The Great Gatsby

It’s one of those books I read as a teenager and which has stayed long in the memory, although it’s such a long time since I read it that that recollection may be of snippets and isolated images rather than of the book as whole ; and it may be that some of those memories are more of the Robert Redford/ Mia Farrow movie of the 1970s than of the book itself.  But the current incarnation of the novel is on   at all the cinemas in London at the moment, so of course I went to see The Great Gatsby, even though it has received distinctly mixed reviews both  in the press and on the web.

It was only when I was handed the 3D glasses that the full import of the ‘CGI spectacular effects’ dawned on me; that ‘it’s big, it’s brash, colourful and it’s action packed’ aesthetic began to sink in.  I’d read that there was also an anachronistic modern score too to jangle our sensibilities.  It was all going to be rather loud and discordant, wasn’t it?

My overall review of the film would be classic fence sitting: I both liked it and disliked it.  The aspect of it I particularity disliked was the 3D-ness of it.  I’ve only seen one other film in 3D, as the type of films that are usually made in that format don’t appeal to me; and now, having seen The Great Gatsby, I know that the format itself appeals to me even less.  It was too swishy and swoopy to be comfortable viewing; in scenes where two characters were simply in a room talking to each other, for example in the film’s framing device of Tobey Maguire, as Nick Carraway, recounting the story to his shrink in later life, the focus would shift suddenly from one face looming out of the screen at us, to the other in the background.  At times I found it more comfortable to take the 3D glasses off and watch the blurred images on the screen instead.

The musical score, on the other hand, I quite enjoyed, apart from those moments when a recognisable track from the 2010s was shoe horned in.

For all the action and noise associated with the depiction of the parties thrown by Gatsby in the hope that Daisy would come to one of them, my attention wandered.  It was impossible to feel engaged with the story or characters during all the whizzbang of the imagery, and then, somehow, the smaller moments failed to hook me back in.  Having said that, I did enjoy watching Leonardo Dicaprio looking good in a suit, with a hopeful, not quite confident smile on his face trying to woo Carey Mulligan’s Daisy.  I also thought Joel Edgerton was well cast as Tom, a careless yet powerful figure, with the right amount of allure and bullying threat about him.

What I missed in the telling however was the notion that Nick Carraway is an unreliable narrator, as seduced by what Gatsby appears to be and what he can give him, as Daisy is.  Instead the film gives us Tobey Maguire recounting the story as a somewhat bumbling observer, rather than a full participant with his own agenda.  And what of poor Myrtle?  Surely we need to see more of her to feel more affected by her killing?   Showing us a 3D slow-motion sequence of car hitting human seemed like a cheap way to shock.

I’m glad I’ve seen the film, as there is one scene of real drama, in a sweltering hotel room in New York, when Gatsby and Tom face off, and Daisy finally reveals that she will not leave Tom.  The characters face each other, tightly wound and desperate, saying  angry words that will turn the tide of their lives, and the drama works, without any cinematic trickery or music, by allowing the actors to perform.

Have you seen it?  What did you think?

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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The Lingering Memory of a Bad Film

It’s surprising the things that you remember, things that stick in your mind despite yourself, passing experiences which would be better forgotten, but which linger.

When I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago I went to see an incomprehensible film, but I keep thinking about it, largely wondering how the director managed to get anyone to give him money to make such a dog’s breakfast of a film, and then persuade a cinema to show it. Or how no-one told him along the way that the rigmarole wasn’t going to communicate anything to anyone who didn’t know about the subject already; and given that the whole thing was meant to be a tribute to his father, why he made such a mess of it.

Lullaby to My Father is a French, Swiss Israeli co-produced film by Amos Gitai.  Since seeing the film, my research on the internet has revealed that his father, Munio Gitai Weinraub, was a Bauhaus trained architect who emigrated from Germany to escape the Nazis settling in Israel where he built lots of houses.  It’s a shame that none of this information could be deduced from the film.

Variety  didn’t care much for the film either remarking that it disdains the delivery of facts in any comprehensible manner, making it a boring film about someone with a fascinating history.  That pretty much covers it.

Instead, we sat through lots and lots continuous shots of waves, train tracks and a journey around a building, inducing in this viewer a queasy motion sickness especially when I needed to read the subtitles when the voice-overs were in German and Hebrew.  And when I wasn’t feeling seasick, there were rather pedestrian staged readings of real historic documents to endure, and a mysterious woman in Warsaw.

