Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Hunt: pointing the finger

TheHunt

As luck would have it Thomas Vinterberg’s new film The Hunt, about a blameless teacher accused of interfering sexually with children in his care, finds itself released in the UK at the same time as a tabloid-driven storm of speculation is raging as to the identities of former celebrities who may or may not be guilty of paedophilia. It’s not bad timing really – at the minute it feels like pretty much any TV presenter who ever shared a settee with a minor is fair game, and Vinterberg’s film is a salutory reminder that individuals are innocent until proven guilty and that misplaced outrage, however well-intentioned, can end up ruining people’s lives.

The unfortunate whipping-boy at the centre of The Hunt is Lucas, played by Mads Mikkelsen, whose only crime is to be genuinely fond of the children at the nursery he works at and to unwittingly trigger a foolish lie from the five year old daughter of his best friend when he gently admonishes her for the over-familiar attachment she has formed on him. The girl’s capricious story of how he exposed himself to her is taken very seriously by the nursery’s head and Lucas finds himself quickly without either a job or the support of most of his friends when other children start to corroborate the fantasy. He’s arrested but released in short order once it becomes clear that there’s no evidence against him, but by then the damage is done and he’s forced to go to ground and rely on the support of his teenage son and his once remaining friend, with even the local supermarket refusing to serve him. Eventually things come to a head, and while some of the events shown may come over as a bit melodramatic there’s no doubting the raw anger of the wronged man.

Until now Vinterberg’s probably best known for Festen, one of the first films made according to the Dogme 95 rules of no artificial lighting, no imposed soundtrack and plenty of handheld camera, and interestingly that movie too hinged upon an accusation of child abuse, though there it played out mainly as black comedy. The Hunt is a lot straighter, both in the way the subject is handled and in the way it’s shot, though the directness of approach remains: this film is immediately accessible and quickly gripping, with the focus much more on the characters and the difficult choices they’re forced into than any slick cinematic oneupmanship. The tone established in the first half hour or so is gentle and warm, with Lucas set up as the friendly everyman with a gift for making friends with people – this makes the eventual slide for him into pariah status positively gut-wrenching for the audience, and there are a couple of scenes which I found very hard indeed. Nonetheless, this is an extremely worthwhile piece of work, particularly right now, for the dangers it highlights in making hasty judgements and following a mob to prove one’s one righteousness.

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Amour

Director Michael Haneke has a reputation for making films that are a difficult watch and a bare description of his new one Amour doesn’t exactly make it sound appetising: set almost entirely in a Parisian apartment it’s an unflinching depiction of the gradual physical decline of a proud and intelligent eighty-something woman following two severe strokes and the distress and unwanted responsibilities this visits upon her devoted husband. Strangely though given the subject matter this would appear to be the work with which Haneke has turned a corner away from arbitrary cruelty and a pessimistic view of human nature and towards the possibility of redemption – you could still never accuse him of any kind of sentimentality, but these feel like real people with real inner lives and while they both have moments of weakness and anger the lasting bond between them is made very clear.

A piece this intimate is crucially dependent on its actors and thankfully veterans Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are both utterly outstanding. Trintignant is on screen more or less throughout and carries most of the weight as the deeply concerned but always rational Georges, who copes with indignities such as learning how to change his wife’s diapers and having to fire unreliable nurses as well as he does with the strain of having to be constantly on call, while Riva’s skill at getting across the agony and frustration of someone whose basic physical and mental functions are being stolen from her one by one is extraordinary. She’s so good at playing disabled in the later scenes that sometimes it feels genuinely intrusive and exploitative to be watching her. Despite the hired help Georges is more or less on his own with the situation and is determined to respect his wife’s wish to remain at home for as long as he can, rejecting their daughter’s attempts to intervene as being mainly self-motivated. There’s not much mystery as to how a story like this is going to end, and in fact Haneke removes some of the suspense with a prologue showing the fire department breaking into the apartment, but the final sequences keep you watching nonetheless by bringing in a subtly spiritual undertow.

This is a long film and could easily have turned out to be unbearably grim but the clue to why it’s instead both enthralling and ultimately uplifting is in the title. This is as much the tenderest of love stories as it is a stark portrayal of the inevitable procession towards death and as such it’s a remarkable achievement.

The Master: wouldn’t you prefer a margarita…?

