A Film and A Curry

What more does one need for a good night out?

Danny Boyle is enjoying something of golden glow at the moment, feted for both the Olympics opening ceremony and a tremendous stage production of Frankenstein within the last couple of years, he has also kept his hand in making films.  I heard him say, in one of the many interviews he has given as part of the publicity for his latest release, Trance, that he made the film in London to escape from the tension of being involved with the Olympics. And the film gives a very different picture of London, a rather dystopian one at that.

Part caper, part psychological thriller, Trance, is the story of a fine art heist.  In return for the settlement of his gambling debts, James McAvoy’s character, a dealer in an auction house, agrees to be the inside man on a plan to steal a highly prized Goya as it goes under the hammer.  The theft goes according to plan, until McAvoy takes a blow to the head and forgets where he has stashed the painting.  To make him recall the location of the loot, Vincent Cassel, the gang leader, sends him to a hypnotist, played by Rosario Dawson.  And from here, the viewer is sent on a looping track of wondering what is real, what is only in the minds of the protagonists, who is the goody, who the baddie, and who’s in charge.

It’s an intriguing set up, and many of the surprise swerves and switchbacks of the plot kept me guessing and puzzled, and it is filled with the swoop and sway and visceral violence which is such a Danny Boyle trademark, but I never quite felt that the final resolution  fully satisfied all the complications along the way, especially as it relied on a fairly long explanation direct to camera by one of the characters to put us all in the picture before the end of the movie.  But it is always a pleasure to see James McAvoy, and especially when he can use his natural Scottish accent.

And after the film we went for a curry, starting off with that traditional Scottish dish Pakora (basically deep fried batter made from chick pea flour) .  I have no idea if this is served anywhere in India, or why it is so popular in the west of Scotland and virtually unavailable in England.  Perhaps it’s because the people who opened the first Indian restaurants in Scotland came from a particular part of the sub continent, or perhaps more likely, if, when they did arrive here, they worked out the Scottish taste for fried things and set about satisfying it.

For me it is a taste from adolescence, from bags of carry out pakora from the local restaurant, eaten on bright summer evenings sitting on a bench on the front overlooking the river with a friend.  So if I’m ever in a curry house in Scotland, it simply has to be part of the order…..
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Tango Libre – Half a Film

Tango Libre was shown as part of the London Film Festival, and I had selected it based on the convenience of its timing and venue as well as a quick read of the Festival programme.  By the time I’d arrived at the right place at approximately the right time, I’d forgotten both the name of the film and what I’d read about it.

The thing I did notice in the opening credits was that one of the producer companies was called ‘Tax Shelter Films’, which is remarkable as usually calling a company that would be against rule number 1 of the tax planners’ little book of rules ; they would normally go to some lengths to give both the substance and appearance to companies of not being ‘shelters’.  Having said that the location for the making of European films at the moment is largely dictated by the tax incentives being made available, which is why, for example, so many non French directors are making films in France…..

Consequently I was a little bit puzzled by the start of the film, and didn’t really understand why the majority of the actors were speaking either French with non-native accents, a little Spanish, or what I assumed was Dutch.  I’d even started to wonder if I was watching a short film before the main feature.  It was only towards the end of the movie, when I noticed that one of the characters was driving a Belgian registered car, that the penny dropped that the we were in Belgium or Luxembourg.

All of this is just to illustrate that I watched it without any preconceived notions at all. And watching it made me speculate that making a successful film may be more difficult than it might otherwise seem, and that maintaining a credible narrative relies on more than simply a good beginning.

I thought this film had an excellent set up: a  prison guard, living alone, but for a single gold fish, spends evenings at a tango class, where he is instructed to dance with the newcomer.  The next time he sees this woman is when she comes to visit one of the prisoners in his charge.  On her subsequent visit, she brings her son, and they visit two of the inmates; her husband, and his best friend and cell mate  with whom it appears the woman also has a relationship.  Through observing shared glances, and sensing the guard’s fascination and discomfort, the prisoners work out that the guard has been dancing with the woman.

Angry at first, the husband approaches an Argentinian hard man boss type in the recreation area and asks if he will teach him the tango.  The Argentinian declines at first, but then agrees, and soon everyone in the cell block is learning, so they will be ready to dance with a woman on their release.

Up to this point I was intrigued by the story, by the idea of three men being fascinated by one woman, and trying to relate to her through the medium of the tango.  The scenes of men in prison uniform and big boots, performing  the duel of the dance, made me wish that I could dance too.

