22 July 2013-07-22

Fabrice Luchini between blow-up dollies of Stalin and Mao in In the House

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

 

In The House (Momentum, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

François Ozon’s thriller/farce is as clever as you’d expect from a man who gave us the relationship-in-reverse drama 5X2. Here he’s again examining the nature of storytelling with a film about a teacher who becomes infatuated with his star pupil’s stories, each of which ends with a “to be continued”. And in the continuation the story – and the teenager writing them – becomes more and more involved in the older man’s life. There’s post-structuralism in there, if you’re feeling smart. But the whole thing works just as well as a dark farce played to the hilt by a brilliant cast including Fabrice Luchini as the teacher, the sleek Ernst Umhauer as the cuckoo pupil.

In the House – at Amazon

 

 

GI Joe: Retaliation (Paramount, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

The first GI Joe was camp rubbish, a shitstorm of CGI, bullets and constantly climaxing Wagnerian orchestras all modelled – so the IMDB tells us but you’d never spot it yourself – on James Bond. This sequel is actually pretty good. An impressively limber actionfest that seems to have taken its cues, properly, from Mission Impossible, it claims to have Channing Tatum as its star. But he’s dead before he’s even managed to take his top off, leaving the perfectly OK Dwayne Johnson to run through the “you’ve been disavowed – let’s get payback” plot. And off it goes on its multi-stranded journey, one of the strands featuring Bruce Willis, another a bit of ninja fighting. Unlike the first film the SFX are effective, the fight sequences pack some weight and there’s also some impressive vehicular action for the petrolheads. Hats off to director Jon M Chu, who has clearly learnt about the importance of all sorts of choreography from his time on the Step Up dance sequels.

GI Joe: Retaliation – at Amazon

 

 

White Elephant (Axiom, cert 15, DVD)

Pablo Trapero’s update of the lip-quivering 1950s melodrama is about priests working in a Buenos Aires shantytown. It’s a meat-and-potatoes film, not a white-hot piece of genre reworking, the way Carancho was. Casting is a strong suit – Ricardo Darín and Martina Gusman, both familiar Trapero faces, being joined by Jérémie Renier, playing the young priest doubting the value of his work and wobbling like a comet in the gravitational pull of a heavenly body (that’s Martina Gusman, who genuinely tries to dial down her beauty, to little effect). You might have expected, at this point in his career, for Trapero to go for an international breakout. He hasn’t. Admirably, frustratingly, he’s gone for a film that will resonate most with homegrown audiences – the white elephant of the title is an abandoned hospital standing empty since the 1930s, a symbol of the stalled development of Argentina. Solid, worthy, well built.

White Elephant – at Amazon

 

 

Beware of Mr Baker (Curzon, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Jay Bulger’s documentary takes its title from the sign at the entrance to the legendary Cream drummer’s spread in South Africa and straight away sets out its stall with a scene where the 70something Baker hits Bulger hard in the face with the stick he now uses to help him walk. It’s an assault, pure and simple, but sets the tone for what is to come, Baker lashing out irritably, mouthing off (“We were fucking good. That’s why we called ourselves Cream”), slagging off fellow musicians, being breathtakingly candid in a way that is gold dust for a documentarian. Meanwhile, Bulger assembles footage from Baker’s past, including stints with Fela Kuti and John Lydon, and interleaves the whole thing with talking heads. The drummers among them (Stuart Copeland, Lars Ulrich, Nick Mason) are voluble in their appreciation, while the non-drummers often tell stories of how Baker punched them too. Wonderful.

Beware of Mr Baker – at Amazon

 

 

The ABCs of Death (Monster, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

26 films from 26 directors, some of them now fairly famous – Ti West, Ben Wheatley, Xavier Gens and Simon Rumley – most of them well known to horror buffs. They’re all short, obviously, wildly different (try F is for Fart by Noboru Iguchi or O Is for Orgasm by Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet for size) and there is the odd stab of excellence (I particularly liked Ben Wheatley’s one, U Is for Unearthed, about the killing of a vampire from the victim’s point of view), even if there aren’t quite enough really great ones to make this a memorable exercise.