I guess awards season must be coming up because there seems to be a battalion of serious weighty movies lined up on the horizon for our consideration (Michael Haneke’s Amour, and Spielberg’s Lincoln for example). So what better practice for the long chin-strokey hours I’m therefore going to be spending in dark rooms this winter than possibly the weightiest and chewiest of them all, Paul Thomas Anderson’s fresh slab of critic-bait The Master, which has already attracted a slew of rave, if sometimes bewildered, reviews from people who are supposed to know about such things? Although, actually, I’m was quite looking forward to this one – I’m an Anderson fan, mainly, and I don’t mind sitting through two hours or so of perplexing, if always superbly rendered, footage of people wrestling obscure personal demons in period costumes if it means you get the odd electrifyingly bizarre scene like Daniel Day-Lewis’s bowling alley wig-out at the end of There Will Be Blood thrown in.

The Master, like its immediate predecessor TWBB, is a highly idiosyncratic rummage through behavioural anomalies amongst the fringes and frontiers of the American past. It’s essentially a two-hander between Freddie Quell, a royally messed-up marine who’s demobbed at the end of World War II, and Lancaster Dodd, a self-styled philosopher who’s the figurehead for a nascent Scientology-style cult. When we first meet Quell he doesn’t seem interested in much beyond indulging his base appetites for rough sex and even rougher alcohol, which he concocts himself from whatever spirits and raw materials there are to hand, but when he lucks his way into Dodd’s orbit he seems to want to rise to the challenge of fitting in to a community, although he still never seems to be far away from an impulsive fist-fight. The considerably more worldly Dodd for his part seems fascinated by Quell, though whether this is because he considers the younger man a worthy experiment or just a useful source of strong and unusual liquor is never made fully clear.

And in a narrative sense that’s pretty much all there is to the film. The first hour is the most satisfying as we get to witness several queasy instances of Quell’s malfunctioning in polite society before we’re introduced to Dodd and his circle of family and intimates but from then on it feels like we’re waiting for a development that never quite happens: an exposé or a revelation or a tragedy or an epiphany even. What we get instead is closer to a dual character study, and thankfully both lead actors are always magnetically watchable, despite the lingering sense that nothing much is happening. Joaquin Phoenix proved in Walk The Line that he’s a natural for broody, inarticulate outsider roles and his Quell is a physically demanding tour-de-force – when he’s not beating someone up or leching horribly over some woman he’s being made the subject of some extended and unforgiving close-ups that demonstrate how much a good actor can communicate without using words. Phoenix manages to project a kind of wrongness even when he’s just walking, suggesting a twisted self-loathing inner being that’s never going to be straightened out by a subscription to a hokey cod-religion. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Dodd by contrast is a man who likes to seem entirely in control of any situation, and his avuncularity and well-fed charisma remind me quite a lot of Orson Welles. Dodd knows how to win a crowd by using humour, and he even enjoys singing for his disciples, but hints of his true character are seen when his temper snaps on the rare occasions that his ludicrous belief system is challenged. I’ve seen Hoffman in dozens of films over the last fifteen years or so but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him give a performance as nuanced as this one before.

It also helps the time pass while you’re waiting for the non-existent pay-off that the movie is as handsomely designed and painstakingly accurate in its recreation of mid 20th Century America as it is. We get department stores, ocean liners, big suburban houses and conference centres all looking spot-on, and also one or two sequences set in plains, beaches and rocky wasteland that help break up the sometimes deliberately claustrophobic feel of the film. There are even a couple of scenes towards the end set in austerity-era England. Jonny Greenwood’s unconventional and vaguely free-jazzy score is also worth a mention for managing the trick of being both strikingly modern and a good fit for the time period. Even so, high production values and Oscar-worthy acting don’t necessarily add up to a masterpiece. I’m hesitant to pass judgement on The Master, as on past form I tend to like Anderson’s works a lot better on a second viewing (the first time I saw Magnolia I found it literally exhausting, but now it’s one of my favourite films). It’s certainly well-made, and it’s certainly not like anything else. It’s just that at the minute I’m not really sure what the point of it was.

Notes on Red Dwarf X

Well, that was surprisingly…not terrible.

It might not win me any points in the serious movie critic stakes but way back in the day I was a big fan of Red Dwarf. Round about the end of the 1980s, when the original run of Doctor Who was going through an extended and widely derided death rattle and plush US product such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X Files were yet to wash up on the shores of British programming, there wasn’t a whole lot of TV sci-fi to choose from. There was however a comedy series set on a mining ship three million years in the future which over six series quietly evolved from a zero-budget variation of the classic “two men who can’t stand each other trapped in a room” sit-com scenario (see Steptoe and Son) to a witty and tightly paced vehicle for some really imaginative takes on the sort of ideas about identity that wouldn’t be out of place in a Philip K. Dick story. Characters would come face-to-face with alternate, and frequently deviant, versions of themselves, or be suddenly woken up to the horrible realisation that their whole existence has been a video game. It was in some ways pretty heady stuff for something made by the light entertainment department. In other ways however Red Dwarf qualified easily as a classic sit-com, with its strong character-based humour deriving naturally from the interactions between its small cast of misfits and losers: Lister the slob, Rimmer the officious coward (deceased), the wisecracking narcissist Cat and the fussy and neurotic service-droid Kryten. The fifth series in particular is for me one of the most consistently funny and rewatchable batch of comedies the BBC ever put out, up there with the best of Fawlty Towers and Blackadder (and God knows how many times I rewatched it back in the days before I could entertain myself with DVDs and multi-screen arthouse cinemas).

