‘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.

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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.’

Les Miserables – The Movie, Applause and Speeches

IMG00695-20121204-1806I was privileged to be invited to an early private screening of the soon to be released movie of Les Miserables this week.  Many of the people in the audience had been involved in the making of the film, so there was a rare hubbub of chatter and excitement in the cinema, of people greeting each other as long lost buddies, and nervous anticipation of what they would see of their work on the screen.

Before it began, there were speeches from the producers and Tom Hooper, the Director, thanking all the contributors and crafts people involved; and then to everyone’s surprised delight, Hugh Jackman bounded up the aisle to add that extra little bit of star dust to the proceedings.

I’ve been lucky enough to go to a couple of the anniversary performances of the stage show, and at those, the star of the proceedings, the puppet master, the one to whom all the others defer has always been Cameron Mackintosh, the theatrical producer; in a show that makes performers’ careers, rather than using already famous names, his is the name everyone knows already.  For the film, boasting a number of big name actors, the spotlight most definitely fell on the ‘talent’.

Warmed up by the opening speeches, everyone was primed for an enthusiastic and noisy reception for the film itself.  I don’t think I’ve ever applauded a film before, but, in amongst this crowd it was infectious.  I suppose many of them knew the graft that had gone into the staging and recording of it, so there was applause for swooping camera shots as well as for the soaring vocals.

In his speech, Tom Hooper had explained that one key conception for the film was that all the singing would be recorded as it was performed, so that there would be no subsequent over dubbing or re-recording in a studio.  As well as putting performance pressure on the actors, this also led to technical challenges for the sound recordings and even the costume design, as the clothes had to be made from fabrics that were rustle free.

As I watched the movie, I wondered how important it was to know this background to appreciate the singing performances.  Would we even question how it had been recorded if he’d not told us?  There is an intensity to many of the more poignant songs, where the importance of conveying the emotion has been given priority over the purity of voice which does perhaps add something different, when, as they are, the faces are filmed in tight close up.

So what of the film itself?  It keeps very closely to the stage show in terms of story telling (and so is nearly 3 hours long), but with the breadth and sweep of cinema there is much more drama in the scenery and setting.  Where the stage show relies on a few people dressed in rags and a heap of junk on hydraulics as backdrop, for the film, huge sets of docks and a specially conceived city of Paris have been built.  Where on the stage prisoners doubled as students, and whores as dancing ladies, in the film each role is occupied by a different actor.

It was a relief to discover that all the star names in the main roles can actually sing, this is no Mama Mia, and there were moments of true poignancy.  The one performance that puzzled me was that of Russell Crowe as Javert; it was surprisingly contained and a bit passive for a character so ostensibly consumed by zealous righteousness.

I have to say, though, that I prefer it on stage.  There is something about the jeopardy of knowing that the actors are actually there, in front of me, risking failure, belting out the songs, that has greater visceral enjoyment to it.  Somehow the movie missed that joyous crescendo of The Master of the House, which, at each theatrical performance I’ve seen, has brought the house down; and the ensemble songs like One More Day somehow lacked the power that comes from the stage during a live performance.  The big screen is also much less forgiving of some of the clunkier exposition in the lyrics than the stage, especially when the faces singing the words are in close-up.

But if you love the show, you’ll want to see this; and if you’ve never seen it on stage, this is a good opportunity to give it a go.

And we stayed all the way right  until the end of the credits – with so many people cheering each others names, it seemed rude not to.

Missing the Start of the Film

When, of the two reviews I read for the movie The House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide Souvenirs de la Maison  Close), one gave it 1 star (dull, voyeuristic and with no story) and the other 4 and a half stars (richly textured, claustrophobic examination of the end of an era), there was nothing for it, but to go and see the film for myself, and to form my own opinion.

But first I had to get to the cinema; my second visit to the tiny Electric Palace in Hastings Old Town. The walk along the front took a good deal longer than it might have, because every couple of minutes I had to turn around to wonder at the colour of the sky, and to try fruitlessly to capture the rich pink of it all.

Suffice to say, we were about 10 minutes late for the film, and, creeping in, trying not to let the street door bang, we were allowed through the curtain into the showing with whispered promises that we would pay at the end, so as not to disturb everyone any further, so they could all turn their attention back to the screen.

