Honeymooner, a reflection

For a movie that begins with the line ‘no one should be alone on their wedding day’, Honeymooner is spectacularly uplifting and fun. Filmed on a £45,000 budget it takes director, Col Spector’s, script, some brilliant acting and intersperses it all around the pubs and pretty locations in Camden Town.

The giggles start early when Fran (Gerard Kearns, Shameless) is woken up on his wedding day by his best friend who calls to invite him out for yoga and to help with some advice from Deepak Chopra. With the prospect of spending, what would have been, his honeymoon alone, he is led along on what is meant to be a recovery adventure. His two best friends take him to pubs and bars, trying to cheer him up while at the same time trying to get through their own issues.

His friends, however, seem to have more problems than him and their love lives are dealt with in a way that would sound more familiar spoken by women. Ben (Chris Coghill) and Jon (Al Weaver) make behaviour like bringing flowers and asking for cuddles seem a perfectly normal way for guys to behave. Along with flirting with every woman who crosses their path that is.

This Watershed screening of Honeymooner was part of the programme of New British Cinema Quarterly sessions which present original films from British filmmakers. A new film from is selected from the UK’s major film festivals, and is screened each quarter and accompanied by a Question and Answer session from the filmmakers involved.

Col Spector joined us after the film to engage cheerfully with the audience and tell us about his adventures in making the movie. The production was inexpensive and relied on deferred payments and bank loans for a lot of things including the use of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon.

What would have been a cliché movie had it involved women in the lead roles turns into a light, refreshing and almost spiritual foray into getting over an ill-fated romance. This could very well be the British man’s answer to Eat, Pray, Love although luckily it takes itself a lot less seriously.

Black Swan, A Reflection

We all know the story. Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom, but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince. But before he can declare his love, her lustful twin, the Black Swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the White Swan leaps off a cliff, killing herself and in death finds freedom.

The story, as the director Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassell, tells the ballet dancers “has been done to death” but not in this way where we are promised something altogether more “visceral and real”. Tschaikovsky’s 1875 masterpiece is known as one of the most difficult ballet’s to perform and the prestige that comes from performing it well is simply invaluable apparently (source).

As a ballerina, it makes sense that Nina Sayers, played wonderfully by Natalie Portman, would agonise over getting everything just right and as she tells us herself, she wants to be perfect, but there’s more to this film than dancing. The conflict and struggle occurs within the young woman as she faces her own womanhood while trying to perfect a most difficult role, in reality and on stage.

The story itself goes back to the age old representation of being female and dealing with the basic archetypes: virgin, enchantress, mother and crone. The passage through time goes one way and once you leave one role behind you can’t get it back. The passage from virgin to enchantress is one symbolised by the bleeding that sees you leave childhood behind. The blood stops with the crone who no longer can produce anything fruitful and who has left reproduction behind long ago.

‘Virgin’ Nina is beautifully suited for the part of delicate Princess Odette but is finding it difficult to portray her evil twin Odile, the enchantress in this story, who can effortlessly seduce her intended. The transformation has to come from inside and Nina finds it difficult to let go.

Her fear of progressing is bound up with her profession and her mother who is holding on to the only thing she has left, her care taker matronly role which is on the verge of ending. She doesn’t make for a great example of what happens next as the madness, of which we gain glimpses, is a sign that she is resisting on to final stage of her womanhood, the crone. You can’t defy time but she tries by treating her daughter as a child, clipping her burgeoning wings, in a sense, as she tries to leave. She is the watchdog over the young dancer’s sexuality and we see her sleeping on a chair in Nina’s pink bedroom full of stuffed toys.

As Nina makes her way from ‘virgin’ to ‘enchantress’, we watch as the bleeding starts, in her psyche if not her body. The horror of the blood is a reminder of the unstoppable passage of time. As a ballerina, her years in the profession are limited, a fact portrayed starkly by an older dancer, played by Winona Ryder, who in her mid-30 is forced to retire.

We become witness to the ultimate battle between the death of her mother’s role and her own career which are fighting against the perfection of one moment in the spotlight and her professional glory. The struggle is externalised into this magnificent movie which is both gripping and horrific.

Matthew Libatique’s camera work, which flows and focusses like a dizzying dance, earned him one of the five Academy Award nominations for the film, as did Darren Aronofsky’s masterful directing.

