Preview – Cinema Made in Italy 2018, 7-11 March

Once again it’s time for a feast of Italian cinema to return to the Cine Lumière at the French Institute in London this March. The eighth edition of Cinema Made in Italy presents nine films over 5 days, with Q&As and introductions to each from film-makers themselves.

Pick of the new films looks to be RAINBOW (Una questione privata), the opening film, and a return to familiar territory from veteran director Paolo Taviani (his usual collaborator, brother Vittorio, working with him on the screenplay). They’re back in rural Italy with an atmospheric and affecting story of the partisans of World War II, centring on ‘Milton’, a young man torn between an obsessive love and the everyday horrors of fighting a guerrilla war.

Another must-see is HANNAH directed by Andrea Pallaoro, with Charlotte Rampling in the role which won her Best Actress Award in Venice last year. In an intense and immersive film of private anguish she plays a woman under tremendous pressure striving to cope after her husband has been imprisoned. It’s another brilliant, very different portrayal of marital isolation after her unforgettable performance in Andrew Haigh’s recent 45 Years.

It’s a year of strong performances. Un Certain Regard Best Actress winner at Cannes Jasmine Trinca appears in FORTUNATA, directed by Sergio Castellitto playing an on-her-uppers single mother struggling for custody of her child and a new more prosperous life.

This year, Naples features in three of the offerings. Also in competition in Venice we have the chirpy LOVE AND BULLETS (Amore e Malavita), by brothers Antonio and Marco Manetti, a musical set in Naples which mixes tongue-in-cheek James Bond-like shenanigans with comedy and romance. And that city features again in the animation CINDERELLA THE CAT (Gatta Cenerentola), by Alessandro Rak, a contender for the Orizzonti prize in Venice, a modern musical riff on the fairy story that also makes some satirically acerbic comments on the city. Variety has called it one of the best animated films from Italy on recent years. But in stark contrast it’s a dour and dangerous Naples in Leonardo di Costanza’s THE INTRUDER (L’Intrusa), a social realist portrait of the troubles at a community centre, a haven for children, when the Mafia make an appearance.

Relationships usually loom large at Cinema Made in Italy: in UNA FAMIGLIA, also a contender at Venice, we get a grim and disturbing tale of an abusive relationship, directed with style by Sebastiano Riso. While Francesca Comincini’s STORIES OF LOVE THAT CANNOT BELONG TO THIS WORLD (Amori che non sanno stare nel mondo) looks at the fallout of a once happy partnership that failed.

But the most fascinating relationship comes in the vintage screening of the 1977 A SPECIAL DAY (Una giornata particolare) by Ettore Scola, who died 2 years ago. His sharp wit and sense of absurd comedy, as seen a couple of years ago here in How Strange to be Named Federico, a light and loving portrayal of his great friend and colleague Fellini, combines here with a delicate humanism that still has a strong backbone of political purpose. Against the background of rising Fascism, and using real newsreel footage of contemporary events, this beautiful and sorrowful film details an odd and unexpected relationship between a Mussolini –adoring housewife and a radio announcer about to be deported because of the fascist anti-gay laws in 30s Rome. Two small figures in the big picture of a world bound for catastrophe. That they are played by Sophia Loren, acting against type as a downtrodden housewife, and Marcello Mastroianni, adds a delicious piquancy. This is a great opportunity to catch a little-seen masterpiece, don’t miss it!

Organised by Istituto Luce-Cinecittà in Rome, in conjunction with the Italian Institute in London, the films were selected by Adrian Wootton, CEO of Film London.

Details and screening times can be found on https://www.institut-francais.org.uk/italianfestival

 

 

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Phantom Thread

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Three years ago Paul Thomas Anderson gave us Inherent Vice, a rambling, fidgety, often irritating, over-long technicolor blast of the 70s that nevertheless managed to be often entertaining and even funny. Now he turns his attentions to the vapid 50s, a palette drained of colour, people drained of life and passion.

