Film of the Month: Amour
Director: Michael Haneke Stars: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
Haneke’s deserved Palme D’or winner is a surprisingly tender but typically unflinching study of love and loss. Veteran French actors Jean-Louis Tringtignant and Emmanuelle Riva are married couple and retired music teachers, Georges and Anne. Now in their eighties they live in a tastefully furnished large apartment in Paris. The couple are devoted and affectionate but their lives are disrupted when Anne suffers the first in a series of strokes, which leave her paralysed down one side and unable to play their grand piano. Anne makes Georges swear to her that she will not be placed in a home but as her health deteriorates further the strain on the couple begins to tell, with visits from her daughter (Huppert) and a former student only serving to underline their estrangement from the outside world. Save for an introductory scene at the theatre, the story unfolds entirely in the confines of the couple’s apartment, photographed in an appropriately wintry grey. While Haneke has been criticised for a clinical and schematic approach to filmmaking, here he exhibits a real compassion towards his characters, with Trintignant and Rivette delivering richly nuanced and fearless performances. A clear-headed, horrifying and devastatingly moving picture.
Film of the Month 2: Rust and Bone
Director: Jacques Audiard Stars: Matthias Schoenaerts, Marion Cotillard, Armand Verdure, Corinne Masiero
What initially sounds like a departure from French director Audiard’s recent work - accomplished crime pictures such as ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’ and ‘A Prophet’ - is actually an equally tough and gritty love story between two damaged characters. Cotillard is Stephanie a trainer who conducts Orca whales through routines at a marine park in the south of France. One night out clubbing she runs into Ali (Schoenaerts) a bouncer with a sideline in bare-knuckle boxing. Ali takes her home one night after an incident at the club but does not take advantage of her, which impresses Stephanie. The otherwise feckless Ali lives with his sister Anna (Masiero) who looks after his six-year-old son Sam (Verdure). When Stephanie is horrifically injured by one of the Orcas during a performance, it is the blunt and unembarrassed Ali she eventually turns to for help and a complex relationship ensues. Despite a plot that reads more like a Pedro Almodovar film, Audiard, along with his excellent leads, is able to locate a real emotional truth in the characters’ situation, the bruisingly poetic feel augmented by woozy, dazzlingly sunlit photography and Alexander Desplat’s attentive score.
Film of the Month 3: The Master
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
Paul Thomas Anderson’s sort-of Scientology picture features some extraordinary moments and boasts two stunning lead performances but the seemingly wilful lack of focus is frustrating. Phoenix is Freddie Quell, a troubled sailor with mental issues. We first encounter him just as the end of World War II is announced, draining fuel from a torpedo to make his own hooch. Following his discharge, and a short stint as a department store photographer, he goes on the road. When a glass of his homemade hooch appears to cause the death of an old hobo he flees, but is picked up by a passing yacht, commanded by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), an L Ron Hubbard-style charismatic leader of a movement called The Cause. Dodd takes troubled Freddie in and tries to ‘cure’ him through a series of question and answer sessions called ‘processing’. Anderson’s film is strong in its depiction of the immediate post-war period in which old certainties had been overturned and people were looking for new ways of living. Hoffman’s enigmatic Dodd is in turns charismatic, charming, needy, self-regarding, and pompous, while Phoenix is alarmingly convincing as Freddie, the disturbed and not so able-bodied seaman. Self-appointed leaders and the people compelled to follow them presents a rich seam but the film often meanders and obfuscates, almost as if Anderson regards a straightforward study as beneath him. When Dodd is called out on his beliefs by a doubter at a dinner party it is not only an electrifying scene but feels like a much-needed moment of narrative clarity.
Director: Ben Affleck Stars: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
One from the you-couldn’t-make-it-up files this gripping, Affleck-directed and impressively mounted thriller, based on a true story, recounts the remarkable attempt to extricate six American citizens during the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979. When the CIA-backed Shah flees Iran and the American embassy is stormed by revolutionaries, six workers manage to slip out the back door and make their way to the Canadian Embassy where they are allowed to hide out. Back in the U.S., the government, pondering ways to get them out, recruits CIA extractor Tony Mendez (Affleck). Mendez’s bizarre and audacious plan is to fly to Iran where he and the six citizens will pose as scouts looking for locations for a ‘Star Wars’ rip-off science fiction adventure, ‘Argo’. Almost unbelievably the heads accept this plan as the ‘best worst idea’, and Mendez enlists the help of make-up artist John Chambers (Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Arkin) to concoct a sufficient back story. (With its Hollywood types to the rescue Argo is sure to get the nod come award season.) The picture boasts a memorable evocation of time and place, from the fearful revolutionary Iran environs, to the tacky 70s Hollywood milieu, and the film is populated with a host of colourful characters. Only Affleck himself fails to really convince, his character a little too laid-back and passive to convince. The director ratchets up the tension effectively throughout and although the climax is a little too overheated and credibility-defying, the conclusion is nonetheless very stirring.
