Talking Movies

November 20, 2014

Carte Noire IFI French Film Festival: 10 Films

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Les Combattants

Thursday 20th 18.30

Teenager Arnaud (Kevin Azais) meets surly Madeleine (Adele Haenel) during his summer holidays. His summer job of building garden sheds soon takes a back seat to falling in with her strange ambition to join a elite commando unit, as director Thomas Cailley mashes up the unlikely genre combination of rom-com, teen movie, and survivalist thriller.

The Blue Room

Friday 21st 19.15

Monday 24th 18.30

Mathieu Amalric directs himself as Julien in an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel co-written with his co-star Stephanie Cleau. A taut 76 minutes sees Julien’s affair with Esther (Cleau) lead to his arrest, and Amalric will do a Q&A after the Friday screening of his spare, stylish and mysterious noir.

Two in the Wave

Friday 21st 20.30

Emmanuel Laurent and Antoine de Baecque direct this feature documentary exploring the fractured friendship of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. They meet in 1950, work together in Cahiers du Cinema, collaborate on A Bout de Souffle, and part in 1968 over the necessity of engage: almost a politico-cultural history of the 5th Republic?

Mississippi Mermaid

Saturday 22nd 13.30

Francois Truffaut directs Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Denueve in a 1969 film that met a hostile reaction. Set on Reunion Island, the romantic thriller of the plot begins to take a back seat to Truffaut’s fascination with shooting Belmondo with the male gaze usually reserved for women, before latterly haring off in even stranger directions…

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Bird People

Saturday 22nd 18.15

Director Pascale Ferran will do a Q&A after the screening of a film that mixes the highly unusual influences of Peter Pan and The Host. Josh Charles stars as an American businessman who encounters chambermaid Anais Demoustier at Roissy Airport’s Hilton. Their unexpected connection inspires two chapters: one avowedly socially realistic, the other gleefully fantastical.

Love is the Perfect Crime

Saturday 22nd 21.00

College professor and renowned lecher Marc (Mathieu Amalric) lives with his sister Marianne (Karin Viard) next to his striking university in Lausanne. When his most recent student conquest disappears her mother Anna (Maiwenn) arrives to find her. Amalric will do a Q&A about the Brothers Larrieu unsettling comedy-thriller of amnesia and romance.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her

Sunday 23rd 16.30

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 spectacle sees actors and actresses, including Marina Vlady, act with his direction echoing in their earpieces while he comments in voiceover on the scenes he’s shooting, and also on what he’s been reading, thinking, and feeling generally… So, a barmier(!) companion piece to Belle de Jour.

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Diplomacy

Sunday 23rd 20.15

Director Volker Schlondorff oversees a veritable acting duel between A Prophet’s Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussollier in this adaptation of Cyril Gely’s play. General von Choltitz (Arestrup) has mined Paris at Hitler’s orders, and Swedish Consul General Nordling (Dussollier) secretly tries to dissuade him from carrying out his diabolical orders to wantonly destroy France’s cultural heritage.

The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles

Saturday 29th 18.00

Director Cecile Telerman will do a Q&A about her serious comedy starring Emanuelle Beart as a spoilt Parisian, Iris. Iris lives on her husband’s fortune, but her penurious sister Josephine (Un Secret’s Julie Depardieu) has been abandoned for crocodiles by her husband; to her woes are added writing Iris’ touted novel.

Hiroshima mon amour

Sunday 30th 16.00

Before Marienbad there was Hiroshima mon amour, in which Alain Resnais left documentaries behind for this 1959 attempt to speculate on the fate of Hiroshima. Following after Night and Fog he still incorporated documentary footage but asked novelist Marguerite Duras to provide him with a story exploring despair and the impossibility of knowing apocalypse.

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February 27, 2014

Mugged by Gravity

I’ve watched with increasing bewilderment and growing horror as Gravity has started to outshine 12 Years a Slave at the endless bacchanalias of awards season.