Designer to the rich, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis, in what he says will be his last film performance) is an egocentric despot, who after primping himself each morning with a preening of the quiff and a snip of the nose and ear hair, presides over his highly successful fashion house with finicky intensity. The actual running of it is done with clockwork precision by his sister Cyril (yes, Cyril, one example of the forced oddity that peppers this very odd film), played with pursed lips and knowing eyes by Leslie Manville as only she can. An army of diligent white-coated seamstresses are marshalled up the stairs each morning like the workers in Metropolis to labour with modest downcast eyes on an array of clothes for those as rich and self-obsessed as the designer himself.

When the New Look arrived, it was meant to bring in a liberation after the austere strictures of wartime, a flamboyant use of cloth for its own sake after rationing, a feminising after uniform and make-do-and-mend. So what’s happened here? The dresses are stiff, constricting, for the most part in colour-drained shades of cream, white and palest pink, mostly evening gowns, little to actually live in. The customers are defeminised, with few curves and skull-hugging short hair, and a cloned look about them. Into a seam of each garment Reynolds sews a precious little gnomic motto. There seems little joy, it’s a tense business, and when we see the first creation (on luckless Gina McKee), it’s surely laughable that all this intensity has produced what could be a watered-down fancy dress creation à la Disney princess. But we’re meant to be impressed. When later in the film a stoutish middle-aged and unhappy customer gets emotionally tipsy in one of Reynolds’ creations, she’s unceremoniously carted off and physically stripped of it, as ‘not deserving the dress’. A ritual humiliation carried out on a body not up to Reynolds’ high standards of abstract perfection that is embarrassing to watch. Meant to be funny? Let’s all laugh at the fat and the old.

Exhausted by all this Reynolds goes off to the coast to recuperate, where he espies waitress Alma (Luxembourgeoise newcomer Vicky Krieps) and uncharacteristically, it seems, falls for something in her gawky clumsiness. In no time she’s joined his entourage as a model and muse (with all the baggage that word now brings with it). There’s a creepy scene where Reynolds measures her up and declares he can make her what shape he wants. Films of male control such as Vertigo and Rebecca might spring to mind, but with no hinterland for either of these two (though Reynolds has some cockamamie tale of his weird tragic mother, whose ghost he sometimes sees) there’s no aching obsession or suppressed passion or hidden trauma to give real life to their relationship. He’s just a self-regarding controller and a bully, and as such is not interesting. The odd Withnail-like dialogue does not help us see him as a real human person. As their somewhat bloodless relationship develops, inexplicably the things that turned him on, her clumsiness, her very normalness, her admiration, even, begin to irritate. She appears to makes noises when she eats – though she’s intrinsically a quiet person and it’s hard to know if she really is this boorish, as the sound of cutlery on plates and chewing is enhanced so we hear it through his delicate ears.

Like Jane Eyre, who can’t have the full-strength Rochester until he’s been made vulnerable by his blindness, Alma can’t have him until he’s weaker than her, and her method of bringing this about is unorthodox, to say the least. Does he really love her, and needs and wants this liberation from being the controller? Oh, I don’t know.

If only you cared enough to mind, to root for her or worry about their relationship, or his weird needs. But you don’t. Icily null, as cold, colourless and self-regarding as Reynold’s creations, while magnificently acted and gorgeous to look at in its chilly way, it seems increasingly like an exercise in film-making, aspiring to be clever and odd for the sake of oddness itself rather than in any organic, driven way. It looks like an indulgence. Should I give it a second chance? To actively want to watch a movie again is a sign of a good film. To feel you need to, the mark so often of arthouse pretentiousness.

I’ve been a great admirer of Anderson’s work, indeed There Will Be Blood is one of my top films of recent years. Inherent Vice, generally unpopular among critics and public alike, I gave the benefit of the doubt. But this, almost universally acclaimed… a case, appropriately, of the emperor’s new clothes?