Consequently I can’t really tell you about the very beginning of the film; but by the time we arrived, the girls, courtesans in a high class Parisian brothel in the dying days of the 19th century, were in their underwear, combing each others hair and preparing for the evening’s work ahead.

My assessment of the movie, inevitably, falls somewhere between the two which had prompted the visit, although I tend more towards the textured and claustrophobic end of the spectrum.  Although at the outset, in the careful, lingering shots of the actresses bodies, and the evocation of a languorous decadence, to my eye, there was little titillating voyeurism.  It was, instead, an unsettling portrait of an entirely closed world, from which there was little chance of escape, as no matter how hard they worked, the women’s debts to the madam kept increasing, where they weren’t allowed to go outside unaccompanied, and where, no matter the superficial air of solicitousness of the clientèle, there was always an underlying risk of violence and disease.

It was too long, and there were extended periods when I hope for nothing more than it would finish, but that may have been part of the intention; I came away feeling as if I had been released from tense claustrophobia.  It’s true that not a great deal happens, but there is enough incident to keep the narrative moving, and it is beautifully shot and very well acted, and not a little disturbing.

The odd things that stick

When I was writing yesterday’s post about Local Hero the memory of seeing Gregory’s Girl for the first time came back to me.

I’d been living in London for a few months; the place, the school, the accents in the film were fully resonant of the place I grew up and the school I went to.  On the evening of his date the girls walk Gregory around town, and one of them changes out of her school uniform into a tight lycra get up in the telephone box outside a chip shop; kids walk by, eating their pokes of chips.

When the film had finished I walked out into Leicester Square, really wanting a bag of chips wrapped in brown paper. I’d never noticed before that chip shops in London wrap in white paper, and it just wasn’t the same.  So now the first thing I think of if Gregory’s Girl is mentioned is that wanting to hold a wodge of hot greasy brown paper wrapped around a few chips in my hand.

Helensburgh from up the hill

So I’m back on the theme of the things we remember, and that they’re not always the most obvious things, nor indeed things that anyone else would have noticed.

You know those…. ‘It’s just like that thing in that film.’  Or do I have to accept that it’s only me?

So here we go on nothing more than a random selection of scenes that I’ve heard myself refer to, usually to the utter confusion of my interlocutor.

In Cool Hand Luke, I think most people predominantly remember the boiled egg eating, where for me I can easily eat an egg without that scene popping into my head; on the other hand I can’t walk past an American style parking meter without seeing an image of a giggling Paul Newman sawing the tops off them.

And in Now Voyager who can forget Paul Henreid lighting two cigarettes at once? ah.  ‘Don’t let’s ask for the moon, when we have the stars.’!

In the 1970s my sister and I were fans of The Rockford Files on television; utterly forgettable now if not for the fact that Jim Rockford was the first person we knew to have a telephone answering machine, and it used to start every episode ‘…… Leave a message’, and usually it was his long suffering Dad trying to track him down.  When some years later I acquired my own first answering machine, the temptation to pretend to be James Garner was hard to resist.

Now, that’s reminded me of ‘This is Carlton, your doorman’ in the comedy Rhoda, every time the door entry system in Rhoda’s apartment rang; there was no way of short cutting him delivering the same line in full every time.  And yes, you’ve guessed ,when I moved into a flat with a door entry system it had to be done, at least once.

Raised on a diet of Broadway musicals it was unfortunate when I had a Mrs McClusky as my English teacher at secondary school, as I couldn’t start a lesson without the lyrics from Guys and Dolls popping into my head:

There’s the stockroom behind McClusky’s bar,

But Mrs McClusky ain’tgood scout,

And tings being how dey are,

The back of the police station is out, 

Or what about Ice Cold in Alex? The long awaited cold beer in the bar for sure, but what about the fantastically patronising way Harry Andrews speaks to Sylvia Sims after the ambulance has rolled back down the sand dune and they have to push it all the way back up to the top again?

And who wouldn’t want a telephone in their shoe like Agent 99 in Get Smart?

Ever been caught remembering something that everyone else denies was even in that film?

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