Monday, 26 January 2015

My 2015 Movie Challenge: Beginning with Testament of Youth and Birdman

In the spirit of Joanne Walsh’s wonderful #Readwomen campaign devised in response to the distressing Vida Count tallying how (un)often women writers are published and reviewed, I’ve challenged myself: this year for every film I watch written or directed by a man I must watch another directed or written by a woman. Take the challenge with me and 2015 is sure to be a year of enlightenment.

Birdman or: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance--Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu. Screenplay: Alejandro González IñárrituNicolás GiacoboneAlexander DinelarisArmando Bo

Mostly excellent version of the old story of the ageing, washed-up movie star in which the actor pretty much plays himself. The premise--an ex superhero Birdman tries to redeem and relaunch his career by adapting and starring in a theater production of Raymond Carver stories is pretty great. But the screenplay is uneven, ranging from "profound" to shmaltz to genuinely brilliant. Michael Keaton as the Birdman is wonderful (should win Best Actor Oscar) but Edward Norton steals the show, indeed, as he is meant to, but this is an all out heist (definitely should win Best Supporting Actor Oscar). The sparring between the two comrades/rivals is the most compelling coupling in the film and ultimately drives it,  even if the father/daughter (Emma Stone, those eyes!) conflict is the ostensible leading relationship. Supporting roles by Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough are admirable, but Lindsay Duncan's cameo as the film critic is acid sharp. Although I loved the magical realism of this Hollywood insider film, I found David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars the more challenging and fantastical. And Sunset Boulevard continues to reign supreme.

Testament of Youth--Dir. James Kent. Based on the book by Vera Brittain. Screenplay: Juliette Towhidi

I loved this book when I was a girl and for a long time I wanted to be like Vera Brittain. But she soon became too worthy and I wanted to be a bad boy like J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon or Kurt Vonnegut or Jack Kerouac. Our female role models, alas, tend to be either entirely too worthy or entirely worthless. All the possibilities in between we don't get enough of. But Vera, in her way, was a bad girl, rebelling against patriarchal constraints by getting herself an education and ultimately becoming an anti-war activist. This film, as these made-in-England period pieces will be, does smack of "worthy" but overcomes or incorporates that aspect well enough to become a genuinely compelling and surprising movie. The direction, but most especially the script, rigorously tries to avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality or predictability (doesn't completely succeed) to render Vera a fully drawn character (succeeds), both courageous and flawed, if, ultimately, too worthy to be quite real. In a way, Alicia Vikander who plays Vera doesn't help matters because of how much of a wonder she is too watch. She does very much bring Vera entirely to life, indeed to larger than life. Vikander has "movie star" written all over her. Kit Harrington as Vera's love interest impressively manages to smoulder in an entirely different way than he does on Game of Thrones, and without the use of his unruly curls as a prop. Dominic West as Vera's father overdoes the tough patriarch with a heart of gold and Emily Watson is entirely wasted as her feckless mother.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Watching Nicole Kidman's Face in Before I Go To Sleep

This was an utterly ludicrous film--completely implausible, bad script, tired material. The gratuitous violence against women is just so cheap and easy and what the hell was the point of that shrink? "Countertransference doesn't happen so much anymore these days." Hilarious. Nevertheless, I was entertained by watching Nicole Kidman's face. Once upon a time, we watched actresses faces for range of expression, for the nuances in a glance or smile, the mystery in a furrowed brow or pursed lips. Instead, I spent the hour and a half analyzing and considering the effects of the botox, filler, and face lifts Kidman has subjected herself to in order to stay in the game. The film, if you filter out the sound and action and just stay focused on Kidman's face, is a piece of performance art for our times. You've got to hand it to her. She looks very weird, but she's very interesting to look at, and she does appear very young (the hands, alas, remain a giveaway.) It used to be that when an actress turned 30 she had to start playing grandmothers. Kidman in this film plays a woman 7 years younger than she actually is! Now that is a feat. 

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Phantom of the Opera at Barts Pathology Museum

Last night, dark, rainy, and windy, I made my way to St Barts Hospital near Smithfield meat market. I entered into a maze of buildings, found the correct one, climbed three flights of stairs to Barts Pathology Museum, a vast two-storey room, its walls covered with shelves containing various shaped bottles displaying specimens of nature's most gruesome mistakes. I then got myself a gin and tonic and some popcorn and watched Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Despite the film's flaws (only Chaney had any acting talent, the story is a lesser Beauty and the Beast or Hunchback of Notre Dame with a little Svengali thown in), still it was a total experience, like being part of a piece of performance art. I highly recommend it. There are three more films to go: Silent Films at Barts Pathology Museum

In October, I took my two sons to the Royal Festival Hall to see Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey with live accompaniment from the Philharmonia Orchestra. My boys will never be the same and they weren't even under any influence other than the movie, the music, and their mother.

