Last Five Films… as of 23/03/06
I'm really not liking the way this blog has wandered off into the world of cinema-obsession. I need to diversify. But I can't be arsed at the moment, so oh well.
Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN [AND YOUR MOTHER TOO] (Alfonso Cuarón; 2001)
3½ stars (out of 5)
Exciting, provocative and very, very daring, Y tu mamá también is one film that just might be deserving of all the praise that’s been heaped upon it. Cuarón, after helming what is possibly the single most agonising cinematic experience of my entire life, leaps right into my good books with this Mexican raunchfest of a picture. The film breathes some life into the well-worn ‘road movie’ cliché – not because it deviates from the stereotype (the characters predictably learn a life lesson or two on their metaphorical journey), but because it’s brisk and invigorating enough to maintain our attention.
Starting with its brash opening, the film’s treatment of sex is refreshingly frank. Cuarón really doesn’t abstain from showing us carnal details, although the sex here isn’t gratuitous by any means. It’s fundamental to the story and, at the very least, provides us with valuable insights into the characters lives. If it wasn’t for these visual illustrations, we’d never be aware of the hypocrisy behind the audacious proclamations of Tenoch and Julio – the movie’s two youthful heroes who feel little shame in bragging about their sex lives, but helplessly turn to putty in the hands of an older woman resulting in their amusingly premature climaxes. Sex then, is used to expose the basic inexperience of the pair, often leading to delightfully humorous effects.
There are, perhaps surprisingly, wider concerns here. Fucking is just one part of the duo’s carefree masculine playground which incorporates the usual material gratifications (drugs, alcohol, cars). Underpinning this happy-go-lucky lifestyle however, is a competitive streak between the two that rears its head more than once. In due course, we realise that the film is studying male relationships, and quietly examining the nature of the male ego – saving its boldest and most thought-provoking remark for the movie’s final act.
A wryly comic voiceover offers the audience further insights, although these are not always successful. When commenting on the characters, the film is perfectly within its zone and is able to make shrewd observations. However, the narration occasionally overreaches – and nothing irks me more than a film with visibly clear illusions of grandeur. Here, we find a feeble attempt to integrate a review of Mexico’s political situation into its narrative, which frankly isn’t very interesting. The film seems far more comfortable dealing with issues that are more directly relevant to its characters’ lives, for example the influence of class boundaries on Tenoch and Julio’s relationship. Y tu mamá también is socially conscious more than it is politically astute.
Mortality is another lingering idea that the film deals with. A fairly cheap ‘surprise’ revelation is saved until the film’s end, but it succeeds in spite of its contrivance, revealing certain events to be more poignant than they have any right to be. In essence then, this is more than just a raucous sex comedy. Its focus expands beyond mere erotic pleasures, and it ultimately succeeds in portraying an exciting chapter in life whilst remaining fully aware of its transience. For that, it should be commended.
SOLYARIS [SOLARIS] (Andrei Tarkovsky; 1972)
5 stars (out of 5)
Such is the effect of Tarkovsky’s cinema (or at least, my experience of it to date) that he leaves me at a complete loss for words. Solaris is a mystifying film, but it is wholly captivating, and I felt compelled to afford it a second viewing in order to truly come to terms with it. Now that I feel comfortable with it, I’m suffering from an inability to communicate my thoughts. I’ll try anyway, but if I fail miserably, please note that Solaris > my writing.
Solaris , contrary to its setting, is interested in inner as opposed to outer space - namely, the realm of our consciousness. Much like he did with Stalker , Tarkovsky manipulates the basic framework of the sci-fi genre to express his own thematic concerns, refusing to bow to generic conventions. Subsequently, space exploration becomes an apt metaphor for an examination of the human soul and Solaris ’ epic scope weighs in on the dilemma of the individual’s existence. What is love? What is reality? What makes a ‘human’? Tarkovsky confronts his audience with these solemn questions, whilst never privileging us with any direct answers.
The “Solaris” of the title is a sentient ocean residing somewhere deep in the cosmos. This mass of ‘jelly’, as one character describes it, not only possesses the power to probe a human’s subconscious, but also has the capability to materially duplicate the persons involved in those intimate thoughts. The film’s protagonist, Kris, after initially disbelieving Solaris’ immense potential, is thrown into turmoil when he discovers that the ocean has replicated his former wife, Hari, who committed suicide.
