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The Terence Davies Trilogy

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

To my shame I had only vaguely heard of Terence Davies. To the industry’s shame, they seem to know of him even less, yet the phrase “visual poet” has never been more apt and he deserves much greater recognition.

I’d wanted to see The Deep Blue Sea  merely on the trailer and the fact it starred possibly my favourite actress Rachel Weisz, but then I read interviews with Davies in Sight And Sound and Empire, and heard yet another on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s 5 Live show. Soon I was as interested in the film because of him as much as anything else and when I did see it, I was lucky enough to do so at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham where he attended a Q&A afterwards. After reading those articles and hearing him speak, the film was clearly an extension of him. The Q&A confirmed that further, but after now seeing his earlier work I’m convinced that I have never seen another director laid so bare in the course of his films. In retrospect, The Deep Blue Sea along with House of Mirth is his most traditionally narrative film.

He’s a fascinating man, modest and unassuming, yet a collection of demons and contradictions that have both haunted and nurtured him. For instance, he is homosexual, yet he has frequently said that he loathes being gay and it’s ruined his life. He understands women incredibly well having grown up with older sisters, and he adored his mother. His father died when Terence was still young and was clearly a violent man. I’m telling you all this because these themes come through time and again in his largely autobiographical work, as well as a rich and detailed evocation of his home city, 1950s Liverpool.

His Trilogy is perhaps his most pure and challenging work, both for him and us, I shouldn’t wonder and it is interesting to consider it in light of what he would come to do in his features.

As the name suggests, The Terence Davies Trilogy is a collection of three short black and white films, made between 1976 and 1983: ChildrenMadonna and ChildDeath and Transfiguration. I have already said that I don’t believe I know of another director who can put so much of himself into his own work, but even by his own standards, these three films are intensely personal and raw. It is testament to his skill that he should be this open and self-critical, yet the drama still works in balance. So often in film a screenwriter uses his own experiences, but fails to keep the rest of the drama in context.

The first part, Children, was difficult to watch. The stark honesty combines with a brave lack of distance between the viewer and the drama to create a painful tale of adolescence. We see a young boy called Robert Tucker (Phillip Mawdsley) struggling with bullies at school, a burgeoning homosexuality, an abusive, dying father (Nick Stringer) and his mother struggling to retain her composure, brilliantly played by Valerie Lilley. We also see an older, lonely version of Robert (a blank faced Robin Hooper). Even in its short length and even considering Davies’ method of juxtaposing abstract memories, there is still a distinct parallel to be drawn between the two versions of Robert and it is hauntingly effective. At the Q&A in Nottingham, one audience member related that Mark Cousins described Davies’ work in his Story of Film TV series as “hope has left the building”. I tend to disagree with this, yet here it could be valid; the closing shot of the younger Robert is devastating, with the last line of dialogue so self-critical, it is almost cruel, a real sting in the tail. Although it is the closing shot it validates the lonely and lost condition of the scenes featuring the older Robert. A brilliant piece of writing, a superb use of narrative, but it’s tough and easily misread as indulgent. It’s worth noting that Davies never again directly tackled the relationship between him and his father. There wasn’t a character who might be Davies in Distant Voices, Still Lives, but there was no father for the boy in The Long Day Closes.

Madonna and Child picks up the story (in a loose sense of the word as this is still fractured memories) with a middle-aged Robert (Terry O’Sullivan). I’ll say straightaway, for any of you put off by how painful Children sounds, this is your reward. Not that it’s a comedy or anything! It’s sad, but in a strangely reassuring, melancholy kind of way. Robert lives with his elderly mother (now played by Sheila Raynor) to whom he is utterly devoted. The scenes between the two of them are quiet and simple, as are the shots of Robert travelling around Liverpool. If these are the two great loves of Terence Davies’ life, it makes sense why they are so comfortingly real, even though they are rather bleak considering there seems to be little future for Robert. He is in turmoil when it comes to religion and sexuality (again, reflective of Davies), resulting in some incredible, abstract scenes, bordering on nightmarish. O’Sullivan’s hang-dog expression can’t quite prepare you for his brave performance when Robert tries to explore the seedier side of homosexuality with the threat of his Catholic upbringing hanging over him and, even more so, his guilt for the effect on his mother should she find out. So, take the scene where Robert waits for his mother to fall asleep before he sneaks out, dressed in leather, to try and get into a gay club. There is a shot of her, still awake, listening to the stairs creak and the door click. Her expression is heart-breaking. And again, when you understand that Davies is essentially relating from his own memories and that he could only imagine that she felt that way, the writing is all the more impressive for its balance.