I also saw an interesting take on the special relationship in A Yank at Oxford at the NFT in November with a sublime Vivien Leigh and an adorable Robert Taylor. I had just been reading about the heartthrob in Vicky Wilson's extraordinary new biography of Barbara Stannwyck. See my review here at Bookslut.

Monday, 6 January 2014

American Hustle: Doesn't pass the Bechdel Test and is a bit of a snooze.

It's all hair and necklines. The script is all over the place, trying way too hard for little payoff. But the performances are generally very good, Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner in particular. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence did the best they could with really very limited material. Their kiss pretty much sums up this movie: gratuitous. ***

Reminder: The Bechdel Test
  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man

Oops, on further reflection, technically it does pass the Bechdel Test because two of the female characters discuss nail polish for maybe sixty seconds while their husbands discuss business.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

It's been a year....

and in that year since I've seen ten movies--

The delightful DECOY BRIDE directed by Sheree Folkson and starring Kelly Macdonald, David Tennant, and Alice Eve about a decoy bride in Scotland and well, you know what happens. The actors, the set, the concept, all of it is adorable and funny and smart and a perfect hommage to Powell and Pressburger's I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING! starring Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesy. I highly recommend it. 

MEN IN BLACK III did not pass the Bechdel Test and now that I think of it perhaps this is why I've only seen ten movies in the last year--I decided to boycott all movies that didn't pass the Bechdel Test. My son rightly said upon hearing my vow, "Well, then, you won't be seeing many movies." I'm not sure though that this is the reason I've seen so few films this past year. I make a lot of vows I never keep. In any case, I went to see MIBIII with another, younger son and we were thoroughly entertained. Josh Brolin and Emma Thomson were brilliant casting choices. Ellen Chenoweth is to casting directors as Edith Head was to costume design. And Etan Cohen, really? Or is this a doppleganger?

Vincent Minelli's MADAME BOVARY. I love Vincent. I'm devoted. His films are always that weird mixture of trying hard to sell and trying hard to be artistique that I empathize with but oh, if he'd only had Ellen Chenoweth to do his casting. Jennifer Jones is just so wrong. Otherwise, fun to watch.

KEEP THE LIGHTS ON. A film a clef and I know the real life characters somewhat. I had fun. And the casting was spot on.

LOOPER. I so wanted to love this film. All the back to the future, science geek physics stuff, but I can't even remember it now. Casting made this one viable too. I love that Joseph Gordan-Levitt but I don't think he's the next Ryan Gosling.

TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN, definitely Minelli at his best.

Okay, there was no way I wasn't seeing HITCHCOCK, no matter how bad or boring or wrong everyone said it was and they were right but I didn't really mind. The casting was great. The script was the problem.

GAYBY, if only I'd been watching Bringing Up Gayby. A film about two best friends, a gay man and a single  straight woman who have a baby together. Actually, it wasn't that bad. I went to see this with a bunch of London mums who know the producer (American) at a Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and that was interesting. The film wasn't bad at all. It had a good enough script but the lead comedienne, Jenn Harris, had something terribly wrong with her make-up. It was very weird and distracting.

THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED is a 1926 German animated  film by Lotte Reiniger, based on one of the Tales from the Arabian Nights. It is the oldest surviving animated feature film and is totally stunning. I saw it with a live score by contemporary composer Bushra El-Turk as part of the Bird's Eye View Festival celebrating Arab women filmmakers.

THE HAWKS AND THE SPARROWS by Pier Paolo Pasolini with Toto. Utterly sublime. Sorry the picture is so small here but this is one of the most extraordinary scenes in the film which is full of extraordinary scenes.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Back to the Future? The Golem, Faust, The Seashell and the Clergyman

Recently, I have seen three truly great silent films in London: The Golem (1920) directed by Paul Wegener with Wegener himself playing the Golem screened as part of Jewish Book Week at King's Place and accompanied by a new musical score by Robin Harris who played the piano, with Laura Anstee on the cello. You can see a ten minute version here without the Harris score;
The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)
Germaine Dulac's extraordinary short film about a priest's erotic fantasies, perhaps the first surrealist film, made a year before Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien Andalou. I saw this at the Roundhouse as part of the Reverb Festival, accompanied by Imogen Heap's equally pioneering a cappella score which she performed with the Holst singers, conducted by the London Contemporary Orchestra's Hugh Brunt (you can see the film here but without the Heap score); and F.W. Murnau's Faust (1926),

with Emil Jannings as Mephistopheles, a visual feast of innovation which I saw at The Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra playing Aphrodite Raichopoulu's new score with improvisations by piano soloist Gabriela Montero. The visual and auditory surprises were myriad and the imaginative leaps made in these films and scores were far more astonishing than anything I've seen in recent cinema. Watch the trailer here.

