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All About My Mother: Cinematic Memories of Pauline

July 21, 2015

Here are the five films that best remind me of my mother – a mixture of films she loved, films that best represent her spirit, and films that we enjoyed together….

Elephant Walk (1954) dir: William Dieterle

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When my mother was a young girl, she lived for a period of time in Libya in the mid-50s – due to my grandfather being stationed out there with the British army. Libya wasn’t the turbulent country of today, but was actually a fairly benign colonial outpost (ironically enough, my mother even lived in Benghazi – now, sadly one of today’s most dangerous cities in the world). One of my mother’s most evocative memories of growing up there was watching Elizabeth Taylor in Elephant Walk at one of the huge open air cinemas. I love this memory – not just because it combines two of my favourite ‘things’, cinema and travel, but because there was always something about Elizabeth Taylor that reminded me of my mum: romantic, beautiful, a sometime tempestuous temperament (though maybe not the seven marriages!) – and I love the correlative of Taylor’s character’s travails as a young English woman starting an exotic life in colonial Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), with my mother watching that story during her own ‘adventure’ in Libya!

Indiscreet (1958) dir: Stanley Donen

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Anyone who knew my mother will attest to the fact she had a great eye for interior design and décor, and it was that sensibility that attracted her to this little-known, but really rather classy, old-school Fifties’ two-hander Indiscreet, starring Cary Grant and the great Ingrid Bergman. I think it fitted into a rather swanky ideal she had of an urbane Central London lifestyle, and I love the fact the film was directed by Stanley Donen – the great who directed Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – another childhood classic that my mum introduced me too….

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) dir: James Foley

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The great thing about my mum’s professional career was that even though she achieved a lot and could be deemed quite ‘successful’, she never lost her sense of humour and perspective, nor allowed her ‘soul’ to be subsumed in the (sometime) horrors of office/business culture. Some of her anecdotes about the wretched characters and situations she came across during her many years in employment were brilliant, and I think that’s why she felt an immediate kinship with the mercilessly satirical ethos of Glengarry Glen Ross.

The New World (2005) dir: Terrence Malick

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The film that speaks most to me about my feelings for my mother is this: a ballad to pure love, the transcendence of things of beauty, the strength of one woman, and the sheer preciousness that this fleeting gift of life is amid the permanence of nature. As Mark Cousins brilliantly understood the film: “it was about rapture and the end of rapture”.

The Guard (2011) dir: John Michael McDonagh

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My mum liked to laugh and had a wicked, earthy sense of humour – a definite by-product of her Irish DNA. It’s apt therefore that the last film I remember seeing with her was this highly scabrous and silly Irish comedy, The Guard, which was basically a huge gallows send-up of the earnest police procedural stuff from ‘across the pond’. The pièce de resistance of irreverence, which had my mum and I in stiches, was when Brendan Gleeson’s cop has his head in his hands, seemingly in despair after a nasty run-in with the gangster – only to transpire that all he was struggling with was his milkshake headache! Simple, but ever so funny, and a lovely experience to share with my mum. (July 2015)

Beverly Hills Cop

July 20, 2015

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Director: Martin Brest
Actors: Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, John Ashton

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Synopsis: Maverick Detroit street cop, Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy), takes himself off to the unlikely climes of the sun-dappled, upmarket city of Beverly Hills to investigate the brutal murder of his friend….

Review: I am of a certain age where Beverly Hills Cop (along with say Back to the FutureFerris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club) represents a specific point in my cultural consciousness – not just through the obvious (I went on to become a huge film buff and cinephile), but as it also memorialised that halcyonic moment in my youth where ‘Americana’ and Hollywood fare in general seemed awfully exciting and exotic, and many a mid/late-Eighties’ summer holiday would be wiled away – in part – by running down to my local Blockbusters store and bringing back one of these ‘gems’ to watch with my brother, sister and fellow kids in my street. While those three other films I mentioned have gone on to achieve a huge level of cult and critical esteem – and I’ve revisited them all in the last decade or so – I can’t recall having seen Beverly Hills Cop for the best part of twenty-five years, so when I recently realised my housemate owned a copy of the film on DVD, I was more than happy to take a trip back down ‘Amnesia Lane’, to piece apart the ‘reality’ of the film from its totemic status in my mind.