And then, as any long-running series tends to, it went off the boil. By the mid-90s the Dwarf was a definite cult, with the weight of expectation that implies, and the seventh and eighth series were both disappointments. Part of this is down to personnel changes – co-creator Rob Grant had left, leaving his partner Doug Naylor to recruit other writers to help him with the scripts, and crucially actor Chris Barrie took a sabbatical, leaving four episodes fatally Rimmer-less – but the main factor in the relative failure of these shows is the well-intentioned but ultimately misguided decision to water down Red Dwarf‘s original premise, firstly by tacking towards comedy-drama rather than out-and-out laughs, and then by introducing a resurrected full ship’s crew. In addition to this, the neat and ingenious cod-scientific concepts at the heart of the episodes had been largely replaced by slick but facile digital effects. It all just wasn’t the same, and the series was rested in 1999, with vague talk about a feature film not exactly inspiring hope in the fans that remembered how specious a similar aspiration regarding the future of the never officially cancelled Doctor Who had turned out to be.

Now then. We’re not quite three million years into the future yet but we’re far enough for there to now be myriad digital TV channels looking around for audience-pulling content and no cult series can now be left in peace if there’s any possibility of milking it further. One of the more prominent of these channels is called Dave, and it’s probably best known for endlessly re-running old editions of Top Gear to reasonably healthy effect, in terms of ratings anyway. A while back they also started repeating Red Dwarf, which is in some ways a pretty good fit for the station’s cheerily laddy image, what with the running jokes about lager and curry and personal hygiene and the all-male crew who never encounter women who aren’t either impossible objects of desire or homicidal dominatrixes. Again the ratings were good, so when Dave started to get serious about generating some original programming the Dwarf seemed like a prime candidate for a re-boot, given that the cast and writer were still alive and kicking, and the BBC didn’t seem to have any interest in continuing the show. The first fruit of the revivified franchise emerged in 2009 in the form of a three part special called Red Dwarf: Back To Earth (or IX if we’re keeping count), and although it was a bit cheap and shoddy and got fairly mauled critically it did at least prove that there was still an appetite for this stuff. A full series of six half hour episodes got commissioned and it’s this that’s just finished its run as Red Dwarf X.

The new series has got all the significant players in position, though it’s a shame that Rob Grant didn’t come back as a co-writer. It’s got the same cast, although as the ship computer Holly doesn’t appear neither do either Norman Lovett or Hattie Hayridge, and over twenty years down the line they really don’t look half bad and are as on top of their characters as ever. Danny John-Jules in particular doesn’t look a day older than he did in 1988. The theme music and opening montage are present and correct, as are the Alien-inspired spaceship sets, and while I can’t quite work out how it fits exactly with the continuity of the earlier series that’s not the sort of thing it’s worth losing sleep about.

And you know what? It’s surprisingly not terrible. And you know what else? Unlike series VII and VIII it actually feels like Red Dwarf. Like old old Red Dwarf actually, as in the first couple of series before the sci-fi and action elements started coming to the fore. It’s probably more to do with budgetary limitations than anything else, but this series restores the claustrophobic time-killing feel of yore, with many scenes being basically extended rants or petty arguments about protocol or wistful reminisces or workings out of personal complexes. There is usually a storyline or two but there’s no desperate urgency on the part of either the writer or the characters to get on to the next plot point, and one of the best episodes (Dear Dave) is quite happy not to get started at all and exist solely as a deep space shaggy dog story. And despite the generally relaxed tone there are one or two cleverly worked through faux sci-fi devices that stand comparison to the Dwarf of my youth (the condescending computer that predicts behaviour and adjusts conditions accordingly and the teleporter that’s powered by lemons, for example). I had low expectations but I found myself laughing quite a few times once I’d adjusted to the pace (and the ad-breaks! Sacrilege!) While this is hardly a Universe-bestriding triumph of a resurrection on the scale of 21st Century Doctor Who it’s still very nice to spend some time with. Preferably with some tins of lager and a takeaway. Not terrible is the new cutting-edge, and I’m old enough to be very comfortable with that.