The use of light and sound in Madonna and Child is so accomplished that transitions between the realistic or the surreal are smoothly done. Is it Davies looking at himself from two angles? The result is beautiful and powerful.

It is more of the same for the final film in the trilogy, Death and Transfiguration. A similar structure to Children, a middle-aged Robert (still Terry O’Sullivan) is alone following the death of his mother, juxtaposed with a much older Robert dying in a hospital. I don’t want to say too much about this part, just that O’Sullivan’s scenes explore his continued struggle with religion and guilt, while the scenes in the hospital are quite brilliantly staged. The final scenes are profound and passionate.

The Terence Davies Trilogy is an easier watch than you might think especially once you’re past part one! And if you do persevere, you are likely to find something pure, honest and fulfilling.

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Reviews

The Woman

Rating: ★★★★★ 

The Woman is an astonishing film and a breath of fresh air. Well… I say “fresh”, but by the end, it’s more “poisonous” and, I hope, toxic enough to leave a mark on American horror, because this sort of thing is essential for the genre to keep respect and relevance in the face of mainstream laziness, even if you don’t like it. It can afford comparisons with the original Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chainsaw Massacre; a satirical and vicious attack on the notions of family and human nature, in particular the sexualisation of women, bolstered by a rich film production from cult director Lucky McKee that is often beautiful, if that doesn’t sound absurd. It’s somewhat at odds with what you expect from cult horror flicks. For a start, consider that much of the film, including the soon to be infamous ending, is in daylight and it is tensely psychological rather than shock tactics so that by the time the credits come up on that brutal finale, it’s more like a release of pressure and you might find yourself thinking of the metaphors that Romero’s best zombie films played with. The zombie sub-genre has surely been all but lost to parody (albeit in excellent style) so The Woman might fill the gap.
It is the story of a family man who finds a feral woman living in the woods behind his house. He captures her and calmly recruits his wife and children in the task of civilising their new friend. Are his motives altruistic? His deluded personality and meek wife and daughter suggest not and the untamed prisoner becomes an unpredictable factor in their dysfunctional lives.

Apparently it is a sequel to Offspring, both films being written by Jack Ketchum, but I haven’t seen that and I highly recommend you too go into this blind if possible. I liked that I didn’t know where the woman came from or why she was living feral. It may be this film is going over themes already covered, but the story is so isolated (she doesn’t speak English, so can’t even give a line of dialogue hinting at her history) it doesn’t matter to new viewers. Plus, both the good and bad critical reception The Woman has received implies it is the more interesting of the two. Certainly McKee directs with a confident passion and focus, suggesting he was able to bring a great personal connection to the story, despite not directing Offspring. Seek that film out as a prequel instead.

The premise and some early sequences hint at torture porn (it isn’t), but while I’ve always leapt to the defence of Hostel at least (not so much the lazy Saw franchise), The Woman is leagues ahead in ambition with a concerted effort to creep under your skin and stay there for days. So much so, it makes an utter mockery of the current penchant for glorified violence that treats abuse like a set piece. The violence in this film is ingrained, necessary and even reserved for quite some time. The narrative seems to signpost many developments and makes them obvious, at odds with dialogue which contains zero exposition, and it has a tendency to be episodic if you’re looking for something wrong. But in fact I like the structure, as it relies on impressive editing and characterisation. This is a film that wants to be clear and needs you to understand even its most subtle tricks, because only with your eyes wide open will you see the big picture of what it’s trying to suggest. Still, it keeps you on your toes as you decide just who are the heroes and villains of this grimy tale. Don’t look for a mystery or cheap scares, but be prepared to wallow in a rich, occasionally humourous, yet always sinister attack on human nature.

Sean Bridgers plays the instigator, Chris Cleek. To all appearances, a successful business man and devoted husband and father, but you quickly realise the family aren’t as happy as he at least expects them to be. His wife Belle (McKee regular Angela Bettis) is subdued and weak, his daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) depressed, hiding a secret, and his son, with whom he is closest (note the divide between male and female), seems the happiest, but has a cruel bullying streak against girls. Zach Rand who plays the quiet Brian possibly has the most interesting role, because his tendency to bully is done on the sly. It’s a delicate and vital character. The Cleek family also features Darlin’ (yes, that’s her name!), who is only five or six at most. She is played by Shyla Molhusen and is an absolute charmer. In many ways, she embodies the contrasts and absurdities in the film; her innocent acceptance of the prisoner gives the story some of its best moments.