Perhaps the most obvious and recognisable feature of the film is its quite brilliant soundtrack by Harold Faltemeyer. Sadly, it’s also the only worthwhile thing about the film, and even then – almost as if the filmmakers knew what mediocrity they were working with – Faltemeyer’s soundtrack is almost too ubiquitous, clearly trying to gloss over the cracks of a paper-thin scenario. Even the film’s two-fold comic ingredients of having foul-mouth black Detroit cop Axel Foley turn up in the seemingly crime-free, ‘by the book’ Beverly Hills, and Foley’s rapport with the ‘Abbot and Costello’ cop sidekicks Rosewood and Taggart, are both lame and obvious conceits – and this film was a reminder that away from Murphy’s iconic comic status and star quality at the time, he was a limited dramatic actor – making almost untenable the tauter moments of the narrative that one needs to buy into for the film to work. Still, it’s inoffensive enough for a ninety-plus minute nostalgia-fest, and Faltemeyer’s brilliant synth score (including the immemorial ‘Axel F’) stands the test of time. PS – I’m pretty sure the filmmakers of the recent 21/22 Jump Street franchise gleaned a fair few of their ideas from this movie and scenario. (July 2015)

Three Colours: Red

July 5, 2015

Three Colours: Red (1994)
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Actors: Irène Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Pierre Lorit

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Synopsis: Young Swiss student, dancer and model, Valentine (Irène Jacob), runs over a dog, and traces it to its owner – a reclusive, retired Geneva judge, Joseph (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Valentine is initially put off by Joseph’s surliness and his side hobby in eavesdropping on neighbours’ telephone calls, but slowly Valentine and Joseph develop a special bond, seemingly related to the travails of young lawyer, Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), whose girlfriend is cheating on him…

Review: The set-up of this film’s ‘odd couple’ hook about the growing bond between a gamine, proto-Amèlie ‘innocent’ (Valentine) and a gruff retired judge (Joseph) is actually quite familiar, but in the hands of master filmmaker, Krzysztof Kieslowski – it transcends the formula of its scenario to become something altogether more powerful and resonant.

Not only is it masterful in terms of look and tone, with Kieslowski once again making the conceptual in his remit of basing a film around the sentiment of a colour (in this case, red) tenable, but it’s also sage dramatically. We never know more than the characters do, and the transcendent, ambiguous unfolding of the narrative works a treat – hinting at an almost cosmic link between Valentine and Joseph (maybe they’re lovers across a temporal divide, or is Joseph harbinger of Valentine’s love-life to come)? Perhaps in retrospect, with contemporary cinema’s sophisticated honing of ‘clever’, intertextual, portmanteau-style narratives, the conclusion to Kieslowski’s trilogy appears a tad tame and dated (huge spoiler alert – all the main couplings from the trio of Three Colours films survive a ferry accident in the English Channel of all places), but that’s not to overlook the mesmerising craft Kieslowski has exacted over his ambitious trilogy to get us to this moment of ‘epiphany’. (July 2015)

Three Colours: White

July 2, 2015

Three Colours: White (1994)
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Actors: Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delpy, Janusz Gajos

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Synopsis: A Polish man, Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), recently married to French woman, Dominique (Julie Delpy), rapidly finds himself ‘disenfranchised’ in Paris when Dominique divorces him, he loses his passport and belongings, and is even locked out of their home. Somehow manufacturing a return to Poland, Karol sets about rebuilding his life and status, as a means to just possibly reconnecting with Dominique….