Hari is an extraordinarily complex character, who invokes as much perplexity from the viewer as she does from Kris. Born out of the latter’s memory, Hari is evidently not Kris’ ex-wife in spite of her apparent physical resemblance – she lacks the recollections of life with her husband that the real Hari would possess. What is she then? Is she simply Solaris’ perception of whom Hari was, or is she Kris’ idealisation of what she should be? Are the two even mutually exclusive? Tarkovsky uses Hari as one angle to tackle the question of what it means to be human. Later in the film, Sartorius, a chillingly rational character symbolic of the director’s distaste for science, relegates the fake Hari’s existence to the domain of the purely physical. Tarkovsky shrewdly lets Sartorius’ implication speak for itself: if material being is not a valid measure of one’s humanity, then surely something else is – and what else is there besides the human soul? With her tenderness and empathy, Hari certainly seems more in touch with her soul than the impenetrable Sartorius, and thus a deliciously wicked irony unfolds. She may not be innately human, but Hari certainly seems to have evolved into one.
A significant portion of Solaris is spent dwelling on Kris and Hari’s relationship. The former's initial response upon meeting this replication of his wife (he sends her away in an escape vehicle) serves as a critical depiction of man’s destructive impulse. This idea extends towards the ocean itself: Kris’ mission, to evaluate whether or not Solaris should be obliterated, is representative of our own fear of the unknown. Tarkovsky suggests that our instinct upon encountering alien environments is to simply annihilate them. This implicitly contributes to the reasoning behind Kris’ original reaction.
Another part of this reasoning is a distinct fear of confronting the past. The concept of remembering is a prevalent theme in Solaris , rearing its head most notably in the form of Hari who is effectively an anthropomorphised anamnesis. A persistent motif, first demonstrated via Berton’s character, finds Tarkovsky flashbacking to Kris’ youth, reinforcing the notion of one’s inescapable history. It should be noted that earlier in the film, we encounter Kris burning photographs and documents on Earth in a plain attempt to dissociate himself from his past. Once aboard the austere space station however, he is under Solaris’ subjugation and is accordingly required to face up to his guilt. The set design is used to reaffirm this, consisting as it does of concaved rooms, locked doors and enormous windows that literally look out to Solaris but figuratively look in to the soul. Such spatial deficiency coerces Kris into introspection, insisting that he tackles his conscience about Hari’s suicide. The aforementioned scene where he sends her away in an escape vehicle is pivotal. As the rocket begins launching, every door bolts and Kris becomes trapped – forced to endure the consequences of his actions. He suffers burns because of this, and his purpose essentially fails as Hari is simply resurrected by Solaris. Tarkovsky seems to be demanding that we make peace with the past, before we proceed with the future.
Probing the subconscious isn’t exactly the easiest of tasks, and Solaris’ copying technique is not perfect. In its own way, the ocean acts as an appropriate reflection of human memory – it can recall general outlines, but pays little attention to detail. For example, while Hari’s basic physicality is correct, the buttons on her dress cannot be undone due to the ocean’s inaccuracy. The film highlights the fact that we recollect our perception of people, as opposed to their reality, and Tarkovsky uses this concept as a basis to investigate the texture of love itself. He suggests that the emotion leads to consecrated memories (possibly the fake Hari?), that blind us from the truth (the real Hari?). Is it our consciousness of someone that we’re in love with, or is it the person themselves?
Pessimism drenches the issue of romance in Solaris . Kris claims to love the new Hari more than the old one, knowing that she isn’t real. His need for affection, on top of his active willingness to delude himself, would verge on the pitiable if it didn’t mirror our own natural desires. The director scrutinises the lengths that we’ll go to in the name of passion, and the issue of the past resurfaces as he indicates that we cannot escape from our mistakes. Accordingly, the fake Hari outdoes her human counterpart by committing suicide a number of times, only to be constantly resurrected in order to mercilessly illustrate her existential crisis.
Technology, an inherent factor in every science-fiction movie, isn’t ignored here so much as it is dismissed. It’s used to highlight spiritual destitution, most remarkably in the notorious ‘freeway’ scene where Tarkovsky films a ‘futuristic’ car journey without dialogue for several minutes in order to show how it is effectively taking us nowhere. Alongside this aversion to technology, the director shows a clear propensity for nature. Note the fondness with which the camera glares upon Kris’ life on Earth – Tarkovsky allows the audience to relish in these scenes of environmental beauty. Contrast this with the space station, where strips of paper are tied to a ventilation shaft in order to recreate the sound of rustling leaves, emphasising the disparity between the two worlds. Modes of travel are also brilliantly evaluated – there’s the obvious space travel, and the cars in the freeway scene, but there’s also a recurring image of a horse, elegant and graceful. Guess which one Tarkovsky favours…
Solaris is a dense and expansive piece of work that’s riddled with intricacies and contradictions that are impossible to fully comprehend. A more accomplished writer could apply a Freudian analysis to the text - and it’s certainly screaming out for one with it’s preoccupation with the subconscious, oceanic feeling and a surprise mother complex. Numerous interpretations can be brought to this film however, and no one theory is more right than the other. Complete with a shock ending that throws everything that came before it into disarray, Solaris is an enigmatic but nonetheless astonishing experience – a mood piece that soars to giddy heights thanks in part to the director’s masterful brand of visual poetry. If you enjoy being challenged as a moviegoer, then this is one film most definitely worth hunting down.
