Friday, 7 March 2014

In defence of Pi.

My good friend Graeme Cooper recently berated the film Pi (Darren Aronofsky) saying it was one of the worst films he had ever seen and that it angered him. Well, as much as he hates the film, I love it. Here is my response to him and anyone else wanting to join in the ruckus:

In defence of Pi.

Your first issue was that “only two people mattered in the film” and that everybody else was “boring and pointless”.

The film is firmly fixated on the main character – the recluse genius. All other characters only matter to the film inasmuch as they relate to him. So while only two people mattered to you, there is only the main character that really matters. The film, then, will live or die according to how interesting we find the genius (very), his plight (riveting), and the actor’s performance (incredible), and so on. There are five main secondary characters, but before I move onto these I want to say that I think it’s perfectly legitimate for a film to be concerned solely with one person. Actually, I think it’s quite common for intense, psychological films to do this. Apocalypse Now and Jacobs Ladder spring to mind, but I am sure there are many more. It’s probably the case that the decision by the writer/director to focus on one person is deliberate: that person functions as an anchor for the audience whilst they process difficult subject matter and it keeps things simple.

You’ve acknowledged the genius’s mentor – the Go-playing old man – as someone who mattered (i.e. somebody you liked), so we need not concern ourselves with him. The other characters are the Asian woman next door, the happy young girl, the Jewish man he meets in the café, and the corporate black woman who tries to woo him. These you mark out as “boring and pointless”. I disagree. Even though they may not all be fully fleshed out characters in their own right, they are important to the story and understanding the genius’s psychological state.

The Asian woman is beautiful, sensuous, and caring. He is concomitantly poorly groomed, asexual, and caustic. The Jewish man mirrors himself most closely. They share the same obsession and since this obsession means everything to the genius they become friends. The Jewish guy is cool. He has a good beard, speaks naturally, and has a fun side but also a serious side. All in all, an interesting character. The black woman for the company I don’t recall so well. I mean, clearly she is the ugly and ruthless face of profit-making willing to do whatever it takes to acquire the lucrative number. She smooth-talks him and promises him material reward – a new computer for starters. The genius is disinterested and has rejected the rat race. Isn’t there a brilliant line where he shouts something at her “Don’t you get it? I’m trying to understand our world! I don’t deal with petty materialists like you!”

The young girl represents a simplistic outlook and taking joy from the little things, again two things our protagonist rejects. At the end of the film, there is a scene where the little girl asks the genius to do some sums but now he cannot answer as before. He is genuinely happy not to be able to answer. Why? Not – as you say – because the film promotes the mantra “ignorance is bliss”, but for other reasons. Because he has overcame his obsession; he can feel the elements; the park is beautiful; the young girl is beautiful and is still warming to him; and because the answer to the sum “34x66/13” does not matter to him at this point. This, I feel, is quite different to ignorance is bliss. Yes, he didn’t unravel all the mysteries of the number and so technically remained ignorant to them, but at what cost would it have been to him to keep going? Look what pursing the number did to his health and to those around him. It nearly destroyed everyone. Nobodies motives were pure in pursing the number; not his, not the Jewish sect, not the shady corporation.

The genius’s self-inflicted lobotomy is not to stupefy him, but, I believe, to rid him of the obsession of which the growth on his head had became the physical manifestation. I don’t think watching Pi is about finding a message as such, but in experiencing its intensity and immersive quality. I don’t think there is an “ignorance is bliss” message at all. If we must take a message from his example, it’s that the pursuit of some knowledge, potentially dangerous knowledge, might not be worth it, especially if the pursuit of said knowledge is self-destructive and harmful to those around you. Make of that what you will.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Lebanon (2009)

Lebanon: not the country in its entirety – its people, history, culture, etc – but a word which triggers horrific memories of war for many Israeli soldiers. Located entirely within the confines of a grimy tank populated by a driver, loader, gunner, and commander, this 2009 Israeli film was released the same year as Israel's invasion and bombing of Gaza. The director, Samuel Maoz, based the tank crew's experience on his own having fought during the 1982 Lebanon War, an experience he describes as "like being stabbed in the soul".