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, February 2018

Before Midnight

Following Last Flag Flying, a look back to 2013 at one of Richard Linklater’s earlier exercises in observing what changes and what stays the same as we grow older and relationships evolve.

Here they go again. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have been roaming in each other’s company on our screens every nine years as Jesse and Celine, first as fresh faced youngsters on a train in Before Sunrise, re-meeting as thirty-somethings in Before Sunset, and now long term partners with 6-year-old twin girls, comfortable as old shoes and yet fiercely scrapping, like best friends and worst enemies. As ever I’m part irritated, part beguiled by this pair, as the camera, deceptively artless, tracks them through their leisurely walks through the Greek countryside, their companionable family moments, their toxic bedroom fights. She has a high powered job in eco-technology (she would have, wouldn’t she), he is a successful novelist, whose books have charted their relationship, just like the films. But he also has a teenage son from his earlier marriage (which he left for her) living in the US, and the pain of this is sharply shown in the opening scenes as he drops him off at the airport after a summer visit.

Strains are beginning to show as the couple’s emotional needs no longer mesh together, and this holiday is evidently for all its idylls a crisis point. Like the earlier films it’s at its best when they’re alone onscreen, the two utterly convincing as a real long-term partnership in their improvised-based but honed and crafted dialogue, the real texture of ordinary life. The only false note comes in a rather gloopy after-dinner session with an irritating set of boho friends so handsome and well-lit and articulate, so comfortably self-assured, so full of unremarkable platitudes about life and love and marriage, that it seemed as related to real life as the conversations in Mama Mia.  In contrast sexual politics and pure malice mix in the climactic bedroom scene as the seething resentments and recognition of differences surface, both actors giving their all, and particularly Delpy, literally letting it all hang out as she stumps enraged around the room working herself up into pure self-righteous rage, throwing in everything she can from bad sex to ‘I could have been a contender’ whinging. I find I neither like nor really care about these people at all, but it’s gruesomely enjoyable to witness, the delicious self harm of picking an argument with someone you love.

‘Will they be together in 9 years time?’ I wrote in 2005, and I’m writing it again. After the fight – what? It’s unresolved, as the couple rejoin to watch the sun disappear over the horizon, ‘Still there, still there, still there … gone’. Sounds like the end, certainly. Or maybe this cycle of closeness and rancour is one they are going to repeat for ever as sure as the sun reappears every morning. Another nine years and their lovely twins will be horrid teenagers – now that will be a test.

Seen at Odeon Cinema, Edinburgh 26 June 2013

 

Last Flag Flying

Directed by Richard Linklater

You don’t have to know The Last Detail, the fondly remembered Hal Ashby classic of 1973, to appreciate this film, but whether you do or not will affect your viewing. It’s a (kind of) sequel, which gives it a lot to live up to, and there’s always the danger that sequels can so often be disappointing. Plus there’s the ominous fear that a movie about old buddies getting together again will be in the same dubious school of, e.g. Last Vegas, a film from which I was near to running screaming from the cinema, so awful a vision of humanity it was.

But first of all it’s not a true sequel – the guys have different names, their past is different. Darryl Ponicsán’s original novel on which Ashby’s film was based, had two seasoned, cynical soldiers escort a woeful young petty criminal (he stole money from charity box) to military prison They decide to show him life on his last night of freedom for 8 years. This follow-up takes a trio of new incarnations of those characters. ’Badass Buddusky’, one of Jack Nicholson’s greatest performances, is now Sal, played by with superb brio by Bryan Cranston, probably better than Nicholson could have managed without too much ‘JACK!’ taking over. Laurence Fishburne is Mueller, formerly Mule Mulhall. These two are very recognisably the earlier figures at heart, though Sal is now a crappy bar owner full of a combustible mixture of internal rage and unquenchable energy, and Mueller has mended his wild ways and become a highly respectable pastor. A gravitas that soon begins to unravel. Randy Quaid’s unforgettable woebegone convict Meadows has changed the most, now the thoughtful and law-abiding Larry (‘Doc’), yet another performance of tender subtlety by Steve Carell.