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (Sidney Lumet; 1962)
4 stars (out of 5)
Every day I become more and more convinced that Katharine Hepburn is completely worthy of her status as the greatest actress ever. Not that I ever doubt it, mind, I just become more certain . Her astounding turn as Mary Tyrone, the morphine-addicted matriarch in the film version of Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play makes me wonder if there was anything this luminous star of 20th century cinema couldn’t do. Such is the might of Hepburn’s performance here, that even when the lady herself is absent from the screen, her spectre’s forceful presence eerily looms over the rest of the action.
Lumet chooses to present the film as little more than filmed theatre, albeit with a slightly wider scope of settings. That decision is something of a double-edged sword. While it obviously takes away from the cinematic nature of the film, it conversely allows the audience to concentrate on the story and the acting – and that pays huge dividends with a piece like this. The dysfunctional Tyrones put all other movie families to shame. Theirs is an impossibly bleak world consumed by guilt, distrust and severe antipathy. O’Neill doesn’t even allow us a façade of happiness, choosing not to subvert the ideal of a happy American family, but instead to penetrate its brutal core from the outset.
Each of the four family members has serious issues: morphine addiction, alcoholism, failed career, parsimony, tuberculosis, plain laziness. It is their dismal attempts in dealing with these problems that result in the bitter resentment that constantly threatens to tear the family apart. Whilst there is little doubt that these troubles are due in some – or even most – part to the other family members, the fact that the characters care little for working through their difficulties is more than telling. Rather than unite to confront their problems, they choose to actively lay into one another at every opportunity. Only Mary is exempt from this verbal battleground – but this isn’t beneficial by any means. So busy are the others, accusing each other of being responsible for her addiction, that they never stop to help her from sliding further into her miserably perilous world. Ironically, in spite of their relentless rowing, it is the family’s intrinsic inability to communicate that leads to their fall from grace.
With Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, James Robards Jr. and Dean Stockwell, director Sidney Lumet is gifted with a stunning troupe of actors to bring O’Neill’s embittered story to life. Robards skilfully laces vulnerability into his hardened cynicism, whilst Stockwell brilliantly conveys the youthful awakening required of him. It is nonetheless Hepburn who steals the show from a phenomenal cast (a feat she'd perform again in The Lion in Winter ) as she masterfully toes the thin line between sanity and lunacy, fittingly brewing tension in her audience with every passing moment. It’s a performance of tremendous gravitas, with the actress completely inhabiting her character’s desperate fragility and finding moments of delicate pathos along the way. Hepburn takes a woman who could easily spiral into caricature, and makes her devastatingly sincere. Only Richardson as James, the patriarch, manages to hit a sour note amongst these accomplished thespians. His uneven theatrics are out of place against the rest of the cast, and he very nearly makes a balanced character completely unsympathetic. O’Neill’s script is too good to permit such an occurrence however, and James’ revelation about his tough childhood helps us to at least partially empathise with him.
Tragedy and despair is inescapable here, and O’Neill’s refusal to offer any of his characters redemption makes things all the more hopeless. Stomaching three hours in the dreary Tyrone household is a difficult task, and the tedium induced by many of the family’s disputes fails to help matters. But this is intended, and O’Neill repeats arguments and dialogue to show how this godforsaken family have failed to progress beyond their turmoil. Indeed, the constant yearning for the past by the parents implies that if anything, the family is degenerating. Long Day’s Journey Into Night portrays a dire and discouraging situation, but there’s something about it that appeals to the viewers voyeurism – whether it’s the opportunity to glimpse into the life of the acclaimed playwright, or the fact that it triggers memories of viewers’ own familial issues, all that is clear is this: the decline of a family has rarely been so riveting.
THE PROPOSITION (John Hillcoat; 2005)
3½ stars (out of 5)
I’ve been somewhat lacking on the ‘happy movies’ front lately. Prior to the internal traumas of Long Day’s Journey Into Night , I viewed this equally bitter tale, which arrives with a reputation as “Nick Cave’s bloodbath”. Sick, twisted and incredibly gory, this account of Australia’s nigh-on sadistic past takes the Western tradition to the 19th century outback, where carnage is seemingly part of everyday life.