The ABCs of Death – at Amazon

 

 

One. Two. One (Second Run, cert PG, DVD)

Films are often said to be a “snapshot” of a certain culture at a certain time. Mania Akbari’s film about a beautiful woman disfigured by an acid attack actually looks like one. Set in present-day Iran, it is composed entirely of almost static straight-on headshots – now in the beautician’s where the attacked wife is being “repaired”, now in the psychiatrist’s, now the fortune teller’s and so on, with occasional digressions to the prison where her husband and attacker (also shot head on) is now languishing for his crime. The tug between traditional and modern is the theme, with mobile phones featuring strongly – the disruptive technology that gets round all attempts to keep in place the chaperone culture. It’s brilliantly acted, remarkable in fact, and though we’ve no clear idea of timescale, whether some things are set in the past (before the attack) or after (when this bright, outgoing woman has healed), it is the insights on Iran itself and the quiet way the film is hollering “you’re doomed, doomed” to the old culture that makes this such a strange, powerful, unusual piece of work.

One. Two. One. – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

 

 

The Curious Return of Douglas Sirk

All That Heaven Allows original poster

 

What is it about a film-maker who died around 25 years ago in obscurity 

that fascinates a new generation of directors?

 

 

 

 

The director Douglas Sirk died in 1987 aged 90. Born in Hamburg as Detlef Sierck, he became well known for his string of lush melodramas made in Hollywood in the 1950s. Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) and Imitation of Life (1959) are considered his key works. The French “auteurists” were the first to start the re-assessment of Sirk in the late 1950s – the distinctive look of his films marking them out as obviously the work of one person’s hand. Since then his films, often originally dismissed as weepy slush, have been re-assessed as works of multiple meaning, ripe for ironic readings. Sirk, the theory now goes, was a much more nuanced film-maker than he was initially given credit for. But though critics were hot to re-appraise Sirk, film-makers (Fassbinder being a notable exception) were slow to follow suit – as genres went, melodrama was to be filed alongside the musical; neither of them were as sexy as horror, sci-fi or film noir.

But things have changed in recent years. Film-makers from Tarantino (in Pulp Fiction) to Wong Kar–wai (in In the Mood for Love) started referencing Sirk, and since then a new generation of directors, perhaps mindful that we were once again living in a conservative age, have drawn on his methods, his colour palette, his style of drama, to produce films unafraid to let it all hang out.

Joan Crawford never worked with Sirk. But my shorthand test for working out if a film is Sirkian is to ask myself – can I imagine Joan Crawford, stoically holding back the sobs, with the back of her hand to her forehead? If I can, then bingo, it’s Sirkian. Here are a run of modern films that all owe a debt to one of cinema’s great ironists.

 

 

 

 

Far From Heaven (2002, dir: Todd Haynes)

This is the film that announced that Sirk, hovering in the background, had moved back centre stage. A film about a lovely American family living the dream, it was photographed by Todd Haynes in the Tupperware colour palette Sirk would have recognised. Its theme – things are not always what they appear – couldn’t be more Sirkian either, as happily married Cathy and Frank (Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) start to acknowledge that their marriage isn’t all it should be after Cathy finds Frank kissing a man one day. She, in full headlong Joan Crawford flight, then starts to seek comfort from the gardener (Dennis Haysbert) while the husband is subjected to electroshock therapy in an attempt to cure him of homosexuality. Sirk would also have enjoyed that bit of medical intervention too – the primal and the thoroughly modern, that’s Sirk all the way.