It was the sort of set up that made me wonder how the emotionally complex, and unusual story would end; it wasn’t at all predictable.  Unfortunately, it seemed that the situation was too complex and tricky to resolve for the writer and director too, as the narrative quickly plunged way off course into unbelievable melodrama and farce which offered no resolution to the questions posed at the beginning.

This was half of a really interesting film, and I might have been better leaving in the middle wondering how it would end, rather than having the disappointment of seeing it all the way through.

‘Darling’ – A Review

Chic, even in woolly socks….

A contemporary interpretation of the style aesthetic of the 1960s is all around us at the moment, courtesy, probably, of the popularity of Mad Men, so when Lovefilm suggested that I might like Darling, made in the 1965, I gave it a go.

I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of it before, but the cast and creative lists are packed with names that suggested it would be worth watching.  It stars Julie Christie, who won an Oscar for her performance, Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey, three of my favourites from black and white films of that period; it was written by Frederic Raphael (another Oscar win, for best original screenplay), and directed by John Schlesinger.

The story of a bored and amoral fashion model who sleeps her way to the top, casting aside her men along the way until she achieves the highest social rank, which she discovers is not all she’d hoped it would be, Darling is both fascinating for how relevant some of its themes remain, and how differently the story might end if it were set now.

The tale of the search for ephemeral and vacuous celebrity, the desire simply to be famous, is as sharply relevant today as it was then; the manipulation of the people who will be the stepping stones on her inexorable rise through the ranks is probably unchanged.  The style aesthetic, especially of the super chic geometrically designed office in which Laurence Harvey’s ad executive works, has been lifted wholesale into contemporary television.  It’s in black and white in the film, but the straight lines of furniture, curtains and blinds are exactly the same as in Don Draper’s office in Mad Men.

The exterior shots are less stylish.  In the city they are surrounded by the buildings which would have been new at the time, those ugly square blocks that we have since demolished.  It reminded me of the blocks that lined London Wall when I first came to London, poorly ventilated,not well constructed, and already shabby even though most of them were only 20 years old, they’ve all been demolished in the last 30 years to be replaced by shinier, curvier ones.

It may not surprise you to know that one of the things that struck me most forcibly about the film was something trivial, in a sequence where the Julie Christie character is taken to an achingly trendy party in Paris, where the guests start to take their clothes off and dance in front of a psychedelic projection on the wall.  The scene was played in a mixture of French and English, but no effort was made to translate the French; no subtitles, no repeating the same thing in English.  How different now, when even accented English is sometimes given subtitles to relieve the viewer of the obligation of listening properly.

I think, if written now, the film could have the same moral outcome, but narratively, would have to have a different ending.  The protagonist doesn’t get what she really wants, and is trapped in a situation from which, for the first time, she is unable to escape; but in the 60s this was dramatised through the lack of status of a married woman, dependent on her husband with few financial rights.

If you get a chance to see it, I recommend this one.

‘Trishna’ – A Review

Inspired by Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, this Michael Winterbottom film is set in contemporary India, where Frieda Pinto, playing a young country girl, Trishna, attracts the interest of Riz Ahmed, as Jay, an idle wealthy British Indian on a trip with his university mates.

After Trishna and her Father are injured, when he crashes the truck he uses in his transport business, an inspired echo of the inciting incident in Hardy’s Tess, Jay gives Trishna a job in his Father’s hotel.  She works there until their relationship develops in a way that fills her with shame and she runs back to the family home, where a discrete abortion is arranged.  Her Father will never subsequently look her in the eye, but, when he sends her to work for her Uncle in Mumbai where Jay tracks her down, he is happy to buy a television and a new truck with the money she is then able to send home.

But Jay is not the knight in shining armour he imagines himself to be, and on a downward moral spiral, he stops behaving well.  This was one of the less satisfactory aspects of the adaptation for me.  Jay is a conflation of both the wealthy dissolution of Alec d’Urberville and the priggishness of Angel Clare, and it’s a stretch for the Riz Ahmed, who goes from charming and attractive to a bit petulant, but it also eliminates the feeling that Trishna has no alternatives because she is trapped between the two men.

I enjoyed the sense of place conveyed, although it is far from the tourist brochure image of many recent films set in India.  This film isn’t one that’s going to make you want to rush out to book your next holiday there.

The contrasts, between the comfort of the luxury hotels and the sparseness of the family’s rural home, highlighted  the social economic  divide that meant that Trichna and Jay could never be together on equal terms; the scenes of harvest, of brightly dressed women gathering crops echoed the farming scenes of the Hardy novel, and were far removed from the dirt and congestion of the city.