Cave’s screenplay is patchy at best. Characters, particularly the crucial Burns brothers, are left woefully underdeveloped, rendering insufficient any allusions towards creating a credible revenge saga. Moreover, an early insinuation that the film will deal with the indigenous question fails to substantially materialise, and something tells me I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the script was plagued by historical inaccuracies.
Despite these flaws, director John Hillcoat manages to turn Cave’s fundamental abstraction into an advantage. He saturates his audience with images of the Australian landscape in all its majestic glory, finding unusually distorted patterns of nature that augment The Proposition ’s warped ambience. Complemented by Cave’s haunting score (his songwriting is clearly superior to his screenwriting), Hillcoat works with atmosphere to pinpoint the contrast between the unruly wilderness and the civilising mission, exemplified by the Stanleys and their domestic life. It’s an adept decision, with Hillcoat’s visualisation establishing an unnerving dichotomy that gifts Cave’s story with tension where previously there was only stifling desolation.
With a cast as astonishing as this (Emily Watson, Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, John Hurt and Danny Huston in the same film?! Fuck me !), I am absolutely appalled that The Proposition hasn’t generated more publicity. I only heard about it when it was showing at the Berlin Film Festival, and even then I didn’t pay it much attention. The acting is solid all round, although I can’t help but feel that Hurt’s role is rather throwaway. Richard Wilson’s whimpering act as the younger Burns brother gets irritating, but thankfully his role is limited. Pearce is entrancingly ambiguous, and Watson and Winstone form a superb partnership that makes the everpresent theme of family in The Proposition more resonant than it has any right to be. A particularly powerful scene finds Watson in the bathtub describing a dream whilst hinting at her own inability to have children, as Winstone’s tough guy exterior quietly disintegrates in the background. It’s stark moments such as these that help the viewer comprehend the effects of the brutality that so contaminates this harsh world.
The Proposition is a highly disturbing envisaging of the moral foundations of Australia, but it’s far from being an outright gorefest. Hillcoat’s coarse lyricism irons over the creases in Cave’s script, and the film ultimately succeeds in portraying a transitory moment in time where colonialism was fraying at its seams and struggling to assert itself in an unknown land. If you can handle its matter-of-fact treatment of violence, which exists very much as a part of this Hellish land, then you just might find this a worthwhile experience.
TSOTSI (Gavin Hood; 2005)
3 stars (out of 5)
Tsotsi seems to have been marketed as the South African answer to City of God . That’s fairly unfortunate for this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, because up against the frenetic vitality of the Brazilian movie, Tsotsi seems worse than it actually is.
Lumbered with his own lame excuse for a script, Gavin Hood attempts to inject proceedings with a shot of energy that consists of some occasionally snappy editing and a hip gangsta soundtrack. It works to an extent (the soundtrack is genuinely great), and the sun-dried colour palette helps add to the faux ‘cool’ of it all. Whether it’s enough to enliven a second-rate story is another question, however.
Tsotsi, of the title is, quite frankly, a cunt of the highest (or should that be lowest?) order. He is little more than a pathetic thug whose complete moral vacuity thinks nothing of murder. One night, he finds the baby of one of his victims in a stolen car, and so begins the contrived process of the cute and cuddly child humanising the beast. Of course, that’s assuming that Tsotsi is a beast. Presley Chweneyagae is given a lot to do with the title role and, alarmingly, all he can come up with is the same vacant expression – over and over again. The whole film should fall apart as a result, but somehow it keeps together. In a way, Chweneyagae’s blankness fits in with the idea of Tsotsi as a lost soul, aimlessly wandering around the slums and communicating the only way he knows how – through violence. One wonders whether that was the intention behind Chweneyagae’s acting, but either way, he scores a stroke of luck.
In terms of backstory, the script completely implodes. Hood tries to explain Tsotsi’s behaviour by blaming the clichéd alcoholic father. One could assume that life in the slums also played a role, before realising that no one else seems is anywhere near as bad as Tsotsi and his gang. So, um, he’s just a twat for the sake of being a twat? I see…
Tsotsi is a film that should really be a miserable failure - and yet I can’t help but like it?! There’s something refreshing about seeing a technically competent South African film find some success. Witnessing the slums of a supposedly modern city on the big screen, and seeing characters like Miriam (an exceptional Terry Pheto) attempting to make the best out of their poverty-stricken surroundings, makes for a humbling experience. Moreover, the fact that Hood offers Tsotsi the chance to redeem himself is an attractive ideal - it’s comforting to know that bad guys can turn good. Sure, it’s riddled with problems, is something of a simplistic fantasy in its treatment of its central character, and is about as subtle as a sledgehammer - but Tsotsi is a likeable movie. And aforementioned baby really is rather cute.