It was such a wasted opportunity, and that’s why I think it keeps bugging me.

But after we left the cinema we went for oysters, so at least the evening ended well.

‘The Sessions’ – A Review

It’s an unlikely topic for such a warm hearted film.  Based on an article written by poet and journalist Mark O’Brien about his experience of wanting to have his first sexual experience.  Severely incapacitated by childhood polio, and confined to an iron lung for all but 3 or 4 hours a day, when he could be wheeled around town on a mobile gurney, he achieves his ambition with the help of a sexual surrogate.

Because of his extreme immobility he has to rely on the assistance of his carers, and because of his religious faith he needs the counsel of his priest to achieve his objective.  And it is Mark’s relationships with each of these people that brings the heart to the movie.

Helen Hunt, as the surrogate, has been nominated for an Oscar, and she is indeed good, imbuing her character with a straight forward kindness, and an unembarrassed approach to teaching  the mechanics of sex, but it is John Hawkes, as the paralysed writer whose performance is at the centre of the film.  He spends the entire movie in a prone position, able to move only his face and head, and that to turn comfortably in only one direction.  I wanted to turn my own head sideways to try to see his face the right way up, so that I could recognise him as the same actor who had played such disturbing characters in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene.

There are moments of gentle humour, in Mark’s exchanges with his sympathetic and trendy priest, who in William H Macy’s performance, has a hint of regret and envy in his eyes as he endorses the idea of sex outside marriage and when hearing about Mark’s tender encounters with the surrogate.  And the straight faced Chinese American carer who takes him to his ‘appointments’ and deflects the attention of an inquisitive hotel receptionist by telling him exactly what was happening in the room they had rented by the hour, knowing she won’t be believed, was joyously entertaining.  But it is the search for affection which is the heart of the film, and it reaffirms the notion that it can be found by everyone in the most unexpected places.

It’s a feel good film about kind people, and all the better for that.

Il Divo – A Review (The movie, not the boy band)

There are frequently little surprises for me when I open the envelope containing the latest rental DVDs from Lovefilm.  The system is designed that way: I’ve set up a list of things I might quite like to see, and they, at random, pick something from the list to send each time I return the previous offering.  The surprises can be broadly of the ‘I don’t remember why I put THIS on the list’, or ‘Why won’t they send me the final disc in the box set I’ve been watching, how am I meant to remember what’s happening?’ varieties.

Il Divo fell into both categories; I genuinely don’t recall putting it on my list, and I’ve been waiting for Disc 3 of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip since before the end of November.  But with a friend staying and nothing on the television worth watching, on Friday evening we agreed to give this Italian language film a go.  If we didn’t enjoy it, we could always turn it off and talk to each other, and I could send it back on Monday.

Made in 2008, and directed by Paolo Sorrrentino it focusses on Giulio Andreotti, one of the great survivors of Italian politics from the 1950s through to the 1990s, who was prime minister several times in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  He is portrayed in an astonishing performance by Toni Servillo as a blank faced, impassive, hunched, figure with neat hands and big glasses.  He walks through the elaborate halls of power with such tiny strides that he looks like he is gliding and takes late night strolls through narrow city strets surrounded by anxious looking security men.  He barely says a word, and when he does speak his mouth scarcely moves.  He is surrounded by a clique of men including politicians and bishops, in grey suits, who arrive in large shiny cars and regard he each other with manifest loathing.  The image is clear: he is the spider at the centre of a web of power.

The film is idiosyncratic; all the movements and tableau highly stylised, with each character introduced with titles written on the screen.  When not in mumbling conference with each other, these men of power are shown disporting themselves in wild dancing to drumming and jarring and anachronistic modern music, drinking a cocktail called Transgression.

And interspersing each episode is a murder, or purported suicide, of an eminent person from Italian public life.  Some of the names are familiar (to me, but only from the news reports at the time), Aldo Moro, the former Prime Minister murdered by the Red Brigade, when Andreotti refused to negotiate with terrorists, Roberto Calvi, hung from Blackfriars Bridge; and many more are not.  But the litany of shootings, explosions and strangulations paints a portrait of danger and corruption at the centre of power.

The question that has to be faced, then, is how, in this environment, did Andreotti survive?  Was he involved with the mafia; did he collude with murder and corruption?  In the only long speech in the film he explains that the security of the State requires that those in power do the unsavoury things that its citizens require; that it is necessary to do bad things for a good end.  It concludes with the long list of trials to which he was subjected when he left power and the charges from which he was, somewhat unconvincingly, acquitted.