I found the ending rather unsatisfactory; even knowing that, if it were to be true to the Hardy original, it would not turn out well for Trishna, I still felt that there was insufficient reason for her to act the way she did.

And I couldn’t help wondering how Frieda Pinto, looking so exquisitely beautiful, could have belonged to the same family as all the rather unattractive coarse featured siblings and parents.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Perhaps my audible shout of frustration at the abrupt ending to this movie is a testament to how effectively it had ratcheted up my feelings of tension and anxiety and the keen expectation that something nasty was just about to happen.

The story is of a young woman, Martha to her family, Marcy May as she was renamed by the commune leader, Marlene, as she must identify herself on the commune’s telephone, trying to escape both a sinister paternalistic cult and her memories of it.

The movie starts with Martha, played by Elizabeth Olsen, sneaking out of a shared house at dawn and running away through the woods.  Pursued by one of the men from the cult as far as the nearby town by, where she makes a faltering call to her estranged sister, she is haunted by the memories of what has happened to her during her time with the group, and her fears that they are still chasing her.

Told in two intertwining tales, flashing backwards and forwards between scenes in the commune and a present in a vast lakeside house rented by her sister and husband, the narrative glides seamlessly between the two.  Watching, you begin to wonder what is real and what Martha is conjuring from her own disturbed imagination and increasing paranoia.

I got a feeling of a character completely isolated, out of place both in the closed in crowded community of the cult, and in the spacious clinical house of her sister.  Martha is both disturbed and awkwardly out of step with her conventional sister and she finds that she can fit into neither environment.  Her sister doesn’t want her skinny dipping in the lake, nor sitting on the kitchen counter; while in the cult her misdemeanours had been eating before the men had finished, and not ‘sharing herself freely’ enough.

Eating was a recurrent metaphor.  Hungry in the cult from only one rushed meal a day, after the men, when Martha runs away, her first stop is a diner where she eats a sandwich both furtively and desperately, but can’t finish when the boy chasing her catches up.  At her sister’s house she nibbles at her food, pushing it around her plate with a fork, while her brother in law ( a rather stiff and possibly miscast Hugh Dancy) berates her for her lack of respect for his home and hospitality.

For such an effective psychological thriller there is barely any violence, the threat is created and built solely from the idea of its potential.  Elizabeth Olsen gives a great performance as a person haunted by her experiences but not prepared to give anything away.

My only gripe with the film remains that of the ending…….

Out of Step With the Prevailing Views

Some days I read things in the paper or on line that make me wonder if I am hopelessly out of kilter with a prevailing view; people praise things which I found execrable, or take dogmatic positions on issues which I simply do not understand.  Yesterday was one of those days.  The prompt for this thought process was relatively trivial, but, probably inevitably, it set me off to thinking of a list of things for which I don’t understand the apparent majority view.

Clearly, I don’t expect you to agree with me……

The movie adaptation of the play God of Carnage, retitled Carnage, presumably to avoid the attention of those people who might get themselves excited about the original name is due to open in London soon; the critics seem to love it.  I won’t be going to see it.

It is hard to describe how much I loathed the play.  I booked the tickets on the basis of the cast, especially Janet McTeer, Ken Stott and Tamsin Greig, sat through it stony faced, while the fools around me laughed like drains, and left the theatre utterly depressed that such a talented cast had been so comprehensively wasted, and worrying that they so wanted to work in the West End theatre that they were prepared to appear in such tut.  Any piece which relies on flim-flammery with a mobile phone, and vomiting on stage, for a laugh, is really scraping the barrel, isn’t it?

Why Polanski would want to make a film of it is a complete mystery to me……

Reactions to movies are personal and depend on many contributory factors and so we will never agree on the merits of this or that when it comes to awards season, but still, to see Midnight in Paris on this year’s Oscar list for Best Picture.  What can they be thinking?  It’s a light confection around a simple, rather clichéd notion of the grass being greener in another time and another place, which would be diverting on an intercontinental flight on a wet Sunday afternoon in November, but I’d not recommend it for any other time.

And now let’s get the big one out of the way.  Lord of the Rings.  Am I the only person who only managed to sit through the first hour and a half of the first one before, overwhelmed with the tedium of it, left to go and do something more interesting instead?  Actually, I know I’m not; my friend K, who was with me, was the one who suggested we leave, and I was more than willing to agree.

On another occasion, at Jerusalem, another highly feted, but in my view, awful, play, at the first interval I was prepared to discuss with S whether we would stay or leave, but before I could say anything she said ‘Let’s go, I can’t stand any more of this.’