In the early stages there is a great deal of nervous humour to be had from the bizarre manner in which Chris calmly secures his rabid prize and then introduces her to his family. He coolly explains it will be their project and responsibility to civilise her. If The Woman can be thought of as Romero-esque satire, and in turn satire is a bedfellow of comedy, it might help you understand the tone of the film when I say that Bridgers reminded me of Will Ferrell! Especially while he explains the “ground rules” to his shocked family and relates how he lost his finger (that’s a great moment, by the way!) to the amusement of Darlin’. While it would have been interesting to see Ferrell use his dumb expression to hide such vicious misogyny in a serious role, I doubt he’d be as believable as Bridgers, presenting us with a man convinced absolutely by his own screwed up views and maintaining an edgy balance of unpredictability. Much of the tension comes directly from him.

The Woman herself is played by Pollyanna McIntosh in an excellent performance as a “devil with a handsome face”, as McKee describes her in an interview included on the Blu-Ray. She has little to do in terms of an arc or dialogue, it’s all about consistency and patience. McIntosh is a lovely natured and attractive English actress, so her transformation into this feral creature is fantastic, especially because, despite her disgusting appearance, she retains her considerable natural sexuality. The film has a sexual undercurrent running throughout, perhaps most obviously embodied by the stunning Carlee Baker, playing Genevieve Raton, Peggy’s teacher, who worries about her pupil and wants to help her. Her casting as a very attractive lesbian borders on exploitive! But it’s just another thread of the satire and she is excellent as one of the most honest natured characters. The story could easily have featured a very religious family, but instead, by considering lust and perversion at the expense of women as the underlying factor, it adds some fresh dynamics and asks some difficult questions about how often the baser animal instincts are buried to appear respectable, and just what is important in a family. Even Darlin’ gets in trouble for kissing boys, and later asks for her cookies to be shaped like little men!

It’s a challenging theory and part of the reason that The Woman has attracted controversy to the extent of critics abandoning the Sundance screening in disgust and accusations of it being nothing more than dressed up torture porn, but as I said before, it really isn’t. Instead, it is intelligent and playful, but with a sharply focused message that maybe scared the critics by being close to home. This film is essentially one very fucked up sitcom! But if by the time the bloody mess of the sickening final act has completed, you still haven’t made your mind up about the intentions of filmmakers, watch right through the credits. There’s a wonderful surprise in a animation that might make you consider watching The Woman again, just to find where the perspective fits in…

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Horrible Bosses

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Often there is no point reviewing a comedy film because what’s funny can be so subjective. It doesn’t matter when the actors are rubbish or the plot makes no sense if it makes you laugh. But I’m making the effort for Horrible Bosses, because it is a good film, with a great cast and it is hilarious.

For a start, the premise is funny, onto which a fiendish plot is built. I don’t mean to sound surprised or flippant! But when was the last time you saw a comedy movie that had an actual plot driven story? Just look at The Hangover II; funny as hell, but the story was so dumb and repetitive, it was almost depressing. But the first Hangover was successful because the characters were realistic and as well as a good plot, Horrible Bosses has the same sort of people. The bosses themselves are absurd, but the employees are largely normal, caught up in a silly situation.

While Anchorman was genuinely hilarious, like all Will Ferrell and/or Ben Stiller films of recent years, it relied on ridiculous characters. That’s getting old and audiences needed a change. Meanwhile Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy) seems to have lost momentum to Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) who has nevertheless failed to capture the same balance of sentimental crudeness Smith was so good at. At least Will Gluck’s Easy A recaptured the teen comedy last year in superb style, and now Seth Gordon is doing the same thing for grown-ups with Horrible Bosses.

 

Read the full review at www.find-dvd-co.uk!

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Reviews

Tower Heist

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

If you like heist movies, you probably remember the line in Ocean’s 11 where George Clooney has a conversation with a silent Brad Pitt. “You think we need one more? You think we need one more. All right, we’ll get one more.” That was to give him a gang of 11 and a film fast and frothy enough to exploit all of them. Tower Heist wheezes along with 5 and can’t even use those properly.

You might think I’m being unfair. This is a Ben Stiller comedy after all, with Eddie Murphy in a supporting role (at last!). It surely isn’t supposed to be cool and slick like Soderbergh’s movie, but consider that Clooney’s lot are far funnier and then you see we have a problem. In fact, we have several.

Ben Stiller is the first one. He’s a genuinely talented comedy actor, but he plays it virtually straight here as manager of The Tower, a prestigious hotel. While it might be commendable that he isn’t relying on gags, it means he has to rely on his characters personality (zero), good dialogue (very rare, aside from a routine about vaginas!) or at least some sort of surprise for the viewer (very predictable instead).