The four tank-bound soldiers tag along with a small platoon of the Israel Defence Force, “clearing the path” of hostiles and civilians alike. The destruction and misery they inflict is reflected back at them through the tank's gun-sight; their only visual contact with the outside world. The awful conditions inside this pressure cooker are adequately depicted whilst also exploring the stress and psychological trauma of its crew. It's an interesting idea, but a film like this succeeds or fails on whether the audience comes to empathise with the soldier's plight. A combination of poor character development and a general, unspecific context made this somewhat difficult. Ostensibly set to the same war the director had fought in, a nondescript tank rolls through equally nondescript locations which could be just about anywhere in the Middle East. Details of this particular war are scarce bar the inclusion of some Christian Phalangists. A bubble of realism urgently needs to be maintained, but with the numerous bouts of shockingly poor and blatantly scripted dialogue, the tension collapses. “If it looks like a cricket, and sounds like a cricket, it's a cricket” - referring to a suspected hostile; and repeatedly mentioning their use of white phosphorus, or *ahem* “flaming smoke” as they dub it, so as not to be in breach of international law. Cringe worthy.

The inexperienced soldiers see further additions to their already cramped living space in the form of a friendly corpse and a Syrian prisoner who fired a rocket at their vehicle. Instead of adding substance to the plot, they function as props lobbed into the mix to spice things up. The moral dilemma of the gunner is played on as ultimately he pulls the trigger and witnesses the results. Something about viewing the world through a lens and a cross hair renders it hostile, and this perhaps could be said to mirror Israel's predicament on an international level. To the film's credit it can be said that at least it is having a go at a novel concept. All generosity aside, it's really just a poor man's Das Boot, portraying as it does soldiers locked within an enclosed space during a war; but whilst that German epic was saturated with claustrophobic tension, Lebanon repels the viewer with its many flaws.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Le Quattro Volte - Michelangelo Frammartino (no more than 300 words)

A little known critics favourite from last year, Le Quattro Volte observes the peaceful life of a Calabrian village. In a singularly bold move, Michelangelo Frammartino strips the film of dialogue, story, and action to accentuate the sights and sounds of this remote mountainous location. With predominantly static shots and unobtrusive camera-work, the camera's gaze becomes transfixed on and compassionate for an unwell goat herder and his animals. The everyday happenings of this southern Italian village are intimately explored with no need for the hook of conversation or voice-over. Instead, LQV brings to the fore bells ringing, the yelps of an unruly dog and the chattering of the elements. Man's best friend provides the biggest laugh of the film, displaying no respect as it pesters a religious procession passing through. After being chased away, the cheeky chap re-emerges only to dislodge a rock beneath the wheel of a stationary truck sending it careering into a nearby goat pen. Sensing freedom, the goats disperse along the road and a number of them find their way into their keeper's room. One plucky fellow even manages to mount a table and pose somewhat triumphantly. A goat – on a table. Just as Kim Jong Il liked to look at things (, it emerges that goats like to climb on top of things. Who knew? For a brief time, the results resemble the chaotic scenes of Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small, only with goats instead of dwarfs. In quietly profound moments, the birth of a newborn goat is captured, as are its first tentative efforts to stand up. LQV captures the essence of the village, locating it in the relationship between its people, animals and nature. It wins you over with its modesty, sincerity, intimacy, and also its sense of fun.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

A new screen adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has just been unleashed in the cinema, this time in English and with David Fincher at the helm. His previous film, The Social Network, was widely lauded as one the best films of last year, and with Se7en and Zodiac already under his belt he’s assuredly a pair of safe hands when it comes to dark thrillers. This new iteration, based on the popular Stieg Larsson novel, plays out strikingly similar to the highly-regarded 2009 Swedish language film of the same name. However, with a fresh cast, a more pronounced soundtrack (the industrial sounds of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), and English dialogue, there are some notable differences between the two, despite the narrative of both films unfolding in essentially the same way.

