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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)


May 28, 2015

Maleficent (2014)
Director: Robert Stromberg
Actors: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley

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Synopsis: Maleficent (Ella Purnell, Isobelle Molloy, Angelina Jolie) is a fairy that lives in The Moors – a peaceful, magical land. One day she chances upon Stefan (Michael Higgins, Sharlto Copley) a commoner from the land of men and they share a romance. In a conflicted state, Stefan clips Maleficent’s wings so he can become King of his land, but an embittered Maleficent promises revenge on Stefan, and issues the famous curse on his daughter, Aurora (Vivienne Pitt-Jolie, Eleanor Worthington Cox, Elle Fanning), that she will become a ‘sleeping beauty’ before her 16th birthday when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel….

Review: One part Frozen, the other part Avatar, Robert Stromberg’s riffing on the origin of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is a sweet, likeable film, helped in no small part through finding the ideal outlet for the iconographic potential of Angelina Jolie, for not being afraid to safeguard some of the old quaint romance and fantasy from its fairytale-revision remit, and in creating a genuinely arresting visual landscape – if not necessarily through the so-so CGI, but in its lovely contrast between the light and dark ‘worlds’ which compliment the struggle between good and evil in both the narrative and the central characters’ psyches.

At the risk of sounding a touch cheeky, Maleficent really is the optimum role for Angelina Jolie. Being an actress who struggles to project much in the way of range or an inner-depth in most of her adult performances, Maleficent’s stately, otherworldly quality suits Jolie’s imperious but depthless aesthetic perfectly. Also, without being too smug and self-congratulatory in its postmodern fairytale musings, Maleficent conveys nicely how if you slightly flip the simplistic paradigms of most childrens’ stories (what if Maleficent was actually wronged and persecuted by the human race, what if the King wasn’t a uniformly heroic character but actually showed a very human susceptibility to power and corruption), then it can shed a novel light on these over-familiar stories, without losing the uplifting, fablistic ethos in the process. (May 2015)


May 26, 2015

Bronson (2008)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Actors: Tom Hardy, Matt King, Jonathan Phillips

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Synopsis: Initially incarcerated for a relatively petty crime, Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy) goes on to become Britain’s most notorious prisoner over the subsequent thirty years due to his extremely anti-social and violent behaviour in jail under the moniker ‘Charles Bronson’.

Review: Nicolas Winding Refn is probably the least subtle filmmaker going, so I was more than a little amused when I read some of the negative reviews for his film, Bronson, which accuse it of a lack of biographical and psychological insight….Let me make clear that I rabidly dislike Winding Refn’s later films Drive and Only God Forgives, but I do feel the need to defend him here, because at no point is Bronson meant to be the conventional biopic that some people wanted, but it’s actually quite an intuitive work, taking Bronson’s publicity-courting profile as a base to conjure a lurid opera on the phenomenon of ‘Bronson’.

Thus to me, if the work is to be critiqued for anything, it’s not for frustrating a desire to present a coherent, fully diagnosed pathological history of Bronson – but because Winding Refn’s ‘ironic’ theatrical conceit of imagining Bronson’s life as a vaudeville show is a bit monotonous and one-dimensional. That said, ‘hats off’ to Tom Hardy for an outstanding, gutsy, tour de force of a performance in the title role. Not only does Hardy nail the intimidating physical aura of Bronson, but he completely understands the manic, anti-social bent too, and how Bronson was a man who simply could not conceive of a ‘normal’ life in the outside world versus his more natural habitat of prison (the sequence where his ageing parents take a completely disorientated Bronson back to their twee suburban home is a beautifully acted and filmed scene of pure farce). (May 2015)


May 21, 2015

Sideways (2004)
Director: Alexander Payne
Actors: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen

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Synopsis: Forty-something pals, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), embark on a ‘Stag tour’ through the Santa Ynez Wine Valley. Jack, the impending groom, is intent on one last sowing of his wild oats, while Miles, a High School English teacher and frustrated novelist, is more interested in indulging his oenophilia and keeping a lid on his encroaching depression.

Review: Sideways is a near perfect exercise in classic storytelling, and exemplar of the Alexander Payne ‘American Gothic’ road trip template that has provided such a conveyor belt of gems over the last couple of decades. To call it a calculatingly proficient film trotting through the standard Payne ingredients (a central hook/mission, the main character undergoing a semblance of ‘growth’, a general air of light satire and whimsy masking a deeper melancholy) would underplay just how distinctive and intuitively right the whole film feels.

Payne films it in a knowingly pretence-free, downbeat manner – much like a TV movie with the lack of A-list actors, the ‘easy listening’ music score, the unglitzy opening credits and intertitles, the slightly naff use of split-screen – and this suits the ambience of the ‘everyday’ scenario of unremarkable forty-something guys going out on a drinking holiday. And even though there is a ‘high concept’ farce side to proceedings, it’s underscored by an inherently wise and truthful undertow – from the pitch-perfect performances by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, the sense that these two middle-aged men have reached respective crisis points as their lives drift ‘sideways’, to the probing of even deeper, endemic issues – alcoholism, sex addition, depression and bereavement. (May 2015)

Mr Morgan’s Last Love

May 21, 2015

Mr Morgan’s Last Love (2013)
Director: Sandra Nettelbeck
Actors: Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, Justin Kirk

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Synopsis: Mr Morgan (Michael Caine) is a retired university professor living out his days in a stately Paris apartment and gently grieving the death of his wife. Morgan develops a rapport with young French dance instructor, Pauline (Clémence Poésy), who herself is lonely and misses her late father. After Morgan unsuccessfully attempts suicide, his two grown-up children fly in from the US, and try to unpick their father’s unusual relationship with Pauline.

Review: Almost universally dismissed as a piece of sentimental old pap, I’m inclined to be a touch more sympathetic to Sandra Nettlebeck’s ode to bereavement and late-life friendship, Mr Morgan’s Last Love, although even I can’t excuse some of the bizarre decision-making in the narrative construct (location, nationality of characters, various plot developments) that dissipates a lot of the otherwise sensible storytelling.

Why for example cast a famous British actor – notorious for being unable to obscure his distinctive London accent – and saddle him with a pointless American accent/nationality, and then place him randomly and tenuously in Paris of all cities, to play out this otherwise humane and deft tale of loss and the reconciliation of mortality in old age? The use of Paris seems a particularly lame attempt to fast-track some pathos and twee romanticism into the mix, but it completely jars with the sometime deep and earnest politicking on grief and family politics. Although the trajectory of Mr Morgan’s septuagenarian dilemmas is actually quite well plotted (and how refreshing and radical to find a mainstream film that actually finds some level of nobility in a form of – huge spoiler alert – moral suicide), the young French woman that dotes on him is little more than a cipher. We know the narrative needs her to be this plot-tool of a late life catalyst for Mr Morgan, but the film never really justifies her motivations in being quite so keen to tag along with him every step of the way (bar the minor suggestion that as she’s lost her own father, she might in some way ‘associate’ with Morgan). Also, Hans Zimmer’s cloying piano score doesn’t help the film move away from the sentimental and into the more cerebral territory of its subject matter. (May 2015)


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