Black Swan (2010, dir: Darren Aronofsky)

Aronofsky ditched his often rather monochrome, dialled down, cerebral style and kept the melodrama for his most Sirkian work – a camp furnace of a movie he keeps feeding with cinematic fuel till it’s white hot. I mean, rival ballerinas (Natalie Portman as a white swan trying to go dark; Mila Kunis as her nemesis), a controlling mother (Barbara Hershey), a draconian master of ballet (Vincent Cassel), a bitter former star (Winona Ryder, perfect), rivalry, bitchiness, vomiting, lesbianism, obsession. And again there an elemental, Sirkian thrust – by this gruesome process, Aronofsky says, girls are transformed into women. And by the film’s end Portman has indeed become the black swan, by sacrificing her humanity to become sexy, bending everything holy out of shape in the process. That last ballet finale, set to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, is a seething dance of flying camerawork, rhythmic editing and increasingly gothic revelation. It’s pure Sirk, though he probably would have thrown in a bit more colour.



Blood Simple aka A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009, dir: Zhang Yimou)

A remake of the Coen brothers’ first film is interesting any day of the week. That it’s remade by Zhang Yimou, the former cinematographer whose Red Sorghum, Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers caused jaws to drop the world over makes it only moreso. Zhang relocates the story to feudal China, turning the characters into archetypes from Chinese opera – the older husband, the scheming wife, the fat buffoon, the cowardly lover – the Coens having already done most of the hard work. He then brings a Sirkian focus to telling the story visually. Always fanatical at getting things just so, Zhang has embraced digital technology to rework backgrounds, foregrounds, skies, anything he fancies. I don’t think there’s a sky in his Blood Simple that hasn’t been digitally messed with – dark, rain-filled clouds hover impossibly over sun-baked deserts. Sirk wasn’t really a man for comedy and this Blood Simple doesn’t fit thematically into an easy categorisation as nouveau Sirk, but the looks do, the use of visuals to do the work of pages of text, the way externals mirror internal states of mind, that’s all very Sirkian.



Broken Embraces (2009, dir: Pedro Almodóvar)

Almodóvar’s film about a woman who has a great hold over men is largely a pastiche of Hitchcock but there’s a fair bit of Sirk in there too. It is melodramatic, deals with unbridled love, sacrifice, exotic illness, obsession, innocence and blindness (and all films that deal with blindness recall Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession). The twist-filled plot centres on Penélope Cruz, playing a whore who falls for a director. He then turns her – using all the gifts at his disposal – into a star. Has the metamorphosis exposed her true self? Or is there no amount of hair, make-up and transformative magic that can hide a person’s true nature. See The Skin I Live In for another of Almodóvar’s treatments of the theme, which also works at such a level of excess and with such a layering of irony that the phrase Sirkian also pops unbidden into the mind.



Flight (2012, dir: Robert Zemeckis)

The line where human weakness meets human grandeur is territory Douglas Sirk knew well. In Magnificent Obsession, a playboy disgusted with himself after inadvertently causing the death of a noble doctor decides to retrain as a doctor himself – to replace the man, or at least atone for the world’s loss. He falls for the man’s wife. He blinds the man’s wife. Now who could possibly save her sight? In Flight Denzel Washington, a drunk, cocaine-sniffing pilot becomes an accidental hero after saving a plane and most of the passengers on his flight with the sort of stunt-flying only he could pull off. Later, as accident inspectors poke into his private life he is called upon to decide whether to be noble or not. The nobility, the self-examination, the hand-wringing, that’s all Sirk. The lowering clouds reflecting the man’s inner torment (or murky morality, take your pick), that’s all Sirk too.



Love Exposure (2008, dir: Sion Sono)

There aren’t many film that combine soft porn, Christianity, kung fu and Japanese teen culture. But then Sion Sono is no ordinary film-maker. In Love Exposure, the first of his Hate Trilogy, he cues the opening credits one hour into a film that has up till then been soundtracked to Ravel’s Bolero. After them, the action shifts from the quiet boy who’s become the master of the upskirt shot to the young woman who, having cut off her father’s penis, becomes a coke dealer, a cult member and a dealer in bogus antiques. The third segment of this drama deals with a schoolgirl who makes money from smashing up houses. Extremism, indoctrination, cult beliefs, gang membership, obsession – be it with porn or exercise or religion – are what Sono is dealing in. And he serves the whole thing up as overcooked, over-plotted melodrama, Douglas Sirk goes quasi-anime in a world where even the schoolkids know what bukkake is.