The next problem is director Brett Ratner. Again, it’s commendable he clearly wants to make a film with a little more substance than a rom-com that relies on fart gags and he’s never been that kind of director anyway. Say what you like, but Rush Hour is a decent action flick, a nice attempt at the sub-genre that includes 48 Hours, and here he has Eddie Murphy at his disposal. Except he’s trying to make a heist movie and he just doesn’t have the deft touch required. I don’t know if he’s responsible for the dreadful editing, but the first third drags, setups are never exploited and scenes can feel disjointed. Seriously, though this isn’t that kind of film, mark my words that the DVD release will have “Exclusive Extended Unseen Edition” stamped on it, or at least, deleted scenes running to about 25 minutes. That can’t be excused in a film like this. You need a rhythm and you need to know that the characters know every angle better than you do. There are way too many leaps of faith and contrivances.

Finally there’s the script that pulls every punch. This film plays it so safe. The very funny conversation about “small vaginas” is the only recourse to old sparky Stiller and an edge. It’s not all bad. It’s harmless and optimistic (the plot is about compensating the hotel staff that lost their pensions to wily old crook and soon-to-be-fleeced Alan Alda on the top floor) and the last act where the job is being pulled is a pretty good sequence; though possibly only because you’ve been brainwashed into lowering your expectations over the preceding hour or so.

Where this film does win in a big way is in the supporting cast. Their characters are daft, their motivations confused, but they are great fun and it feels like they could give a lot more, if only the dialogue was there. But in any case, Alan Alda brings some old fashioned class and it was good to see Matthew Broderick adding some natural charm as a down on his luck banker. Gabourey Sidibe, previously seen being brilliant in deadly serious Precious, is a gem with some serious sass! She is the funniest one in the film for definite. Casey Affleck is excellent too because he has to work at making an impact. As a straight man to Stiller, who is already a straight man himself, Affleck was poorly served by the script, but makes the best of it and he’s always worth watching. And of course, we can’t forget Eddie Murphy. Well, we can, after the run of terrible movies for the past decade. Here he is back on old form. I wish there had been room for him to really cut loose, because he proves how good he can still be, especially acting with others; there is no sign of that horrible ego that has weighed down all his movies since Nutty Professor. He could have coaxed more out of Stiller if the script could have allowed it, I’m sure, because that’s what Tea Leoni does. There’s a half-arsed predictable romance between the two of them (Soderbergh again, I know, but Out of Sight this is not), but she like Affleck brings something a bit more punchy to the role and Stiller responds. It’s like he wakes up every time she speaks. I don’t blame him! She’s still sexy and long missed. Just more scenes with the cast being allowed to be freer, then we’d have a cracking movie on our hands instead this strange hybrid of half-efforts.

Tower Heist is out of its depth in the heist genre; it doesn’t flow whether you see it as a full-on comedy or slightly more serious caper, but the cast work hard and by the end, it’s harmless fun that everyone can enjoy. With names like Stiller, Broderick and Murphy it should have been electric, but at least you will leave the film with a smile.

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Realism Reviews

Fellini’s 8½ (Otto e mezzo)

Rating: ★★★★★ 

A film director (Mastroianni) is struggling to find the creativity required to deliver his next movie and consequently is being hassled by industry figures as well as his wife and his mistress. In order to escape his tormentors, the director retreats into a world of memories, dreams and fantasies. The result is a dazzling array of themes and images which make 8 1/2 the quintessential Fellini movie. It also closely mirrors his own problems prior to getting the project off the ground.

Reviewing a film like is quite tough. Easy to recommend, hard to say why, and impossible to say whether you’ll like it, regardless of how much you appreciate it. Suffice to say it is an intensely personal film for the director, Federico Fellini, and it might just be one for you too. Its beauty is intoxicating whatever your conclusion, so dive in, embrace it and let it simmer on your mind.

It has such a varied and playful structure, that scenes can differ wildly, verging on a collection of set-pieces, yet they flow effortlessly together between Guido’s (Mastroianni) present, his fantasies, and his past. His memory of the exotic Saraghina is a stunning moment in particular. There would be a tendency these days to make the memories and dreams overly romantic and strange to emphasise their place in the story, but here the moments in Guido’s reality can be just as theatrical. There is no signposting between them either, challenging your own perception of the events. What I’m trying to say is that there appears to be no design, when of course there is. In fact, it is astonishingly clever as the self-referential dialogue relates to us the difficulty Fellini is having while making his eighth and a half film, within the film we are watching! Phew… I’m reminded of Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation screenplay. He had been asked to adapt a novel and the film is about his attempt and failure to do so. While it bends your mind, it boils down to the writer having a block and working it out on screen. Fellini is doing a similar thing.