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I saw Gravity in 3-D, you see, and I didn’t want to see Gravity at all… I regard Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter instalment as the most soulful of the trilogy, but I find it hard to think of Children of Men as anything other than a film concerned with its own shooting style above all else. Gravity, as a ‘groundbreaking 3-D spectacle’, seemed bound to ramp up that element of his work to the obliteration of emotional depth. But I knew that if I skipped Gravity in cinemas, and then said it wasn’t very good, after watching it on a 2-D small screen, I’d be hopped on by a certain type of critic for not having seen it in 3-D, and therefore not being entitled to deliver any valid judgement on it. If you were told there was a great play on in the West End, and you said you’d catch it when it came to the Grand Canal Theatre, only to be told that no, it wouldn’t be great then, you had to see it in the original West End production to get its true greatness – you’d have to reply that it couldn’t be a great play then, merely a great originating cast perhaps, but not something that you should get excited about as a play on a historical level of epic greatness. And yet, isn’t that exactly what the reception of Gravity is all about? If you don’t see it in cinemas, you miss the ‘groundbreaking 3-D spectacle’. But realistically most people, over the course of Gravity’s lifetime of being seen, will not see it as it was intended to be seen – for an exorbitant ticket price in a cinema. And if it doesn’t stand up outside of that original format, then it doesn’t stand up at all.

And it doesn’t stand up… I am mystified by the critical valorisation of what is a profoundly empty FX film. It’s as if a portion of Sunshine were taken by itself and blown into a full movie, but with poorer actors – Sandra Bullock is not the world’s most expressive actress if you’re casting for a one-woman show. Her presence highlights that Gravity, despite the critical cachet of its director, is really not that far removed from Roland Emmerich’s most cornball moments. Bullock with luck that would break Vegas survives two catastrophic space disasters, self-generates an improbable House epiphany, and manages to cling to a vessel as it begins re-entry, after she, without any ill effects, opened the door to the space station with an explosive rush that should have either catapulted her into space or broken her wrist. And the script is not salvaged by its visualisation: the sequence inside the space station possess a ghastly unreality as everything around Bullock looks CGI, while the 3-D only truly impresses when it cheats – Cuaron throws splintering pieces of space station at the camera and all over the world audiences jump, because those splinters literally appear from nowhere instead of arriving from an observable flight-path. And needless to say Gravity does not, as has been claimed, replicate in its direction a camera free-floating in space. The camera always artfully ends up at just the right place to observe big moments, rather than weightlessly freewheeling through another badly timed glimpse of the cosmos.

Children of Men had a large degree of practical difficulty in its trademark long-takes of action sequences, even with the helpful aid of CGI compositing of separate shots together. But the idea that Gravity deserves laudatory and exceptional praise for its camerawork, and its 13 minute unbroken opening shot in particular, is nothing other than praise for a veritable vestigial limb of critical reactions to film-making. What exactly are we meant to be praising? Long takes were a hallmark of greatness because they were practically difficult to pull off and therefore a sign of audacity, ambition, and tremendous determination by directors like Welles, Hitchcock, and Godard who achieved them. Spielberg pulled off a wildly OTT action sequence in Tintin, in one long take, but even as you watched it, nodding your head at its ‘ingenuity’, you realised its meaninglessness – there was no difficulty to be overcome: an animated character was not about to forget his lines, neither was an animated background about to suffer an annoying change of lighting from a passing cloud. Cuaron can spend all day shooting the same long-take green-screen sequence without ever reloading film, why should he be given a medal for doing what’s now easy?

I’m annoyed by Gravity, because I feel I was mugged for my money, purely to have the sort of empty experience I feared it would be – but empty in 3-D.

December 22, 2010

Spielberg’s Swansong

Steven Spielberg is now 64 years old. Can he buck the tradition of age withering great directors?