The Sapphires: full Motown jacket

Anyone up for a feelgood musical comedy set in the Vietnam war? The Sapphires, directed by Wayne Blair and based on real events, makes a pretty good job of this rather challenging brief, and while it does have some awkward shifts in tone it’s always likeable and often funny, and features some unarguably great songs (unless you really don’t like 1960s soul, in which case may the good Lord have mercy on you).

The Sapphires of the title are a close harmony group made up of three aborigine sisters plus friend who we first meet in their dusty outback town performing country songs to general indifference under the rather less catchy handle The Cummaraganja Songbirds. A boozy Irish entertainments manager with a heart of gold (Chris O’Dowd, from The IT Crowd) takes them under his wing when word gets out that there’s money to be made playing for the American troops in South-East Asia, and it’s his passion for soul music that instigates their change of direction. Through hard work and raw talent they get the gig (cue the venerable rehearsal montage), but unsurprisingly the assignment carries risks that aren’t all to do with their new careers.

The first part of the film is painted in rather broad comedic strokes, with little time wasted on making the turns in the girls’ fortunes properly convincing, and many scenes played mainly for laughs. This is fine, as the sisters’ contrasting personalities are well drawn, and the potential for future conflict between them is nicely established, and there are lots of opportunities for sharp digs at the prevailing stuffy social attitudes of the period. Chris O’Dowd’s unreliable svengali character is a bit of a cliché but he gets some cracking lines and makes the most of them. I was finding myself being reminded of quite a few other films – the brilliant moonlanding comedy The Dish, the suburban civil rights clashes of The Help, some of Baz Luhrmann, and there’s even a bit of overlap with the aborigine child abduction scandal of Rabbit Proof Fence – but I think if these references were deliberate they were put in more of a shorthand to cut to the chase than as blatant acts of plagiarism. It’s all quite breezy and digestible, even past the point when the group has shipped out to ‘Nam and is having to deal with different cultures and testing environments. Eventually however the mood changes and a couple of much more weighty subplots kick in, and while you can respect the film-makers’ good intentions in not wanting to trivialise a horrible war the movie does seem to slide into melodrama in its last half-hour. There’s even an unlikely declaration of love grafted on, which frankly hasn’t been set up nearly well enough.

Where The Sapphires does redeem itself though is in its musical sections, which occur often and never miss the mark. The group’s unaccompanied harmonies are spellbinding, and when they’re backed by a full group it’s high energy all the way, complete with spangly dresses. It’s enough to make you sweep your hair into a beehive and spend some quality time pouting into a hairbrush in front of the bedroom mirror. Or the grapevine.

Rust and Bone: going swimmingly

Rust and Bone is a raw and gritty love story from director Jacques Audiard, whose last film was the harrowing prison drama A Prophet. This new one’s a much easier watch, even if it is liberally studded with abrasive arguments and reversals of fortune, mainly because there’s a real sense of redemption here with the characters eventually transcending their misfortunes, which range from the petty to the life-shattering.

The two main players here are Ali, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, a kind-hearted chancer who’s washed up at his sister’s house with his young son in tow at a coastal town in the South of France, and Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a trainer of killer whales. Ali’s scraping a living through a string of security and doorman jobs but doesn’t seem too bothered about life, except when his responsibilities towards his son are brought to his attention – he’s happy to spend his free time making money in terrifying backstreet boxing matches and indulging in guilt-free casual sex. He’s a nice enough guy though to want to help Stéphanie out when she suffers a personal calamity although he barely knows her, and he doesn’t seem to be motivated to do this out of anything other than his essential good nature. She in turn starts to be drawn to him, but this isn’t anything like your standard issue Hollywood romance. The two are obviously attracted to each other but there are plenty of gnarly complications and differences of outlook to work through if they’re ever going to make it work. By the end both characters have been put through the mill, and both have learned to cope with what they’ve been missing.

So this is a pretty involving, well-considered piece of work but: I’ve got to say I was distracted throughout by one specific aspect which kept me from really surrendering to it. Ironically, it’s the success with which the film-makers achieved one particular physical effect that kept stopping me in my tracks – in the interest of avoiding spoilers I’ll stop here and won’t say any more other than “How the hell did they do that?”

P.S. Soundtrack note: there’s some good use of modern rock and indie songs, but after hearing John Cooper Clarke last week say how proud he was that his Evidently Chickentown was used on The Sopranos it was particularly nice for it to also crop up here.