The Box (2009, dir: Richard Kelly)

Richard Kelly famously made Donnie Darko, then the more troublesome Southland Tales. With The Box he returns vaguely to Twilight Zone territory with an adaptation of a story by Richard Matheson which put human flesh on the series of mind games called the Trolley Problem – you wouldn’t kill someone right in front of you, but what if killing them saved someone else? And what if the person you were killing wasn’t in front of you? Sort of thing. Here, it’s Cameron Diaz who is being tested, after a mysterious stranger offers her $1 million. All she has to do is press the button on The Box. The downside: someone, somewhere in the world, someone she doesn’t know, will die. Under the mumbo-jumbo wrapping what Kelly is presenting us with is an Adam and Eve story – Eve gains power and knowledge on behalf of humankind, but at what cost? It’s an elemental story, wrapped in the story of the disintegration of a suburban marriage, with a layering of paranoid melodrama, a keen interest in guilt, an even keener interest in the power of women. Sirkian, in other words.



The Burning Plain (2009, dir: Guillermo Arriaga)

Guillermo Arriaga wrote Amores Perros, which was a torrid affair with choppy chronology. The Burning Plain is similar, a whole host of intersecting stories unfolding over decades, all of them wildly emotional, held together by the most unlikely coincidence. It is essentially a Douglas Sirk film that’s been chopped up and re-arranged, a lot of small stories with a big melodrama at the centre of each – a plane crash, breast cancer, the rediscovery of a daughter etc. To go into the plot is spoilerish but there are three notable blondes in it – Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lawrence and, most impressive of all, Charlize Theron as a maitre d’ at a swish restaurant whose off-the-clock time is spent self-harming and having serial sex with strangers. Knotty.



The Hunt (2012, dir: Thomas Vinterberg)

Thomas Vinterberg famously made Festen, a drama about the nasty little secrets that lie behind seemingly blameless middle-class exteriors. In The Hunt he’s doing something similar, though he’s dressed it up this time in Sirkian self-flagellation, as we watch blameless teaching assistant Mads Mikkelsen being accused by a five-year-old of showing her his penis “sticking out like a rod”, as the subtitles put it. What then plays out is a The Crucible-like drama of hysteria in a small town, an examination of the way nice people actually make things worse by refusing to deal with the nut of a problem (there is an awful lot of euphemism in The Hunt) but most of all it’s the story of a lone man adrift on a roiling sea, continuing to proclaim his innocence to a world that has become deaf to him. That protestation of guilt, those judgemental eyes, that’s Sirk territory.


White Elephant (2013, dir: Pablo Trapero)

Pablo Trapero, one of the best directors working anywhere in the world at the moment, does love a bit of Sirkian angst. In White Elephant he tells us the story of a pair of priests working in an Argentinean shanty town which sits in the shadow of a never-finished hospital (the white elephant of the title). Set in the world of gangs, drugs and death, White Elephant splits its Sirkian business equally between the two priests – one (Ricard Darín) has a terminal illness he’s not telling anyone about. The other (Jérémie Renier), deeply traumatised after seeing an entire missionary village butchered, finds himself getting closer to the astonishingly beautiful volunteer in the shanty town (the astonishingly beautiful Martina Gusman), which is, of course, against his vow of chastity. The beautiful visuals are not Sirk (they’re more Scorsese) but the themes – secrets, temptation, redemption – definitely are. As is the way the drama builds slowly towards its conclusion, with Trapero holding back the melodrama right to the last minute.

 

 

A sign of Sirk’s neglect is that there is no box set of his best work available in the US.