The rite of passage from youth to sexual being is as familiar as the score from Swan Lake, but you’ll never see it or hear it quite like this.

Dogtooth at the Academy Awards

The Greek movie, Dogtooth, has received its ninth nomination, among its five wins, since its release in 2009. This is no ordinary announcement however, because unlike the Montréal Festival of New Cinema or the Mar del Plata Film Festival, we know that the whole world will be watching when the results are announced for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards on 27 February.

This is quite an accolade for a movie which has received a varied selection of opinions ranging from ‘a brilliant Greek black comedy’ (Guardian), to ‘special and troubling’ (Time Out), ‘weird’ and ‘as much an exercise in perversity as an examination of it’ (NYT).

Influences for Dogtooth come from director Giorgos Lanthimos, who also wrote the screenplay with Efthimis Filippou, and the look and feel are from the cinematography of Thimios Bakatakis which are praised by the NYT for ‘gauzy and diffuse’ light which helps ‘to produce an atmosphere that is insistently and not always unpleasantly dreamlike’.

Read the Ephemeral Digest review at http://www.ephemeraldigest.co.uk/2010/04/dogtooth-a-reflection-2/

Mary Tsoni in Dogtooth. Picture by Kino International.

Blue Valentine, Already Broken

A Thai Zen master is asked about his cup, perched precariously on the edge of a shelf, and why he doesn’t keep it safer. He replies that the cup is already broken. He drinks from it and enjoys it but when the wind knocks it over he says ‘of course’, he had already let it go.

How do you apply that principle to a heart, however, when you first meet someone and the world finally makes sense and everything is right. Those feelings of happiness, excitement, motivation, energy and more than anything, the sense of possibility that anything can happen.

Director Derek Cianfrance did it by taking 13 years to show, not tell, where the love went. He split the movie in two, one part showing the young couple who have just met and the other showing the same couple five years later in a disintegrating marriage. The first part of Dean and Cindy’s story was shot documentary style with no second takes. There is a spontaneity to Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling that is happily demonstrated with a tap dance to a ukulele in a shop doorway and it’s easy to spot the love in the air.

The second part of the movie was filmed after the actors lived together in a house as a family with their movie daughter and with a completely different style to the first. The scenes were made up of close ups of Michelle Williams’ face, the weariness arising from actual shots being filmed over and over again and only the later ones being used. Tiredness and claustrophobia are created until they are an actual part of the story.

The film was brilliantly done and the director was flawless in his planning but it was the story that was the most touching. The juxtaposition of the old with the new was a great example of the disappointment we carry around with us when things don’t live up to their potential. Being a nurse is admirable but not if you wanted to be a doctor. There is no letting go of the past for either of them and we watch it happen and nod in recognition. Accepting that the cup is already broken is a lot harder when someone keeps reminding you of what it was like when it was whole.

Blue Valentine is showing at the Watershed until 27 January, Watershed, Work1 Canon’s Road, Harbourside, Bristol.

Bad Lieutenant, a reflection

New Orleans, Louisiana: post-Katrina.

Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, played by Nicholas Cage, walks in to a house already occupied by policemen and sheet covered bodies on the ground. He passes his colleague, Stevie Pruit, played by Val Kilmer, who updates him on the situation. Five murders, execution style. Pruit says don’t look. Terence lifts up the sheet to glance at the bodies and so do we.

But wait right there. Don’t look?

Dead bodies can’t be much of a surprise for these hardened police officers anymore. The bodies didn’t even look that shocking. How bad would a body need to look to affect someone like Lieutenant McDonagh. Whatever the shocking scene was meant to look like didn’t work. He seemed unphased and so were we, the audience, who consume mutilated bodies as our daily news consumption. A dead body was on the front page of the Guardian last Friday and that was real life.

The moment when Val Kilmer said “don’t look” is the moment I stopped worrying about the story and sat back and enjoyed the performance.

I’m talking about Nicholas Cage of course who took over every inch of interest I had available. He swayed, he swaggered, he mostly limped and carried his tall lanky frame, in its cheap police officer suit, across the screen in order to take more drugs.

I read an interview of his, in the Guardian last week, which mentioned how he learnt about suitable reactions to different drugs. The slower lethargic heroin induced motions as compared to the frenetic actions that accompany the paranoid illusions of the crack cocaine and other amphetamine consumption. I am happy to accept that his version was about right.