Mastroianni is marvellous as Guido and he has a great cast to support him, especially the women. The wonderful Anouk Aimée is his long suffering wife, and may be his and the films anchor, while he is teased in his own mind at least by Claudia Cardinale. Barbara Steele also pops up and her entrance is a real wow moment! I’ve often said I think Hitchcock gave Grace Kelly the best entrance of any actress in Rear Window. I’m tempted to put Barbara’s introduction a close second.

Here in these elements is where the film can easily divide an audience. Guido is exhausted, as much from his affairs as from a previous film, but because we are so focused on him and he is suffering from essentially being too successful, it is easy to see it as pretentious self-pity, which he is suffering at his own convenience, you might say. And the film is clearly so personal to Fellini that it may be auto-biographical, so you can’t help but wonder if he is coming to terms with his own addictions and shortfalls by making . So at the end, he feels better and self-satisfied because he shared it with us? If the film wasn’t so bloody good, its self-serving nature and cheap treatment of women could be offensive.

It does have a light and cheeky sense of humour throughout from the first moment to the end and in truth, you are not forced into sympathising with anyone, things just move along as they would naturally. You see his dreams and fantasies, but it is not some sentimental inner voice relating them to us in retrospect, dictated by a narrative. Indeed it entirely avoids committing to having some sort of focused resolution. We see them as they happen and all his neuroses, faults and ambitions are laid bare. Guido is a hard character to dislike, regardless of your perspective (oddly the same problem his wife has!) and it is possibly the most honest and pure film ever made.

I have recently watched three Italian films from the early 60s that demonstrated how Neo-Realism had evolved. Il Posto, La Commare Secca and Mamma Roma (also 1962). That last one, an early film from Pier Paolo Pasolini, demonstrated how the director was seeking such realism in his work that he didn’t want the audience to entirely forget they were watching a film. As such, there is a brief moment where a young actor stumbles during a dance scene and, embarrassed, his eyes look straight at the camera. Passolini left this ‘mistake’ in as part of the experience. The barriers between the film-makers and their audience were being broken down, even while the film still had a poetic and important story to tell.

Fellini took this to a natural end-point in. There is no story as such to tell as it is merely a snapshot within the film-making process. So it’s an enigma because it could be the purest expression of realism, but there’s surely nowhere else for it to go. And does it even have a point? Well, it is at least a fascinating demonstration of what film can achieve and should be required viewing for everyone. So I suppose it makes its own point, which just sums up the whole, wonderful, infuriating genius of the thing!

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Realism Reviews

Mamma Roma

Rating: ★★★★★ 

I was somewhat reluctant to see Mamma Roma, as I am not a fan of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s more famous and controversial work, such as Salò. Thankfully it is a glorious film with a fascinating story that epitomises the potential of Neo-Realism without losing entertainment value, largely thanks to Anna Magnani’s incredible starring role. It was written in some ways to be a challenge to other Neo-Realist themes of the time and certainly when you consider the style of Il Posto and La Commare Secca, Mamma Roma is definitely angrier.

Mamma Roma is a prostitute who has managed to save enough money to almost escape the trade. She has a new apartment and a market stall, and feels she can now bring her son to live with her in Rome. Ettore is 16 and has been living in a village, but his mother worries about who he mixes with and thinks she can help him live a respectable life with her in the city. Unfortunately, he definitely mixes with the wrong types there, resorts to stealing to buy gifts for his prostitute (ironic!) girlfriend and can’t hold onto a normal job. Mamma Roma does everything she can to keep him safe, but it’s a struggle, not helped when her pimp returns and blackmails her into returning to the streets. It is clear that despite her efforts, Ettore would fare better without her. It is a sombre thought that is never spoken, but there nonetheless.

So she is still trapped and can only rely on others like her. In the last act, there is a reference to The Divine Comedy, reflecting that these characters inhabit a tormented circle of hell they can’t escape. All of the main characters are outsiders of society, such as prostitutes and thieves and there is a damning indictment of the role of religion in society. There is a lot of religious imagery in the film, and note how the Priest is unable to help her son find work because he has not studied and seems to chastise Mamma for wanting a quick answer. In truth, Ettore needs the job to earn self-respect and she is forced to use underhand methods to secure him one. She cannot even rely on the church.

It may sound like a tough story, and it is, but despite their unhealthy lives, Pasolini’s characters are passionate and vivacious, with fruity dialogue (see the opening wedding scene) none more so than Mamma who has a filthy laugh she uses often! The narrative unfolds in a poetic manner, bridged by two sequences when she is walking the streets. She relates a story as she walks, alone in almost complete darkness, but for companions who listen for a time and are then replaced. It makes for a striking effect. While this is firmly a Neo-Realism film, there is still a theatrical staging to the scenes.