So, what are the highly praised phenomenon that you don’t ‘get’?

Have You Read The Book?

I went to see the movie adaptation of ‘The Help’ at the local multiplex cinema, and was a little surprised to be asked by the young woman collecting the tickets ‘Have you read the book?’

Imagining that she wanted to share an opinion about the book, I confirmed that I had read it.

‘Have you read it?’ I asked.

‘No.’ she shook her head.

‘I expect you’ve seen the film lots of times, then?’

‘I’ve seen it once,’ she nodded, looking past me to some people approaching the door from some distance.

‘Did you enjoy it?’ I persisted, beginning to sense that the conversation was going in an unwanted direction for her, but not quite sure why.

‘It’s OK,’ she said, reaching out her hand for the tickets from the people strolling up behind me.

‘Has it made you want to read the book?’

She looked at me, exasperated.  ‘Look, I just wanted to know if you wanted this voucher to get the book half price.’ She pointed to a pile of flyers on her podium.

‘Oh,’ I said.  ‘Sorry, I thought you wanted to discuss the book.’

She gave me a look redolent of having been practised in the face of the older generation’s stupidity on many occasions.

‘Uh…no.’

I had to stand near the door for a few moments while my friend E went to buy a drink.

I listened as the girl changed her opening gambit to ‘Would you like a voucher to get the book half price?’

No-one took up the offer, but I’ll never know if that was because they’d already read the book or not.

Midnight in Paris

Not midnight, but Paris none the less

I’m on a bit of a roll with film-going at the moment, and last week went to see ‘Midnight in Paris’, Woody Allen’s latest release.  A light confection, it felt like one joke spread paper thin, stretched to cover a whole movie.  Ostensibly about a character’s desire to go back in time to experience Paris during a mythical earlier Golden Era, it also paints a picture of a mythic Paris, signalled at the outset by a series of unconnected postcard shots of tourist Paris.

It amused me for a couple of moments, but not enough to sustain my attention.

Part of the mythologising of Paris by the American protagonist, Owen Wilson mimicking Allen’s speech patterns and angst, was of the delight in the city in the rain.

While the film narrative went off to another silly 1920’s party scene filled with a roll call of artists from that era, I was reminded of some of my experiences of Paris in the rain.

I used to visit regularly for work, and frequently became caught up in one traffic jam or another.  Rain would inevitably make the jam worse.  Heavy rain would render travel virtually impossible.  One evening when a particularly heavy storm flooded the road underpasses beside the River, the traffic ground to a grid-locked halt.  It took nearly two hours to drive from my office on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne to the hotel near Place Vendome.  At the end of a long working day, which had begun at 4:45 am when I’d got up to be in time for an early morning Eurostar, it’s just the sort of thing to put one off the joys of international executive travel.

When I finally arrived at the hotel, I wanted nothing more than to snuggle up on the bed, watch something rubbishy on the television with a bowl of soup.  So glamorous.

The only soup available on the room service menu was onion gratinee – that’s the one with the toasted cheese on top.  It arrived on a trolley covered in a crisp white cloth, a tad over the top, but designed to prevent spillage and to keep the bowl warm.

It is perhaps necessary to have had an aggravating day, to have nearly lost hope of ever arriving at your destination, to be anxious to extract wet feet from leaking shoes, but I can highly recommend it as comfort food.  It became the welcome standby on many subsequent trips, but it never tasted quite so good again, never quite the right temperature, or not crispy enough on top……

Right.  I’m off to make some soup.

The Draughtsman’s Contract – A Review 29 Years On

As part of my determination to take full advantage of a free two month membership of Lovefilm, I’ve been trying out the films available through their streaming service.  These films truly fall into that category of ‘missed years ago at the cinema and since also missed on several showings on television’.

A great lacuna in my experience of movies has been ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’, primarily because I distinctly remember trying to see it at the cinema not long after I moved to London.  I failed, largely because I’d not long been in London and, in those pre-internet days, hadn’t yet worked out how to find out where it was on.

I also, somewhat oddly, recall it being the answer to a round in Charades at a Christmas party in a house in Palmers Green.  Everyone assumed, as a fringe, art house type film it would be tricky for the opposing team to identify, but they simply mimed air flowing underneath the door, and the round was over.

It’s a Peter Greenaway film, so I knew to expect visual sumptuousness, stylised acting, an offbeat narrative, and something nasty at the end.  And all of these elements were delivered.