It’s 2003 and Doc’s marine son has been killed in Iraq, so some kind of longing for the camaraderie of people who understand has made him seek out his old buddies after many years to ask them to accompany him to his military funeral. Widowed, his life of quiet normality has crumbled. A road trip ensues that reignites the friendship between the three and turns up uncomfortable truths about what exactly dying for the flag might mean.

There are moments when the interaction takes off in the usual exhilarating Linklater fashion. He’s always been interested in looking at change, evolution, setting his characters off to alter or reveal new aspects of themselves through momentary whim or over years, the inevitable changes of age and time and circumstance. When it works, as it sometimes does here, it feels sincere and totally engrossing, as the old comradeship comes back to life.

The military provide a tasteful though slick scenario for reuniting family members with their coffined dead, in an enormous white hangar specially tricked out for the job. But the piety and respect is fatally undermined when the truth about the casual non-combatant nature of Larry Junior’s death, as opposed to the official heroic version, gets out. And here’s my first gripe. I had difficulty believing that an intelligent Vietnam veteran would be so shocked at the military’s glossing over of the facts. It was, after all,  at the time of Vietnam that cynicism about a war in a setting where the local people were not necessarily on your side reached its peak. Yet this is the premise on which Doc’s disillusionment depends. When he’s not allowed to take over the funeral arrangements himself, a crazed journey begins where the increasing empathy between the men is nicely shown but too often over-laced with zany comedy, and a sometimes plodding script and character-by-numbers lets down, in particular, Fishburne’s rather predictable Mueller. Worst moment is when he’s mistaken for a terrorist (Mueller – geddit?), which feels gratuitously thrown in just for a bit of action and a laugh . Nothing at all wrong with humour, it’s very beautifully used here often, arising naturally out of character or circumstance (e.g. Sal’s delight at the novelty of a mobile phone), but this and other instances are totally outside the mood of the film.

In contrast the film is at its absolute best in the scenes where Sal and Mueller go to visit the elderly mother of a young colleague who died in some not entirely explained way partly through their actions. Amazingly moving, deadly realistic playing by the 93-year-old Cicely Tyson (once Mrs Miles Davis !) lifts this section right out of what is becoming a caper/sentimental road movie rut. She actually brought tears to my eyes. Ironically the men take the same route as their military masters here and don’t spoil her illusions about her son’s final hours.

Sadly the finale feels both formulaic and muddled, and is in comparison so full of momentous righteousness and symbol that my tears, at least, were by then long dried.

Seen at LFF October 2017

 

 

All the Money in the World

Directed by Ridley Scott

Ironically enough, it’s the performance of Christopher Plummer as notoriously stingy billionaire J Paul Getty, substituted for the disgraced Kevin Spacey and reshot only weeks before the film’s release, which is the strongest thing about this over-extended account of the 1973 kidnapping in Rome of Getty’s sixteen-year-old grandson John Paul Getty III (Paul). He creates a magnificent monster, ponderous, self-obsessed, his only emotion an almost childlike delight in ownership. How far this portrait is genuinely fair to the man (clearly almost psychopathically mean – he installed payphones for the guests in his houses), whose reason for not paying up – that if he did all his other grandchildren would be at risk – is given little weight in the film, though it is surely a serious consideration. But it makes for a tremendously compelling central, unmoveable figure, around which the machinations and various twists (so many of them concocted for the sake of bringing in a little action) revolve.

At first there’s  strong suspicion that the rascal Paul has set  up this ‘kidnapping’ with his pals to extract money from Grandad. Or maybe it’s the Red Brigade…  And so the several months of Paul’s imprisonment trudge on, despite the best attempts of Michelle Williams, and she’s good,  to run a narrow gamut of devotion-despair-exasperation as the boy’s powerless mother Gail. Even with the arrival of a body part Grandad won’t budge, and Paul’s estranged Dad, (Andrew Buchan, none other than the dodgy dad from Broadchurch) is by now hanging out with his new wife and assorted druggy luminaries on the Med and is, well, away with the fairies, and plays little part. Paul himself is played by Charlie Plummer (a decent lookalike for the real Paul), to be seen later this year as a troubled teen in very different mode in Lean On Pete, who after a cocky five minutes wandering louchely around a Pasolini-esque Rome has little to do other than suffer.