The story observes the coming together of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a damaged but resolute gothic-punk computer hacker; and Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a journalist on the trail of a corrupt billionaire financier who’s suing him for libel. Both are brilliant minds, and both end up investigating the case of Harriet (Moa Garpendal) - a young girl whose disappearance and suspected murder decades earlier has since vexed Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the amiable family patriarch with a soft-spot for his great-niece. The Vanger family has to its name a vast business empire which has afforded the luxury of an island-ridden estate exclusively for themselves. Harriet’s murder occurred whilst access to the mainland was restricted and thus each of the Vangers, Henrik included, is considered a suspect. Henrik makes clear to Blomkvist the extent and danger of his task, explaining that he’ll be “investigating thieves, misers and bullies - the most detestable collection of people that you will ever meet - my family”. A smattering of Nazis populate the family tree notching up the threat of danger and, upon soliciting the help of Lisbeth, the pair immerse themselves in the murky details of the case.

Abusive relationships, Nazism, misogyny, atomisation, and the breakdown of communication all plague the Vanger family beast, and by bringing these problems into the open TGWTDT scrapes at the muck clinging to the dark underbelly of Swedish society. The book’s Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women, points to more serious subject matter and to Fincher’s credit he doesn’t shy away from the darker themes of fascism and sexual violence. The Vanger Nazis are callous and damn right scary, and the seemingly routine sexual abuse of women in the family shows just how central to their being violence and misogyny really are. The parallel is readily there: sexual violence is a form of fascism, stipulating as it does a hierarchy not just of races, but of the sexes as well.

Lisbeth has suffered all manner of untold abuse in her life and can be said to represent all women who have suffered at the hands of men. She’s a continuation of her mother who was regularly beaten by her father. In one chilling story arc, Lisbeth is raped by her guardian only later to enact her revenge. Some critics have questioned the decision to allow the camera to linger during the brutal rape scene and also accused the director of voyeurism. But to cut away is to compromise, and Larsson’s book had described the crime in vivid detail.

Without the character of Lisbeth, very few people would likely have heard of the Millenium series, such is the brilliance of Larsson’s female protagonist. Transparently honest and enigmatic, she doesn’t take any shit and many women in particular have admired that. The world of cinema has been crying out for an alternative heroine who is pierced, tattooed, bi-sexual, eats junk, spends too much time with computers, isn’t very sociable, hangs out at alt-goth nights and dominates in the bedroom. Rooney Mara convinces as Lisbeth, portraying well the anger that bubbles inside her whilst also going to some length to look the part. It’s an impressive transformation which included, as much of the media revealed salaciously during the buildup to the film’s release, having her nipples pierced.

If you’re not acquainted with Lisbeth in this richly detailed, socially aware neo-noir, you’ve been missing out on a gripping and contemporary story that rewards mature audiences. See the Swedish version first if you can, whilst die-hard fans of the original film shouldn’t fret too hard about seeing this very competent re-make.

Thursday, 29 December 2011


Since its release in 2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie has been captivating audiences whilst garnering a reputation as a light-hearted, accessible, and distinctly French romantic comedy. That pretty picture of Amélie (Audrey Tautou) with those doe eyes and mischievous grin adorns the wall of many a film student and has embedded itself amidst our collective film consciousness as one of the truly iconic film images of our time. As it turns out, Emily Watson was originally lined up for the role, but her French wasn't considered up to scratch and she was busy working on Gosford Park. As talented as Watson is, though, this is Tautou's role and nobody else's.

In a turn away from the darker fare of the director's earlier efforts (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, Alien Resurrection), Amélie is as joyous and playful as it is colourful. Set in Montmatre, Paris, the story observes Amelie first as a child, and then as a sensibly-dressed young woman. She lives a carefree life working as a waitress in a café frequented by fellow eccentrics. The weird details and idiosyncrasies of her family and friends are revealed to us in all their quirky glory. These are the things that interest Amélie most about her fellow humans - the very details that give people their individuality. Her passion for life leads her on numerous escapades and eventually to pursue her love interest, Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), who works at the sex shop. His hobby is to reconstruct torn up self-portraits discarded underneath photo booths; a past-time so uniquely strange that it attracts the attention and affection of our titular character.