Review: Though unquestionably well made, with a clever and very concentric vein of humour and storytelling verve sustained throughout (it’s essentially a very classical ‘Comedy of Manners’), White is where Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy felt at its most conceptual and ‘forced’ – in essence, having to contrive a narrative out of the colour white and the idea of ‘equality’. Don’t get me wrong – with that tough remit, Kieslowski undoubtedly succeeded and in a sense deserves credit for making something so tonally opposite from Blue, but after that film’s near perfection, this can’t help but feel ever-so-slightly disposable and insubstantial in comparison…(July 2015)


June 28, 2015

Nostalgia (1983)
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Actors: Oleg Yankovsky, Erland Josephson, Domiziana Giordano

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Synopsis: Andrei Gorkachov (Oleg Yankovsky) is an exiled Soviet writer, doing research in Italy about an 18th Century composer, Pavel Sosnovsky, who had also spent time in Italy. Gorkachov is escorted round the sites by combustible guide, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), and becomes interested in local soothsayer-cum-eccentric Domenico (Erland Josephson) who became notorious many years before for keeping his family locked up…

Review: In retrospect, Andrei Tarkovsky’s last two works – Nostalgia and The Sacrifice – almost seemed to be anticipating his own demise with their strange sensibility of apocalyptic proselytising juxtaposed with a more soothing, balming, elegiac tone.

Nostalgia‘s specific story is comprehensible enough as poet Gorkachov gently ghosts his way round Italy, mourning his lost Russian family and homestead (as emblematised in the truly hilarious conceit of Gorkachov completely not seeing the desperate attempts of his beautiful tour guide to seduce him). It’s the epic sound and visual scapes that Tarkovsky conjures to create this ‘nostalgia’ theme that resonates most though. There are numerous hypnotic moments where Gorkachov’s Russian landscapes sear themselves quite literally over his present Italian sights, and the most beautiful of all is a literal dreamlike scenario, where Gorkachov passes out exhausted on his hotel bed with the rain beating hard outside, and slowly the pitch of the scene fuses the soul of Gorkachov into his past life (replete with his old dog by his side!) (June 2015)


My Top 6 Films about Loss

June 15, 2015

Cinema plus Psychoanalysis equals the Science of Ghosts”. Jacques Derrida

Admittedly, ‘loss’ is a very generic term. Yes, it can mean the direct grieving for a loved-one, but it can relate to many other forms of ‘bereavement’ – from the obvious forms (loss of something tangible – a person, a place, some form of social or financial status), to the more subtle and ephemeral (loss of a sense of liberty, youth and hope – loss of time)? Cinema seems a very apt medium to consider loss, and I’ve picked out six films which best represent this ‘feeling’….

Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951)

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You couldn’t compile a list on cinematic representations of loss without referencing Robert Bresson – film’s finest purveyor of elemental human fables. His Au Hasard Balthazar is perhaps the most perfect parable known to cinema, and though it touches on ideas of loss, it’s more of an overarching moral on the state of grace. Instead, his masterful Diary of a Country Priest is a haunting study on the intensity of grief that creeps up on a shy young priest as he begins to process the cruel irrelevance of his vocation. Engaged on a relentless treadmill of visits to the same cold residents of his parish, that sapping of his spirit imprints in the priest such a feeling of loss and redundancy that he contracts a terminal illness – but the beauty of Bresson is that in the priest’s quiet, poignant submission to his mortality, he ascends to a level of nobility far above the transient pettiness of the parishioners around him.

The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)

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Over 20 million Soviet Union citizens died during the Second World War – that’s quite some loss. Mikhail Kalatozov’s staggeringly brilliant The Cranes are Flying succeeds in somehow acting as microcosm for all that loss, in the epic, sweeping way that it dramatises the trauma of the military conflict – while also offering a highly moving personal story of female self-determination as ‘heroine’ Veronika undergoes a series of brutal indignities and ‘bereavements’. There’s the initial loss of her fiancé to the battlefields, her likely rape by her fiancé’s cousin, being ostracised by her fiancé’s family, resigning herself to the joyless struggles on the homefront, and the devastatingly cruel late revelation about her fiancé’s fate. Remarkably though, she finds the dignity to transcend all that when she graciously hands out the flowers reserved for her fiancé to far more fortunate people at the climax.