Anna Magnani is wonderful as Mamma. She fills the screen with her personality, but can be soft enough to break your heart when she is quieter and lets the intelligence of her character come through. After the exciting wedding scene that opens the film, Pasolini cuts to her years later, just watching her son at a fairground before explaining her plans to him. At this point, Ettore is in full control, but she unwittingly brings him into Rome as an outsider. He is played by Ettore Garofolo and he is very affecting, with a natural screen charisma, very laid back to reflect his character. With some effort, he comes to life with Mamma, first in a funny dance sequence and when he takes her for an exhilarating ride on the new motorbike she has bought him.

But is it all for nothing? His frustration continually gives way to temptation, yet she will not give up on him. The final scene will keep you thinking for some time. The film overall is stunning and I haven’t begun to scratch the surface with this review. It shows Neo-Realism taken to a breaking point, full of metaphor and imagery. The dark plot is not exactly uplifting, but it is very watchable and satisfying.

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Realism Reviews

La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 


Based on a book by Pier Paolo Pasolini, La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper) was Bernardo Bertolucci’s debut. He would go on to more sexually charged work with Last Tango In Paris and the more recent The Dreamers, but there is still an undercurrent of strong passion within this film.

It is essentially a crime thriller in a Neo-Realistic style, structured in a very similar manner to Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Rashomon. Though the comparison can be distracting, La Commare Secca is still a consummate and often beautiful piece of work. The opening scene is quite stunning, especially with the music score, as Bertolucci’s roving camera finally settles on the body of a murdered prostitute near the banks of the river Tiber. The story reveals she was last seen alive in a park and the plot unfolds in flashback as the police interview each suspect who was there that night as well.

As in Citizen Kane, we never see the policeman asking the questions which may imply it is us, the viewer. That idea was explicit in Citizen Kane, but much looser here. What the suspect says in the interview is never the full story, which we see in more detail. Each sequence pauses during a rainstorm to show us the prostitute preparing herself in her apartment, before briefly returning to the current flashback.

The sequences feature a youngster who robs people in the woods with his friends; a chancer working with a woman to demand money from her clients; an aimless soldier; a loner; and a kid who gets in trouble for robbing a homosexual, the same man who reported the body and will eventually identify which of these people was the murderer. The common theme of each suspect and the victim being that they are on the edge of society and there is some irony in them all being suddenly so important.

I found it to be a rather uneven film. The second sequence with the guy dealing with his girlfriends and turning out to be driver for one of them was the best, while the kid who robs the man in the park was very annoying. He and his friends had an incessant habit of giggling between bouts of overacting. Italy’s answer to Beavis and Butthead? Not liking that so much!

The brilliance of the film is in Bertolucci’s directing. He successfully builds a whodunit drama through the film, regardless of the shifting tones between the flashbacks, while each of those is a substantial development in the plot, with a sombre atmosphere each time it returns to the doomed prostitutes apartment. While each sequence is a perfect example of Neo-Realism in itself, what you don’t see between them, you form in your own mind and so a typical crime thriller is unfolding into the spaces.

A good film lessened by its similarity to Rashomon and uneven acting, but still worth seeing for how smoothly Bertolucci weaves the different parts into a cohesive whole.

In La Commare Secca you can possibly see the influences from other world cinema and it is in the comparisons that we find the Realism. For instance, I referred to Citizen Kane’s device of making the viewer feel like the interrogator and how Bertolucci does a similar thing. However, in Kane you could argue it was purely a narrative decision -the audience are tied to one viewpoint until the childhood sequence- whereas in La Commare Secca it isn’t so focused. Perhaps it is there to remind us we are watching a film and make us aware of the other sources which seem to be involving us directly.

This is what fascinates me about this period of film. Although this was an example of Realism, it has matured enough to involve the audience and create a kind of whodunnit plot. So creating a plot by not slavishly adhering to a plot!  Whoa, dude. Where are the drugs?!   You can start to see the seeds of Dario Argento’s movies too. His approach is often compared to Hitchcock, because of how the narrative is aware of an audience and plays up to them, but that’s starting to creep through here as well.

What’s also nice about this period is how closely some of the film-makers were working together, specifically exploring the limits (or not) of their Genre. So La Commare Secca was written by Pasolini, who also directed the Mamma Roma.

 

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Realism Reviews

Il Posto (The Sound of Trumpets)

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Director Ermanno Olmi’s apparently auto-biographical film is charming, precise and ultimately melancholic. It isn’t as attacking as some other examples of Neo-Realism, as it tackles the inevitable resignation to work that none of us can do much about, but does so with humour and can be oddly uplifting. The story follows a young man from a relatively poor rural background as he visits the fast developing city to take a series of tests before getting a job in a large corporation, where he will have “a job for life” as his father has told him. The films message subtly balances the pride of getting such a job and the promise of what it could bring, with the awful banality of the work and the daunting prospect of “for life” that most of us face! The themes in that sense are as relevant now as they ever were, despite lacking a more pointed agenda that might have aged the film. Putting aside Neo-Realism for the moment, Il Posto shares some DNA with films as diverse as Ikuru, The Apartment, Billy Liar and even Brazil or Office Space!