When not nurturing her own romance, Amélie tends to her thoughtful duty of mending the wrongs in other peoples' lives to delightful and comedic effect. There's a recluse Renoir obsessive who spends all his time painting; a dwarf (played by Dominique Pinon) who stalks his ex-girlfriend at the café; and her garden gnome-deprived father who can't live without his beloved ornament stolen by his daughter. She passes it on to her stewardess friend who takes photos of the gnome in wish you were here poses in famous foreign locations. The aim of all this? To encourage her father to travel the world, of course!

Amélie entertains and draws laughs in equal measure, but what really sets it apart is the beautiful cinematography and mise-en-scène. The “look” of the film is different: colour hues were manipulated during the finishing process so that its palette became tinged with golden brown, incidentally the colour of Amélie's eyes. All in all, Amélie comes recommended as a pleasant viewing experience that should inspire a further look into the exciting and esteemed world of French film.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin

The Arc cinema was jammed to capacity for Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011); so much so that it forced our group of five to separate and squeeze awkwardly into seats wherever we could find them. We weren't expecting this film to be sold out. Maybe it was the glut of bibliophiles intrigued by a screen adaptation of a book they once loved – the 2003 novel of the same name by Lional Shriver, and maybe too it was because this was the only place to see it for some distance. Our local Cineworld in Middlesbrough hadn't bothered. For them, screening art film for adults is the cinema equivalent of burning money, and thus Stockton was left to reap the benefit. The heat in the room was palpable as the film began.

WN2TAKevin details one mother's estrangement from her firstborn son, the titular Kevin (Rocky Duer plays the infant; Jasper Newell plays the 6-8 year old; and Ezra Miller plays the teenager), whilst following an unswerving path to a Columbine-type catastrophe. This is all made apparent early as Kevin's mother Eva (Tilda Swinton) suffers flashbacks of the aftermath – a mass outpouring of emotion and mourning around the school's perimeter. Something terrible has happened, and Kevin was central to it.

We spend time in Eva's shoes and quickly learn she bares the brunt of the blame and suffers pariah status within her community. As she leaves work, she is detected and confronted by a woman whose face morphs to one etched with pain upon seeing her:

“You fucking bitch! I hope you rot in hell!”

It's an obvious injustice to see Eva blamed for her son's actions and so she wins our sympathy. Tilda Swinton's ability to switch between 'frail and wounded' and 'resilient and composed' attests to her fantastic performance. Miller is also standout as the brooding and sinister son who plays cruel mind games with his mother whom he seemingly despises. When Eva tries to explain to him “the birds and the bees”, he interrupts her carefully considered words with “ mean fucking?” How does this child who has only recently started talking know about that? The fact that his barely concealed hatred for her washes away upon the arrival of Franklin (John C. Reilly), his father, makes him all the more unnerving.

Completing the family quartet is Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), an angelic child who offers Eva unrequited love. Quite the opposite of Kevin, then. Whilst Celia and Franklin flesh out the family and are useful to the narrative, the lion's share of the screen time is dedicated to the fraught relationship between mother and son.

On top of playing like a psychological horror about a child who resents being born, WN2TAKevin is also an invitation to bring back to the fore the problem of high-school shootings in America. Bluntly, Kevin represents this intractable problem and shows societies' failure to advance the debate over why these atrocities persistently occur. The film suggests we are stuck at blaming the mother for being a bad parent; and whilst this may fulfill a need to scapegoat, it's ultimately inadequate as Eva displays nothing but patience for her son.

A respectful nod is given to Gus Van Sant's masterful Elephant (2003) when Eva is teaching her son new words: “EL-E-PHANT”, which Ramsay no doubt drew influence from. Lazy reviewers might pit both films against each other and declare a victor, but this would be unfair as the two films are notably different and stand up on their own merits. Both films are slow-moving, but Elephant plays out in a quasi-documentary fashion from numerous points of view, whereas WN2TAKevin's story is told via flashbacks from Eva's perspective. Their use of music differs as well, as Ramsay's effort makes ample use of extra-diegetic songs – some of them quite jarring (Everyday by Buddy Holly is still playing in my head). Needless to say, fans of Elephant are probably going to enjoy this film as well.