In truth, I’m not sure I entirely followed the story, the tale of an arrogant young artist hired by the wife of a wealthy landowner to draw her husband’s estate.  As part of the consideration for his services, he demands private time with the lady during which he may use her as he pleases.  When sketching, he draws exactly what he sees, so when strange and unexpected objects begin to appear in the landscape and are incorporated in the pictures, they assume increased significance when the body of the landowner is discovered in the moat.

Set in the Enlightenment period, every scene is beautiful, ostensibly lit by candles, bringing to mind the painting ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ by Joseph Wright of Derby, although everything is more lavish and more ostentatious.  The faces glow between towering white wigs and extravagant frills and frou-frous on collars and bodices.

And then there’s the music.  Familiar music that is frequently used on television or radio to conjure the spirit of the Enlightenment, which  I thought was of the period, by Purcell or Handel, but it turns out Michael Nyman wrote it specifically for this film.

Many of the scenes are framed by the wooden rectangle that the draughtsman is using to delineate his drawing, and as the film progresses we see how additional details, shadings and features are added to the sketches.  The act of looking and recording becomes one of the key motifs of the film.  Is what we see real?  And even knowing that the answer is ‘no’, how much is intended artifice?

I really enjoyed seeing the drawings develop – they are just the kind of sketches that I wish I could do; the idea of which led me to do a learning to draw class earlier this year.  So inspired by the movie, I’ve signed up for another short course later this month…..

Crazy Heart – A Review

In the summer, a friend gave me a token for two months free subscription to Lovefilm, a movie rental service.  Because I knew I would be away from home a fair bit in September and October, I delayed until now to activate it, but now I’m up and running.

Usually I’m fatalistic about which films I see: I go to the cinema when I can, I watch films on the television when they appear, I watch what’s available on planes.  This has generally meant I’ve seen some several times, while, at the same time, there are some startling holes in my viewing.  I do own some movie DVDs, but borrowing them has never been something I’ve felt compelled to do.  So my two month experiment with Lovefilm may change my behaviour; we’ll see.

I’m going to try to use the subscription to see as many films that I’ve ‘missed’ as I can.  Of course remembering the names of the things I thought I might like to see, but which I missed, is proving problematic, and you may be unsurprised to learn that the sort of films that the website is pushing as the ‘most borrowed’  don’t appeal to me much.  This means that I’ve had to search by actors and directors name to find some that do.  I’ve been having those, ‘you know it was that actor who was in that other thing, but in this one, he’s got red hair; you know, whathisname’. conversations.

I quite like the roulette approach of drawing up a list and then taking a chance on what they send to you next.  So, my first two movies were ‘Crazy Heart’ and ‘Hereafter’.  Interestingly I would give them both the same summary review: the stories weren’t very strong, but a couple of the performances were good and the look of the film made quite an impression on me.

In ‘Crazy Heart’ Jeff Bridges plays a washed up country music singer, facing his last chance to get out of a drunken rut, to find love and to write one last good song.  It’s a great relaxed performance from Jeff Bridges, but if the character really is that washed up and frankly, that old, how on earth does he get Maggie Gyllenhaal into bed?  That stretched credibility a bit too far.  I’d have been much more interested in seeing a development of the relationship between the old timer and his former protégée, played by Colin Farrell. which felt like e a wasted opportunity in the film.

The beginning of the movie is dark, and was quite hard to see on my screen (until I closed the curtains); it’s all in poorly lit bars and bowling alleys, or shabby motel rooms lit by underpowered table lamps. Add to that Jeff Bridges’ mumbling, and I had to concentrate quite hard to get what was going on.  Now concentration is not something I’m against, but if I give it, I want to be rewarded with something substantial to chew on.

As the Maggie Gyllenhaal character offers love and the prospect of something better, the whole film lightens up, scenes take place outside in the sunshine, and Jeff speaks more clearly; so it’s a pity that all that is revealed is the thinness of the story.  Suffice to say, everything turns out all right in the end.

The most interesting thing about ‘Hereafter’ was also the visual style of the film.  Three parallel stories, linked only by a close connection with death or near death until the final chapter, unfold in three different countries and three different cinematic styles.

French scenes have the artfulness I always associate with French movies, beautifully tousled hair on the female lead, book lined homes and sleek minimalist offices to stage a philosophical discussion; the London sections are starkly lit there are rubbish and gangs of youths in the street, and the characters are struggling against cold poverty and drug addiction.  The American scenes are lushly lit; event though it’s a ‘blue collar’ environment, it’s glossy, with failed romance at its heart.

Now I’m waiting to see what they send me next!

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