barely warrant. Personally I find Sorkin's over-elaborate, buff-shined dialogue in The West Wing fairly exhausting, but it fits these uber-geeks perfectly.

This is a fascinating film, an intriguing dramatisation of niche US-specific cultural events and a subsequent worldwide narrative that is still playing out, even as Facebook’s cultural cache is increasingly threatened by Twitter. It’s also very funny in places, with a couple of dynamic comic set pieces and some richly quotable dialogue.

At the heart of The Social Network is a fairly obvious paradox – socially inert individual creates world’s largest social interactive site. And as others have pointed out, you do wonder if Zuckerberg somehow imagined a future online world moulded in his own image; where users have lots of people as online buddies while leading an actual life of near-autistic isolation.

Lensed with cool proficiency and the director’s trademark visual chutzpah, this is nevertheless a more sober, confident Fincher, who may have created his richest, most resonant film here. It’s surely too early to proclaim the movie as masterpiece as some boldly have, but this is a vital work, alive with unlikely energy. Facebook haters might balk at the way Fincher lets the creators off the hook – no critical analysis here – but this is the first major film to engage with the seismic cultural shift that social networking has impacted on all our lives. David Hall ‘likes’ this. A lot.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

London Film Festival: Never Let Me Go

This much-anticipated adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel opened the London Film Festival yesterday. Although I’ve seen quite a lot of this year’s programme already, it feels right to kick off the first of my festival updates with the big opening film.

During the post-screening press conference, Mark Romanek talked in almost gushing terms about Ishiguro's source novel (coming across more like a softly spoken rabbi than a director). He paid tribute to screenwriter Alex Garland and spoke glowingly of how collaborative the experience had been. All fine and good, but this reverential tone might be one of the reasons that the end product was, for me, a well-intentioned, artistically timid and – to be honest – slightly ponderous experience.

Never Let Me Go simply doesn’t take enough risks with the original material to succeed as a fully-realised film. There’s something very sealed-off and parched about this movie. For a film that is ultimately about what it means to be human, it’s far too polite and conventional to truly resonate, connect or feel tragic in any way.

Despite the impressive cast, it’s the first part of the film – dealing with the central trio as children – that is easily the most effective, and affecting. Romanek displays a deft touch in these early stages, creating an alternative Britain of the 70s where we learn that “by 1967, life expectancy passes 100 years”.

The hermetically-sealed – part-Blyton, part-Kafka – Hailsham boarding school is home to a generation of cloned children who will be organ-harvested when they reach adulthood. They will be robbed of any creative or romantic future, living only to ‘complete’ – and become donors for human transplants.

There’s an eerie sense of impending doom to this part of the film, which is full of foreboding and sinister adolescent dread. I was reminded of Joseph Losey’s strange, unsettling The Damned, which also deals with children brought up in isolation.

Once the action shifts to their teenage years, this sureness begins to ebb away. The notes are all there but the playing is off, somehow. It’s a very tough call for the central trio, essaying characters who are essentially barren imitators of human behaviour locked in a world they can’t understand or relate to. But the devastating consequences of their fate don’t resonate through the performances, which are variable in tone. Carey Mulligan is the standout, displaying quiet wisdom beyond her years. Keira Knightly is stretched – but manages to be brittle and affecting. Andrew Garfield, well, it’s fair to say he has been better than he is here.

There’s an awful lot of emoting during a draggy midsection that feels more like a prestige TV adaptation. It’s at this point that we should feel closer to these characters – their frustrations, their passions, and the quiet desperation of their short existence. Instead the principle players drift around, quietly accepting their fate. The climax we are building to, never in any real doubt, should be inexorable, devastating and haunting. Instead it feels unearned and forced.

For a film laden with talent, this was a disappointingly low-key start to the festival. Romanek is a gifted director who can build a sinsiter mood very effectively – particularly in the overlooked One Hour Photo – but his approach here is too reverent and lacking in nerve.

Letting go of this one feels too easy.