To finish up, sample Kevin's brilliant monologue:

"Wake up... and you watch TV. Get in your car... and you listen to the radio... and you go to your little job... or your little school... but you're not gonna hear about that on the 6 o' clock news... cuz nothing is really happening... everything has gotten so bad that half the time the people on TV... they're watching TV... and what are all these people watching? ...people like me."

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

My view on the riots.

I think a lot of people are in one sense responding with a good instinct to the scenes of carnage and chaos. Ofcourse, rioting and looting is counter-productive and not on; and people rightly want the threat of danger to desist. One of the best developments over recent days has been communities banding together to protect their neighbourhoods whilst the police were out defending chain-stores like Debenhams. This is good and positive.

The problem with many people's responses, in my view, has been two things.

1) A lot of people lack political understanding and perspective. Politics and news are just those horrible things that happen in newspaper headlines, and really, they just want to steer clear of it. They have a very superficial understanding of what's been going on in this country and the world over the past few years. Recession, cuts, austerity, job-losses, growing unemployment, investors choosing not to invest, banks choosing not to lend, the rise of the far-right throughout Europe, etc. In this context, the worst hit areas become more desperate and poverty-stricken. Cuts hit hard, local funding and investment is low, unemployment is stupidly high, no real jobs exist, and people fight over scraps (in Tottenham, isn't it something like 54 people applying for every vacancy?). To get to my point, we need to explain the riots, but not seek to justify them. Justification and explanation are different things and too many people are mistaking the two.

Riots don't happen by accident or in a vacuum, they occur where poverty, hopelessness and alienation are endemic. Thr riots of the 80s and previous decades confirm this. And these riots are not occuring in Chelsea or Kensington, are they? Some reactionary idiots are calling for all the rioters to be sent to Afghanistan or to be shot on sight. This is dreadful for many reasons, but really, it only tackles the symptom and not the root causes of the problem. Poverty and inequality breed criminality and frustration. Kill rioters and they will be replaced with... more rioters years later on, because the root problems haven't been dealt with.

2) The other problem is people effectively demanding a police state. Let the police "take their gloves off", "give them live ammo", "bring in the water cannons", etc. Apart from the fact this risks inflaming the situation even further, we should bare in mind some democratic principles. In a democracy, THE POLICE'S JOB IS MEANT TO BE HARD, OTHERWISE WE LIVE IN A POLICE STATE. Police power is not good for democracy, especially in the context of a growing anti-cuts movement. All these things people call for will be used against the anti-cuts and workers' movement in the ongoing and coming battles against austerity. The police will be used as a tool to put down demonstrations and worse, to smash through picket lines if it comes to it. Serious anti-cuts activists don't advocate giving the police more power.

The police have already overstepped the mark, kettling teenagers for 10 hours at a time in freezing cold temperatures with no access to toilets or drinking water who dared to protest about EMA and tuition fees. Completely undemocratic. Also, let us not forget that the spark to these riots was the shooting of a man without trial in very suspicious circumstances. Basically, an extra-legal execution.

The Met were dragged into the whole phone hacking scandal and they haven't come out smelling of roses. It turns out sold sensitive info to newspapers; wined and dined with top editors; hired phone-hacking editors to be their PR men; and enjoyed cosy relationships with newspapers they were supposed to be investigating! Not only that, they have lied and closed ranks previously whenever their reputation has been on the line. The scandalous lies that were allowed to foster and put about the killing of Charles De Menezes and Ian Tomlinson were shocking.

Too many people have a rosy view of the police, but they need to realise they are just as susceptible to corruption and racism as everyone else, especially so given the fact they are essentially a law unto themselves. They are unaccountable. We also need to recognise that, when it comes down to it, they function as the private militia of this corrupt and rotten government and will be brutally unleashed not just on rioters, but also on peaceful protestors and strikers in the coming battles against austerity. True opponents of the rioters support the anti-cuts movement. Government attacks and austerity increases the chance of riots spreading and becoming more severe.