Saturday, November 27, 2010

I Am Love

2010, Italy, directed by Luda Guadagnino (Original title: Io sono l'amore)

Luca Guadagnino's film is an adept and enthralling latter-day re-working of some of the melodramatic territory of both Sirk and Hitchcock, but without the literal-mindedness of Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven, a compelling film that nonetheless remained tied rather too closely to its inspiration, unable to imagine the same emotional territory in a different setting.

Hitchcock's influence is most obvious in Guadagnino's use of music, heightening already tense scenes, or adding danger where none initially seems present - and pushing right to the limits of the absurd, such as in a sequence where Tilda Swinton, the film's central character, accidentally runs into a chef friend of her son's. His profession is central to the film's theme of food as a method of communication and as a store of memories; a particular soup recipe, borne from Russia to Italy, is at the heart of the narrative, precipitating the film's most shocking, change of tone (which recalls a similar moment in another Italian film, The Best of Youth).

There's an extraordinary sensuousness to the film, where everything is heightened, whether it's the intensity - almost frenzied - of the music, the close-ups of glistening food, the quick rhythm of a dash through a town, or the abstract, sun-dappled body parts on a lazy summer afternoon (Guadagnino slows the film right down for this sequence, as if to emphasize each blade of grass, each breath, recalling the languid pace of Apichatpong Weerasethakul).

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Fall

2006, US/India, directed by Tarsem (Singh)

Shot in some 18 different countries, Tarsem's second feature is both a gorgeous travelogue - at times it's like a National Geographic greatest hits - and a self-deprecating fable, entirely aware of its own potential portentousness and using humour to keep the tall tale grounded. It's also a surprisingly deft commentary on the magic of early movies, seamlessly integrating action sequences from invented films of the 1920s, and paying homage to the extraordinary feats of early stuntmen by avoiding computerised special effects. The film interweaves the framing story of an invalid in a Los Angeles hospital with the yarns he spins for a fellow patient, a little girl. The boundary between reality and invention is always fluid, and is comprehensively breached as the film progresses, with the storyteller and his audience suddenly intruding into the stories. The location work is quite extraordinary, a gorgeous cascade of imagery from Italy to India, with dazzling geometric patterns and colours (such as in the shot of Jodhpur, above); the warm, languid atmosphere of the hospital allows us to return, briefly, to earth between chapters.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

An Education

2009, UK, directed by Lone Scherfig

The central narrative of An Education holds few great surprises - from the beginning, the romance between Jenny (Carey Mulligan) and her suave, older suitor David (Peter Sarsgaard) is undercut by musical suggestions of problems on the horizon - but Lone Scherfig is more interested in using that simple template to comment on early 1960s England. In that, she's largely successful, deploying the film's title in multiple overlapping ways: the romance itself becomes an initiation into the ways of the world, compromising, at least for a time, Jenny's path to a place in Oxford (the obsession of her suburban London father). But the film is also about the lessons that Jenny misses: the fraught social status of her Jewish paramour, desperate for acceptance in worlds that are still off limits to him, or the even more precarious social standing of a black family that Jenny sees, fleetingly, through a car window. Scherfig is an acute observer of the fine gradations of the British class system - Jenny is as snobbish as they come, despite being an up and comer herself - as well as the British tendency to romanticize its urban gangsters, in the scenes at a dog track where Peter mixes with the more brutish end of the criminal fraternity.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


2006, Japan, directed by Satoshi Kon

As with other anime films I've seen, Paprika seems to have two distinct levels of imagery, the one relatively straightforward and almost plain in terms of the visual approach - simple line drawings, and characters who don't look all that different to those from children's animation shows - and the other extraordinarily rich in colour, tone, and background detail. The contrast seems especially effective here, however, where the film revolves around the interplay between the "real" and dream worlds, with the two gradually becoming ever more closely entwined, with the bizarre imagery of the dream world ultimately invading the workaday reality. The film's complicated plot and constant back and forth switching - and occasionally even the specific imagery, such as the use of elevators or a floating body in a hotel lobby - seem to share something with the - later - Inception, providing an interesting complementary approach to some of the same ideas of shared dreams and psychological exploration.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Secret of Kells

2009, France/Belgium/Ireland, directed by Tomm Moore

As you might expected, the visuals are the thing here, with Tomm Moore's film making liberal use of inspiration from the Book of Kells itself, and other Celtic/religious artwork of the period. He finds much of the visual energy latent in the original drawings and breathes literal life into those pictures, giving us a sense of the world from which the art emerged without being excessively literal. This is, after all, a mythological origin story rather than a history, taking one of the possible explanations for the creation of the Book of Kells and running with it.

At times, the imagery is so powerful that it seems to overwhelm the characters: while the young characters' voices are wonderfully evocative and the late, lamented Mick Lally does a fine job as Brother Aidan, Brendan Gleeson's abbot seems somehow remote from what we see onscreen, as though his otherwise rich voice doesn't quite jell with the images.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Town

2010, US, directed by Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck has spun a pretty decent career out of his Boston connection, and as in his previous film, Gone Baby Gone, he proves to be an adept chronicler of the city, particularly in its blue-collar incarnation, with a good sense of the invisible lines that criss-cross the area, and the mental maps by which people conceive of their territories. That lends a real edge, for instance, to the unexpected entrance of Jeremy Renner to a sun-dappled Harvard square scene: not only is he unwelcome in the particular context, but in another sense he shouldn't be there at all, not wandering on that street at that time.

The film isn't quite as downbeat as its predecessor, finishing on a possibly redemptive note (that recalls, perhaps deliberately, the conclusion of The Shawshank Redemption), while recognizing the complex, troubled morality of Affleck's character; Affleck as director suggests that his freedom is simply another form of prison, with sins to be purged. There's also an enjoyable vein of humour, sometimes of the darkest kind, in the cat and mouse interplay with Jon Hamm's FBI agent, as well as in a terrific visual joke after one of the bank robberies that structure the film.

Affleck's style remains unfussy and straightforward: it's clear that he doesn't feel the need for directorial fireworks, a sign of confidence in both his material and his actors. He's also attentive to the casting of both the key supporting roles and the film's smaller parts, whether through the use of local non-professionals or seasoned performers like Pete Postlethwaite (recycling his In the Name of the Father Belfast accent), Jeremy Renner, and Chris Cooper, while also integrating fresher faces like Rebecca Hall, who played a crucial part in the first film of the Red Riding trilogy. While Affleck manages to give almost all of his actors a scene or two in which to shine, he's careful, however, to ensure that this doesn't detract from the film's momentum. That's a flaw in several of Judd Apatow's films, for instance: his work is constantly grinding to a halt because of the director's generosity toward his players.


List of all movies

Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States