Though it was big news at the time, a long kidnapping saga with little physically happening needs some gingering up to make a 132-minute film, so in steps Mark Wahlberg in downbeat mode as JP Getty’s ace security guy. To do what exactly? Despite looking wise and studious (it’s marvellous what a pair of specs can do) he only comes into his own when there’s stuff to do, like accompanying Gail to the final rendezvous. Unlike the actuality this involves extended car chases and dark wanderings through an ill-lit Italian hill town where pursuers of good and bad intentions and pursued are suspensefully indistinguishable. This is not at all how Paul was found, but it gives Scott chance to show how much better he is at action, panorama, movement, and filling out the widescreen, than the slow-moving close-ups and interiors which comprise most of this film. And shows how very unsuitable a director he is for the genuine subject matter. Another add-on comes in the shape of Romain Duris as Cinquanta, one of the original kidnappers who falls victim to a one-sided Stockholm syndrome, and sickening of the long cruelty meted out to the sixteen-year-old becomes a covert sympathiser and go-between. But in general the Italians in this film come out very badly: heartless paparazzi, cowed peasants, and corruptible police.

But it’s Plummer’s Getty rather than the (necessarily) slow-moving action which makes this film worth seeing. At 88, he’s rarely been more compelling, a clinical and calculating Kane, for whom profit, loss and acquisition will always come before emotion. The rich are indeed different.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, January 2018

Battle of the Sexes

Directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

These last few years there’s been a wave of indignation at the way both women’s sport and female athletes perpetually take second place to their male equivalents, rising to a head in the UK when in 2017 not one woman was shortlisted for BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year (and only 13 out of the 60-odd winners have been women). But how much worse would it be now if it were not for Billie Jean King and her colleagues of the Women’s Tennis Association over 40 years ago? Things were then not just bad but getting worse, and by 1970, prize money for women’s championships compared to men’s stood at an average of less than 1:5. Despite its rising levels of popularity among the public, it was still seen as very much a sideshow of lesser talent by the smug men in suits who held the power.

The film takes up the story in the heady days of the early 70s as women were striking out for equality in many walks of life, when King (Emma Stone) and several other leading women players say enough is enough and push for better deals by forming the WTA and creating their own circuit, the Virgina Slims, financed in part by magazine publisher and sympathiser Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman). Bill Pulman plays Jack Kramer, revered ex-champ and chairman of the Lawn Tennis Association, a staunchly old-fashioned paternalistic ol’boy who denies that women’s tennis can ever be the equivalent of men’s in excitement or skill. But if you create it, they will come, and the Virginia Slims soon becomes a hit.

Step up Bobby Riggs, former champ and now tennis hustler and (mostly unsuccessful) gambler, played by Steve Carell, who is fast-becoming one of Hollywood’s most impressive character actors. With an eye always on the main chance, affable Bobby is foolish but no sexist monster. He spots the showbizzy possibilities and gambling potential inherent in the situation and proposes a ‘Battle of the Sexes’ between himself and a female player. Carell’s ability to illicit our sympathy while at the same time we delight in his comeuppance is just one example of the film’s refusal to vilify in an easy way. (Kramer alone is practically without redeeming features, whose uncomfortable realisation that he’s backed the wrong horse is an undiluted pleasure.)

But it isn’t just about work equality. King, married to all round nice guy Larry (Austin Stowell), begins to admit to herself that her sexuality lies elsewhere, and begins a relationship with Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, her elvish little face gazing out cute-as-steel from a sea of flyaway 70s hair). Though this particular battle for public hearts and minds is to take longer to win.