The movie was pleasant and the laughter in the cinema indicated that others also found it quite fun. There was a brilliant scene where a dead alligator in the middle of the road waves goodbye to her offspring as he/she sheds a tear and walks away.

Peter Zeitlinger, nominated for Best Cinematography at the Independent Spirit Awards, was head of photography and did pretty well in making us feel that we were the woozy ones. There were a couple of off-moments when the scene would slowly elevate until we were watching the goings on underneath us. The contrast may have been a bit too sharp as the next moment we are Nicholas Cage again and everything is a little too close up and overcrowded. Maybe that’s why the best Cinematographer prize was won by Roger Deakins for A Serious Man.

The film looked good though and I don’t mean nice. There are scenes of New Orleans that look incredibly grim, but are translated to impressive, under Zeitlinger’s touch. The Nicholas Cage show took over however and it wouldn’t have been the same without his touch of surrealism. Were we meant to be the iguanas that only Cage could see? The green, still reptiles, with the glint of a rainbow sparkling off their eyes. His casual glances down towards them, towards us, as he and fellow police officers staked out the house opposite. It still makes me smile.

The movie was pleasant. It left me with a happy feeling of having been to see something quite nice but I would be amazed if that’s what Werner Herzog intended. Werner, who was shot by an insignificant bullet during an interview with Mark Kermode and who was happy to keep going, could not have meant to make a pleasant movie.

If I was so tempted, and I’m not because I think the storyline was weak, I could give better examples of how it all fits together. The balance of good for bad. The life sacrificed today accompanies the one which gets saved tomorrow. The solitary red-finned fish swimming in a glass of water is our remnant of the massacre of the family of five. The balance is found later on but Nicholas Cage is still struggling to get through it all. I’m not sure what it’s all about. It might be about maintaining that thin blue line which is a little more jagged in some places. At times it was a little too Hollywood to feel real but it was still pretty good and had a great soundtrack.

Bad Lieutenant is showing at the Watershed in Bristol until 03 June.

Kings of Pastry, a reflection

The Kings of Pastry was part of the Exquisite Cuisine season shown on BBC Four “which served up a mouth-watering menu of programmes in search of perfection in food”.

As a joint venture between the BBC and VPRO (part of the Dutch Broadcasting System) the two directors follow chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chicago’s French Pastry School, as he journeys back to his childhood home of Alsace to practice for the contest. Two other chefs, Regis Lazard, who was competing for the second time (he dropped his sugar sculpture the first time), and chef Philippe Rigollot, also feature through their preparation and during the three day gruelling examination. This is the prestigious Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition (Best Craftsmen in France). The winners of the M.O.F. have the privilege of wearing a blue, white and red striped collar on their jackets. Wearing the stripes if you are not an M.O.F leaves the person liable to face a term in prison, according to one of the contestants.

This film is more than just an exploration of delicious cakes, sweets, and creations that astound. It provides an intimate look of the struggle and hard work that goes into such a difficult challenge. While the subject matter provides a distracting and beautiful past time, it is the determination and hard work of the contestants that is gripping.

The film screened at the Watershed on Sunday, 2 May and the staff handed out tasty pastries bought from the Breadstore on Gloucester Rd as we walked out. A lovely touch, a gripping film.

For more information about Kings of Pastry, do explore the following sites: Twitter @KingsofPastry, the official website www.kingsofpastry.com, and the BBC Four page for the movie.

Dogtooth, a reflection

A couple of warnings about Dogtooth, stay until the end and don’t get lost in the content. The synopsis describes it as a film about a dysfunctional family where the parents keep the children away from outside influence in a utopian setting. A slow breakdown of this reality ensues when the father brings in someone to satisfy his son’s sexual needs.

This Greek movie is a powerful examination (and I do mean slammed against the wall and then struggle to catch your breath kind of powerful) of relationships and what holds people together.

This blog has moved. Read the rest of the review at this link.

Dogtooth is screening at the Watershed in Bristol until May 6.

Asyle, a reflection

Asyle was shown at the Arnolfini, on Saturday 13 March, as part of the Girls on Film festival.

Four women’s lives are gently approached and glided over in this introspective and quiet movie. The story skips from character to character in a plot centred around an open terrace above a ‘love motel’ which rents rooms by rest periods rather than nights.