I have also recently seen three contemporary films, all homages to the silent film era: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, Martin Scorsese's Hugo, and Dan Pritzker's Louis. The first two films are by now renowned, the latter a weird pseudo-porn pastiche in which Louis Armstrong's New Orlean's childhood is reimagined via various early cinematic styles. The film was shown at the Barbican with a live score written by Wynton Marsalis. If it hadn't been for the score I would have walked out. (See Slant's review by Andrew Schenker here.)
The chasm of quality of experience between the first three films and these last three is wide and deep. Sadly, while the films made in the 1920s were all about innovation, playing and stretching the medium to see what it could do, taking film to the limits of its capabilities and peering beyond, the three films made today contented themselves with relying exclusively on nostalgia and the backward glance--and so were fundamentally boring. (Thank god for the dog in The Artist who drew inspiration, of course, from Asta of The Thin Man movies but transformed his character into an original.)

T.S. Eliot said something to the effect of "mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal," meaning that all artists rely on the past for their material, but only those who truly make what they have taken their own achieve something transcendent. There was a great deal of borrowing in The Artist, Hugo, and Louis, but little theft. It was as if all three filmmakers were terrified of looking into the future, even fleetingly, to see where cinema may be headed. At a time when cineplexes are chronically empty, audiences far more content to stay at home and watch youtube and play video games, is nostalgia (and 3-D) really all the cinema has to offer us? I have noticed that the post-Oscar ads for The Artist claim that "It's not just a film, it's an "Experience." Vertigo, Sunset Boulevard, any Rudolph Valentino film, Citizen Kane, Singin' In The Rain and all the films The Artist borrows from are "experiences." The Artist is mostly retro camp.

Perhaps the remarkable popularity of silent cinema accompanied by newly commissioned live scores (all I've attended have been sold-out performances) points to what is missing from today's movies: the communal experience, the spontaneity and excitement of participating in innovation, the thrill of catching a glimpse of the future while mining the past.

In this vein, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin at the Pompidou Centre in Paris has been making a film-a-day inspired by lost silent films in a series of "ciné-séances" called Spiritismes. The public is invited to witness the making of a new film inspired by a long-lost movie. Summoning spirits of lost cinema in theatrical “séances,” Maddin and his actors inhabit their ghostly scenarios. The project finishes on March 12. You can watch live streaming of the films being made on the Pompidou Centre website here.

For information about silent film screenings in London, go to the wonderful website Silent London

The organization Birds Eye View, dedicated to supporting women filmmakers, commissioned several new scores for silent films made by women, including Imogen Heap's score for The Clergyman and the Seashell.

A beautiful tribute to silent film is included in David Denby's gentle slam of The Artist in his New Yorker piece "The Artists."

For more on silent screenings across Britain see this Guardian post.

In June, Bologna's Cineteca Cinema Rediscovered festival will feature newly restored films by Lois Weber, who is described by Cineaste's editors as "a trail-blazing silent director known for her films exploring topics that reflected a prescient concern with the status of women in a male-dominated society." For more on Lois Weber, see The National Women's History Musuem's excellent on-line exhibit "Women in Early Film."

In October, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival will present "The Dickens Bicentenary," a series of silent films based on books by Charles Dickens.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Iron Lady: Thatcher Devoid of Thatcherism

Guest Post By Leonard Quart

Biopics are rarely the best way of getting a handle on the social or political world. They are too focused on the career or character of their central figure. Everything else, including other people, is only superficially sketched, subsumed by the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the film’s protagonist. Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, one of the better recent works in the genre, is a perfect example of the biopic’s limits and strengths.

It opens with a frail old woman on the cusp of dementia, Baroness Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep), tottering around her monochromatic and shadowy but comfortable apartment, living with fractured memories of her triumphant past. She is sustained by these memories, including the ghost of her gin-drinking, golf-playing husband, Dennis (Jim Broadbent), who offers her reminiscences of good times and total devotion. When her concerned daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) visits, Thatcher responds without much affection or respect—as if Carol is merely a professional caregiver. Her feeling of rejection in these scenes is subtly projected, without a false note.

The scenes of an aged Thatcher are deeply affecting, but there is a bit too much of her relationship with Dennis, which though somewhat humorous feels sentimentalized. His ghost seems to have been inserted to soften her characteristic harshness, to grant her more humanity. But watching Streep’s elderly Thatcher—a shell of her formerly commanding and abrasive self—reminded me of Shelley’s Ozymandias:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Despite Thatcher’s callous economic and social policies and overbearing personality, one can’t help but feel compassion for a woman facing the decay of her mind and body. It’s something that ultimately confronts us all, both the rulers and the ruled—the inescapable tragedy of the life cycle. The film poignantly captures it.