Shot in glossy 70s style, the film perfectly captures both the energy and the yuckiness of the times, eye-popping primary colours along with that beige which those of us who were there remember so well. The naffness of the showbiz style surrounding the ‘battle’, with King emerging onto the court Cleopatra-style borne by bare-chested hunks, all too accurately conveys how far the serious sportswoman was prepared to go to make a point in those benighted days. Stone makes a great Billie Jean, both in looks, voice, and, most importantly, physicality. The tennis, and especially the final match, is thrilling enough to make you forget how it ends and hold your breath at every stroke.

Entertaining and fast-moving, it wears its political message lightly but none the less seriously for that, and it’s hard to think that even the piggiest chauvinistic heart doesn’t soar just a little bit at the final match. Even though in the end it maybe morphs from a battle of the sexes to a battle of the ages, with Riggs, at almost twice King’s age and outwitted as well as outplayed, hoist on his own chutzpah.

Seem at Tyneside Cinema Newcastle December 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

If Sorcerer has been called by some ‘the greatest remake ever made’, this new Murder on the Orient Express must be one of the feeblest. Despite the big names, Kenneth Branagh’s tricky camerawork, and a most complex ever Poirot moustache, it’s strangely ponderous and no match for Sidney Lumet’s glamorous hokum of 1974.

The earlier film gave us the pure entertainment of the original novel, but here the stars appearing have so little to do – Judi Dench stomps around with a boot face and little dialogue, Olivia Colman has no material to make either a real or parodic fist of her drab companion. Michelle Pfeiffer looks good but doesn’t beguile us with steely glamour the way Lauren Bacall did. Johnny Depp’s dour Ratchett is a stock, un-menacing, racketeer. And of course there’s no Ingrid Bergman! Even the famously mysterious scarlet kimono looks more like a housecoat from M & S. And the train itself isn’t a patch on that magnificent gleaming machine that swung into action to the wonderful Richard Rodney Bennett score in 1974.

When I devoured just about the entire Christie oeuvre in my early teens, it was all about the retro glamour of the settings and the addictive and highly satisfying mathematical clicking together of the puzzles. Poirot was merely one vital part of the composition, a clever and comical egotist whose function was to be slightly ridiculous, yet prevail by providing the unlocking of the mystery. He was an inherently simple character with basic rules, who would never, like this one, step willingly into dung (merely to demonstrate his obsession with balance), or casually declare his friend’s companion a prostitute (to show how cleverly he can read people?).

This Poirot wants to be complex. From the curious, overlong opening sequence in Jerusalem – just when you’re keen to be getting on with the train business you’ve actually come to watch – which is just plain daft, with the Belgian resolving a dispute more likely to lead to serious rioting than the crowd’s respectful attention to the exercising of ze leetle grey cells, this is all about Poirot as a deep character. It’s clearly aimed at establishing his anal fixations and belief in absolute balance, the black or whiteness of each situation, a view he is to come to revise in the course of the film. But Poirot is not a realistic creation. This is Agatha Christie, not P D James, and we don’t really care that much about his development, what we want is colourful characters, suspicion, jeopardy, and a satisfactory unravelling. Even the discovery of the murder is somehow down-beat, with Branagh’s strange choice of an overhead shot zooming us up and away from the closed-in atmosphere of the train to a god-like perspective whence we can’t really make it all out. What should be an increasing claustrophobia, the ultimate in the closed room mystery, never feels febrile enough, leading as it does to the decision to make the final ‘truth-uncovering’ scene take place not in the train at all but in a tunnel where the ill-lit travellers are ranged Last-Supperishly along the back of a table. Why?

It’s true that one should not embark on a remake unless one has something new to say about the material. My fear is that Kenneth Branagh has spent too long in the Wallander world of scandi noir and is trying to bring more of a psychological darkness to one of the most ruthlessly puzzle-based writers of the ‘Golden Age of Crime Fiction’. And paradoxically taken away much of the soul of the mystery.

Seen at the Tyneside Cinema, November 2017