Nostalgia (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983)

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What else is nostalgia but a form of loss, a gentle mourning for the past? Andrei Tarkovsky’s dreamlike essay on the state of nostalgia mines this sense of melancholic yearning best. It’s a haunting, hypnotic work, as an ailing, exiled Soviet poet ghosts his way round some of Italy’s most beautiful sights, with his elegiac memories of his Russian family and country house scorching themselves quite literally as images over his present Italian scenery.

Time to Leave (François Ozon, 2005)

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A feckless, high-octane Parisian photographer – barely turned thirty – suffers a profound shock when he’s diagnosed with an aggressive terminal illness which will claim his life in a matter of months. This ‘hook’ sends François Ozon’s protagonist inward, on one of the most poignant, tender and lonely portrayals of a person grieving for their mortality that I’ve ever seen. Utterly heartbreaking….

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012)

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All Terrence Malick films in some way thematise the loss of innocence – from the teen killers of Badlands, and the Old America of The New World, to the truly epic treatise on the magical sanctity of childhood that is The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder is slightly different and in some ways more complex as it documents almost entirely through image, word and music (there isn’t really a narrative as such) a form of primal emotional and geographical dislocation. Emmanuel Lubezki’s swooning camera almost haunts its way through the picture, re-imagining the landscapes of that famous country of the Old World, France, then the barren, open plains of the New World, as colossal, timeless spaces on which the transient lives and dramas of its players (including the film’s two star-crossed lovers) will pass on through eternity.

Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdelattif Kechiche, 2013)

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The end of a relationship and the loss of a partner can be as traumatic as any conventional bereavement, and no film understands this more than the quite brilliant Blue is the Warmest Colour. This film is so wise, so mature, so graceful in its depiction of the rise and fall of Adèle and Emma’s relationship, and this reaches its apex in the staggeringly moving final scene when Adèle manages to bring herself to go and see Emma’s new art exhibition. This is some months (maybe even years) since they last saw each other, and though there is a quiet decorum and dignity about the way they converse and respect the other’s new circumstances, the furtive way they look at each other betrays the intense undertow of undying compassion that lurks forever in the hearts of people who have truly loved. (June 2015)

Jimmy’s Hall

June 3, 2015

Jimmy’s Hall (2014)
Director: Ken Loach
Actors: Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Jim Norton

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Synopsis: Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) returns to Ireland in the 1930s after many years of exile in New York. Initially intent on keeping a low profile, Jimmy is convinced by the local population to revive his community hall project – the cause of his exile in the first place. As was the case a decade before, the Church and various political factions are upset by the joyous, libertarian vibes coming from Jimmy’s hall, leading to evermore divisiveness in the community…

Review: Jettisoning the lashings of whimsy that threatened to overwhelm his recent efforts Looking for Eric and The Angel’s Share, Ken Loach has fashioned one of his purest and most lovely films here in Jimmy’s Hall – a fitting end-point if this is to be his last directorial feature. It’s hard not to find the on-screen struggles of Jimmy to uphold the working-class, co-operative-minded ethos of his community initiative as microcosm of Loach’s own indefatigability over the years in continuing to churn out his liberal, social-minded film projects.

Jimmy’s Hall is also unequivocal validation for Loach’s cine-theatrical practices. The authentic, unvarnished ethos to casting and acting finds real moving currency here. In particular, there’s a truly wonderful performance – or should I call that ’embodiment’ of the rural Irish matriarch – by Aileen Henry as Jimmy’s mum, and the fact it’s a turn that’s almost a touch unmodulated only adds to the warm tapestry of the film. Loach’s maturity in keeping the material away from soapy sideplots deserves credit too – especially in the sensitive way that Jimmy’s return is received by his old flame, Oonagh, who is now married with two kids. There’s a palpable sense of regret that Jimmy’s exile sabotaged any chance they had of being together, and though there’s never any chance that Oonagh will forgo her spousal and parental commitment, the poignancy of their thwarted love is explored by Loach in a beautifully-rendered private dance Jimmy and Oonagh share – an appropriate metaphor in many ways for Loach’s tasteful, classy work in total. (June 2015)


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