Olmi directs with a graceful style, long shots and fairly neutral lighting, somewhat typical of Neo-Realism. Such restrain in some cases can cause a film to appear unfocused, but Olmni has all sorts of character moments to give it substance. The relationship between the boy and his parents is particularly wonderful.

Sandro Panseri is excellent in the lead role as Domenico. He has an awkward Buster Keaton quality about him, as we see a range of emotions despite a fairly impassive face and an ever present air of bewilderment. The only thing he seems absolutely sure of is his attraction to Loredana Detto as Antonietta, a girl going through the same process that he can’t take his eyes off.

There is a wonderful sequence during their lunch break on that first day, as he tentatively plucks up courage to speak to her and they get a coffee together, which seems like an adventure on its own! Before reaching the café, they have passed by all sorts of materialistic attractions that they may be able to afford sometime and a psychologist could have a field day with the quiet character moments between them. No pointed dialogue, no exposition, yet it is as rich and captivating as any Hollywood romance you might care to mention, even though there is no plot to speak of that will allow for a contrived relationship between them. In fact, when they are assigned departments, Domenico struggles to find her again.

This indistinct plot allows Olmi to explore other employees at the corporation and the narrative steps away from Domenico in the middle act for brief vignettes, including a lady who keeps arriving late because of her irresponsible children, a talented man who sings at a bar in the evenings and an aspiring writer. As we catch up with Domenico, these other workers colour the scenes. Note for instance the key moment at a company dance where Domenico is desperately hoping Antonietta will turn up. The man who can sing asks to join in with the band, but they make apologetic excuses so he can’t. Even when they’re supposed to be having fun, the company manages to dull the things that make them individual.

The final scene is a superb culmination of the themes, with a touch of sentimentality setting up a sharply ironic conclusion. Olmi closes on Domenico’s bemused expression and despite this fantastic film being 50 years old, you might ask how much of yourself you see in those eyes!

A wonderful film that is occasionally funny and profound, with a critically sharp observation on society that doesn’t feel dated at all. This is highly recommended and if you are looking to explore Neo-Realism for the first time, this is as good a point as any.

Compared with Bicycle Thieves, there is more of a narrative to Il Posto and a kind of invitation to the viewer to be complicit in what they are seeing and how they react. It’s important to say at this point though that if you completely put aside the notions of Realism, Il Posto is simply a bloody wonderful film. It makes me smile, just to think about it. It’s worth watching simply because it exists and requires no further analysis.

Categories
Realism Reviews

Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette)

Rating: ★★★★★ 


Hailed around the world as one of the greatest movies ever made, Vittorio De Sica’s Academy Award-winning Bicycle Thieves defined an era in cinema. In postwar, poverty-stricken Rome, a man hoping to support his desperate family with a new job loses his bicycle, his main means of transportation for work. With his wide-eyed young son in tow, he sets off to track down the thief. Simple in construction and dazzlingly rich in human insight, Bicycle Thieves embodied all the greatest strengths of the Italian neorealist movement: emotional clarity, social righteousness, and brutal honesty.

Bicycle Thieves should be required viewing by any modern film-maker. Without money, without hype you can still make something genuine and powerful, in fact, more so. When you think about the story, there is no escaping the misery. Antonio finally has a job, but his bicycle is essential and it’s in the pawn shop. His wife, Maria, pawns her linen, which was part of her dowry, to get the bike back. And then on Antonio’s first day, it gets nicked! The following day, he and his son Bruno traipse around the city trying to track it down, while a sense builds that this is part of a cycle (no pun intended) and the people who stole it are not malicious, but suffer the same daily problems. How long can a good man survive? And that is it so far as a plot is concerned.

Barrel of laughs that one, eh? But there is a point to Italian Neo-Realism, which is easiest thought of as the opposite of German Expressionism, which uses visual storytelling to wring potential out of every scene, usually via a set or even a scale model of a set, so every angle can be controlled. Mise en Scene becomes essential as everything is carefully tailored to express the meaning behind the story. Neo-Realism never uses manipulation like that. Locations are real and everything is stripped back to bare essentials, to reveal a social conscience with absolute honesty. Casts are often made up of normal people and dialogue is succinct and real. Small moments normally dismissed as superfluous become huge, while a sense of mood and the tiniest gestures take on paramount importance.