Mika, a 13 year old runaway, finds her way to the terrace where she is surrounded by people of all ages who seek to escape the concrete city life. There is a playground, a shed, benches and games on top of the motel and each night Tsuyako, the owner, shoos them away. The stories behind each of the characters slowly unravel to reveal a loneliness and lack of connection. In this tale of modern life, people get lost in a busy city and it isn’t until necessity brings them together that they step outside the solemn day to day reality and find that they were all connected already.

A beautiful film that is definitely worth watching.

Arnolfini, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol BS1 4QA, +44 (0)117 9172300 / 01
boxoffice@arnolfini.org.uk, http://www.arnolfini.org.uk

NON-KO, a reflection

I have long given up on building expectations around Japanese movies but I was still surprised by Non-Ko. Opening scene. A woman sits at a bar drinking whiskey from a glass filled with an impressive amount of ice (think –berg). She downs the drink and asks for a refill. She’s been there a while and is waxing lyrical in a way that only drunk people can. She finishes up by stating she has no money to pay for it all and the scene cuts to just her and the bar woman. It is a moment of realisation and we get a lot of those. Nothing is quite as expected. Not in a Ponyo magical way, but just in a ‘reserve judgement’ until the end kind of manner.

Non-Ko is the stage name of the main actress and she is sullen, withdrawn, miserable and has very loud clip-clopping sandals. Not sure what the exaggerated sound added to the story but there it was, ice against glass, sandals against pavement, chewing and eating all magnified to take over most of the sound. Non-ko is back home after an alluded to tv career failure and is living with her parents at 37 years of age. Drunken cycle rides crashing into bins and street lamps on the way home from the bar seem to be a staple in this new life.

At a local temple near her home, Non-Ko is examining other people’s fortunes (dismissing the good ones) when she is tasked to help a young man, Masuma, who wants to set up a stand for a big fete. After discovering he has no plans, apart from relying on hope, she sullenly takes him along and he ends up staying with her and her parents after drunkenly passing out in a bar. The interactions between Masuma and Non-Ko explore different levels of hopelessness and crawling out of the low points of life but without really blending too much. There is a distinctness to the characters that is retained quite well. The father is authoritative; the mother silent, domestic and supportive; the ex-husband sleazy and Non-Ko sullen and miserable. The movie entertains in its own intriguing way and the scenes of Japanese life slip in quite gently without appearing as a tourist expedition.

I found some of the cultural differences interesting and a little brow-wrinkling, such as the near-constant smoking and sitting on the floor. There was the rolled out futon for sleep, the gardens and the temple with the chosen fortunes tied to near-by tree branches. The action in the movie was quite fascinating with some dramatic events taking place at the fete when Masuma’s hope finally runs out.

The film offers some moments of reality with little of the glamour of glossy productions but at the same time it does it well. I finally got to like Non-Ko by the end when she realises that running away isn’t the answer. The theme of the film festival is Girls on Film and this work navigated the jarring world of disappointment and expectations in a dramatic little fashion but not too far from its initial premise. I wouldn’t call it charming but it was a satisfying experience.

Girls on Film is a festival running at the Arnolfini until the 21 March.

Xizao (Shower), a reflection

The movie begins with a businessman taking an impersonal, mechanised shower with processes more akin to a car wash than a personal cleaning routine. The process looks very efficient in leaving a person squeaky clean and provides no interaction. Although the need for interaction may not be so pronounced in Western societies, in China, in the village from which Da Ming hails from, the bath house provides a friendly, social and traditional part of daily life.

Da Ming is a businessman who goes back home when he mistakenly believes his father is dead. He confronts his mentally-handicapped brother about why he sent him a picture which showed their father dead and he replied that he missed him. Emotions seem easier to express in this place where water surrounds everyone. The time spent taking care of oneself is acknowledged as a luxury and the men in the baths note that in the city you wouldn’t have time for it.

Da Ming comes back to a family he rejected when he left them behind and finds that he is needed and loved. People share and know each other and the support they provide is something he’d lost. Small home town connections provide an intimacy and involvement that seems far removed from daily rush-hour life. This is a soothing and comfortable movie which I watched twice before returning. There are funny and tender moments and thoughtful pauses along the way. Most enjoyable.

Xizao (“Shower”) is directed by Yang Zhang and stars Quanxin Pu as Da Ming, Xu Zhu as the father Master Liu and Wu Jian as the exuberant brother Er Ming. The movie was released in the UK in 2001.

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