Alfred Hitchcock made 5 films after he turned 64 but none of them equalled his achievements in his previous decade (Rear Window to The Birds). Billy Wilder made only 4 films after he turned 64 and only two are remembered, as curios. Martin Scorsese is heading down that cul-de-sac with follies like Shutter Island and The Cabinet Imaginarium Invention of Dr Caligari Parnassus Hugo Cabaret 3-D. Indeed Quentin Tarantino, blithely ignoring Antonioni’s last work, equated ageing directors’ loss of creative drive with impotence… Spielberg had a decade to rival Hitchcock’s autumnal golden spell, in quantity if not quality, with A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, and Indiana Jones 4. Some were harshly judged and will grow in stature. Others will attract more opprobrium as people fully digest their awful finales.

A.I. has some chilling sequences but overall it is a disastrous mess, but for the opposite reason than what is usually cited. It is awful because it is too in thrall to Stanley Kubrick’s aesthetic of inhuman detachment, which negates Spielberg’s greatest gift. Minority Report is a thrilling, dark vision of Philip K Dick’s paranoia and philosophical conundrums with uniformly excellent acting and effects, but is undone by its prolonged third act, which resists ending on a typical Dick moment and instead shoe-horns in multiple happy endings. Con-man ‘comedy’ Catch Me If You Can was lauded, bafflingly so, but its lustre has faded and its simplistic psychology and deeply uneven tone will only hasten that decline. The Terminal by contrast only grows as, like Field of Dreams, it’s a script that runs down cul-de-sacs before continually changing direction, and manages to undercut rom-com clichés while achieving a warm conclusion. War of the Worlds re-staged the traumas of 9/11 in a number of bravura sequences including an unbearably suspenseful manhunt by Martians in the basement, but its dubious ethics and inane HG Wells’ ending remain flaws. Munich was punctuated by a number of viscerally taut action sequences but was undone by Tony Kushner’s reluctance to devote dialogue to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the infamous juxtaposition of Eric Bana and the terrorists’ slaughter simultaneously climaxing. Indiana Jones 4 has been pointlessly vilified. It zips along breathlessly for a superb first act and there’s an awful lot of fun to be had with the Amazon action sequences and new villain Col. Spalko. Lucas’ Maguffin disappoints. Epically…

Spielberg starts the decade with a trio of projects. Liam Neeson has regrettably been ditched from the long-gestating Lincoln biopic in favour of Daniel Day-Lewis, and apparently the script is now based on 2008’s book of the moment Team of Rivals. Will it be as magisterial as Schindler’s List even without Neeson, or as boring as his other film showcasing an American President, Amistad? More importantly does the fact that Spielberg’s filmed his Tintin instalment and West End favourite The War-Horse (with a 5th Indiana Jones movie in development) indicate a willingness to avoid ‘important’ projects in favour of ‘mere’ entertainments? I subscribe to Mark Kermode’s view that critics have it precisely wrong and that Spielberg, in listening to them, has self-defeatingly attempted ‘big, important pictures that will win Academy Awards and be taken seriously dammit!’, resulting in disastrous messes, Munich, or utterly forgotten movies, The Colour Purple. Spielberg in directing popcorn films with sublime skill exploits, not just his God-given talents but, in connecting with people’s hearts rather than their minds, the true nature of the medium to its utmost.

Jean-Luc Godard may complain that Spielberg is sentimental but so was Dickens, and the attempt by one school of critics to demote Dickens in favour of George Eliot has demonstrably failed; people still quote his dialogue, reference his characters, and can sum up a whole world by uttering the word Dickensian, whereas George Eliot’s first name must always be included to avoid confusion with old possum himself TS Eliot. Spielberg’s unlikely friendship and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick has only highlighted an existing aesthetic contrast that the Biskind critics liked to sharpen their claws on, invariably to Spielberg’s disadvantage, but cinema is an emotional medium. If you want to connect with people’s minds write a novel or a play, but if you want to toy with the world’s biggest train-set to make crowds of people laugh, cry, jump out of their seats, or sit rigidly with their hearts racing, then cinema is what you want. And for that reason Spielberg’s swansong may decide his critical reputation: he can go out as the supreme entertainer or an intermittent auteur.

All hail the greatest living American film director! Talking Movies hopes he goes out unashamedly entertaining us as he has for forty years.

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