I don’t know a great deal about Italian politics, other than they have a tendency to change governments very frequently, and that there is an unholy tension between politicians, the Vatican and organised crime, but I found this film curiously fascinating.  The first 20 minutes were utterly bewildering, and, probably, if I had been watching it alone, I would have given up, but my friend and I agreed to give it another 15 minutes to decide, and by then, although we weren’t entirely sure why, we were hooked and wanted to see it through to the end.

So if you’re looking for something quirky, challenging and Italian, give it a go!

‘I am a man of average height, but I see no giants here, so I will take the power.’

The Life of Pi – A Review

I must have picked up the book of The Life of Pi, and put it back down again several time before I finally bought it, probably as the third book in a ‘three for two’ offer.  Each time I had been put off by the blurb on the back, which talked about philosophy and theology; and generally, I prefer a story which inspires insight, rather than being signposted to something deep.

As it turned out I really enjoyed the book; I read it entirely as an allegorical adventure, as an act of pure story telling, which I consumed, utterly engrossed, and when I wasn’t reading it, I was anticipating getting back to it.  Any philosophy rather passed me by.

I approached the movie wondering how believable the story of the boy Pi surviving a ship wreck on a life boat with Richard Parker, an idiosyncratically named adult Bengal tiger, could be on the screen, when in my imagination it had made perfect sense.

The fact that the film is in 3D was also something which I wondered about, I’ve never seen a whole film in 3D before; apart from a short cartoon thing at Disneyland, I was a novice to the technology.  Until now, the movies that have come out in that format have not appealed to me, based on special effects rather than story, and so I was curious to see what the effect would be.

The answer is that the film is beautiful, exploring every possible aspect of a small boat adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, storms, waves washing over them, starlit skies reflected in still water, flying fishes, a whale, and glowing jelly fish.  All with an adult Bengal tiger (albeit mainly CGI) on board.

The thing I liked in the book was the step by step way that Pi learnt how to mange the tiger, from pure fear for his life, through incrementally, gradually gaining ground on it, to finally training it.  The cod religious themes were more noticeable to me in the film than the book but not to such an extent that it spoilt it, and it certainly didn’t feel like a long film, even though it is, at over 2 hours.

I think, because I suffer so badly from sea sickness, what appealed to me most was the strategic use of boat rocking to induce nausea to make the tiger more malleable.  I just know how it felt.

And fundamentally the film is about story telling and film making, because it poses the question about story, which would you sooner hear, an elaborate imaginative, beautiful one, or one which is bleak and mean?

I’m still not convinced about  the 3D-ness of it, as although having things leap out of the screen at me was a bit startling, it wouldn’t be my first choice for entertaininment; I think I would have enjoyed it as much in the regular 2 dimensional format (and I wouldn’t have got the dent in the top of my nose from the silly glasses.)

‘Quartet’ – A Review

Quartet‘ started out life as a play, and it has now been adapted for the screen by its author Ronald Harwood, expanding it only a little, so that its theatrical roots are still visible.  It’s easy to see its attractions: the directorial début of Dustin Hoffman, it is wholeheartedly aimed at the older cinema goer, with the cast filled with the familiar faces of performers now into their 60s and 70s.

It is set in Beecham House, a retirement community for musicians, where a person’s preeminence, or otherwise, on theatrical billing ‘s of the past, still dictates their seating in the dining room.  Two things may threaten the comfortable status quo: the House may be running out of money, so to avert the threat of closure the residents are planning a gala concert in honour of Verdi’s birthday as a fund raiser; and the arrival of new resident Jean, played by Maggie Smith, a former opera star, who also, unfortunately, used to be married to long term resident Reggie (Tom Courtney).  Will Reggie and Jean be reconciled, and can Jean be persuaded to sing the quartet from Rigoletto with Reggie, and Cissy (Pauline Collins) and Wilf (Billy Connelly), to reprise a famous performance the four of them gave early in their careers?

That’s about it as far as plot is concerned, so there can be a feeling that not very much happens during the film; and there is no attempt to avoid the stereotypes of old age, the forgetful, the dippy, the bad tempered, the old goat making inappropriate suggestions to young women, the poorly, but before you dismiss it out of hand, it is not without its moments.  Tom Courtney’s performance takes it beyond the ordinary; the expression on his face when he discovers that the woman who broke his heart has just moved in brought a tear to this cynical yet sentimental eye.  And there was a recognisable reality to a short scene in which Michael Gambon, as the flamboyant pompous director of the concert, berates those around him for their inability to remind him of something he had said a few minutes before.