End of Watch
Director: David Ayer Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Natalie Martinez, Anna Kendrick
Ayer, who scripted the superior thriller ‘Training Day’, returns to South Central L.A. for this more sympathetic tale of a duo of LAPD cops, although that sympathy is not immediately apparent. Gyllenhaal and Pena are friends and partners Officers Taylor and Zavala, bantering as they patrol the streets. The brasher Taylor, using a camcorder, is recording their experiences for a documentary he is planning - this found footage conceit feels a little half-hearted and distracts from the narrative. When the duo discover a huge stash of guns and money they attract the attention of a Mexican drugs cartel. The picture is at its best when it is merely hanging out with the characters and savouring their affectionate bickering – the badinage regarding the respective merits of dating white women and Latinas is a highlight. The depiction of the South Central environs is impressively gritty even if the story gives in to more mainstream melodrama in the third act. Still well worth seeing though for the great rapport between Pena and Gyllenhaal.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos Stars: Aggeliki Pappoulia, Johnny Vekris, Aris Servetalis, Ariane Labed
The follow-up to Greek director Lanthimos’s disturbing debut ‘Dogtooth’ is a no less unsettling tale of a secret four-strong group called The Alps, consisting of a nurse, a paramedic, a gymnast and her coach. Their leader, who calls himself Mont Blanc, explains that they are called this as the Alps ‘cannot be replaced by any other mountain range’. Their job, it gradually emerges, is to stand in for dead people, the service paid for by surviving relatives. Information is collected prior to death by one of the group (Popula) who works as a nurse. But when the nurse offers her services to stand in as a teenage tennis player who was lost in a car accident independently of the group, problems emerge. Lanthimos conjures up a feeling of dislocation by filming his characters either from behind, or with one person in a conversational exchange out of shot, and by having actors read their lines in a robotic emotionless manner. There’s a darkly amusing sex scene in which the nurse, posing as a late wife tells the bereaved husband that sex ‘feels like paradise’ in a flat monotone. Whether Lanthimos is exploring the permeability of identity or the necessity for role-playing in contemporary life is unclear but his film, while certainly not for everyone, casts a haunting and deeply disturbing spell.
Director: Wayne Blair Stars: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Sharri Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell
Based on the hit stage show this Australian musical drama prioritises ebullience over narrative coherence. Following a brief prologue outlining the treatment of native Australians in the 60s, we are introduced to a trio of Aborigine sisters - spiky leader Gail (Mailman), spirited Cynthia (Tapsell) and the sweet, mighty-voiced Julie (Australian Idol winner Mauboy) - aka the Cummeraganja Songbirds, whose sweet rendition of a Merle Haggard song fails to win over the racist audience at a local talent show. Their potential is spotted however by the boozy Irish contest host Dave (O’Dowd), who encourages them to switch to soul covers - there is more than a touch of ‘The Commitments’ in having an Irish character preaching the redemptive power of soul. Recruiting their ‘stolen’ cousin Kay (Sebbens) the band rename themselves The Sapphires and are persuaded to tour Vietnam playing to the troops. This overwhelmingly broad picture often feels more audience haranguing than audience pleasing and the sloppiness of the script is evidenced by a seemingly random series of flare-ups and reconciliations. The musical performances are fun, even if the material is over familiar, and the reliable O’Dowd not only brings the laughs, but is able to invest his character with more depth than the script deserves, with Dave and spiky Gail’s burgeoning romance surprisingly engaging.
An interview with Chris O’Dowd will appear online.
And the rest: The R-Patz and K-Stew(?) vampire romance saga draws to an end in ‘Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2’; Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz star in the Coen bros scripted remake ‘Gambit’; Eugene ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ Jarecki’s documentary ‘The House I Live In’ explores the human rights implications of U.S. drugs policy via a disparate range of persons affected.
David Willougby (Follow David: @DWill_Crackfilm)