Streep, embodying both the senile and the formidable Thatcher, is the film’s greatest asset. She encapsulates Thatcher’s distinctive voice, intonation, posture, and motions (and her matronly hairstyle is done with utter precision), but she goes beyond that, to Thatcher’s essence. That’s no small feat: it’s hard to capture the soul of a woman so severe and strident that she could declare, “Feelings do not interest me, thoughts and ideas are what matter the most. What we think is what we become.” Thatcher acted out of a sense of moral rectitude, without doubt, self-awareness, or a capacity for self-criticism.

Alexandra Roach plays the young Thatcher, who is a touch more vulnerable but no less ambitious than Streep’s character. She adores her father, a small-town, conservative grocer. Thatcher is spurred on by his words, “Never go with the crowd.” After attending Oxford, she wins a seat in parliament in 1959 at the age of thirty-three. By then she had already taken measure of the condescending upper class “old boys’” milieu that dominated the Conservative Party, preparing her leadership takeover in 1975 and eventual three terms as prime minister, from 1979 to 1990.

When the young Thatcher meets Dennis, she informs him that she will not be the traditional domestic wife but plans to leave a mark on the world. He responds that he loves her, because she isn’t going to be that woman—making the seemingly conventional Dennis an unusual man for that era. Indeed, Thatcher aggressively asserts her independence as a woman and has the capacity to dominate the men in her cabinet. But she has no link to other political women or any interest in feminism. The film gives no sign of female confidantes or of a strong connection to her mother; Thatcher goes as far as to say that she prefers the company of men to women.

But from the evidence of the film, Thatcher was emotionally insulated and really didn’t need many other people at all. Besides her husband and father, only Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell) plays a role in her private life. Neave was Thatcher’s campaign manager when she was elected Conservative Party leader, and was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. But an Irish terrorist group assassinated him before he could take office in 1979, moving Thatcher to genuinely grieve over his death.

Thatcher changed the nature of the Conservative Party by undermining its paternalistic and totally male elite, an upper-class aristocracy committed to preserving the welfare state and a consensual politics dedicated to the idea of “one nation.” Thatcher rejected compromise and began to dismantle the welfare state. Her politics appealed to a rising lower-middle class and the skilled working class. She promoted an entrepreneurial culture where the acquisition of wealth and the consumption of goods became the prime goals. She believed social good came not from unity but from conflict between interest groups, was utterly unconcerned with what happened to the poor, and treated the unions as her prime enemy.

But watching the film, one would never know that though she professed commitment to a meritocracy where class status would never be an obstacle, she opposed all redistributive programs. That she made Britain less equal by easing the capital gains tax and reducing the top rate. The Iron Lady offers nothing more than the most superficial exploration of Thatcher’s politics. We get Thatcher, but not much Thatcherism.

Massive chunks of her career in office are awkwardly evoked and compressed through a montage of high points (or low points, depending on one’s perspective). We see her taking an uncompromising and jingoistic stand on the Falklands War, a victorious military campaign that helped her win the 1983 election in a landslide. We also get a look at the miners’ strike of 1983 and, in grainy archival footage, the mid-1980s financial sector boom and the poll tax riots of 1990. Only one scene, where angry protesters slap on the window of Thatcher’s limo to tell her she’s “a monster,” gives us a sense how hated she was by a portion of the population. And the only moment of parliamentary opposition comes in a glimpse of a tirade by Labour leader Michael Foot in the House of Commons. (Of the effects of Thatcherism on the Labour Party, there’s not even a glimpse.) The Iron Lady may convey a clear sense of Thatcher’s character flaws, but it mostly passes over how divisive a politician she was.

Political films like Ken Loach’s 1995 Spanish Civil War drama Land and Freedom feature scenes of intellectually exhilarating ideological debate, but The Iron Lady desires a large audience and doesn’t pretend to be intellectually sophisticated. When we finally see a scene with Thatcher’s cabinet, close to the end of her time in office and as her popularity is waning, it exists only to show Thatcher cruelly dress down her ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer and ex-Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head), as if he was a failing, slow-witted pupil. There’s also no mention of the intellectual force behind Thatcherism, the anti-Keynesian Keith Joseph, who famously declared, “We are over-governed, over-spent, over-taxed, over-borrowed, and over-manned.”

In The Iron Lady, political and social institutions can’t withstand Thatcher’s steely will. It’s a distortion of history, and leaves us wanting to know why her final term in office turned into a disaster—a fact that can’t merely be explained by her behavior toward fellow cabinet members. Contrary to this film, the personal is never the whole political story.

Still, if The Iron Lady fails to give us a critical handle on the policies of this political and public woman, it brings to life, through Streep’s brilliance, Margaret Thatcher the person. She was over-certain and insensitive but also talented and intelligent. She permanently changed the parameters of political debate in Britain, but she was also human, unable to resist our common mortal fate.

Leonard Quart is a contributing editor at Cineaste and the coauthor of American Film and Society Since 1945