The final credits have a lot of charm, showing photographs of the performers, many of them really retired musicians, both as they were during the film and also when they were in their prime, reminding us all of the effects of time on otherwise luminous faces.

But I think the main effect the film had on me was to make me ponder how I will be living when it becomes difficult to maintain my own home.  Maybe I should club together with others who have similar interests now, so that we can know each other’s irritating idiosyncrasies and have found ways to cope with them, before it all becomes a necessity?  I’m not sure musicians would be my ideal companions, there seemed to be a bit too much screeching and scraping going on; but maybe a few nice quiet readers and writers, in a big enough house so that each could have a secluded corner…….

The Master – A Review

It’s always a mistake for me to have a glass of wine (OK maybe more than a single glass on this occasion) before going to the cinema at the end of a long day.  There’s something about the comfy seats and the darkness that just encourages heaviness in the eyelids, so I may have missed a few short interludes in the late showing of  The Master last week, but not as many as the friend with whom I went.

And while I can’t really say that the film is a gripping one, it is most definitely an interesting one.  Set in a stylised 1950s America, it tracks the meeting of Freddie Quill, a troubled drunken ex serviceman played by Joaquin Phoenix, and Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic charlatan leader of a small cult, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The director Paul Thomas Anderson has apparently side stepped the suggestions that the film is about the beginnings of Scientology.  Apart from having to constantly walk around the enthusiasts outside their shop on Tottenham Court Road when I worked in an office around the corner, I don’t know anything beyond ‘Tom Cruise’ about the cult, so I can’t comment on whether or not there are parallels, but what the movie did do was paint a vivid picture of an ego driven guru making up his philosophy as he goes along.

The first scenes of the film focus on Freddie Quill, a sailor, clearly suffering some kind of psychological problems, drunk most of the time on the moonshine he concocts himself from cough medicine and industrial alcohol.  Discharged from the Navy, we follow him through a series of jobs of increasing desperation, before he stows away on a pleasure boat on which a wedding party is underway.  There he meets Dodds, who is amused by him, and who cannot resist trying to bring him into the group, as a guinea pig for his developing strategies for dominating his followers.  Subsequently, egged on by Dodd’s zealot wife, played by Amy Adams, Quill takes on the role of enforcer, beating up rationalists who argue against the daftness of the teachings.   Following a parting of the ways, Dodds makes it clear that Quill, by leaving has become a mortal enemy from which there can be no return.

I enjoyed the performances; the camera comes close to all the faces from a vantage point somewhere near their chins, so the view is of a slightly uncomfortable angle of all the crags and creases of each expression.  Joaquin Phoenix, especially, has to bear close examination of his every move, and I found his an eerily convincing depiction of a character largely bewildered by the world even when he is sober.  He has also curved his body into the stooped and shambling shape of a serious drinker.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is an actor I would watch doing anything, although I know there are some who don’t agree.  I thought he was clever in the way he portrayed the narcissist, avuncular and intense until anyone questioned him, when he would lash out with sudden ferocity.  I particularly enjoyed a scene between him and Laura Linney as one of his wealthy followers.  Dodds had just brought out a new book of doctrine, and she had noticed that where before he had talked about ‘recalling’, he now used the word ‘imagining’, and she asked if this represented a change in the teaching.  Clearly caught out in having made a mistake he hadn’t intended, he berated her for questioning, and I felt certain she wouldn’t be making any more donations.

Overall the film is beautifully shot, the vistas are wide and richly coloured, and the period details are of that imagined golden era of post war America that may or may not ever have existed.  The narrative is subtle, nothing is spelled out, it’s a series of vignettes, almost, gradually building up into a story, although I did feel that it rather lost its way towards the end.  I didn’t really understand how the break between Dodds and Quill came about, as it felt totally unexpected and random, although perhaps that might have been the point.

It was also interesting that neither of the main characters really changed over the course of the film; each was the same at the end as he was at the beginning.  Given my recent comments about the strictures of the contemporary orthodoxy that every story has to represent some kind of ‘journey’, I’m pleased to say that I quite liked this feature of the film, that for all the gimcrack philosophy and ridiculous exercises to which Quill is subjected by Dodds, he manages to escape with his faults in tact.

Have you seen it?  What did you think?

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.

‘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.

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