Next best thing is this UK import of seven Sirk films. You’ll need a multi-region PAL/NTSC dvd player to play it though, so be warned.

 

 

White Elephant

Fathers Julián and Nicolás patrol the shanty

London Film Festival, 2012-10-21

At a certain point in the career of a successful film-maker who isn’t working in the English language, you expect him or her to make a “breakout” film, the one that gets them noticed in the global multiplexes, the one that makes them some money. At this point in the career of Pablo Trapero, the Argentinean who gave us Familia Rodante, Lion’s Den and Carancho – all critical hits – you’s expect White Elephant to be that film. It isn’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s a disappointment. Quite the contrary.

Instead of taking the money and selling out, Trapero has taken what budget his status as a film-maker now entitles him to and he’s put it up on the screen. White Elephant is a big film aimed squarely at the domestic Argentinean market. It addresses Argentinean problems, though with a universality that means it translates. Does it top Carancho as his best film? I don’t know. But it is by a long way his most ambitious.

An epic drama set in the shantytown of Buenos Aires, it has a big cast, a wide geographical field of operations and mighty themes. It kicks off with two scenes that use immense sound – in one a man is in an MRI scanner as it clicks and bangs away. Scene two cuts to a boat growling ominously as it heads up river. And in comes Michael Nyman’s soundtrack, a beautiful plaintive Morricone-esqe thing faintly tinged with the mournfulness of the brass band.

White Elephant has proper actors too. If you’ve seen Carancho (and if you haven’t then you’ve missed an amazingly flavourful piece of South American noir), you’ll be familiar with Ricardo Darín and Martina Gusman, its stars. They’re back here, Darín playing a kind hard-headed priest working the shantytown that surrounds the abandoned hospital (the white elephant of the title) sitting like a metaphor for the stalled social projects of Argentina’s recent decades. Helping him in his Spencer Tracey efforts to house the homeless and wrest the drugs from the skull-faced youth is Luciana, a local volunteer (Gusman), a woman as selfless as she is beautiful.

Nicolás and Luciana
Nicolás and Luciana


Into the world of Father Julián and Luciana enters Father Nicolás (Jeremie Renier), a refugee from the up-river village we’ve seen wiped out by banditos. He’s in a state of shock, angry, confused, aware of the fact that Darín’s way, the Lord’s way, of turning the other cheek has just resulted in the extermination of an entire village of his flock.

And around these three the whole film turns – Father Julián the pragmatist, Father Nicolás the hothead, Luciana caught between the two. It makes for a brilliant recruiting campaign for the Catholic church, the selflessness, the fixity of purpose, the fighting of the good fight even when doubt is stalking the alleyways. “It’s easy to be a martyr and a hero,” says Julián to Nicolás at one point. “The hardest thing is working day after day, knowing your work is meaningless.”

Don’t worry, this isn’t a film full of speeches like that. Instead Trapero gives us beautifully composed shots and scenes, bravura camerawork à la Scorsese (one tracking shot into a meth lab is straight out of Goodfellas). This is a good-looking film. And just to make sure we don’t get bored while the film expatiates on the nature of faith, goodness, religion (both official and magical), Trapero takes us ever further into the heart of the slums, all the while building on plot arcs straight out of Douglas Sirk. Julián is dying of some brain malignancy, we have learned early on. Nicolás, a young good looking man of Daniel Craig aspect, is increasingly tempted by the ravishing Luciana. Secrets. Melodrama.

And to top all that Trapero gives us the big finish that the film has by stealth been working towards – the budget spent on catching a conflagration in the slums that looks so naturalistic that it must have been shot at some demonstration that got out of hand, surely?

A slow-burner, White Elephant takes its times working up an impressive head of dramatic steam, examining faith and duty as it goes in an unusually non-snide (though not naïve) way. Put another way – how refreshing it is to meet priests in a movie who aren’t either exorcists or kiddy-fiddlers.

White Elephant – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012