In this story, while chasing that bike, you see what’s really important for Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani). You might hardly notice on a first viewing the way his relationship with his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) is drip-fed in with the most delicate touches and it is the same for the character who in a sense is losing focus of what’s important. Not to downplay the importance of that bicycle, it really is essential, but the longer he spends running around after it, the more likely things will get worse. So a story that on paper is sorrowful becomes magical. The key to this is in no small part to the natural charisma of Staiola as Bruno and his expressions in the pivotal cafe scene are wonderful. If you want an emotional connection to characters, there are none better than Bicycle Thieves and you will be rewarded with a sublime ending.

It’s a technique I’d love to see used more full-blooded these days too. I suppose it’s a technique that offers nowhere to hide so if the film is rubbish, you can’t rescue it in editing. It will always be crap! Bicycle Thieves is one of the reasons I get frustrated by “greatest films” lists. I love Citizen Kane, but this film, which came eight years later or so, is just as important for an entirely different approach. How can one be “better” than the other? Hitchcock, steeped in German Expressionism, nevertheless would be quicker to thank the Italians for elements of I Confess or especially The Wrong Man.

Categories
Reviews

Everywhere and Nowhere

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

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When asked where he comes from, Ash (James Floyd) replies, “everywhere and nowhere”. Everywhere being that he was born in the UK to a traditional Pakistani family where his older brother, Ahmed (Alvy Khan), is his guardian and who encourages him to embrace his heritage. But nowhere because he’s a teenager, trying to find a direction in life, preferably to be a DJ and mix with his friends, eschewing his traditional and strict upbringing.

The story of a teenager trying to please his family and follow his ambition at the same time is an old one, but always relevant and perhaps more so for this current generation of Asian youth. Ash considers himself British and more importantly, his is possibly the first Asian generation that is largely accepted as British, so the story refreshingly has almost no racism agenda outside of his older brother’s ignorance. The conflict comes not from the community refusing to accept Ash (on the contrary, his friends encourage him), but from his brother assuming the community is the same one he grew up in suffering persecution. His success as a small business man has made him arrogant and elitist. He still has a “them and us” attitude, so he assumes Ash must follow him into that business and keep away from the filthy nightclubs. In fact, it seems to be to keep away from anyone who isn’t Pakistani.

The theme extends to Ash’s sister (Shivani Ghai), who despite encouraging Ash to be proud of his talent, nevertheless is in an inter-racial relationship with Ronnie (Simon Webbe) that she can’t bring herself to reveal because the family wouldn’t accept him. And the idea of family loyalty is further explored in Ash’s friends, Zaf (Adam Deacon) who is streetwise, but devoted to his ill father, and Jaz (Elyes Gabel) who sleeps around, yet is talking about accepting an arranged marriage as the easy option, therefore possibly exploiting the very traditions he otherwise seems to rebel against. Finally there is Ash’s cousin Riz (Neet Mohan) who is impressionable and being seduced by extremist ideas.

That was an interesting angle that could have been built on more, but it’s let down by a dreadful cliché of a scene, the only time the film feels truly clumsy. Riz is pulled over for no reason by a policeman (Dexter Fletcher), who is such an unlikely stereotype, you think the film must be poking fun at him and the idea that Asian youths get stopped by police on a whim. Yet the scene then validates the police action because they find leaflets in the car! It needed Four Lions confidence to make that work. Any notions that the film had lost its way are forgotten during a fantastic club scene, where Ronnie gives Ash a chance to DJ. It’s exhilarating stuff and revitalises the story as Ash’s ambition is now validated. Music is a big part of the film throughout, as you might expect, and it all comes together here.

Menhaj Huda is not an overly ambitious director and he keeps focus on the characters and story. The narrative is straightforward and borderline naïve, predictable in many ways, but the quality cast treat it honestly and make it easily watchable. The relationship between Ash and his various family members (including Shaheen Khan and Art Malik) is very well realised. Alvy Khan is particularly good in an awkward role to judge as the brother. The supporting cast of friends vary, but Elyes Gabel stands out (some may recognise him from his long stint on Casualty) especially in a very funny scene on a cricket pitch. Katia Winter brings confidence to the role of Ash’s love interest and her scenes always seem to bring a spark to the story.

Without any hint of hyperbole, Everywhere And Nowhere has potential to be as relevant to this generation of Asian youth as Billy Liar did to the post-war teenager. It also stands as a more optimistic companion to This Is England or Trainspotting, not to mention undermining the cynicism of My Beautiful Laundrette. It just isn’t sharp enough to match up to those previous films, but hopefully that won’t matter to the target audience and they’ll take it under their wing. It deserves such attention.